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Northern California is full of epic off-the-beaten-path gems not to be missed

Jim Gallagher and the giant sequoia in Redwood National Park

Jim Gallagher and the giant sequoia in Redwood National Park

The wooden boardwalks in Virgina City

The wooden boardwalks in Virgina City

A deer in Yosemite park

A deer in Yosemite park

Jamestown Hotel

Jamestown Hotel

Jim Gallagher near the top of Lassen Volcano

Jim Gallagher near the top of Lassen Volcano

Point Arena lighthouse in San Francisco

Point Arena lighthouse in San Francisco

Jim Gallagher

GOT two weeks to spare for an American road trip that you will treasure for the rest of your life? Yes?

Then Northern California is waiting for you — and it’s so easy to get to with direct Aer Lingus flights to San Francisco.

Many of you have been to the Golden Gate City but few venture further north than the wine-growing Napa Valley. But beyond that lies a land of pristine mountains, a stunning coastline, picturesque cowboy towns, gorgeous Victorian cities and incredible scenery, not to mention the world’s biggest trees which will take your breath away.

A veteran of three giant tours around Northern California, I can recommend a spectacular loop that takes you out of San Francisco heading east, passing the unforgettable Yosemite National Park, heading up North through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Lake Tahoe, shifting northwest to the stunning Lassen Volcanic National Park and then over to the coast where two of my favourite Californian towns, Eureka and Arcata, sit side by side.

A deer in Yosemite park

A deer in Yosemite park

From there you can drive north along the coast road towards Oregon to take in several magnificent parks devoted to the immense redwood trees before turning round and driving all the way back to San Francisco along a mind-blowing coastal highway.

You will see sights you will never forget and come home with a new appreciation of this vast American state. But two things to bear in mind are that distances are vast — you can easily drive 3,000km over the fortnight — and temperatures can fluctuate massively as you travel from sea level to mountain ranges over 10,000ft.

Once you leave San Francisco, travelling east on the 205 Interstate before switching to the smaller Highway 120, you will arrive three hours later in the gorgeous historic towns of Jamestown and Sonora. Either is a good place to stop.

Although for my first two nights I was booked into a hotel in the nearby Columbia State Historical Park, a dreamy goldrush town from the 1850s used in the classic movie High Noon.

Here there are stagecoaches on the dusty street and I enjoyed a night of local beers in the St Charles Saloon opposite my Victorian hotel after first hiking around the beautiful Pinecrest Lake 50km up Highway 108 and sitting at 5,000ft.

Jamestown Hotel

Jamestown Hotel

Jamestown itself is home to the Railtown 1897 State Park which has been used as the setting for over 200 cowboy movies and TV shows, including Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Back to the Future III.

Its working steam trains are said to be the most photographed in the world. Next on the agenda I spent two days hiking in the nearby Yosemite National Park, one of the scenic wonders of North America, while basing myself in the gorgeous National Hotel on Main Street, Jamestown — built in 1859, this historic Jamestown hotel has its own house ghost and features an on-site restaurant and bar.

The road north from Yosemite took me through the quaint western town of Jackson where I hit Highway 88 towards Lake Tahoe, crossing an 8,000ft pass and the lovely Silver Lake.

The eastern side of the popular resort of Lake Tahoe crosses the state line into Nevada and after a long day driving, I pulled into a motel in the state capital of Carson City, named after famous mountain man Kit Carson.

The next day I took a diversion to the fabulous cowboy town of Virginia City, which has not changed in a hundred years with its picturesque wooden boardwalks and swinging saloon doors.

It’s one of the best western towns in the US and will be remembered by fans of Bonanza, once the most-watched TV show in the world. You can actually visit the Ponderosa TV set where the Cartwright family lived. When my trip down memory lane was over, I spent the rest of the day on the beautiful Highway 89, which took me to the pleasant town of Chester on Lake Almanor.

Point Arena lighthouse in San Francisco

Point Arena lighthouse in San Francisco

This was a great jumping-off point for Lassen Volcano, which I climbed the next day for the most stupendous views from 10,457ft. It was a three-hour hike to the top and at that altitude breathing is a little more difficult but the scenery was worth it. The next couple of nights were spent in the busy town of Redding and hiking around Shasta Lake and its dam, the second biggest in America.

And then it was on to the coast, crossing the Trinity Mountains on the quiet but stunning Highway 299 to Eureka. I was booked into the gorgeous Carter House Inn, a historic B&B in this beautiful artsy Victorian town where I was lucky to catch the last night of a comedy festival.

Just 10km up the road is Arcata, which is a university town and the centre of a hipster culture with its trendy cafes and bars. You will see backpackers from all over America congregating here because of its laid-back vibe.

Jim Gallagher near the top of Lassen Volcano

Jim Gallagher near the top of Lassen Volcano

My trip would not be complete without a drive north into Redwood territory, passing the beautiful coastal town of Trinidad. The 101 Highway takes you right through several sections of the Redwood National Park and to walk among these giants is an exhilarating experience.

Then it was time to turn round and head south on the 101 with a diversion to the beautiful town of Ferndale and a drive along the Avenue of the Giants, a 50km stretch of magnificent redwoods. From there I switched to the stunning coastal Highway 1 with a final night in funky Fort Bragg and a stop-off the next day at the stunning Point Arena Lighthouse before driving down to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA visitcaifornia.com ■ For more information on Jamestown, Sonora, Columbia and Yosemite, all in Tuolumne County, see visittuolumne.com ■ Details on Lassen Volcano and Shasta County check out exploreshastacounty.com. Check visithumboldt.com for Eureka, Arcata and Redwood coast. For details on Lake Tahoe, visitinglaketahoe.com.


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