Where, exactly, is northern California?
It's a debate that rages within the Golden State itself. Some locals feel that northern California — aka NoCal to hipsters and cool kids — encompasses nothing south of the San Francisco Bay area. Other people believe northern California refers only to the well-developed areas along the Pacific coast. Still others say the region is far more vast, comprising all the land from San Luis Obispo County north to the Oregon border, plus all the land from the Pacific Ocean across to the state of Nevada.
For the purposes of this book, that last definition is the one that applies. The best family vacations can't be held to strict geographical distinctions, and no place will make you feel more prone to wandering just a bit farther down the path than northern California. There are seashores and mountain vistas, epicurean hubs and rural outposts, pristine redwood forests and glistening cities alike. None of these places is more “northern California” than the next, so try as many as you can to experience the best this region has to offer.
Heck, the state motto is “Eureka!” It means “I have found it!” Just imagine all that awaits you on a vacation where you take the time to explore far and wide.
In most cases, your northern California vacation will start in a city. The best-known regional cities are San Francisco and Sacramento, each of which boasts an international airport. While neither of these cities enjoys as much tourism as the entertainment mecca of Los Angeles in the south, both have incredible amounts of family-friendly sights and activities to offer. If you prefer the feel of smaller cities, you'll likely find your way to places like San Jose, Sausalito, and Santa Cruz, which are lesser known but continue to charm visitors from around the globe.
After you explore northern California's cities, you'll likely want to make your way to its next-most-popular tourism area: Wine Country. Napa and Sonoma counties are known the world over for their vineyards full of Chardonnay and other varietals, and more than a few fine restaurants have sprung up in those areas to satisfy your urge to eat as much as you drink. In places like San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, too, wineries are an option for your vacation itinerary.
If sitting around filling your belly all day doesn't sound appealing, fear not: This area also offers some of the best hiking, biking, and general sightseeing in the entire United States. National parks from Yosemite to the Redwood National Forest are among the most widely renowned ecological areas in northern California, and there are countless other fantastic state and regional parks to explore as well. If you want to stay away from the biggest crowds, you can tour inland ranges such as the Trinity Mountains and Mount Shasta. There's even a volcanic park if you prefer your peaks to be of the formerly erupting variety.
Then again, you may be more of a water baby than an inland hiker, and once more, northern California comes through in high style. From Lake Tahoe, which straddles the state's border with Nevada, to the Pacific Ocean shoreline, you'll find more water sports fun than in almost any other state. The Pacific Coast Highway is legendary, and rightfully so — it offers some of the most scenic drives in all of the Americas, with countless beaches along the way where you can surf, play carnival games, and spot sea lions at play. Monterey, in particular, is a fantastic choice for nature lovers, with its world-famous aquarium providing hands-on, educational fun for the whole family.
Even better, if learning is one of your vacation goals, northern California boasts a large number of active university campuses and museums, including one dedicated to the state's history of mining and minerals. Should your interest in the gold rush be piqued, you can take your family out to Gold Country to pan for nuggets, just as the area's first American settlers did in the mid-1800s.
Between then and now, as you can plainly see, northern California has developed into a region filled with every kind of tourism activity you can imagine. In the following pages, you'll get an introduction to them all — along with all the information you need to plan the perfect vacation for your family.