The Best 7-day Northern California Road Trip Adventure Itinerary

The classic California road trip is one of the most iconic routes in America, and truly a road trip you must do once in your lifetime! California is the 3rd largest state in the US and there is SO much to see, and this year we decided to split California into 2 separate road trips. This road trip will focus on Northern California, from the rugged, beachy coastline of Big Sur to the incredible wild mountains in Yosemite National Park and the monstrous old growth trees in the Redwoods! This is one of the most popular US road trips for a reason!

We drove all the way from Vancouver, BC, Canada to do this iconic road trip exploring through California and we will never forget this trip of a lifetime. Our itinerary included 2 National Parks and the famous drive down Highway 1 Big Sur with hidden gems off the regular path and the best stops! We had the most epic 7-day road trip through Northern California and I’m stoked to share our full itinerary with you!

What you need to know before your California Road Trip

Before you start your trip, plan ahead! California has some of the most incredibly beautiful National Parks in the country, and you’ll need to book your campsites and permits accordingly. Know that you will need to have an America The Great Parks Pass before entering the parks or purchase at park gates. Also, make sure to map out your route and download offline maps! Some of the places we visited were remote and did not have cell service. If you’re travelling internationally, we recommend to download Airalo app and use our code Y&M3 for a discount on your first eSIM.

The best time of the year to visit California would be in early Summer. It gets very hot in California during the summer and most people plan their trips in the months of June, July and August for the best weather. We planned our visit for end of May and it was perfect! California has some incredible National Parks and hikes with day reservations or permit systems in place (Yosemite’s Half Dome) so try to plan permits and campgrounds ahead of time! Our best tip for Yosemite camping reservations is to search for last minute cancellations.

Where to Start your California Road Trip

We drove the entire way from Vancouver, BC to California so our travel route may look a bit different depending on where you’re traveling from. You can road trip from home and we recommend starting in Lake Tahoe or Yosemite National Park. If you’re driving from the North like us, stopping in Mount Shasta is a great start. If you’re flying in, consider San Francisco International Airport.

Our route took us on a 12 hour drive from Vancouver to Mount Shasta where we camped for the night. The next morning, we woke up and drove to Lake Tahoe, picked up groceries and supplies in Reno and continued to Yosemite. We travelled in a loop from here continuing to the California Coast to see Big Sur and the Redwoods before heading home. You can also do this route in reverse.

Our Actual 7-day California Road Trip Itinerary

I’m sharing our ACTUAL 7-day road trip from Vancouver to California! This itinerary can be modified to add additional days, hikes and different routes. Something special about our road trips are that we pack as many incredible views as possible into our itinerary and I make sure to add additional points of interest to add on your own.

We also travel with our dog. The National Parks in the USA are not necessarily dog-friendly and most trails prohibit dogs. We sometimes have to get creative when traveling with our pet and coordinate for her to stay in the hotels or stay in the car. Our itinerary includes hidden gems and stops that most people don’t visit. Get ready for our ultimate Northern California road trip adventure itinerary!

Day One: Drive to Mount Shasta or Arrive at Airport

Day one for us was easily a full day of driving 12 hours from Vancouver, BC to Mount Shasta, California. After a long drive, it was great to arrive in a beautiful mountain town. There are plenty of options for a cheap hotel for the night, and if you’re camping you’ll find iOverlander spots alongside the highway. Your drive in the morning is going to be 4.5 hours from here.

If you’re arriving via airport, you’ll be driving 3.5 hours to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco International Airport. Alternatively, you can visit Lake Tahoe afterwards and head straight to Yosemite which will take 4 hours from the airport. This first day is a great chance to prepare by picking up your vehicle and shopping for groceries and supplies.

Day Two: Lake Tahoe & Yosemite National Park

We woke up early to drive for 4.5 hours to the most beautiful, crystal blue lake! Lake Tahoe is located in both Nevada and California, and we drove to the Nevada side to access the best beaches. The two beaches we recommend are Sand Harbour Beach and Secret Cove nude beach. We chose Secret Cove because during the high season, dogs are not allowed at Sand Harbour Beach. The bright blue water was crystal clear and a perfect way to spend the morning!

From Reno, we drove 5.5 hours to Yosemite National Park. We only had 2 nights of camping reservations and we arrived late to an iOverlander dispersed camping spot just outside of the National Park. You are not permitted to disperse camp inside the National Park, but in any of the National Forests outside of the park you are allowed!

Day Three: Yosemite National Park

Waking up in Yosemite National Park is a dream come true! We started our day early by watching the sunrise at the famous Tunnel View lookout. This spot is iconic for a reason, it’s an easy accessible lookout with a large parking lot and one of the best views in the park. Tunnel View gives you a incredible look towards Yosemite Valley with El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls.

After sunrise, we drove around the park and explored Yosemite Valley from our vehicle. This park is unique for its incredible views everywhere you look – you do not necessarily need to hike to see the beauty of this park. We made many stops through Yosemite Valley like Cooks Meadow, Swinging Bridge, Valley View and El Capitan Meadow – and so many more of unnamed spots to pull over!! We highly recommend renting bikes at Curry Village, Yosemite Village or Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Our first night, we camped in Lower Pines campground. We unpacked our vehicle and stored all of our scented items in the bear boxes provided at camp before heading to another famous view in Yosemite. For sunset, we drove over an hour from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point. This is one of the best spots for sunset where alpine glow on Half Dome is incredible as the sun goes down. This is a popular spot, but so worth it!

Day Four: Yosemite National Park

The next morning we decided to go back to Glacier Point again for sunrise. This was much less busy than the night before and we watched the sun come up from behind Half Dome from Glacier Point road. We continued to take photos from the Geology Hut and walk the trails around Glacier Point again. One of the best parts of this spot is that it’s dog-friendly! Sunrise hikes or day hikes we would recommend are Upper Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Mirror Lake.

After driving back down to Yosemite Valley, we had breakfast at camp and decided to go on another dog-friendly hike to Lower Yosemite Falls. Another beautiful, popular Yosemite view and the power of the waterfalls is just incredible! We spent the rest of the day checking into our 2nd campsite at North Pines campground and enjoying a swim in the river. For sunset, we watched the alpine glow from Sentinel Bridge on Half Dome. Sunset hikes and backpacking trails we would recommend are Taft Point, Sentinel Dome, Clouds Rest, Eagle Tower.

Day Five: Highway 1 Big Sur, California Coast

We woke up in Yosemite for the last time, and enjoyed a slow morning at camp cooking breakfast and using the showers before continuing our road trip. Yosemite National Park is paradise on Earth, and we will absolutely be back here again. Today we have a 4 hour drive from Yosemite to Monterey, California and Carmel by the Sea where we’ll take the iconic drive down Highway 1 Big Sur!

The drive down Highway 1 Big Sur might be one of the most beautiful drives in the US. I’ll be writing an entire blog on the 10 best easy stops on the Big Sur Highway 1 road trip and make sure you give that a read for more details and extra spots! Our drive only took 1 hour from Carmel by the Sea to a road closure right after McWay Falls. Here are the stops we took in Big Sur:

  • Garapata State Park
  • Bixby Bridge
  • Vista Point
  • McWay Falls
  • Shark Fin Cove

Day Six: San Francisco & Mount Tam

This is our final full day in California, and we’ve saved the city for last. We woke up early to drive into San Francisco and head to the Golden Gate Bridge for sunrise. We stopped at 3 different viewpoints of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the first 2 were on Conzelman Road. First was called Golden Gate Viewpoint, and we continued to Battery Ridge. Then we drove over to another spot called Golden Gate Overlook.

We spent most of the day sightseeing from our car and driving around the impressive city! We both wish we had more time to explore the restaurant and food scene, museums and rented a bike to explore. San Francisco was incredibly beautiful and unique, and some notable things to do are:

  • Visit the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 39.
  • Picnic in Golden Gate Park.
  • Visit “The Rock” Alcatraz Museum.
  • Take a ride on the cable cars.
  • Muir Woods hike.

For one of the best sunset views in San Francisco, we drove over an hour to Mount Tamalpais. This state park is an incredible mountain peak with trails and overnight backpacking trips. We decided to drive up to Trojan Point and parked in the lot to watch the sun go down. Dogs aren’t allowed on the trails but you can enjoy the view beside the road. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a cloud inversion!

Day Seven: Redwoods National Park & Drive Home

On our last day, we had a big drive back home to Vancouver and decided to stop at another National Park on the way. Redwoods National Park was the last part of our road trip itinerary and we drove to the Avenue of the Giants for a scenic drive. Dogs aren’t allowed on the trails but we enjoyed the views of the massive old growth trees from our vehicle. We also drove through Jedidiah Smith State Park for another Redwoods scenic drive.

Best Places to Camp/Stay on your California Road Trip

One of the best parts of road-tripping in America is the ability to camp easily! We camped for all 6-nights of this trip and didn’t pay for a hotel room, but there are plenty of options in any of the major cities we drive through. We paid for Yosemite National Park campground reservations at Lower Pines campground and North Pines campground for $36 USD a night and this experience was so worth it.

Since we paid for 2 out of 6 nights, and another night was spent in dispersed camping outside of Yosemite in Stanislaus National Forest, Highway 120. Another 3 nights would be spent at iOverlander spots or rest stops alongside the highway on travel days. Make sure to camp and park legally. We use our Step Above 4×4 Rooftop Tent on our vehicle.

Final Thoughts on our 7-Day California Road Trip

Our 7-day road trip through Northern California was legendary and there’s still so much more for us to see in this beautiful state! This road trip introduced us to our favourite National Park of all time and we can’t wait to be back to Yosemite again someday for some epic hikes. This is definitely one of the best road trips we’ve ever done and we can see why it’s one of the best routes in the USA!

I hope we’ve inspired you to take this adventure yourself and explore Northern California! Make sure to watch our road trip story highlights on Instagram, TikTok and watch our YouTube video from this iconic California adventure!

Looking for more of our road trip inspiration? Read our blog on What you need to know Before Bringing your dog to Yosemite National Park. Check out our famous 8-day Utah Road Trip or our iconic 10-day Washington & Oregon Coast road trip!

Comments (1)

  • Sandra

    June 9, 2024 at 4:58 pm

    Really informative. Thanks!

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