When people think of all the things to do in Northern California they often just consider the landmark destinations like San Francisco and the Napa wine tasting country. However, a little further afield up the California coast lies Redding and UpState California. This area is often dubbed “the real northern California”, which is the vast area north of Sacramento all the way up to the Oregon border. This area features dramatic waterfalls, redwood forests, adorable welcoming towns and a host of other northern California attractions.
I’ve explored much of this beautiful state in the almost 20 years I have lived here, including parts of UpState California, but the area between Muir Woods and the Redwoods (because my brain thinks in terms of national parks apparently!) proved elusive. When Visit California asked what area I would like to explore in partnership with their #Kidifornia series, I jumped at the chance to finally make my way to the true northern California region to check out the natural beauty of the area’s national parks as well as the main adventure hub of Redding. Now that I have visited, I have to share my love of the area and help put this amazing region on your radar too!
Keep reading to find out our favorite things to do in northern California from north of San Francisco up to Redding and even further UpState California.
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Top Things To Do in Northern California Near Redding & Upstate
The first stop for most visitors to Redding, California is to the city’s landmark attraction, the Sundial Bridge. The Sundial Bridge is meant as an avenue for bicycles and pedestrians to cross the Sacramento River. It is a popular starting point to visits in the city due to it being the center of several top attractions in Redding.
One one end of the bridge is Turtle Bay Exploration Park, while on the other end is the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Garden. The bridge also serves as a hub for the Sacramento River Trail system, which is a 35 mile long trail for hiking and biking, extending along the river all the way to the Shasta Dam. If you want to make this area your hub, consider a stay at the newly built Sheraton Hotel.
Turtle Bay Exploration Park
While you are at the Sundial Bridge, make some time for Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Turtle Bay is a museum, a wildlife center, a playground and a space for education. My son absolutely adored this place. At first he thought it was just geared towards younger kids, but within minutes he was sold and didn’t ever want to leave.
The park has daily animal shows which are cute and hilarious (Spoiler: the skunk steals the show!) a butterfly garden (in spring) and a lorikeet enclosure where the adorable little birds will climb all over you if you invest in a $1 cup of their food.
In addition, there are various playground areas for open ended water and sand/rock play as well as places for kids to challenge their bodies physically. It is the perfect place to spend the day in Redding. If you need some lunch, head over to Mosaic at the Sheraton, just on edge of the park for delicious eats.
Shasta State Historic Park (Old Shasta)
We are obsessed with visiting ghost towns in California so had to make a quick stop at Shasta State Historic Park on the highway to Whiskeytown. Old Shasta is a great place to explore to get a feel of how life would have been in the old gold rush days.
Visitors can walk through the historic courthouse and jail, checking out interactive displays and movies. There are staff available if you have questions, but overall, it’s relatively hands off, so you can explore at your own pace.
The complex also features the remains of several other buildings, old equipment and related items providing visitors an up close view of how life was then. Definitely a great way to spend an hour or so en route to/from the lake.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
People come to Upstate California for Lassen or keep on going further north to the Redwoods, but what they need to do is come for Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Whiskeytown is beloved by the locals, but so few visitors take the time to really explore the area.
With several hiking trails from easy to difficult, an abundance of waterfalls as well as several beaches to relax on, you can easily spend a few days here soaking up the beautiful surroundings.
But the absolute best activity offered here are the free ($1.50 reservation fee) kayak tours provided by the park’s rangers. We have visited a ton of national park sites and have never come across something as cool as this. You will need to book these in advance as they do fill up quickly.
Whiskeytown also offers a really unique junior ranger program for kids that focuses on the fire fighting rangers. If kids participate in the weekly session and/or complete the fire ranger booklet, they will get their very own fire ranger patch. We were so in love with this park and highly recommend you make time for it on your visit to Upstate California.
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
One of the most picturesque waterfalls in a region known for waterfalls is Burney Falls. This is a must visit if you love hiking, nature and waterfalls. Not the tallest waterfall in the state, however it is often said to be one of California’s most beautiful. I haven’t seen them all, but I have to agree it is one of the most beautiful falls I have seen.
The falls can easily be seen almost directly from the parking area at the overlook, however to really experience them in their vastness, take the short 1/3 hike down the paved path. To extend your time here even more, head out on the Falls Loop trail which is about 1.3 miles total. This hike takes you up and over the falls (you can’t see them though) and back around to the parking area. With over 5 miles of hiking trails, campsites and a lake, you could easily spend a day or two here soaking up the beauty.
Admission to the park can be tricky on weekends or holidays. If there are no available parking spots, the doors essentially close, leaving a long line of cars waiting on the highway. Lesson – arrive early! This also allows you to explore the falls and take photos without the masses.
Subway Cave Lava Tube
The Subway Cave Lava Tube, located outside of Lassen National Park and only 25 minutes from Burney Falls is one of the most easily accessible lava caves in the world. It is also one of the coolest I have personally seen. The entire trail is only about 1/3 of a mile, so most anyone can do this.
While inside the cave you will stumble (literally!) across the self guided tour signage pointing out some of the coolest features of the cave. Even if you miss some of these, it is an amazing experience to be walking in a tube where lave once flowed.
Even though the trail itself is easy, it is pitch black inside and the ground is quite uneven. It is imperative to have a strong high powered flashlight to really get the most out of your experience. We did not heed those warnings and brought wimpy lights with us which meant we spent more of our time in the dark than seeing the cool formations!
Make sure to bring a light jacket as well since it’s cool year round. The cave is only open from October, so plan accordingly.
Lake Shasta Caverns National Natural Landmark
The Lake Shasta Caverns are a must visit when visiting Upstate California. Just getting to the caverns is an adventure as you must take a boat across the beautifully tinted lake before boarding a bus to take you to the caverns. While waiting to board your bus and/or boat, keep your eyes peeled as you just might see some local wildlife. We saw several hawks and even a bald eagle during our visit.
One you arrive to the caverns, you are taken on a guided tour through the cave system up and down over 600 stairs along the way, with some very steep stair climbs included. Overall, anyone of general fitness can do the tour, but smaller kids will need to be carried as strollers are not allowed.
Note: Backpacks are also not allowed at all, so you will need to carry a small purse with your water, snacks and camera. The temperatures remains a constant 58 degrees year round, however with the high level of humidity it actually feels 68-70 degrees. We did not require jackets, but bring a long sleeve just in case.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
A bit further afield from Redding, but still doable as a day trip is Lassen Volcanic National Park. This is one of California’s 9 National Parks in the state. Also one of the least visited, mainly due to the short season that it is open. The two visitor centers on either end of the park are accessible for much of the season, however, the main road running through the park opens at different times each year depending on the snow fall. In 2017 the road didn’t open fully until July.
Lassen National Park is an amazing place to visit as it is one of the only places in the world to showcase the 4 types of volcanoes as well as many hydrothermal features such as steam vents, mud pots and more. For visitors with a short amount of time, you can hike around Manzanita Lake, drive through the park stopping at various self guided tour signage and pop into Sulfur Works to see a boiling mud pot in action. This is a must visit if you are in the vicinity!
Where to Stay in Redding & Upstate California
Upstate California has an abundance of places to stay, however most tend to be either camping sites out in nature or chain hotels in the town of Redding itself. During our visit we stayed at the TownePlace Suites in Redding which was perfect for our visit. We had a one bedroom suite that included a kitchen with a full size refrigerator, a work space for me and plenty of room for my little one to run around. In a town of mostly chain hotels, this Marriott owned hotel is a great choice.
If we had been able to book our visit earlier, I would have also checked out the Drakesbad Guest Ranch near Lassen as well as the cabins at Manzanita Lake. You can’t go wrong staying in Redding however as there are a lot of great local restaurants to eat at after your day of explorations in the region. Some of our favorites were: Corbett’s for a delicious diner breakfast, Cinder’s Wood Fire Pizza for unique flavored pizza and Mosaic for killer weekend brunch options.
Have you been to Upstate California? Do you have some favorite nature-scapes that we missed?
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