From the bustle of San Francisco to the great outdoors of Yosemite, Northern California is a wanderlust dream come true. It’s one of the only places you can eat at the trendiest restaurants and frolic through redwood forests, or tour wine country and explore old mining towns - all in the same day. A week doesn’t do it justice, but it’s just enough time to get a glimpse of the beauty and awe of Northern California.
Down by the Bay
We flew into Oakland, the up and coming city on the fringe of the Bay. There’s a reason why Oakland is called Brooklyn by the Bay; the blossoming tech scene and large art community are on the brink of a movement. Foodies flock from all over the country to get a taste of the street eats and fine dining. More affordable than its sister city across the Bay, Oakland is the place where a starving artist won’t actually starve. Travel at the beginning of the month to make it to First Fridays, a monthly art festival held in the KONO district.
There are a few ways to get to Yosemite and plenty of tiny towns to explore on the way. We drove through Oakdale, the Cowboy Capital of the World. While this wasn’t my first rodeo, it could be yours. Moving up through the mountains we stopped for brunch at Priest Station Cafe in Groveland. Originally a miner’s supply store in 1853, it’s now in its sixth generation of family ownership. The sky was clear with a beautiful view of endless mountaintops. I ordered the Priest Ranch omelette, stuffed with sausage, bell peppers, onions, and cheese.
Driving through Yosemite is breathtaking. Known for its waterfalls, it boasts the tallest cascades in North America, Yosemite Falls. We trekked a challenging hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls, climbing steep granite steps to each drop. Dipping your feet into the ice cold water is a chilly reward after hiking such a sharp incline.
We stayed in Curry Village, a campground in the center of Yosemite Valley. Everything about Curry Village is old school, from the classic canvas tents to the original wooden sign above the campgrounds. Since the beginning of the 20th century it’s been a tourist destination in the park. Think of it as a summer camp for adults. The mess hall serves cafeteria-style food as well as coffee, pizza, and alcohol. Be sure to try the local brew Half Dome California Wheat after a long day’s hike.
Spend the bulk of your time in Yosemite to get the full experience. With over 800 miles of hiking trails, there’s a lot to see. Get misted by giant waterfalls or climb soaring granite domes. Hike to Glacier Point and get a magnificent view of many of the Valley’s landmarks including Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and Clouds Rest. On your way out of Yosemite, grab a beer at California’s oldest saloon, Iron Door Saloon in Groveland.
When in Northern California, a stop at a winery - or two - is essential. We made our way to Grgich Hills Estate after being recommended by a friend to come for the grape stomping. Getting in a giant wooden bucket and stomping grapes into wine was only a dream on my bucket list under yesterday. Of course, no one will actually drink it, but the experience alone was worth my red stained feet.
When you’re slightly buzzed in Napa Valley, a fully loaded gourmet burger from Gott’s Roadside is the perfect hang over preventative. I ate the Western Bacon Blue Ring in its entirety; a burger topped with an onion ring, blue cheese, bacon, pickles, red onion and BBQ sauce. With chili fries. And a root beer float.
The Golden City
Get a full day in San Francisco. If you’re an incessant planner, you booked your tickets to Alcatraz weeks ago and will spend half the day on the tour. If you procrastinate like me, you’ve missed your opportunity to see the notorious prison, as tickets sell out way in advance. So then it’s off to a bike rental and a ride on Golden Gate Bridge.
Spend some time in one of the many eclectic neighborhoods in the city. Whether it’s the open markets of Chinatown or the nightclubs in SoMa, seafood on Fisherman’s Wharf or sassy dive bars in Nob Hill, explore and experience each area’s cultural diversity. We spent an evening in the city’s gayborhood, The Castro. Queer identity is celebrated everywhere, from erotic bakeries to rainbow crosswalks. Being a chocoholic, I couldn’t resist a brownie from Hot Cookie, aptly named the Fudge Packer. An unsuccessful hour wait for dinner at Anchor Oyster Bar led us to dinner at Oz Pizza with slices of fig and goat cheese with bacon being my favorite.
We watched our last California sunset at Ina Coolbrith Park. Named after a prominent literary figure in the Bay Area, the park sits perched on top of the steep Russian Hill and remains a hidden gem with a killer view of the city. The winding paths up the hillside make it feel like a secret garden. There we enjoyed the glittering bridge and skyline with the fading backdrop.