The Perfect NorCal Road Trip Itinerary: 15 Epic Stops (2023)

Best things to do on a northern California road trip blog post cover:  Text overlaying a night image of mountain and moon.

WRITTEN BY: Adam Marland, Native Oregonian.
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Anyone who has ever driven the I5 freeway north to Oregon knows the feeling of passing through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in awe as Mt Shasta towers majestically over pristine alpine scenery.

As a native to Southern Oregon and photography enthusiast, there have been countless occasions when I loaded up the van and just hit the road in search of beauty across the California border. This guide is a compilation of those experiences.

The wilderness, mountain-scapes, and scenery of NorCal have inspired some of my favorite photos ever taken.

In this road trip guide, you will find interactive maps with all the best stops along with photos, exact locations, photography. tips, and all pertinent information on the featured destinations.

πŸ”Ž SUGGESTED NEXT: SHASTA-TRINITY NATIONAL FOREST COMPLETE GUIDE

Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post likely contains affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links πŸ™‚

🌲Northern California Road Trip Map

I have created an interactive map that shows the locations of all the destinations featured.

These are my favorite places to photograph in the NorCal region. Click on any of the names to see photos from that location that I have taken as well as images to inspire your visit.

Map of things to do on a Northern California road trip

*Click on the image above for an interactive version.

πŸš— Northern California Road Trip Itinerary

A photo looking out from the inside of a tent at a snowy scene with Mt Shasta in the distance and a colorful sunset sky.

While I tend to be driving from the north (Oregon) when I begin my Northern California road trips, I suspect most of you reading will be coming from the south along the I-5 freeway.

Accordingly, I have arranged two loose itineraries in the order that you would stop if you were coming from the south. Simply reverse this order if you are visiting from Oregon instead.

If you are wondering which to take, staying on the I-5 will be the most time-efficient route. However, you would have to make a large detour or altogether miss two of my favorite destinations in Lassen Volcanic NP and Burney Falls.

See the photos in the Things to do in Northern California section to help you make that decision if time is short.

Option 1: Via Lassen Volcanic NP
1. Lassen Volcanic NP
2. Burney Falls
3. Mccloud Falls
4. Hedge Creek / Mossbrae Falls
5. Castle Lake / Heart Lake
6. Castle Crags SP
7. Mt Shasta
8. Black Butte
9. Lake Shastina
10. Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
11. Pluto’s Cave

Option 2: Stay on I5
1. Castle Crags SP
2. Castle Lake / Heart Lake
3. Hedge Creek / Mossbrae Falls
4. (detour) Mccloud Falls
5. (detour) Burney Falls
6. Mt Shasta
7. Black Butte
8. Lake Shastina
9. Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
10. Pluto’s Cave

A snowry winter sunrise at Heart Lake on a Northern California road trip.

πŸ₯Ύ Top 15 Best Things to do in Northern California

Of course, the locals will be quick to tell you how infinite the possibilities for scenic exploration are. And they’re not wrong!

This is one of the most naturally beautiful regions on the entire west coast. You could spend a lifetime, as legends like John Muir and Ansel Adams did, getting lost and found in the California wilderness.

For the sake of brevity, you will find the best of the best, most beautiful places to visit and things to do in the list below.

πŸŒ‹ 1. Explore Lassen Volcanic National Park

A walk around Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the best things to do on a Northern California road trip.
Explore the incredible geothermal activity of Lassen Volcanic NP.

One of the least visited and most understated national parks in America is Lassen Volcanic. A variety of unique geologic wonders exist here that you will scarcely find anywhere else in the world, including steaming fumaroles, “mud pots”, and other volcanic oddities.

In the spring and early summer months, wildflowers bloom in abundance, adding an impressive pop of color to the scenery.

In addition to the volcanic activity, you will also discover crystal clear mountain lakes, waterfalls, and jagged mountain peaks.

While a visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park requires a bit of a detour from the freeway, it is worth considering if you have any interest in photographing or experiencing these otherworldly landscapes.

πŸ• 2. Camp at McArthur – Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Autumn colors at Burney Falls in Northern CA.
Autumn colors decorate the scene from downstream at Burney Falls.

Burney Falls State Park is home to what is undoubtedly the most beautiful waterfall in Northern California, and arguably the prettiest in the entire state!

If you detoured for Lassen Volcanic National Park, your next stop will be this magnificent display of cascading blue water streaming endlessly along an exposed rock face.

Camping and some lodging is available, and a general store is also located within this park. We have written this extensive guide to hiking, photographing, at camping at Burney Falls.

Daytime photography at Burney Falls
The iconic view of Burney Falls in Northern California.

From the parking area, the walk to the actual Burney Falls is about 5 minutes with a mild descent. In addition to the waterfall, you will find various trails available that meander through the picturesque wilderness of the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial state park.

FIND OUT MORE: Complete Guide to Burney Falls

πŸ§— 3. Hike the Castle Crags

Drone Photography of Castle Crags from Vista Point on a moody day
Drone Photography of Castle Crags from Vista Point on a moody day

As you drive along the I5 freeway nearing the town of Dunsmuir, you will notice an incredible rock formation looming majestically before you. This intriguing scene is known as Castle Crags.

You will have a few options for exploring the park. Various hikes of differing lengths are available, but most of the short options are fairly underwhelming.

If you do not have time to undertake a trek to the crags themselves, your best option will be the Vista Point trail. This casual, half-mile walk delivers you to a large clearing with a gorgeous view of the Castle Crags rock formation.

Of course, if time is truly limited you can always just pull of the freeway nearby and photograph from the road. And/or, consider a visit to the Railroad Park resort nearby.

🚊 4. Stay in a Train Car at Railroad Park Resort

Budget one night of your Northern California road trip to sleep and dine in a train car while enjoying the incredible views of Castle Crags at Railroad Park .
Budget one night of your Northern California road trip to sleep and dine in a train car while enjoying the incredible views of Castle Crags at Railroad Park .

You don’t need to be a train enthusiast to enjoy a visit to the Railroad Park Resort, though it wouldn’t hurt to be!

Located at the base of Castle Crags, this charming, kitschy resort provides the unique experience of dining in a converted railcar, or even staying overnight in one!

Each car has been renovated to provide all the modern comforts you would expect, but maintains its unique allure. Pull back the blinds to look out at the beautiful Castle Crags formation looming above!

If you are looking for unique things to do in Northern California, this should likely be near the top of your list!

πŸ’› 5. Photograph Sunrise from Heart Lake in Castle Lake State Park

Sunrise photography from Heart Lake in Castle Lake State Park, Northern CA.
Wake up early and photograph sunrise above Heart Lake in Castle Lake SP.

One of the most incredible sunrise photography locations in all of California is the small but beautiful Heart Lake.

Though the trails can be difficult to navigate in the dark, the view of the sun rising next to Mt Shasta in one of indescribable beauty.

Even if you cannot find or get to Heart Lake itself, use the ascending trail to discover equally photogenic views of Castle Lake from above.

It is worth noting that while Castle Lake is nearly always accessible, the hike may be impossible in the winter months without adequate equipment.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY: Best Places to Visit in Oregon

πŸ’¦ 6. Walk Behind Hedge Creek Falls

Hedge Creek Falls is worth the quick detour on a NorCal road trip!
This small but beautiful waterfall is worth the 5 minute walk!

The easy 0.5 mile hike to the quaint Hedge Creek Falls is certainly worth a quick stop, if for no other reason than to break up the road trip.

While it is usually fairly small and dry, some nice photos are available in the spring or fall when the volume of water increases enough to give the waterfall some body.

What most people love about Hedge Creek Falls is that you can actually walk behind and under the waterfall!

🌱 7. Walk the train tracks to Mossbrae Falls

The impressive cascade of Mossbrae Falls is accessed by following train tracks for a mile.
The impressive cascade of Mossbrae Falls is accessed by following train tracks for a mile.

Many travelers miss the stunning Mossbrae Falls due to its rather discreet location. After all, it is technically on private property!

The walk is only a little over a mile, but it requires that you find parking along Dunsmuir Ave and navigate your way from there. Luckily, this impressive waterfall has become popular enough that Google Maps has it listed and will guide you there.

You may think you are in the wrong place as you walk the train tracks into the woods, but this is the correct way.

It should be noted that this is technically closed. I honestly have no idea of the legality in visiting Mossbrae Falls — it is a very popular walk and the closure seems to be more of a choice to protect the state from liability than to keep people out.

πŸ‘™ 8. Go For a Swim at McCloud Falls

A photo from Mccloud Falls, Middle Falls tier.
PC: W. Tipton

There are actually three waterfalls you will discover on the McCloud Waterfalls trail, with the most popular and photogenic being Middle Falls, featured above.

The entire hike is a total of just 4 miles, but should not be attempted in winter or following late snow storms.

If you are visiting on a hot summer day, bring your swimsuits and cool off with a dip in the icy waters!

πŸ§—β€β™‚οΈ 9. Ascend the Cone at Black Butte

Black Butte bathes in morning light.
Black Butte bathes in morning light.

One of the most striking, prominent features of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest is the Black Butte lava cone. The intriguing sight of this conical cluster of dacite lava will be prevalent as you drive along I5.

Seeing it from the windshield, you will likely think it impossible to ascend due to how rapidly it rises. However, there is a trail that requires a 5.2 mile hike, but is not as steep as you might think.

While climbing Black Butte is not as high on the list of things to do in Northern California, it is something few people take the time to do and the expansive vistas are absolutely incredible. You’ll find the Black Butte Trailhead on Google Maps.

πŸš£β€β™€οΈ 10. Spend a day on the water at Lake Shastina

Mt Shasta photograph from Lake Shastina on a Northern California road trip.
Get off the road and take a day to enjoy the water at Lake Shastina.

There is a small community built up around the beautiful Lake Shastina, providing a variety of recreational activities and water sports. What makes this location particularly lovely is the way Mt Shasta fills the horizon.

What’s more, this view of Mt Shasta reveals its twin cones better than anywhere else.

If you are looking for free things to do in Northern California, consider packing a picnic and finding a spot on the lake to just soak in the views and vibes. The Shasta-Trinity National Forest was truly one of my favorite places in the entire state of California, and Lake Shastina is a wonderful place to stop and enjoy some time off the road.

β›· 11. Ski or Snowboard Mt Shasta (seasonal)

Alpine glow on Mt Shasta in Northern California at sunset.

If you are a winter sports enthusiast, skiiing or snowboarding Mt Shasta should not only be on your list of things to do, but on your bucket list as well!

While it may not offer the best slopes in the US, it is one of the most beautiful.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY: Shasta-Trinity National Forest Photography Guide

πŸš™ 12. Drive the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway is the best stretch for a road trip in Northern California.
The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway is the best stretch of road in Northern California.

Around the city of Weed, the I5 forks at Hwy 97. Be absolutely sure to include this section of road, known as the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, in your Northern California road trip itinerary!

Throughout this stretch, you will be completely immersed by the incredible views of Mt Shasta and its twin-cone peak. There are plenty of places to pull over and photograph, which I highly recommend doing.

If you are into astrophotography, this stretch of road was one of my favorite places to photograph the Milky Way over Mt Shasta! More on that below.

🌌 13. Go Stargazing at Mt Shasta

Milky Way photography of Mt Shasta is my favorite thing to do in Northern California.
Find a good spot for stargazing and watch the Milky Way rise over Mt Shasta.

Whether you are a photographers interested in night sky photography or just an adventurer with an appreciation for all things celestial, one of the best things to do in Northern California is go stargazing at Mt Shasta.

You could find some dark skies by driving up the mountain toward the Mt Shasta ski park, but my favorite place for stargazing is off of Hwy 97 in one of any nondescript roadside pull-offs. If you get a view facing SSW toward Mt Shasta in the late spring and summer months, you will be able to see the Milky Way rise with the naked eye.

This section of Northern California offers some of the darkest skies you will find in the state.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY: How to Create Noise Free Night Photos

🌚 14. Go Spelunking at Pluto’s Cave

One of the hidden gems of Northern California is a small cave system forged, like so much of the region, by lava.

Pluto’s Cave is a collapsed lava tube tucked away on an off-road from Hwy 97. The trailhead is easy enough to find using Google Maps and the walk is short and simple.

Admittedly, this ranks near the bottom of the things to do in NorCal, but it is easily worth the short detour if you are already driving the scenic byway toward Crater Lake.

πŸ› 15. Have a Soak in One of the Many Hot Springs

A girl soaks in a hot spring

While the hot spring in the photo is actually just across the border in Southern Oregon, there are a plethora of springs to enjoy in the Shasta area.

Each requires its own adventure but if you are a soak enthusiast, that won’t be a problem!

The ones most easily added to this Northern California road trip itinerary would be Hunt Hot Spring, Stewart Hot Spring, and Big Bend Hot Spring.

πŸ“– More California & Southern Oregon guides

The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below πŸ™‚

Depending on whether you are looking for things to do in Northern California for an isolated visit or as part of a longer trip, you may want to consider what comes next!

Those venturing north will discover my home of Southern Oregon. I find this one of the most beautiful regions of the Pacific Northwest, and love that it is not as well known outside of a local community.

If your Northern CA road trip extends across the border, queue up our guide to Southern Oregon photography locations for the best things to do in SoOr.

Those venturing south will want to consider journeying inland a bit where most of the natural beauty is.

Consider a visit to Lassen Volcanic NP (covered in this guide), followed by Tahoe National Forest, then onto Mono Lake and Yosemite NP.

Northern California Guides

Yosemite Guides

Mammoth Lakes Region

Oregon Guides

Finally, feel free to browse our Northern California professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration!

🧐 Final Thoughts on your Northern California Road Trip Guide

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest will be the best part of your NorCal road trip!
The Shasta-Trinity National Forest will be the best part of your NorCal road trip!

The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below πŸ™‚

What have I missed?! Are there scenic destinations or photography locations in the region I have missed? Information you found lacking? Let me know in the comments below!

Of course, if you enjoyed this travel guide to Northern California and want to leave some kind words, I would be grateful for those as well.

And if you are visiting Southern Oregon, feel free to reach out!

πŸ“Œ Enjoyed this guide to the best things to do on a Northern California road trip? Pin It! πŸ™‚

14 thoughts on “The Perfect NorCal Road Trip Itinerary: 15 Epic Stops (2023)”

  1. This is a great guide! I’ve lived in California my whole life, but never really explored the northernmost part of the state! It’s only during this lockdown that I’ve really started to learn about all the amazing places to go! Lassen & Mc Cloud are high on my list and I love all the other places you suggest too! Can’t wait to get a roadtrip on the calendar.

    Reply
  2. What an incredible post! And those pictures are drop dead gorgeous. I’ve hit a handful of these but will probably need to revisit a few while planning my next trip. The lighting was so bad when I went to Burney Falls thanks to smoke in the area, but you make me want to relive it!. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Northern California is absolutely beautiful! I did a road trip there this summer where I visited Lake Tahoe, Lassen and the Redwoods. It was amazing! πŸ™‚

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    • I dont think there is a greater compliment in the world than knowing something we created inspired travel πŸ™‚ Thank you for the wonderful words Anna and please feel free to email if you have any follow up Qs!

      Reply
  4. Always enjoy and impressed with your talents. Thanks for putting in the time to share your travels especially through your guides. I remember seeing David Muench’s image from Heart Lake decades ago but still have not visited. Hope to do so though. Looking forward to more of your work.

    Reply
  5. Wonderful post! We are planning a trip from SF and would like to use your itinerary as a guide… we are flexible for number of days. How many days do you recommend with some down time to relax?

    Thank you!

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      • I found your itinerary as im planning to take my 3 kids and 80 yr old dad on a road trip to these very areas! My 6-year-old son and I were both in cancer treatment summer of 2021 and 22 and we have been longing to be outside to see beautiful places and get some fresh air. I love that there are numerous short hikes listed, as he has a drop foot from a tumor in his leg. Would you suggest camping at one site and visiting these areas as day hikes, or would you suggest camping at sites nearby, for the 3-4 days? We are also going to head up to Oregon and follow your guidance! We rented a 24-foot RV for 2 weeks and hope its enough time to comfortably see everything! thanks for your advice and your thoughtful planning and sharing of this trip!! Your images are spectacular.

        Reply
        • 1. Sorry for the late reply! This one somehow slipped through the notifications!
          2. CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU BOTH!! Not only on beating cancer but on finding a healthy perspective and hitting the great outdoors!
          3. The answer to your question is that it is truly a matter of preference. I think the best thing to do is open up Google Maps and chart out your drive times for all of your options, then decide if you would rather find and set up one camp and have a bit more driving but less set up and tear down, or if you’d rather find multiple sites which increases pre-planning but decreases drive time. Not sure there is a right answer, just a “right for you” πŸ™‚

          Reply
  6. You should definitely drop by Lake Tahoe when you find yourself in the area again! The crystal clear waters during the summer are just breathtaking!

    Reply

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