Pacific Ocean to Lush Forest: Explore California’s Northern Central Valley
Adventurer & Photographer
Northern Central Valley, California
Start / End
San Francisco, Sacramento, or Fresno
Yosemite National Park
1,025 miles (1,650 km)
As you may already know, California has fairly temperate weather all year round. At higher elevations in the winter months, you may find snow and cold weather, but far fewer people. Our favorite time of year to visit is during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.
This route is worthy of two weeks of vacation, but it could be done in a week depending on how often and how long you stop.
Along our route there are three major airports in three different cities: San Francisco (SFO), Sacramento (SMF), and Fresno (FAT). We are starting the itinerary in San Francisco and ending in Fresno, but you could start and end wherever suits your flight itinerary best! We suggest getting on the road and starting your trip, but if you’d like to spend some time in San Francisco first, below are a few of our favorites.
50 MINUTES – 47 MILES/76 KM
Cruise out of the big city northeast towards Fairfield. Located just 15 miles from Napa Valley, Fairfield is surrounded by farmland, rolling hills, country roads, and acres of vineyards. The beauty of Fairfield is that while the north is full of wineries, the south is bordered by wildlife refuge areas, waterways, and bays that are just waiting to be fished and paddled through.
If you love seeing native wildlife or birds, head over to the Suisun Wildlife Center or Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. For something unique, visit Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company to see how this family-owned company grows and produces oil from their own groves—you can enjoy tastings, too!
15 MINUTES – 10 MILES/16 KM
Cruise north 15 minutes into the city of Vacaville, which prides itself on having a perfect small-town atmosphere and community, with all of the amenities and luxury of a bigger city. Go on a shopping spree at the beautiful, outdoor shopping center Nut Tree, or get a tour of the organic winery and regenerative Be Love Farm. Whatever it is that you choose, Vacaville is known as the city where “boredom is hard to come by.”
40 MINUTES – 34 MILES/55 KM
Continue along Interstate 80 towards the city of Davis and the rest of Yolo County: Woodland, Winters, and the Yolo Countryside. If you don’t have time to check out each individual town, we recommend choosing at least one to visit so you can at least sample all that Yolo County has to offer.
Davis is an energetic university town full of interesting restaurants, art galleries, retail shops, and the famous Davis Farmers Market. Walk the UC Davis Arboretum, a 100-acre public garden, or cycle your way through over 100 miles of bike paths.
Woodland is a city known for its thriving entrepreneurial spirit, historical downtown district, and its rich diversity of amazing cuisine. A local favorite activity is walking or biking on a self-guided tour through town to explore the many styles of historic architecture in the area.
Winters is a classic strip of Americana filled with small-town vibes and charming locals. Voted “Best Small Town Food Scene” by USA Today, spend some time tasting your way through locally owned restaurants, breweries, and wineries.
The Yolo Countryside is dotted with quaint, very small towns full of charm and overflowing in ag tourism experiences. Pick your own flower bouquets, farm tours, agricultural events and celebrations, farm-to-fork meals, and a handful of amazing wineries make this area one not to miss.
RIVER FOX TRAIN
13 MINUTES – 8 MILES/13 KM
Head east to the edge of California’s capital, Sacramento, and prepare to see some countryside without having to drive. Board the River Fox Train and chug along at a leisurely pace through the California countryside. A wide variety of train excursions are on the calendar, so find the right fit for you and your travel buddies or family, and “aaaaall aboard!”
For the wines:
Keep it classic:
For gold fever:
1 HOUR – 60 MILES/97 KM
After passing through Sacramento, continue south to the next biggest city, Stockton. Stockton is located at the furthest inland point of the California Delta, an expansive inland river delta formed near the coast. For an adventurous way to see the city, head over to the H20 Excursions at Village West Marina to rent a kayak, stand up paddle board, or a water bike.
Afterwards, you’ll want to check out one of the multiple farmers markets in town. The biggest and most well-known is the Downtown Stockton Certified Farmers Market, held every Saturday all year round and considered one of the oldest and most successful markets in the state of California.
Try something new:
Unique to Stockton:
Take the kids:
For the produce & famous peach pies:
30 MINUTES – 31 MILES/ 50 KM
Drive barely 30 minutes south to Modesto, a city famously known for farm stands, entertainment, car culture, and public art. If Modesto sounds familiar, it’s because it is the home of George Lucas and the inspiration for his biopic “American Graffiti.” In addition to fresh goods, Modesto is home to the Gallo Center for the Arts featuring national artists, a symphony, and plays.
Go for a walk and enjoy a picnic in one of Modesto’s lush city parks. Love to fish? Bring your fly rod or fishing pole along and cast into the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers! Oh, and don’t even get us started on the taco trucks—there are SO many local, authentic taco trucks in Modesto, you really can’t go wrong.
Best baked goods & pastries:
Bike trail by the river:
Best spot for dinner:
For all the foodies:
30 MINUTES – 15 MILES/ 25 KM
As we begin the portion of our route that heads into the mountains, stop into the small city of Oakdale, known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Oakdale’s historic town gives visitors a feel for what California in the 1800s was like: Old West. Gold was discovered along the Stanislaus River in 1848, and the town of Oakdale was established in 1871. To experience what life was like for the pioneering ranching families in those days, visit the Oakdale Cowboy Museum, located in the historic Southern Pacific Railroad depot.
45 MINUTES – 31 MILES/ 50 KM
Mariposa County is known as home of Yosemite National Park, which is one of California’s greatest gems, to be sure. It’s also home to so much more, including Sierra National Forest and Stanislaus National forest to the Merced River which offers fun and leisure activities galore, to gold rush and ghost-town history. We recommend getting to know Mariposa County a bit before entering the bucket-list park on this itinerary.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
2.25 HOURS – 93 MILES/ 150 KM
From Mariposa County ascend more than 2,000 feet as you cruise into the foothills of Yosemite National Park. Within the park, the elevation spans from 2,127 feet to 13,114 feet at the top of Mount Lyell in the Cathedral Range. Yosemite is known for its waterfalls like Yosemite Falls and its massive granite faces like Half Dome and El Capitan.
30 MINUTES – 16 MILES/ 26 KM
The gateway to Yosemite awaits! The two big-name gems of Madera County are Yosemite National Park and Bass Lake. Throw in award-winning wines and fascinating museums, and it will be hard not to spend more than one night here. We recommend heading straight to Oakhurst and then spending a couple days here. Once called Fresno Flats, Oakhurst is the largest community in the foothills of Madera County (it’s even home to a talking bear)! Be sure to take a scenic tour of the Sierra National Forest aboard the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.
1 HOUR – 46 MILES/ 74 KM
Continue south on CA-41 towards Fresno, set in the beautiful San Joaquin Valley. An area boasting approximately 300 days of sunshine a year, Fresno County is the only metropolitan hub in California located between three national parks—Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia.
Besides the national parks, Fresno has so much adventure of its own to offer, such as the Forestiere Underground Gardens. Located right in Fresno, these are a series of subterranean structures built by an immigrant from Sicily, over a period of 40 years. The 10 acres of rooms, passages, and garden were excavated by hand using only farming tools. The California State Historic Landmark hosts tours and events all year round.
For the birders:
For fishign, camping, and views:
Best vintage shopping:
Best American food:
Whether you fly out of Fresno, or complete the loop by driving back up towards Sacramento and then again towards the coast, the choice is yours. Depending on your time, maybe even continue south towards Visalia and Bakersfield! Whatever you decide, we hope your legs are tired from adventure, your bellies are full of California-grown foods, and your hearts are happy from the memories you’ve made!