If you’re exploring America’s third largest state and only have a week to spare – you stick to one region. And in all honesty, you’re likely to cover more ground by exploring Northern California, if only for traffic alone. But you know there’s a lot to see and do in this great state – even when you’ve narrowed your trip to one region.
So how do you plan the perfect week in Northern California? That’s easy. Plan it out. With a well-planned itinerary, you will get to hit all the must-see spots and have your dream vacation even if it’s a little shorter than you’d like.
There are a few things you should know before you go.
1. Get a car – We are going to start the road trip in San Francisco. So, if you’re traveling to the area by plane, you’ll need to rent a car at San Francisco Airport. It’s the only way you’re going to be able to cover enough ground within a week. And if you’re driving with children, this step also involves creating a plan to keep them entertained. You’ll have a few day trips in store, and you want them to go as smoothly as possible.
2. Pack layers – Northern California weather can be unpredictable, so pack layers. You’ll always need at least a sweater or a light jacket handy. The weather here can get foggy, and with the fog often comes a cool humidity.
3. Avoid rush hour – SoCal is known for its traffic, but that doesn’t mean lanes are free and clear up north. Try to avoid traveling during rush hour to make the most of your time.
One Week Itinerary for Northern California
Day One: San Francisco
Arrive in San Francisco, get your rental car and check into your hotel. You’ll probably want to take some time getting settled, so this should be a relatively easy day. You’ll want to see the Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies. And if the weather is nice, you should go for a walk in the Marina. It’s a great place to stop for dinner or to grab a drink.
Day Two: Drive to Monterey
On day two, if you’re done exploring San Francisco, hop in the rental and head to Monterey. You’ll find Monterey on California’s rugged central coast. And it may sound familiar if you’re a fan of novelist John Steinbeck. This quirky little town can capture your heart and your attention for the afternoon while you pop in and out of gift shops or visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
After dinner, get back into the car and drive to Carmel where you’ll rest your head for the evening.
Day Three: Carmel
If the weather is nice, you can spend a day taking in beach views – or you can visit the area galleries and boutique shops. You may not want to spend more than a day here on limited time, but there’s no shortage of things you can do here on that day. Carmel-by-the-sea is also an excellent place for hiking, biking, and outdoor activities.
Day Four: Big Sur
For many people, this is the main event. People travel from all over for the views of Big Sur. Make sure you take lots of pics for your Instagram account, especially at Bixby Bridge and near McWay Falls.
In the evening, you’ll pack everyone back into the car and drive towards Yosemite where you’ll stay for your last two full days in Northern California.
Days 5 and 6: Yosemite
If you tackle Yosemite in two days, you should have enough time and flexibility to see everything this national wonder has to offer. Just be sure to bring an extra camera battery (or make sure your phone is fully charged).
You’ll want to map out your time, so you get to see Yosemite Falls (tallest North American waterfall), Bridalveil Falls, Inspiration Point, Half Dome, and El Capitan. And if the weather cooperates while you’re here, you can even manage a hike amongst the Giant Sequoias (highly recommended).
But you’ll obviously have to stay within the Yosemite park region in order to get to the park early enough to fit everything in.
Day 7: San Francisco
It’s going to seem like a whirlwind trip, but unfortunately, it’s almost time to say goodbye to the Golden State. Or, at least, to its northern half. If you have a little time before your flight, use it to explore more of San Francisco. You could spend an entire week in this unique city and feel like it’s not enough.
But more than likely, you’ll have to save most of what’s left of your wanderlust for next time. The drive back to Yosemite will take the bulk of your day if you start in the morning. And if you drove through the night on day 6, you’ll probably be too tired for too much sightseeing.
If you only have a week to explore Northern California, do it! You’ll find that you may not get to see as much as you would if you had two weeks or more, but you can definitely touch on the highlights. And this should be enough to start your love affair with Northern California. So you can always come back for more adventures.