Top 5 Scenic Drives in Northern California

Top 5 Scenic Drives in Northern California

Some of the best memories I have as a kid growing up in Sacramento include piling into the Country Squire station wagon — seatbelts? What seatbelts? — and taking road trips to the mountains or coast. Every trip was a mini-adventure filled with discovery and danger. On top of that, there are plenty of places for scenic drives in Northern California. 

Even now I still get that tingle of anticipation as I load up the car with luggage and hit the open road to anywhere but my office. So in the spirit of good times and grand adventures, here are the top five scenic drives in Northern California.

Featured Photo: Zhenrui Mei
A straight road lined with towering redwood trees stretches into the distance. The road, one of the most scenic drives in Northern California, is flanked by lush greenery and a carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles. The canopy is dense, allowing filtered sunlight to reach the forest floor.
Photo: Courtesy of Cameron Venti

Avenue of the Giants, Redwood National Forest

If you live in Northern California, have young kids, and haven’t taken them to see the Avenue of the Giants yet, well, you ought to. This is one of the best family road trips in the nation, a perfect combo of natural beauty, outdoor recreation, and American kitch. This 31-mile section of Old Highway 101 — which runs parallel to Highway 101 between the towns of Phillipsville and Pepperwood — winds through the world’s largest concentration of coastal redwoods.

The best natural attraction along the Avenue is Founders Grove. Be sure to stop here to take the half-mile, self-guided loop trail that passes by the Dyerville Giant, which, before it fell in 1991, was considered the “champion” coastal redwood at 364 feet tall, 53 feet in circumference, and weighing in at nearly a million pounds. That’s one big tree.

And how can you not love all those hokey tourist attractions scattered along the route, such as the Chimney Tree, the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, the One-Log House, and the Eternal Tree House? Somewhere in my garage I still have Super 8 film of the trips we took here in the early ‘70s — I just can’t get myself to toss it out. Trust me, this classic scenic drive in Northern California creates priceless memories for kids, so be sure to bring the video camera.

Two people walk along a dirt path surrounded by towering, majestic redwood trees in a forest. The dense foliage and massive trunks create a lush, serene atmosphere, with sunlight filtering through the greenery. Ferns and other vegetation line the forest floor, reminiscent of scenic drives in Northern California.
Photo: Courtesy of Chmee2/Wikimedia Commons

Howland Hill Road, Crescent City

By far the most awe-inspiring and beautiful drive in California is hidden deep within Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near Crescent City. It’s called Howland Hill Road, and it’s a well-maintained gravel road that winds for a dozen miles through spectacular old-growth redwoods — considered by many to be one of the most beautiful areas in the world. It’s an unforgettable experience, cruising slowly through this ancient forest of massive redwoods and giant ferns.

To get here from Highway 101, turn right on Elk Valley Road at the south end of Crescent City, and follow it to Howland Hill Road, which will be on your right. After driving through the park, you’ll end up at U.S. 199 near Hiouchi, and from here it’s a short jaunt west to get back to Highway 101. Plan at least 2 to 3 hours for the 45-mile round-trip, or all day if you want to pull over and do some exploring on foot. 

A scenic view of the Pacific coastline with rugged cliffs and a lone tree perched on a rocky outcrop, reminiscent of the breathtaking scenic drives in Northern California. The ocean waves gently crash against the rocks, and distant mountains are partially obscured by soft mist under a partly cloudy sky. Verdant greenery frames the foreground.
Photo: Courtesy of niksnut/Wikimedia Commons

17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach

They say it’s one of those things every Californian must do at least once in his or her life — cruise 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach. Five entrances, manned by spiffy security guards adept at making change (the entrance fee is $10.75), lead into this fabled enclave that serves as home and playground of the absurdly wealthy. Though it can be whizzed through in about 30 minutes, two to three hours is about the average touring time. The toll fee includes a map and guide, but all that’s required to stay on course is to follow the dotted red line painted on the road.

Among its many “points of interest,” the most entertaining is Bird Rock, a small offshore isle covered with hundreds of seals and sea lions (bring binoculars). On your way out, celebrate your outing with a $18 top-shelf margarita at The Inn at Spanish Bay’s seaside cocktail lounge while pretending you can afford to stay here. 

An exterior of a brick building decorated with numerous red lanterns hanging from strings, celebrating a festive occasion. The building features traditional architectural elements, and a sign in the background reads "Theatres of China." The clear blue sky adds to the ambiance, reminiscent of scenic drives in Northern California.
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bedoya

49-Mile Drive, San Francisco

The self-guided 49-Mile Scenic Drive is a great excuse to spend the day discovering the fascinating history of San Francisco and its extraordinary setting. Beginning at City Hall, the drive follows a rough circle around the bay and passes virtually all the best-known sights, from Chinatown to the Golden Gate BridgeOcean BeachSeal RocksGolden Gate Park, and Twin Peaks. Originally designed for the benefit of visitors to San Francisco’s 1939 and 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, the route is marked by blue-and-white seagull signs.

Although you can complete the drive in half a day, the excursion can easily take longer if you decide, for example, to stop to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge or to have tea in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden. The San Francisco Visitor Information Center, at Powell and Market streets, distributes free route maps, which are handy since a few of the Scenic Drive marker signs are missing. 

A winding road cuts through a forest with green and vibrant yellow trees under a clear blue sky. Rocky mountains form the background, and sunlight highlights the autumn foliage. The scene is serene and picturesque, evoking a sense of peaceful journey through nature, typical of scenic drives in Northern California.
Photo: Courtesy of Go Calaveras

Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway

In my opinion Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway is the most scenic stretch of alpine highway in the state, especially in the fall when the thousands of Black Cottonwoods, Quaking Aspens, Mountain Dogwoods, and Big Leaf Maples become a blaze of colorful contrast against a verdant backdrop of evergreen pines.

The 64-mile Ebbetts Pass is anchored at either end by Calaveras Big Trees State Park (a must-visit) and Grover Hot Springs State Park to the northeast. It meanders along Highway 4 through the Stanislaus National Forest, offering endless photo opportunities along the way. For more information about Ebbets Pass, log onto, which covers everything you need to know about this wonderful road trip getaway. Tip: Murphys, my favorite small town in the Gold Country, makes an excellent home base for exploring Ebbetts Pass.

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