1. Yosemite National Park
If there were just one reason to go inland in California, it would be Yosemite National Park. The massive wilderness area covers almost 1,200 square miles across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and is full of obscenely beautiful natural eye-candy: towering granite cliffs and domes, jagged peaks, waterfalls, sunshine-filled meadows, and groves of giant sequoias.
You’re free to simply putter around the village on beach cruisers or walk to easy-to-access waterfalls and viewpoints — but it doesn’t end there. You can hike seven miles, then tackle the cables on Half Dome to climb 4,737 feet straight up a steep granite slope above the valley floor, before hiking another seven miles back. Actual rock climbers can head to vertical rock formations like El Capitan for some of the most challenging and photo-op worthy climbing around. And then of course there are whole other sections of the park and ample wilderness beyond, making Yosemite a starting point for exploring the region at large, including via the John Muir Trail.
2. Hiking the John Muir Trail
The John Muir Trail passes through the best of what the inland Northern California wilderness is all about. Most backpackers like to start their trek in Yosemite, then head down through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, and finally down into Sequoia National Park to end atop Mount Whitney. Yes, you’re ending a 210-mile hike at the summit of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States — which means you’ve still got 11 miles to go until you can finally hit the showers and feast on something that’s not dehydrated.
Even if backpacking anywhere from 20 to 30 days (depending on how heavy your pack is, how far you travel each day, and how long you spend admiring your surroundings) isn’t necessarily on your bucket list, the payoff of the John Muir Trail arguably makes every blister, sunburn, and freezing-cold soapless lake bath absolutely worth it. Highlights include spending the hottest parts of the day relaxing on the shores of the best-looking lakes in the Sierra, a visit to the geologically bizarre Devil’s Postpile National Monument, three solid weeks with no cell service anywhere, and sweeping views of mountain peaks in every direction.
3. Going farm-to-fork in Sacramento
Within a one-hour radius of Sacramento, there exists a diversity of crops that far exceeds most other cities in the state. Because of its location right smack in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Foothills, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Capay Valley, Sacramento is surrounded by agricultural land, including thousands of acres of “boutique” farmland.
Capitalizing on the largest Certified Farmers’ Market in California, Sacramento restaurants (try The Kitchen, Ella, Magpie, or Mulvaney’s) have been working with local farmers to produce menus that highlight seasonal and locally grown ingredients year-round. The city also hosts a farm-to-fork celebration each fall that gives visitors a chance to experience the quality of local small farms and ranches and puts the spotlight on Sacramento’s pool of talented local chefs.
4. Burney Falls
Just off the Pacific Crest Trail, Burney Falls isn’t quite the tallest or most famous waterfall in inland Northern California, but it’s absolutely worth the trek. After about an hour of windy mountain driving from Redding and into McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, the waterfalls will be visible right from the parking lot. There’s an easily walkable paved trail to the base of the falls, along with other trails that lead around the falls and to the nearby lake.
The waterfall itself is just about 129 feet high, but additional water trickles between the rocks from various springs, creating an impressive wall of water that cascades into the basin below.
5. Putting together an epic brewery tour
California’s full of beer cities — San Diego, for example, is one of the top microbrew destinations in the country, if not the world. But inland Northern California also has its share of epic small-town microbreweries to explore.
Grab a designated driver and start your tour in Mammoth Lakes with a flight at the Mammoth Brewing Company — their seasonals are always innovative, delicious, and sometimes super-strong (Bourbon Barrel Aged Blondibock, I’m looking at you). From there, head up to South Lake Tahoe to try Stateline Brewery‘s Acclimator West Coast IPA. On your way north, stop in Truckee at the Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co‘s tasting room. They’ve often got interesting saisons and barrel-aged sours flavored with seasonal and locally produced ingredients, like their peach Récolte Du Bois. Also worth a stop in Truckee, the FiftyFifty Brewing Co has outstanding beers on tap, like their Eclipse Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout.
For something totally different, the Brewing Lair in Blairsden brews great beers in a setting that encourages you to basically stay forever. Drink while disc golfing, running around with your dog, picnicking, or curling up with a book under the trees. After a tour of the brewery and a pint of their Incognito Saison, head west to Chico to round the tour off with something completely expected: the Sierra Nevada brewery. Here, you can take a tour of their mega-operation, take a sniff inside their hop freezer, and even sneak a few tastes straight from the tank.
6. Bodie State Historic Park
There are remnants of the California Gold Rush all over inland Northern California, but none as well preserved as Bodie State Historic Park. Established in the 1870s, Bodie was known for its violent, lawless reputation — the legend is that a murder happened on the streets of Bodie daily. The population rose to approximately 10,000 before mining died down and the town was eventually abandoned.
Today, the streets of Bodie are walkable, and a small part of the town survives in a state of arrested decay. There’s a church, cemetery, the big mill, a few saloons and other businesses, residences, a bunch of melty cars, and a cool-looking bank safe all still fully explorable. Even the interiors of the remaining buildings are as they once were, with their original contents and relics scattered around.
In the summertime, it’s insanely hot. In the wintertime, you need a snowmobile to access the area. Choose your ideal time to visit, and don’t forget to pack your dog. The park is pet friendly.
7. Sunbathing on the beach at Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of inland Northern California’s most universally loved destinations year-round. I’ve never met a single person who doesn’t love Tahoe — because they don’t actually exist. The lake itself is one of the deepest in the country, with water so clear and clean you can see 70 feet straight down. And, due to some scientific light-spectrum eye-trickery, it has the bluest shades of cobalt and turquoise I’ve ever seen in a body of water.
In the winter, there are 15 ski resorts in the vicinity for downhill skiing and riding, plus hundreds of miles of backcountry trails for snowshoeing and nordic skiing. Once the snow melts, the lake becomes the center of recreation for boaters, wakeboarders, kayakers, and stand-up paddlers. After a dip in the lake, stretch out on the sand at Kiva Beach to thaw out and admire the mountain views.
8. Wine tasting in Lodi
Over 100,000 acres of vineyards, and California’s #1 producer of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes — no, it’s not Napa. Not only is Lodi producing several of the California wines you’re probably already buying and drinking, they’ve had over 100 years to perfect it. There are several hundred separate grape growers in the area (most produce grapes for larger winemakers), the oldest of which has been operating since 1886. Eighty-five have now built wineries to convert their own grapes into wine, all at a fraction of the price, pretentiousness, and frills of their coastal counterparts.
The area is particularly known for its Zinfandels and the interesting things winemakers are doing with Spanish and Portuguese grapes. Try the Old Vine Zin from Klinker Brick, the Dancing Fox Petite Sirah, or the Oak Farm Malbec for the best of the region’s reds. But on a hot day, a glass of the Albariño from Jeremy Wine Company, sipped on their patio in downtown Lodi, is pretty tough to beat.
9. Exploring the Mono Lake tufas
Located near Lee Vining outside the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake is one of the strangest places in the state. The high alkalinity and salt level (2.5 times as salty as the ocean) means fish can’t survive here, but trust that when you look out across the “dead” lake, you’re looking at a lot of life — huge populations of alkali flies carpet parts of the shoreline, and trillions of brine shrimp (you may know them as sea monkeys) swim under the surface, feeding on even huger populations of algae that thrive in the mineral-rich, sun-warmed water. Millions of transient birds use the area as a rest stop, and 90% of California’s seagull population comes here to nest.
But the most interesting features of Mono Lake are its tufa towers. Tufas are created when minerals in the water combine with carbonates from underwater springs, forming gigantic limestone towers. As the water level in the lake dropped over time, the tufas poked up and over the surface, forming the crazy sandcastle-y landscape you see today, especially on the south shore. If you can hack it, the best views here happen at sunrise.