From the 8th to the 12th of July 2016 we went on an epic road trip in Northern California! From Sacramento, to Yosemite, Napa Valley and all the way up to Mendocino, we had an incredible time and saw some of the diversity in landscapes that Northern California has to offer. We went from an easy 35°C / 95°F to a low of 12°C / 53°F. We sweat our asses off while hiking to the top of Vernal Falls and froze our toes off in a motel in Fort Bragg.
Our 82 days in the United States have all been amazing, but this road trip definitely was one of a kind!
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The preparation for our road trip in Northern California
As you might have read in our Sacramento post, the capital of California was our starting point for our road trip in Northern California. A friend had gifted us with a 5 days car rent as a wedding gift, in order to allow the budget travellers we are to explore the Golden State as it should be explored. To say we were excited would be a huge understatement, we were over the moon!! As Simone is the only one of us with a driving license, he would be the only driver.
As Simone was the only driver, we weren’t sure how far we could make it. What was sure is that we wanted to go to Yosemite National Park, that we were invited to visit a couple of friends in the Napa Valley, and that we would try to make it as north as we could on the Pacific Highway.
Day 1 of our road trip in Northern California – Yosemite National Park
First leg of our North Cal road trip: Sacramento to Yosemite NP
We left Sacramento in the morning, hoping to make it to Yosemite as early as possible. On the way, we put rock music and enjoyed the sunny Californian weather. We passed a cool tomato truck (veg involved in 90% of Alice’s diet – hence the excitement) and the ups and downs of the road made Alice a little bit sick. Some parts of the road were pretty boring, other were not at all.
When it looked like we were getting much closer to Yosemite, we took a break at Chinese Camp were we stocked up on food.
Yosemite NP: an absolute must during a road trip in Northern California!
We arrived at the limit of Yosemite NP around 12/12:30pm but it took a while to get to the parking lot. We’re not going to lie, it was hell to find a parking spot and the earlier you can get there, the better. While Alice went to try and find something to eat at the shop, Simone parked the car in the 30min parking. We were quite nervous about parking it here but we asked someone who worked there and he assured us that most people did it and nobody had problems. So YOLO, let’s hike!
In the end, we started our search for Vernal Fall at 14h45, so it took some time from the moment we arrived in Yosemite NP territory around 12h…
The biggest surprise of our Northern California road trip: spotting a bear in Yosemite National Park
Our main topic of conversation on the way to the Mist Trail was bears. This whole Yosemite shenanigan revolved around bears. It started when William lend us a « bear can » in case we would be camping. We didn’t even know bear cans existed, much less that it was about bears FOR REAL. There’s quite a lot of these animals in Yosemite, and bears are super foodies, and also super lazy (like us, yep, that’s it!) so if they get hungry instead of fishing or finding some cool berries – which would take forever – they just smell where you keep your food, march to your car, destroy your trunk, and eat all of your Oreos. Not a joke. We think it’s fair game. BUT if you’re going to camp and you don’t feel like explaining to your insurance that you didn’t care for reading any of the information leaflets you will receive upon entering Yosemite (or DYING, too, which would be too bad – unless you can show some serious The Revenant skills), you better bring a bear can with you and hung it to a tree FAR from your tent/car, or use the special lockers that you can find in camp sites. Also, respect the speed limits, because in the dark you might roll over a bear and kill it and on top of being a horrible person, EVERYBODY WOULD HATE YOU. Because – come on – bears are the cutest.
Speaking of bears…. we saw one! That’s probably the coolest thing that happened to us at Yosemite, and I dare you to top it up! No, it did not eat us, because it was way more interested about something in the water AND we were pretty far. Alice had secretly nursed the hope of sighting a bear so that was a pretty big event! That was at the bottom of Vernal Falls.
Short anecdote: you could probably spot us anywhere because we speak fritalenglish (a mix between French, Italian and English, yes I just invented the word). That day was remembered as “Come cazzo s’appelle, un « bear », or: the case for a multilingual couple and the love of bears ”.
Hiking the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls
William lent us a book about hikes in California, where Alice spotted the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall. It was a must-do at Yosemite, not hard but big reward. You could probably spend months in Yosemite NP and not see everything there is to see, so we wanted to score a nice hike, a nice way to the top, and a waterfall. It felt like the perfect answer.
From the parking lot, we went to get the shuttle bus that goes all around the Park and lets you stop at the beginning of the main trails. It was full, but it comes fairly often so don’t fret too much about that. Just don’t forget your sunscreen and water (you can fill up your bottles on the way but still, carry plenty). At the beginning, we honestly felt that we had gone back to a sedentary lifestyle. We were both short of breath and it felt like a lot of efforts, but we didn’t say anything – both to not look bad to the other (now we don’t care about that, but then again, we had just gotten married!), and not discourage each other. After a while our bodies started to wake up and it didn’t feel so bad anymore. The beautiful nature all around us helped a lot!
We really enjoyed the way as much as the fall in itself. It was pretty crowded but not enough to be annoying. We stopped at the various toilets/water stops and at the bottom of the fall to observe the bear and the magnificent Vernal Falls (and to take silly pictures, OF COURSE), before trailing to the top.
As we started at the beginning of the High Sierra Loop Trail, it was a 1.5miles / 2.4km to the top of Vernal Falls.
At the top of the fall, we thought it would be a good idea to sit and snack at the pond. BAD IDEA ALERT – unless you’d like your snack (yourself) to be eaten by wasps, just don’t.
When you’re not very experiences hikers like us, you tend to forget that the way down tends to be as hard or harder (at least on the body) than the way up. Don’t make that mistake and allow plenty of time to go back to the shuttle stop.
We entertained the idea to go see something else at the beginning, but we understood pretty quickly that by the time we made it back to the shuttle there wouldn’t be much time left. And we were right. When we hoped on the car, it was already dark outside. In total, the hike (return trip) took us 3:15h. Back at the parking lot of the village center, we tried to find something decent to eat, but there wasn’t a lot of vegan options and we left around 19h30. By the time we were out of the NP territory, Alice was sleeping.
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What not to do on a road trip in Northern California or “when there’s only country music on the radio and no light outside”
Simone couldn’t find the right lights on the car which wouldn’t have been such a big problem on a normal straight highway, for example. But of course we had to go through a crazy amount of lace roads on the mountain. Try that without lights. It was extremely stressful and we both thought that it’s not the road that would kill us but our nerves. In the end the light was discovered… when we were almost out of these crazy parts of the road. Well, now it’s pretty funny to think about it. It wasn’t at the time.
But it wasn’t the only problem we would face that night…
To make it short, we were hoping to find a motel on the way going to Napa Valley to rest before meeting some friends the next day. But we couldn’t find any on our way, we had almost no access to internet… it sucked. The only good thing is that the sky was incredibly full of stars and that made us feel great.
Night 1 of our Northern Cal road trip: sleeping in Stockton (DON’T!!)
Anyway, we ended up stoping in Stockton, where we took literally the first motel we crossed, at $77 a night. That’s not cheap, people! Definitely not cheap enough to find a dead cockroach on display on the floor of our room. Alice refused to touch the blanket and just slipped under the sheet while falling asleep at the same time. We were so tired we both slept like logs…
The next morning William told us Stockton was gross and that it was the Californian city with the highest crime rate. YAY! [Still the case in this 2015 article, but according to this article, Oakland is now considered the most dangerous city in California]
Day 2 of our road trip in Northern California – Napa Valley
Driving from Stockton to Rio Vista
The next day we were back on the road at 11am. Our destination was Yountville, where a couple Simone knew by the intermediary of Wos Bar would host us for the night.
We stopped at Highway 12 Diner in Rio Vista for lunch where Alice got a veggie burger we’ll assume was vegan. The bill for the both of us was reasonable, at $25. Next it was time to put back 10gal of gas in the car, for the ridiculous price (at least for us foreigners) of $25.
Next stop on our Northern Cal road trip: Yountville (Napa Valley)
On the road Alice eyes picked up on something about a tomato festival (how cool is that?! – also: obsessed with tomatoes…..) and we arrived in Yountville at 2pm and took a nap.
Our friend Austin arrived after work and we unwinded a bit before she took us on a tour of the city. It’s a very small city but very polished, made famous by the two 3 Michelin stars restaurants on the same street. There’s a little farm and plants for the restaurant across the street where a husband works, which – we have to say – is pretty cool.
The town, surrounded by the mountains is very peaceful. As Austin explained, it’s a valley where Oak meets Redwood, it’s a point of climate change. For that reason, the wine is very different if it comes from one side of the valley, or the other.
We felt like this town would really be popular amongst Europeans. It’s a very cute town that really fits our imaginary American wine town. Back at the house, Simone cooked us diner and we talked.
We didn’t have the opportunity to do any wine tasting, but we totally recommend you take the time to visit the California wine country on a budget, as we would have if we only had a little more time!
If you’re interested in staying at Yountville overnight like we did, you can check here for accommodations’ best prices on Booking
Day 3 of our road trip in Northern California – the cold North
Driving from Yountville (Napa Valley) to Bodega Bay to reach Highway 1
We resumed to be our usually lazy ass selves and didn’t take the road before 2pm. One of our main goals during this road trip was to experience the magical coastal Highway 1. So we decided to drive first to Bodega Bay, from where we could take it. By 3pm we had reached 400miles from the beginning of that trip! And we arrived in Bodega Bay at 4pm. Actually, we stopped a bit before – but we shouldn’t have. We were starving and had some kind of very late lunch at Lucas Wharf restaurant.
But we should have waited 2 more miles to be in the cutest little town that is Bodega Bay. Anyway, we did stop there (but with full tummies) by the water and spotted a sea lion. What more to ask for?
Road trip in Northern California must-do:
Driving on the Pacific Highway 1 from Bodega Bay to Jenner by the Sea
A bit later we were once again surprised by the beauty of California, when we stopped at the top of the ocean, where a lot of cars had stopped too. It was a surf spot and the atmosphere was amazing.
Nothing short of amazing was also Jenner by the Sea, a bit further on the road. We stopped there for Simone to take a coffee, and buy a few postcards. We could have stayed at this peaceful place forever and it’s definitely on our list of cities to go and check out more thoroughly later.
Continuing our Northern Cal road trip drive on Highway 1 from Jenner by the Sea to Gualala and Mendocino
Next, the road was getting to misty we couldn’t even see the water… We drove mountain shoelace roads that looked buried in the clouds and started to wonder why we had to live anywhere else but there. It was very foggy and the temperature had dropped drastically to 12°C / 53°F. We passed really small villages like Sea Ranch (population: 294).
Starving as our usual selves, we stopped at Gualala for a vegan pizza we devoured in the car, while freezing our asses off.
Going forward, we saw our first deer of the trip and hit 500 miles at 19h45. Our second deer was a baby one, met at the edge of a town called Elk (can it get cuter than that?!).
At that point, this part of California was so gray, cold, misty and desert that we felt like we were in another part of the world…
Evening of Day 3 in Northern California: Arriving in Mendocino and sleeping in Fort Bragg
We finally arrived in Mendocino at 20h20. We first looked around for an inn but they seemed all booked and too expensive. As we don’t deal with that kind of stuff on an empty stomach, we went to Frankie’s to get a hot soup. It was really cold outside!
From there, we booked a room in Fort Bragg on Booking. The room was really nice and clean so no complaint and we slept like babies!
Day 4 of our road trip in Northern California – Mendocino
Driving from Fort Braggs to Pomo Bluffs Park and Mendocino
We woke up around 10am, got ready and checked out. We had breakfast at Angelina’s (not the French café, the diner by the motel) where they fortunately had a veggie burger.
Then our destination was Mendocino but we stopped on the way at beautiful Pomo Bluffs Park for a bit.
We made it to Mendocino by 12h30.
First, we went by the sea. It was beautiful. People made tippies with wood on the beach, and we spent some time visiting them and enjoying the marine air. At that time it was 14,5°C / 58°F, not too cold but windy!
Then our next visit was one of the most famous attraction in Mendocino and the most beautiful bookshop : Gallery Bookshop ! We took our sweet time checking it all at before buying a few stuff to eat for the road and leaving at 14h00.
Taking another itinerary on our Northern California road trip from Mendocino to Napa Valley
This time, we decided that Highway 1 would take too much time, so we drove on a faster road to go back to Napa. But it wasn’t bad either! The beginning on the 128 was really nice, we were driving in the woods, it was really beautiful…
Once we made it out of the woods, it was already 28°C / 83°F….
Another funny village we passed by was Philo, with a population of 349. You should also know that the gas was way more expensive in the small towns along the road. We ended up stopping around 4pm at Cloverdale for a half hour lunch in the car, after having bought some Japanese to go. Now it was very warm, at 33°C / 92°F and we started thinking about the most northern parts of our trip where the weather wasn’t so hot!
We reached the house in Yountville by 6pm, exhausted. We had a great evening with Austin and Erik, drinking sinfully delicious wine and watching the Olympic Games.
Day 5 of our North Cal road trip – Back to Sacramento
Last leg of our road trip in Northern California: Driving from Yountville to Sacramento
Nothing much to say about our last day on the road, apart from the fact that it was 26°C / 79°F when we left at noon, and 37.8°C / 100°F when we reached Sacramento Airport where we had to drop the car!
Our road trip in Northern California was an incredible and beautiful experience that made us fall in love even more with the Golden State. We recommend you to have one if you can, it’s definitely worth it!
Wow!! This looks like an amazing trip. Those pictures of the bears are awesome!
Thank you Megan, it was indeed amazing! And seeing that bear was definitely a huge deal for me 😀
What a fun trip in Northern California. Great tips on places to stop at. Loved the waterfall at Yosemite. Great photos and thanks for sharing! 🙂
Thank you Stephanie, it really was a great fun trip! Yosemite was amazing!!
This just makes me want to visit California again! I did a roadtrip once here before, seeing the major parks, but I see there are so many little cute places to see! Especially Mendocino looks like a town I’d enjoy!
I’d love to do another road trip to see more parks! We wanted to go to Yellowstone but it was just too far for us at the time… It’s something I really enjoy visiting! But yes, there are definitely some gorgeous little towns on the coast, wish I’d see more of them!
Great itinerary and lovely photos, I have’t been to northern Cali yet but now it’s definitly bumped it’s way higher on my list.
Great! I hope you make it there soon, it’s such an amazing place!
I keep thinking reading this that Cali is pretty warm (most of the time), how lush! Loved your adventures in Yosemite, and I’d want a bear can too as although they are super cute they also pack a powerful punch. So special to see one on your travels.
Yes, right?! Who wants to get run after by a hungry bear? Not me!
Wow you covered so much in just 4 days! I really, really want to visit Yosemite! Thanks for sharing the hike and driving times 🙂
We tried but it still felt like it wasn’t enough!! Yosemite was definitely on the top of my list and I would love to go back, there’s so much to see! Thank you for your comment :*
I would love to do this trip one day! I can’t believe how much detail you went into even though it’s been a year! It’s really informative, such a great read 🙂
Cali road trips are the BEST!!! Love your photos by the falls especially. This has me itching to go back.
They ARE, right?! Can’t wait to do another one!!
This seems like a great road trip! I would love to explore Northern California!
Love the pics, looks so beautiful. I’ve never been to Cali. Really enjoyed the post
Thank you so much Heidi, Northern California is really the perfect place for a road trip, believe me!
I ran across this looking up some Northern Cal bear facts. I’m very glad I read it!
I am a Northern California native. Born and raised in Sacramento (yes, it’s HOT in the summer).
I’ve been everywhere on your list multiple times and will go again. I loved reading about your adventure. It’s wonderful to see ones perspective from so far away.
It’s such a large state with so many great places to explore. Northern and Southern California ate so very different. So Cal is beachy and warm. Nor Cal is cliffs, fog, forests, bears!!!
I hope you and your husband have the chance to come back and spend the time you want to explore more.
Hike half dome, it’s a 2 day trip.
Go to Tahoe!!! Truckee, Tahoe City, Lings Beach….. North Shore is less busy. I’m a little biased, I lived in Incline Village. (It’s ok to skip Reno)
Take the wine tours, Napa, the Foothills (Apple Hill area), and the Delta. The Delta has lots of veggie festivals!! The Pear Fair. Asparagus Festival (it’s in Stockon though, yuk!!)
Stop in the little towns along the River Road. There’s an old Chinese fishing village called Locke between Sacramento and Rio Vista (lots of family out there). Unique restaurant there called Al the Wops with good food.
Go back to Fort Bragg and go to Glass Beach (it’s pretty picked through but we go everytime we’re up there visiting family).
Check out Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta if you have time.
Stop in Big Sur on Hwy 1 on the way.
Check out Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Head South Hwy 1 and check out Santa Cruz and Monterey. Hearst’s Castle is a little further down.
Sorry I rambled….. Again, I’m so very glad I was able to read about your experience! I enjoyed every bit of this. Hopefully you can make it back and I haven’t made the Nor Cal bucket list too long.