If there’s any corner of the country that’s famous for being absolutely beautiful, it’s California. In Southern California, you’ve got the rolling, emerald hills, and world-famous beaches, but Northern California is an entirely different world. With all the wonders you could possibly imagine all in one place, from canyons and waterfalls to incredible overlooks, jaw-dropping beaches, intensely beautiful geological wonders, and more, NorCal is like something ripped right out of the pages of a fantasy novel. Come explore all the natural wonders in Northern California with us – maybe you’ll find something you’ve never discovered before.
Best Gorges & Canyons In Northern California
There is certainly no shortage of
gorges and canyons in the United States, but how lucky are we that many of those jaw-dropping features exist here in Northern California? Of all the countless natural wonders in Northern California, the gorges and canyons are among the most inspiring. Check out three of our favorite gorges and canyons in NorCal; you never know which ones you have yet to discover. 1. Fern Canyon
Fern Canyon, California 95555, USA
Location: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Gold Bluff Beach, California Wow Factor: Canyons are already awesome enough, but apparently, they increase in awesomeness when you cover them from top to bottom in greenery and ferns. Cost: $12 cash/check (no cards are accepted) for day use; pay at the Gold Bluff Beach kiosk
Hikers, this first one’s for you!
is one of the most beautiful hiking destinations in all of California (as well as one of the best natural wonders in Northern California), and thanks to recent changes to the admittance system, you can expect a less-crowded, quieter experience while you’re here. If you want to visit between May 15th and September 15th, you’ll need to
apply for a permit
, which is free – and totally worth the effort! If you’ve never experienced redwood trees and/or the redwood forests... you haven’t lived.
2. The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne
Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, California, USA
Location: Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne County, California Wow Factor: Honestly, just the fact that it’s within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park is enough to tell you what to expect: incredible, science-fiction-looking scenery unlike anywhere else. If you want to get away from crowds in Yosemite – which is not easy – consider a backpacking trip to one of the most beautiful, lesser-known regions of the park like the Grand Canyon of Tuolumne. Cost: Entrance passes to Yosemite National Park range from $20 to $35; on top of this, you’ll have to reserve a Wilderness Permit, which can be done up to 24 weeks in advance. There is a limited number of permits issued, so the further out, the better your chances of getting one.
One does not simply discuss natural wonders in Northern California without ever mentioning Yosemite! Few places are as legendarily jaw-dropping as the must-visit Yosemite National Park. In terms of crowds, it’s almost always busy, but there’s a reason for this – it's home to some of the most incredible landscapes in the world, including the wonders of the
Grand Canyon of Tuolumne.
Along the way you’ll encounter awesome geological wonders, epic views, and, of course, the whole “canyon” thing. It’s a must-do for anyone hoping to explore the multitudes of wonders across North America.
3. Glen Canyon
Glen Canyon Park, Elk St and, Chenery St, San Francisco, CA 94127, USA
Location: Glen Canyon Park, San Francisco, California Wow Factor: While technically a “city park”, Glen Canyon Park is adjacent to the canyon of the same name, which is incredibly photogenic. The park is 70 acres of some of NorCal’s most jaw-dropping views, and it’s easy to access, which makes it EXTRA awesome. Cost: As with all the best things in life, free Glen Canyon
is so outrageously beautiful that it’s tough to believe it’s technically a
in the Bay Area. It looks and feels much more remote, and Glen Canyon itself is definitely worthy of checking out and making a day (or more) of it. The canyon is known as a Significant Natural Resource Area, with gorgeous wildflowers and killer views on clear days. With just under four miles of awe-inspiring trails weaving all over the place, you’re sure to be amazed at all the wonders Glen Canyon has to offer. Be sure to check out the Golden Gate Bridge while in the Frisco area, too.
Best Caves In Northern California
Fun fact: There are no less than 1,000 known and named caves in California, and a good portion of those are
awesome caves in Northern California. Sure, every explorable cave in the whole state is worth your time… but there’s a lot, so let’s focus on NorCal for now. We promise, there’s no shortage of caves for spelunking up here. Come out and see some of our favorites – you could even make a road trip out of it. 4. Moaning Cavern
Moaning Caverns Adventure Park, 5350 Moaning Cave Rd, Vallecito, CA 95251, USA
Location: Vallecito, California Wow Factor: Did you know California is home to the single largest cave chamber in California, the wow factor is strong with this one. The chamber is so large that it could fit the entire Statue of Liberty inside... with room to spare. If that’s not the coolest thing ever, we don’t know what is. Cost: Ranges from $17 to $130 depending on which tour you choose and/or the ages of the persons the ticket(s) are for. Moaning Cavern
was discovered in the mid-1800s and named as such thanks to creepy, human-like moaning noises the chambers occasionally emanated when conditions were right. Today, you can ascend an awesome spiral staircase straight down... down... down into the depths, where you’ll learn all about the hows and whys of this place. If you weren’t already fascinated by the geology of Northern California, once you leave here you probably will be.
5. The Catacombs
Lava Beds National Monument, 1 Indian Well, Tulelake, CA 96134, USA
Location: Lava Beds National Monument, Tulelake, California Wow Factor: The 65,000+-year-old lava tube caves roaming around underneath this amazing mountain range are the stars of the show; with 20+ caves to check out, it’s not for the faint of heart – or those afraid of the dark. Anyone who ventures in, however, is rewarded with some of the coolest spelunking in the nation right here in our own backyard. Cost: A standard entrance pass ranges from $15 to $25 depending on needs.
The Catacombs is another name for the
lava tube caves in Northern California
at the Lava Beds National Monument. It’s as dark as it is beautiful and intriguing. You’ll want to bring water, a flashlight, and very sturdy shoes; volcanic rock can be sharp. Up for a challenge? Try getting through this entire epic cave system from start to finish; once you’re done, you get to sign a book to mark how awesome you are.
6. Black Chasm Cavern
Black Chasm Cavern National Natural Landmark, 15701 Pioneer Volcano Rd, Volcano, CA 95689, USA
Location: Black Chasm Cavern National Natural Landmark, Volcano, California Wow Factor: Everyone knows about stalactites and stalagmites, but most of ‘em don’t know about helictites. These formations are strange-looking, helical oddities that grow in every direction, and Black Chasm Cavern is one of less than 5% of the caves on Earth that contain them. This is a unique adventure unlike any other you’ve ever been on. Could this be one of the strangest natural wonders in Northern California? Maybe, but it's worth it. Cost: Folks 13 and up are $20, kids ages five to 12 are $12, and little ones under five are always free. Black Chasm Cavern
is an epic cave found near the town of Volcano that’s known for its exceedingly rare formations and its utterly fascinating story. A long time ago, this area was extensively mined using a technique called hydraulic mining; as a result, topsoil was carried off via Sutter Creek, exposing some truly epic marble monoliths you’re not likely to forget. If you’re feeling brave, feel free to book a one-of-a-kind spelunking expedition. Spelunkers must be eight years old or older, so please keep this in mind while planning.
Best Waterfalls In Northern California
If you ask anyone what they think about when they think of this region, chances are at least a few of them will say something about the absolutely amazing
waterfalls in Northern California – maybe even by name. Truth is, the waterfalls up here are world-class; they’re the kind of cascades that end up on Top Ten lists for the whole planet. Here are a couple of NorCal waterfalls that are 100% bucket list worthy for natives, locals, and visitors alike. 7. Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Village, CA 95389, USA
Location: Yosemite National Park, California Wow Factor: Easily the most photographed waterfall in the park, and a bucketlist item for many! Cost: Standard entrance passes cost anywhere from $20 to $35. Extra fees might apply for campgrounds and permits as needed. Yosemite Falls
is an incredibly photogenic waterfall that technically consists of three cascades: Upper, Middle, and Lower Yosemite Falls. Altogether, this incredible waterfall is 2,425 feet tall, and it remains one of Yosemite National Park’s most beloved natural monuments. The entire park is known for its absolutely awesome waterfalls, but this one is THE must-see if – once again – you can only do one. Obviously, while you’re here, you 100% need to explore the whole park if you can. It’s enormous, so you’ll need more than one day, but we promise: it’ll be one of the most amazing experiences of your life.
8. Alamere Falls
Alamere Falls, California 94924, USA
Location: Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California Wow Factor: If this waterfall doesn’t amaze you, nothing ever will. This cascade is special: it’s a very rare type of waterfall – one made of freshwater that pours continually into the sea, becoming one with the ocean. It’s surreal in its intense beauty. The Pacific Ocean has never been so awe-inspiring... except maybe at Big Sur. Maybe. Cost: Free
Alamere Falls is something special. Honestly, you’ll never find anything else like it in all of California – let alone the whole west coast. It’s worth noting that this waterfall is not easy to access; you’ll definitely have to work for it. Should you take the legendary
, it’s four miles until you can see the falls at all, making it about eight miles out-and-back... but we promise it’s worth every ounce of effort. Alamere Falls is an amazing 40 feet tall, plunging into the ocean for longer than any of us have been – or will ever be – here.
9. Burney Falls
Burney Falls, California 96013, USA
Location: McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, Shasta County, California Wow Factor: If you visit this one in the spring or early summer, you're in for a treat! Cost: Day use is $10 per vehicle; overnight camping is $35 per night for one vehicle – the $10 day use fee is only paid once, not per day.
Burney Falls is one of the most absurdly
beautiful waterfalls in Northern California
. It’s no wonder why it makes it onto “best of” lists dozens of times a year; it’s one waterfall in California you can’t possibly pass up seeing. The best time to visit is during the late spring and all through summer; the falls have a total height of 114 feet, and boy, they’re photogenic. It’s fun to note that this waterfall is quite wide, which is unique when compared to the other two on this list. See it to believe it!
Best Overlooks and Scenic Vistas In Northern California
What would paradise be without a couple of incredibly surreal overlooks? As it just so happens to be, there are a number of must-see
scenic vistas in Northern California and, like everything on this list, each and every one is worthy of a day trip (or longer). If you want to climb to the top of the world and look out over the rest, you ought to start with these purely epic NorCal vistas. 10. Mount Tamalpais
Mount Tamalpais, Mt Tamalpais, California 94941, USA
Location: Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley, California Wow Factor: With utterly incredible views from multiple points throughout the park, there’s nothing about this place you won’t love. To say you’re on top of the world here is a bit of an understatement. Cost: Free, although the East Peak, Pantoll and Bootjack parking areas all have affordable parking fees. Mount Tamalpais
is the highest mountain in Marin County. On clear days, you’ll be amazed what you can see: there’s the Farallon Islands 25 miles out to sea, the Marin County hills, San Francisco Bay, the East Bay, and even Mount Diablo. Seriously, if you want a view, this one’s a
. Once you’ve had your fill of all the things you can see from a distance, you’ll find yourself immersed in a stunning California state park where towering redwoods, gorgeous canyons, oak woodlands, grasslands, and so much more. Bring your camera... you’ll need it.
11. Muir Beach Overlook
Muir Beach Overlook, Parking lot, Muir Beach Overlook, Muir Beach, CA 94965, USA
Location: Muir Beach, California Wow Factor: View the Point Reyes Peninsula and other points of the west coast that are so awe-inspiring and vast that once upon a time it was used as a lookout point for the San Francisco Bay coastal defense system to spot approaching ships as they appeared on the horizon. Nowadays, it’s a lot more pleasant and peaceful with jaw-dropping overlook points you’ll never forget. Cost: Free!
Often overlooked in favor of nearby Stinson Beach (which, honestly, is ALSO one of those must-see natural wonders in Northern California),
is much beloved among locals but a totally awesome secret for everyone else. It’s never terribly crowded, so you’ll probably be ultra-tempted to check it out and dip your toes in the water once you’ve looked over all of it from the various lookout points of the Muir Beach Overlook.
12. High Bluff Overlook
High Bluff Overlook, California 95548, USA
Location: Redwood National Park, California Wow Factor: The Californian coastline is utterly incredible, and High Bluff Overlook is absolutely one of the finest lookouts in the nation. Plus, it’s more than just a cool lookout point: you can also learn all about the distinctive geology of the area thanks to the interpretive exhibit onsite. Cost: Free – there are no fees to get into Redwood National Park. Score!
Speaking of natural wonders in Northern California, this one's just a 15-minute detour from Highway 101 and is an incredible testament to just how amazing the west coast is, part of which is the legendary
High Bluff Overlook.
The view from the vista is absolutely incredible, but so are the wildlife viewing opportunities – view eagles and even the occasional whale from one of the best vistas in the state.
Best Rock Formations In Northern California
No getaway in NorCal is complete without the natural beauty that is must-see rock formations. Science geeks will agree: the
geology of Northern California is intensely unique and absolutely awe-inspiring, both visually and scientifically speaking. It’s like no matter where you turn, you’re sure to find some sort rock formation or landmark that’ll blow your mind. Some of our favorite rock formations in Northern California are the more famous, obvious ones, but there are a few others we love just because they’re a little less-trodden; some of these include: 13. The Tufa Towers
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, US-395, Lee Vining, CA 93541, USA
Location: Mono Lake, California Wow Factor: The famous Tufa Towers were formed long, long ago when calcium-carbonate spires and knobs were molded by the interaction of freshwater springs with alkaline lake water, and the results are absolutely jaw-dropping and almost alien-looking! Explore the lake by kayak or canoe for the best views! Who needs to be out boating Lake Tahoe when you’ve got Mono Lake instead? Cost: $3 per adult; kids 16 and under are free.
What can be said about these utterly amazing
natural wonders in Northern California
that hasn’t already been said a million times? Truly, words like “incredible”, “amazing” and “stunning” just don’t seem to do this beautifully bizarre landscape any justice. Mono Lake is near Yosemite, so you know it’s going to be totally epic; the geology is both strange and beautiful, like something from another world, and you’re sure to find yourself intrigued by it. Come out and see!
14. Devil’s Postpile
Devils Postpile National Monument, Devils Postpile Road, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546, USA
Location: Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California Wow Factor: This is a very unusual rock formation near Mammoth Mountain that’s sure to amaze. If you’ve ever been to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, this one’s very similar visually, though it’s made from different material and processes. Cost: Free – no entrance pass required Devil’s Postpile National Monument
is one of those wonders that’s gotta be seen to be believed. An incredible example of what’s called columnar basalt, this landscape is fairly rare and only occurs in a few places on Earth. You’ll be amazed at this unique formation and its odd appearance – especially when you climb to the top and realize the columns are near-perfect hexagonal shapes. It is worth noting that the Devil’s Postpile National Monument roads close for the winter and although the monument is open year-round, it can only be accessed by snowshoeing once the roads are out. It is NOT recommended for those who are inexperienced with backcountry snowshoeing. But for those accustomed to rugged outdoor adventure, this one’s a good’n. This isn't JUST a natural wonder in Northern California; it's a natural wonder, period.
15. Pinnacles National Park... All of It
Pinnacles National Park, California 95043, USA
Location: Salinas Valley, California Wow Factor: Unusual rock formations abound at this awesome National Park, where you can hike numerous amazing trails for up-close and personal encounters with your surroundings. Definitely bring the camera for this one – it's one you’ll never want to forget. Cost: A standard entrance pass ranges from $15 to $30. Pinnacles National Park
is nothing short of a Golden State natural wonder. Its unusual geology lends it an otherworldy, almost sci-fi kind of feel, and its beauty is unmatched. It can get quite hot during the day, so make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you plan on hiking. The landscape is harsh, but it’s beautiful in the strangest ways; we suspect you’ll love it here (especially the rock and mineral obsessed).
Unique Natural Wonders in Northern California
But wait! There’s more! There are a couple of awe-inspiring
natural wonders in Northern California so unique that not mentioning them in this article would feel like some sort of crime, so we’ve designated this special little space for exactly that. Some other wonders of NorCal worthy of exploration include some truly off-the-wall places. Who knew California’s natural world gets so odd? Well, now you do – so go explore it. 16. Bowling Ball Beach
Bowling Ball Beach, California 95468, USA
Location: Schooner Gulch State Beach, Mendocino County, California Wow Factor: Have you ever heard of concretions? They’re highly unusual, nearly perfectly round rock formations found in only a few spots on the planet... including right here. This is a jaw-droppingly strange natural wonder in Northern California you'll be spellbound by. Cost: The coolest thing you’ll ever see for free Bowling Ball Beach
has kind of a funny name, don’t you think? But it’s definitely no laughing matter – its awesomeness is indeed quite serious. Okay, but really – how cool is this? Bowling Ball Beach is called this thanks to the large rock concretions that resemble bowling balls that appear during low tide. Formed over millions of years, you can find this bizarre beach just three miles off Highway 1 in Point Arena. Check for when low tide is before you go – you can only see the concretions when the tide is out.
17. Bumpass Hell
Bumpass Hell, Mineral, CA 96063, USA
Location: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mineral, California Wow Factor: You don’t need to go to Yosemite or Yellowstone for hydrothermal shenanigans; Bumpass Hell is honestly super cool, despite its strange name. You’ll find a little of everything thermal here: mud pots, boiling springs, fumaroles, you name it. This one’s a must-do. Cost: Bumpass Hell is free, but you must pay to enter Lassen Volcanic National Park. Entry fees range from $10 to $30. Bumpass Hell
is more than just a weird name: it’s an experience. One that can be... kind of gnarly, if you’re the guy the area is named after. His name was Kendall Bumpass, and he decided to call the area Hell because, well, he lost a leg after accidentally punching through a thin portion of crust and right into a boiling mud pot. YIKES. That being said, this place is truly amazing in so many ways; geothermal places are just the coolest (not literally though). Be incredibly safe and stay on designated hiking trails while you’re here... don’t be a Bumpass.
18. Glass Beach
Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, USA
Location: Fort Bragg, California Wow Factor: This is not your average beach. Nope – instead of normal sand covering the coastline, here, you’ll find incredibly beautiful, colorful, rounded glass. Collecting here is illegal, but enjoying it is perfectly fine. This might be one of the strangest - but most enchanting - natural wonders in Northern California. Cost: Free
Did you know there’s a famous
Glass Beach in California
? It’s true. Formed over many decades thanks to being churned about in the water, the stunning crystal-clear waters spitting up the glass “pebbles” that make up this beach are mostly clear, white, or green – though many other colors can be found if you look. Do be careful, though – occasionally, there is still sharp glass that washes up on this shore. This glass has, obviously, not yet been eroded to the point of rounding out, and it’s still dangerous. That being said, there’s nothing quite as awesome as chilling on a glass beach. Who needs sand, anyway?
When it comes to truly incredible, cinematically beautiful American landscapes that you’ll never forget, it doesn’t get more amazing than all the natural wonders in Northern California (including the ones we didn’t mention here). This region is home to some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls, state and National Parks, forests, and so much more; how lucky are we to be able to call it home? Lovers of the great outdoors will also be lovers of Northern California, and you never know – you might love it so much you decide to make it home. When people think about California, they often think about Los Angeles, Death Valley National Park, the beaches of San Diego, and maybe Yosemite – but they’re missing out on all the rest! What are your favorite natural wonders in Northern California? Let us know!
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