Northern California’s 6 Best Drives and Roadtrips: Shift’s Picks

For vacations in most states, you drive to the amusement. In California, the drive is the amusement.

Blessed with incredible terrain and highways that take advantage of it, California is a must-visit destination for any road tripper. In case the abundance of great driving has you indecisive about where to go, we’ve collected our six favorite drives in NorCal (we’ll hit SoCal next week).

Speaking of roadtrips, to celebrate peak driving season, Shift is giving away a BMW and dozens of others prizes to make your summer trip a lot better.

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1) The no-duh pick: Highway 1

If you’re coming to Northern California from out of town and only have a couple days on the road, this is a no-brainer. Classic California scenes of windy highways with unadulterated ocean views make this a breathtaking drive that you won’t regret taking. The only dilemma: if you’re starting from the San Francisco Bay Area, do you go south towards Big Sur or north towards Bodega Bay? With vistas like these, you won’t go wrong either way.

Protips:

  • Driving south, you’ll be on the right side of the road practically next to the water, so have the passengers get the camera ready.
  • Heavy winter rains have caused landslides, knocking out significant portions of Highway 1, so plan ahead.

HIGHWAY 1 VIEWS 🌊

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2) Close to the city: Skyline Drive

Between Woodside and Los Gatos, highway 35 hugs the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains and becomes a curvy tree-lined road fit for great weekend drives. A stone’s throw away from the city, you can head out in the morning, grab lunch at Alice’s (which becomes a de-facto car and motorcycle show on weekends), and be home in time for dinner all in the same day. Or better yet, continue down to Big Basin and drive through the old growth redwood forest that towers above.

Protip: On a clear day, pull off at the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve and climb to the nearby summit of the eponymous hill for an amazing 360 panorama. From one spot, you’ll catch peeks of San Jose to the south, San Francisco to the north, Oakland to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.


3) Where Whitney meets desert: Highway 395

The Eastern Sierras are so beautiful, I once broke down and got stranded along the 395 and didn’t even mind. Drive south from Lake Tahoe (or cut through Yosemite to see America’s most jaw dropping National Park) and watch the snow-capped Sierras on your right flatten out into the vast desert to your left.

Protip: For a surprisingly great rest stop, check out the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and have a picnic in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48.

Sometimes you just wonder where does this road end?

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4) Lassen to Shasta: Highway 44

It’s a long drive from San Francisco, but those traveling this far north will be rewarded with lush pine forests and occasional views of Mount Shasta in the distance. Head east from Redding and snake your way towards the Lassen National Forest area for great camping among the nearby natural wonders.

Some fog, some gloom, some lens flare..#lassenvolcanicnationalpark

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5) The Tahoe alternative: Ebbets Pass

While Lake Tahoe itself is beautiful, driving around the area is too traffic-laden to achieve the open road feeling you’re reading this for. If you’re looking for a great alpine drive, the better bet is to head south to highway 4 to Ebbet’s Pass, one of the most scenic routes in the mid-state national forests.

#fineart #stitchedpano #nikond810 #bearvalley #donnerpass

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6) Gold country: Highway 49

Put the old-world charm of gold country at your fingertips and take a couple of days to explore the foothill towns between Sonora and Auburn. Wineries and other attractions abound in the region, resulting in a choose-your-own-adventure that’ll leave you wishing for more vacation days.

Merced River-Bagby Bridge Hwy 49, Mariposa County, California #mercedriver #mariposa #bridge #highway49

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7) Honorable mention: I-280

(A.k.a. the commuter corridor the 101 wishes it was)

Whereas the 101 is a pothole-strewn stroke inducer, the Junipero Serra freeway is a gem of an interstate, with 22 miles of it designated state scenic highway. Connecting San Jose, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco, this traffic corridor is one you’d go out of your way to take to work. Six miles away, the 101 runs parallel to the 280, but in terms of drive quality, they’re worlds apart.

Drive by the Crystal Springs Reservoir, watch the fog roll over the Santa Cruz mountains, and marvel at the fact that, yes, you are in fact on an eight lane interstate. The best commute in the world? Tough to say, but certainly not the worst.

On #I280. My way of commuting everyday. Beautiful view all the way.

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Dishonorable mention: 17-Mile Drive

Yes, it’s a nice drive. But, like Paris Hilton, this drive is only famous for being famous. Why pay the $10 Pebble Beach toll to drive a short 30 minutes of the California coast when you can do it for free north and south of the area? If you’re only in this area and in a rush, it’s a good idea. Otherwise, save the money and put it towards post-drive drinks in Carmel-By-The-Sea.

One tree to rule them all

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So what’d we miss? Let us know your favorite drive in the comments below.

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