I had been hoping to take a trip like this for years and years, so my anticipation had been building up. Suffice it to say, Northern California did not disappoint. I was completely blown away by the beauty of the changing scenery throughout our travels, and found myself awestruck more than once. There is so much to see and do in Northern California; I had worries about trying to do too much and not getting to do everything all at once. Looking back, however, I felt that we divided our time really well and would recommend this itinerary to anyone. Keep reading to see how we spent two days in Yosemite, one day in Napa Valley, three days in San Francisco, and two days in the Monterey Bay.
2 Days in Yosemite
Our time in Yosemite was beyond anything I could’ve dreamed. We got to share it with our friends who moved from NYC to SF a couple years ago. They had been to Yosemite several times before, so it was great to have a couple of veterans pointing things out and leading our hikes. They even had Camelback water backpacks, so we felt extra legit :).
We drove in from downtown San Francisco on a Friday night and checked into our lodge, which was just outside the entrance to Yosemite National Park. The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn to drive into the park and begin our eight-mile hike to Cathedral Lakes. The beginning was pretty strenuous and steep, but tapered off after a mile or so. It was a very wooded hike, with beautiful creeks, streams, and evening a couple natural springs bubbling up from the ground (so cool!). We made it to Cathedral Lake before noon, where we ate our picnic lunch and soaked up the beauty in front of us. It was such a great feeling reaching the top of our hike and seeing the beautiful, clear lake that waited for us. What a great experience for our first day in Yosemite!
After our hike, we spent the afternoon in the hot tub/poolside at the lodge with some cocktails (my kind of day!). Then we all grabbed dinner at the restaurant, enjoyed the complimentary s’mores around the fire pit, and played a round of Yahtzee before calling it a night. Day 2 of Yosemite awaited…
On our second day in the park, we spent our time seeing some more of the iconic sights of Yosemite Valley (Half Dome, El Capitan). We got to Glacier Point (a famous view spot) early to beat the crowds, and then hiked to the top of Sentinel Dome. This vista offered 360 degree views of the valley and was my favorite part of the day. So incredible!
After Sentinel Dome, we hiked Taft Point, which is quite the cliff… I had a few nervous moments watching others creep dangerously close to the edge. From there, we drove down into Yosemite Village where we walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls and ate our picnic. This area had so many people because it’s much easier access, but it was beautiful to see the high falls up close. Finally, we made our way out of the park and back to San Francisco.
1 Day in Napa
Our friends were so kind to take the day off work to join us in Napa, and we had the best time sharing that experience with them, also. They are very familiar with Napa and Sonoma, so we enjoyed letting them take us to their favorite town for lunch and then we tried three wineries that were new to them, too. We started in St. Helena, which is on the northern end of Napa Valley. After browsing the main street shops, we got lunch at Archetype. It was a beautiful space with a great brunch/lunch menu. (Perfect for launching us into our wine tasting afternoon!)
The three wineries we visited were Hall, Trefethen, and Cline — each very different from the last. Hall was modern with contemporary design and decor. The wines were delicious, and the staff was fantastic. Trefethen had more of a rustic, family feel to it. We were seated at a table and our server was so informative and friendly as he poured our tastings. I particularly loved the Cabernet Franc and Malbec here. Finally, Cline was cozy and quaint, with a delicious sparkling wine. If I had to pick a favorite, I would say Trefethen for both the wine and the overall experience.
3 Days in San Francisco
San Francisco is such a beautiful city and so different from New York! From the hills to the architecture to the weather to the overall vibe, it felt like such a contrast from what I’m used to on the east coast. We had so much fun exploring this west coast city on the bay. There are so many charming neighborhoods and streets full of character (…and hills!). Here are some of the things we did:
- Lands End/Sutro Baths*
- The Mission*
- Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies
- Mission Dolores Park*
- Ferry Building*
- Walk along Embarcadero
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Ghirardelli Square
- Walk through the Marina
- Golden Gate Bridge*
- Palace of Fine Arts
- Union Square
- Top of the Mark for drinks with a view*
- Japanese Tea Garden inside Golden Gate Park*
- Ferry over to Sausalito*
- Take a cable car*
- Fillmore Street
*denotes a personal favorite/must-do
And what is city exploration without indulging in their food?! San Francisco has some of the best food options in the world, and you truly can’t go wrong. We loved trying various cuisines, like Italian, Mexican, Chinese, French, and Japanese. Here are the restaurants/bars that we loved:
- Cafe Zoetrope for pizza and a bottle of wine
- La Taqueria for the best burrito ever
- The Mill for the original avocado toast
- Tartine Bakery for fabulous pastries
- Haystack for pizza
- Holey Bagel for the obvious
- Hard Water for American whiskey
- Gott’s for the best burger
- Top of the Mark for a fancy bar with beautiful city views
- El Buen Comer for fun Mexican food
- Bar Bocce in Sausalito for the perfect waterfront spot to sip wine
- Begoni Bistro for dim sum in Chinatown
- Griddle Fresh for a hearty breakfast (lemon ricotta pancakes were out of this world)
- Japanese Tea Garden for tea and treats
2 Days in Monterey/Carmel
As excited as we were to explore south of San Francisco, we had a really hard time saying goodbye to the city. We loved our time there, and we loved staying with our wonderful, generous hosts. We had so much fun making new memories! We got a car to the airport where we picked up our rental car. Then we headed south for a true road trip: we had a destination, but we were along for the ride and eager to explore anything that caught our eye along the way.
As we drove south, we detoured to check out Stanford University, Sand Hill Road, Mountain View, Cupertino, Menlo Park… basically the tech capital of the world. We saw the Googleplex from afar and awed at all the exciting innovation going on in the area. Eventually we picked up Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) and drove it all the way to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where we’d be staying for our last night in California. (Along the way to Carmel we passed massive farms with roadside stands selling avocados for 5 for $1!!)
Carmel is the most beautiful, quaint, character-filled town with the main street leading straight down to a white sand beach. We got lunch at Le Bicyclette and walked around a bit before hopping back in the car to cruise farther south for a bit. This stretch of the coast was the prettiest we had seen yet — blue waves beating against the rocky coastal cliffs, mountains right next to the sea, and winding roads. We pulled over every few minutes to take it all in. We turned around just past the Bixby Creek Bridge (30 minutes south of Carmel). Again, I couldn’t get over how beautiful California was!
Back in Carmel, we checked into our boutique hotel, The Hideaway, which had more of a lovely B&B feel to it. Then we set out to do a wine tasting at one of the many (many!) tasting rooms in the town. For dinner, we ate at a delicious farm-to-table restaurant, Grasing’s, and then called it a night.
The next day, we walked down main street to the beach (absolutely gorgeous), from where we could see Pebble Beach Golf Links just above the northern stretch of the beach. We ambled through the town some more, stopping in some local shops and admiring art galleries. Eventually we had to peel ourselves away from charming Carmel-by-the-Sea.
We drove a few minutes north and entered 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula. It hugs the Pacific coastline and passes famous golf courses, mansions, and landmarks, including the Lone Cypress and Del Monte Forest of Monterey Cypress trees. From there, we went north another few minutes to Monterey.
We had a late lunch on Old Fisherman’s Wharf where we had amazing seafood (the clam chowder was a hit!) and then watched the seals, otter, fish, and birds playing in the wharf. We drove through the town to see Cannery Row and the scenic drive along the coast, taking everything in. Eventually we had to begin our road trip back to the airport (driving briefly through Santa Cruz to see their iconic boardwalk). It was the best road trip, and I’m so glad we added that leg onto our trip to Northern California!
Many people have asked what our favorite part of the trip was, or our favorite food, or our favorite sight… and it’s just impossible to pick. Every part of the trip was so different from the others and each was beautiful in its own way — a perfect mix of environments. If you’re interested in a U.S. trip that combines a national park, a city, small towns, beaches, and wine, add Northern California to your list!