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 scenery.
This best things to do in Northern California road trip guide has manifested following numerous weekends spent in a camper van exploring the incredible beauty of the region. The wilderness, mountainscapes, and scenery of NorCal have inspired some of my favorite photos ever taken.
With lockdowns making travel so difficult, it seems imperative we discover the joy of domestic getaways. In this travel guide, you will discover maps, photos, and all pertinent information on the must-see places for every NorCal road trip itinerary.
If you would like to browse prints or see more photos from Northern California, you can find our favorites in the We Dream of Travel Northern California photography gallery.
Northern California Road Trip Map
I have created a map that includes my favorite places to photograph in the region, as well as images to inspire your visit. Click on the image below for an interactive version.
Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
While I tend to be driving south when I begin my Northern California road trips, I suspect most of you reading will be coming from the south along the I5 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 I5 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
Things to do in Northern California
The locals will be quick to tell you how infinite the possibilities for scenic exploration are.
While it’s true that the NorCal wilderness is expansive and beautiful, I have chosen to include only those destinations that are both beautiful and easily accessible for the sake of a clear, concise list.
Explore Lassen Volcanic National Park
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.
Camp at McArthur – Burney Falls Memorial State Park
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.
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
Hike the Castle Crags
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.
Stay in a Train Car at Railroad Park Resort
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!
Photograph Sunrise from Heart Lake in Castle Lake State Park
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.
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Walk Behind Hedge Creek Falls
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!
Walk the train tracks to Mossbrae Falls
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 or ethical dilemmas in visiting Mossbrae Falls as I have not been there personally. However, 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.
Go For a Swim at McCloud Falls
There are actually three waterfalls you will discover on the McCloud Waterfalls trail, with the most popular and photogenic being Middle Falls. The entire hike is a total of just 4 miles.
If you are visiting on a hot summer day, bring your swimsuits and cool off with a dip in the icy waters!
Ascend the Cone at Black Butte
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.
Spend a day on 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.
Ski or Snowboard Mt Shasta (seasonal)
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.
Drive the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
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.
Go Stargazing at 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.
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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.
NorCal Road Trip Itinerary: Where to next?
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.
Final Thoughts on your Northern California Road Trip Guide
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!
Before you leave, you may also be interested in some of our other Oregon guides:
- Best Places to Visit in Oregon
- Southern Oregon Coast Photography Locations
- Waterfalls in Southern Oregon
- Southern Oregon Photography Locations