California is home to some of the most incredible nature spots in the world, from towering mountain ranges, to pristine beaches, to ancient redwood trees. Northern California in particular is beloved for its dramatic rocky beaches and mountainous terrain, making for some magnificent natural spectacles! This list of essential places to see in NorCal includes both small- and large-scale natural wonders, so there may be a few you haven’t heard of! Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom for an interactive map to start planning your next journey.
1. Burney Falls in Shasta County
These cascading waterfalls are 129 feet high, creating what is possibly California’s most beautiful waterfall view. The falls splash into a misty basin, accessible via the Falls Loop Trail. The park itself has 5 miles of hiking trails, winding through a beautiful landscape that was created from volcanic activity over a million years ago.
2-3. Black Sands Beaches
Nestled deep within the Golden Gate Recreation Area in San Francisco, these dark shores are beautifully juxtaposed with the bright blue waters and lush greenery. This isn’t a place for swimming with its icy waters and rough waves, but it’s perfect for a day of walking and exploring. To get to it, you’ll need to enter through the north side of Golden Gate Bridge and pay $10 to get in—a small fee for the insane views. It’s also worth noting that clothing is optional at this beach.
Venture into the wild Lost Coast (a fitting name since there are hardly any roads leading to it) and you’ll discover the incredible spectacle that is Shelter Cove. It’s not exactly the ideal swimming spot, as the water can get deep and rough pretty quickly. While this rare sight is usually caused by eroded volcanic rock, rich in minerals and lacking silica, in these parts, it’s created by the dark shale and sandstone (greywacke) formed by tectonic activity of one continental and two oceanic plates meeting just offshore. Taking the Lost Coast Trail is one of the best ways to see it, with free permits available on arrival.
4. Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
Half Dome is one of the most famous natural wonders in the world, and catching a glimpse from below is already a treat. The iconic peak rises 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level. You can hike to the top, but it takes most hikers between 10 and 12 hours to complete the 14-16 mile round trip. The National Park Service has a very informative webpage about the Half Dome Day Hike, but if you’re happy to see it from below on a less strenuous journey, Yosemite has plenty of other trails that are truly incredible.
5. Petrified Forest in Calistoga
This lesser-known forest is just across the Golden Gate Bridge, offering easy, short hiking trails with guided tours. Here you’ll find a collection of fossilized redwood trees, which were petrified by the volcano at Mt. St. Helena 3.4 million years ago. You’ll also see remnants of the ash fall, an enormous layer of ash that used to cover the area after the eruption.
6. Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park
This hydrothermal area in Lassen Volcanic National Park is a stinky, yet fascinating spot to visit. It consists of 16 acres of boiling springs, mud pots, and fumaroles, which emit hissing jets of steam. The Bumpass Hell Trail is open only in the summer and fall, and is a fairly easy 3-mile round-trip journey. You’ll know you’re close when you get a whiff of rotten eggs from the hydrogen sulfide. There’s also a pretty bizarre cacophany of bubbling and belching mud pots, making this quite an unconventional experience for the senses! Keep in mind that these hydrothermal areas create acidic water and mud, so don’t go putting it on your skin.
7. Cypress Tree Tunnel in Point Reyes
Here’s a somewhat smaller and more local natural wonder for those who can’t make it out of the Bay just yet. The Cypress Tree Tunnel in Point Reyes is a popular haunt for local photographers, creating a dramatic view on the way to the historic KPH Maritime radio Receiving Station. The Monterey cypress trees were planted here in 1930, and nearly 100 years later, they extend overhead into an unmistakable archway. Find it about halfway between the lighthouse and the visitor center, off of Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
8. Mount Shasta
This magical destination high up in NorCal is home to Mt. Shasta, one of the most iconic mountain peaks in the state at the southern end of the Cascade Mountain Range. It towers at 14,179 feet, dwarfing everything in the surrounding landscape. It also happens to be an enormous, “potentially active” volcano that last erupted in 1786. Professional mountaineers dream of summiting this massive peak, but for those of us who are just trying to see the sights, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, camping, cycling, fly-fishing, and more.
9. Redwood Skywalk in Eureka, CA
The famous redwood forests of California are all absolutely wondrous, and there are many different ways to experience them. This Redwood Skywalk went up in Eureka last summer, and although it’s not a natural wonder in itself, it provides a totally unparalleled way to experience the redwoods. The breathtaking pathway is suspended from the redwood trees themselves, hanging at a whopping 100 feet above the ground at its highest point. Visitors will stroll through the biggest and tallest trees in the world, about a third of the way up into the 250-foot canopy.
10. Glass Beach in Fort Bragg
Most Californians who live on the coast will be familiar with sea glass, which is formed when pieces of glass in the ocean become smoothed down into beautiful, transclucent pebbles. It’s exciting enough to find a beautiful piece of sea glass on any old beach, but Glass Beach in Fort Bragg is on another level. The craziest thing? This site used to be a garbage dump, which is where all the broken glass came from! The colorful pieces are mixed in with the beach’s pebbles, making for a glittering landscape. It is illegal to remove glass from Glass Beach, because years of visitors pocketing the glass have depleted the landscape quite a bit. Nonetheless, you’ll still find a good amount of sea glass, which makes for awesome pictures.
11. Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is an iconic destination in NorCal that is worth experiencing any time of year, as it’s just as beautiful in a snowy winter landscape. Emerald Bay is located on the massive lake’s west shore, iconic for the deep blue-green color that comes from the fresh water’s clarity and depth. Glaciers gouged out this small bay thousands of years ago, leaving only a small, stubborn piece of granite that forms what is now Fannette Island. Emerald Bay State Park itself is also home to the Vikingsholm “hidden castle,” a historic estate open for tours during the summer.
12. Fern Canyon in Redwood National Park
This beautiful fern-covered passageway might look familiar if you ever saw Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, as it makes a cameo during the tiny dinosaur attack scene! The steep walls of this mini-canyon are covered with ferns, making it into what Spielberg called “an unforgettable natural wonder.” The wall-to-wall ferns are especially beautiful to see in the early morning, when the light is best and there are fewer people. You can visit via the Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which is a short loop that will require you to splash through some standing water.
If you want to see some of the best redwood trees in the state, the Redwood National and State Parks are certainly worth a visit. Remember, these gigantic trees are the tallest in the world, reaching up to 360 feet into the air and living between 600-800 years old. Fern Canyon, mentioned above, is found in the Redwood National Park area, along with plenty of beautiful coastline and expansive prairies. This is one of the best places to enjoy the redwoods, but if you’re looking for an alternative closer to SF, Muir Woods is also a good bet!
Bonus: Big Sur
Ok, we know that Big Sur is technically more central CA territory than NorCal, but we had to throw it in considering its relative proximity to the Bay Area. This breathtaking coastline is considered one of the top 25 travel destinations in the US, boasting multiple natural wonders that could easily top this list. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a popular spot for hiking and camping, and there are many great restaurants, art galleries, and more to enjoy in the surrounding areas. It could be argued that the most exciting part of Big Sur is the drive along the bluffs and across Bixby Bridge, because the dramatic views just keep coming.
McWay Falls is one of Big Sur’s most famous attractions, and one of the most recognizable coastal falls in the world. Onlookers will be able to view the 80-foot fall plunging from the granite cliff into the Pacific below. The beach, Saddle Rock and McWay Falls within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park are strictly off-limits, but the panoramic views from the Overlook Trail and higher elevations along the trails east of Highway 1 will take your breath away. A tidefall is a rare coastal waterfall that spills directly onto the beach, and this is one of only 2 tidefalls in California.
Featured image: Francois Olwage via Unsplash