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Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days

I recently visited central California with my teenage daughter.  From the Sacramento airport we set out for a week’s worth of fun activities: from hiking in gold mine country, climbing the concrete hills of San Francisco, ferrying around Alcatraz Island, cruising up the central coastline, relaxing on magnificent Pacific coast beaches, driving through Napa valley, to exploring the mountainous sites of Tahoe National Forest.  It was a fast-paced week of adventure that fills a lot of sightseeing bucket lists in central California.

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Our adventure included 5 day trips and many fun attractions and cool stops along the way, so if you’re looking for things to do in central California, especially in the summer time, read on, and let me be your virtual tour guide!!

Getting There 

We started our trip by staying in a hotel near the Raleigh-Durham International Airport the night before our flight took off.  We live a good distance from the airport and we didn’t want to fight the usual traffic in the early morning hours, possibly missing our flight.

We chose LaQuinta Inn & Suites as it was decent and cheap and most importantly, has an airport shuttle to whisk us off to the airport early the next morning.  The hotel also had a well-kept outdoor pool and free continental breakfast. While we didn’t have time for a swim, we were able to at least grab a couple pieces of fruit on our way out the door at 5:30 am. The shuttle comes and goes every 30 minutes, so it’s quite convenient.

What about Covid-19?

While we had originally postponed this trip a year ago due to the pandemic, we felt more confident this year, due to many people (including ourselves!) being vaccinated and the strict use of face masks in the airports and planes.  So no worries there, and we all remained safe and healthy during and after our trip.

East Coast – West Coast Differences (Is it hot enough fer ya?)

When we stepped out of the Sacramento airport to meet my sister (my daughter’s aunt), the first thing I noticed was the big difference in climate.  While we were used to the thick, heavy humidity of summers in North Carolina, this dry heat of California felt like getting slapped with a hot dry towel.

In North Carolina, the temperatures typically get into the low 90’s, though the humidity creates a heat index or “feels like” temperatures that may hover around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sweat sticks to your body and it feels a bit slimy to sit outside for long, yet I’ve gotten used to it over the years, and as long as I can jump into a swimming pool or lake now and then, I’m good.

In contrast, the dry heat of California brought temperatures soaring to 113 one day on our trip, which felt like walking into an oven for me, and made me feel like I could easily die of thirst in those conditions!  

Other Observations about California

Flying over California, I was first amazed at the mountain ranges, and surprised by how brown the landscape is in the summer.  I’m told it’s much greener in the rainier seasons, so that’s good.

Flying over California, view of clouds, mountains, rivers, brown landscape. Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days, jenniferstormnelson.com
Flying over California.

I did enjoy seeing the towering palm trees and interesting plants that I didn’t see as much in North Carolina, such as a wide variety of succulents and cacti.   And then there were the fruit orchards and vineyards of Napa Valley, but I’ll get to that later.

Day One – Gold Mine Country

After the long day of east-to-west airplane travel, it was good to sleep in a bit.  Fortunately the 3 hour time change was working to our advantage this time, giving us extra sleep time as we got to sleep longer than our usual east coast wake up time.

Middle Fork American River Quarry Trail

Our first adventure was to go hiking and exploring in the land of the early gold mining, Coloma Valley.  It was going to be another super hot day, so we packed a cooler full of cold water bottles, frozen water bottles, and lots of ice.  Staying hydrated was key to a bearable hike outdoors, and, in this girl’s thinking, basic survival!

We started by driving to the Middle Fork American River Quarry Trail, where we could stretch our legs with a little hiking after our long sit on airplanes and airport seats the day before.

The 10-mile route boasts a beautiful view of the American River as you run or hike along, and lots of ups and downs through terrain that’s partly shaded by trees and interesting foliage.  (Just stay alert for mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and bears, too, I’ve heard!)

The heat was already unbearable that morning, and my super-fit long distance runner sister decided to have mercy on us more sedentary souls halfway down the trail.  She realized we weren’t acclimated to the dry 105 temps so we turned back early, drinking heartily from our quickly thawing water bottles. 

It was still a beautiful trip there, though, so majestic to look across the great valley descending to the famous river below, where gold miners had once flocked with great enthusiasm to find a golden nugget.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

From the Quarry Trail, it was only a short drive to the Marshall Gold Discovery Park and Museum in Coloma.  We more than happy to start our tour in the comfort of the air-conditioned museum!  

We enjoyed an educational self-guided tour as well as a documentary film about the early days of gold discovery in that area of California.  Gold panning lessons were also offered, though not on days where the temperature exceeded 92 degrees. (like today!)

The buildings in this small historic town of Coloma also dated back to the 1840’s, including the old post office still in use, a blacksmith shop with live demonstrations, and a replica of the original sawmill.  

The small gift shop sold real gold nuggets, gold jewelry and other souvenirs, but all I needed at that moment was an icy Coca-cola!

Downtown Placerville

Our hunger by that time drove us to a town with plenty of restaurants and old quaint shops in the historic downtown of Placerville.

Also known as Hangtown, Placerville was a main hub of the early gold mining business where there was no police force and people conducted themselves the way they saw fit.  

In one incident, 3 cattle thieves were hung, without a trial, by a mob on Main street for all to see.  The platform used for public hangings can still be seen by visitors in these historic remains of the Wild Wild West.

Lunch was enjoyed here at the Thai Noodle Express.  Great bubble tea, (boba!), too, but be sure to get there before they  close at 2 pm!

Placerville, CA, historic downtown, jenniferstormnelson.com

The afternoon was unbearably hot, around 113 degrees.  Yet we soldiered on down historic Placerville Main street, lured in by the ultra-cute gift shops and  antique shops where we couldn’t resist bringing home a few treasures.

Day Two – San Francisco (part 1)

Now San Francisco is a fantastic city, worth an entire article (or two, or a whole book!) on its own.  But for now we’ll boil it down into the few snack-size bites of attractions we managed to consume in just a couple days.

Getting There

Our drive from Newcastle (which is about 30 minutes NE of Sacramento) to San Francisco was about 2 hours on I-80.  We had already made reservations at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, as well as for a 2:00 departure on an Alcatraz Island boat tour. We got started a bit late, so we had no time to spare!

Bay Bridge, San Francisco

As luck would have it, we missed an exit after crossing the Bay Bridge, formally known as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

This bridge is magnificent, by the way.  What amazed me, thanks to my careless navigation that forced us to turn around and go back across, was that it’s a double decker bridge. 

The top deck consists of five westbound lanes of traffic, and the lower deck has five eastbound lanes. 

So we got the fun experience of traveling both decks, in opposite directions, until we finally managed to take our needed exit into downtown San Francisco.  (and thus being seconds away from missing our boat tour, a bit later!)

We were excited about checking into our hotel, the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, as it boasts of being the largest hotel in the city. 

It’s made up of 3 towers, containing 46 floors in one, 23 and 19 in the other two towers.  This skyscraper has 1,919 rooms, an outdoor swimming pool and whirlpool on the 16th floor, a couple restaurants, a bar, a grab-and-go market on the lobby floor, a fitness center and plenty of meeting rooms, giving it the feel of a mostly for-business hotel, but still bougie enough for us!

The best part, by far, is its proximity to all the great sites, and all your needs, mostly within walking distance. And if you can’t walk there, public transportation is readily available.

Alcatraz Boat Tour

Alcatraz Tour Boat

We just barely made it to Pier 39 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, in time for our ferry ride to Alcatraz.  

(kudos to SF’s speedy Uber drivers for their expert navigation of the crowded and extremely hilly streets! I may have closed my eyes a few times whilst squeezing between buses at breakneck speed!!)

Now I’m normally extremely nervous about embarking on any kind of boating at sea excursion, with my fear of getting seasick in overdrive, but I had nothing to worry about.  Not today, anyway.  The water was fairly calm and the boat was big enough that I didn’t really feel any creepy wave-tossed motions.  

The boat had 3 levels: Bottom level was enclosed and had a full-service bar for guests, second level was also enclosed and had tables and seating between the large picture windows.  Second level also had an outside area for people to walk around and take pictures.  The top deck was all open-air with rows of seats for passengers wanting to sit and listen to the recorded audio tour guide from the top level.  

Passengers were free to move about between levels throughout the trip, which we did, though a bit unsteadily between the ups and downs of the waves.

We were fortunate to have great weather, a perfect day for sailing the San Francisco Bay.  The ride was pleasant, and the audio tour throughout the bay and around Alcatraz Island was informative and entertaining.  

Though the sky was cloudless back at the pier, somehow the fog made its way over the Golden Gate Bridge, so it was difficult to see this San Francisco highlight while we passed below it.

Our boat circled Alcatraz Island twice, getting closer to its banks the second time around.  The audio tour included recorded voices of ex-prisoners, describing what their life was like in prison there.  Really a fascinating narration of the horrors of Alcatraz!

Coming back towards the pier, we enjoyed the view of the Bay City Bridge, the historic waterfront and the amazing skyline of San Francisco.

Just to clarify, the boat tour we enjoyed did NOT actually stop on the island and allow us to tour Alcatraz in person.  To do that, you need to order your tickets from the official website for Alcatraz tours, here. 

If, like us, you’d just like the boat tour around the bay, including getting a close up circle around Alcatraz Island, you can get your ferry tickets here.  

Browse San Francisco tours that include Alcatraz Island by clicking on the following links:

Back on land, it was the popular Pier 39 shopping area we flocked to next, a popular tourist destination lined with stores, restaurants, an aquarium, live shows and more.  Besides picking out a few souvenirs at a gift shop or two, we were also trying to decide where to get something to eat.

We chose a seafood restaurant called Chowder, and naturally we had to try their signature dish, a clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl!  So yummy!

Clam chowder in sourdough bread bowl
https://www.flickr.com/photos/hinnosaar/4473789112

Our next conquest was walking up and down the steep hills back to our hotel. What a workout! But we enjoyed the scenic views, including the infamous Lombard Street, known as the second most crooked street in the world!

Lombard Street, San Francisco; jenniferstormnelson.com
Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA

The famous crooked part is really just one block of it, but you have to see it and either walk it or drive it to really experience its crookedness!

Apparently, Lombard Street was just one of the many extremely steep roads that had city planners and residents of the San Francisco Bay area scratching their heads over how to improve their driving conditions.

walking down Lombard Street, San Francisco, Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days, jenniferstormnelson.com
Walking down the twists and turns of Lombard Street, San Francisco.

In 1922, homeowners of the block in particular made a plan that resulted in 8 tight switchback turns to make it more navigable.

Later it became a one-way street, going down only, and gorgeous hydrangea gardens were planted between the curves and along the sidewalks on both sides.

If you’d like to stay in a vacation home that’s near Lombard Street and within walking distance to many other attractions on the bay, check out the options on vrbo.com here.

Lombard Street San Francisco
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lombard_Street_from_Coit_Tower.jpg

We enjoyed walking down this highly popular tourist attraction, snapping a few photos as many others were doing, as well.

All that hiking up the steep streets really worked up our appetites, so we decided to explore the options closest to our hotel.  We were fortunate to have  many options on offer to us, all within walking distance.

We decided to check out Oma Sushi,  a neat little Japanese restaurant conveniently located right across the street from our hotel, the Hilton San Francisco Union Square.  

Impressive menu, attentive service, pleasant atmosphere and wonderful, fresh food!

I’m not keen on eating raw fish, but the sushi my sister and daughter ordered almost tempted me to get over my fear of getting food poisoning from raw anything.  

I had the vegetable udon soup, as I was craving something light and healthy.  It did not disappoint!  I was amazed at how tasty even the carrots were in the soup, not to mention those long, chubby udon noodles that went miles and miles before reaching my happy mouth!

Oma Suki, mmm, mmm!

Downtown San Francisco at night, Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days, jenniferstormnelson.com
San Francisco at night, from Union Square Hilton.

Day 3 – San Francisco (part 2)

Whilst my sister had to sneak in a little remote work that morning via a zoom call meeting, I snuck off to the pool on the 16th floor of Tower 2 of the Hilton Union Square.  It was a bit confusing to get there, as you must take the elevator down to the lobby, walk around a few corners and go back up a different elevator to the adjacent tower.

Anyway, it was a nice way to start the day, to watch the sunrise over the top of the skyscraper hotel while basking on a lounge chair in the large patio area.  Woke myself up with a few laps across the pool and relaxed in the hot tub a few minutes before adventuring back to our hotel room and preparing for the day.

Breakfast was expensive coffee and almond croissants from the take and go cafe in the lobby.  We put on our hiking shoes (these sport sandals are my favorites for summer travel!) and set off down O’Farrell Street.  

Our goals for the day:

  • Shop around China Town enroute to the Bay area,
  • Ascend Coit Tower for a panoramic view of San Francisco,
  • Return to the shopping mecca of Pier 39 to snag some last-minute souvenirs (i.e, hoodies and t-shirts for family back home).

China Town San Francisco

Did I mention how our Union Square Hilton hotel was so wonderfully located for pedestrian sightseeing?  If you’re in good enough shape for an invigorating (but not exhausting) hike from the hotel to Fisherman’s Wharf on the SF Bay, you will be pleasantly rewarded by wonderful sights along the way!

The first of these for us was the infamous China Town.  Only a few blocks from our hotel, China Town was conveniently along our path to the bay.  

China Town San Francisco is the largest China Town outside of Asia and the oldest in North America.    It has a rich history of growth and advancement for Chinese Americans.  For more on its history, including a timeline of its major milestones, read up on China Town San Francisco  here.

China Town was so much fun to walk through, as it’s lined with all kinds of interesting shops and places to visit.  

You can find herbalists, bakeries, souvenir shops, cocktail lounges, karaoke bars, ornate temples, and more.

San Francisco China Town
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Francisco_China_Town_MC.jpg

Since we were limited on time and space to carry things in our backpacks, we did a lot of looking and just a little shopping in the many stores along our route.  

Wares for sale included souvenirs, Chinese foods and snacks, sauces, party decorations, take out boxes, Chinese cookware and tableware (woks, rice cookers, chopsticks, etc.), loads of teas, herbs, noodles, Chinese movies, books and magazines, and fashion, including dresses of various lengths: ankle length, knee, or mid-length.

I was happy to score some very cheap touristy t-shirts and a couple other small items as souvenir gifts for family members.

Coit Tower

After passing all the many interesting sights of San Francisco’s China Town, we began to see our next destination looming overhead: Coit Tower.

Coit Tower, San Francisco

Coit Tower is a 210 foot circular building at the top of Telegraph Hill, in Pioneer Park.  On the top floor of Coit Tower you are greeted with panoramic views of San Francisco.  

The tower was built between 1932-33, using a donation by the eccentric Lillie Hitchcock Coit.  She was an interesting character in her time.  Born from money and married into it, her financial status helped her to become more accepted in high society, despite her raucous way of living.  She was known for her gambling and cigar smoking and lavish lifestyle.

When entering the Coit Tower at the bottom floor, you are able to purchase an $8.00 admission ticket which allows you to go up the elevator to the top floor’s observatory.  (The cost is less for seniors and children.)

Murals inside Coit Tower, San Francisco

Waiting in line for the elevator is even a pleasant experience, thanks to the wonderful artwork displayed in beautiful murals across the walls.  These wall murals depict the normal human activity of California businesses, agriculture and life in the time period of 1934.

Stepping out of the elevator, there is just one circular stairway to climb before being awed by the spectacular views at the top floor of the Coit Tower

HIgh above San Francisco, you have views of the city’s skyline and its various impressive skyscrapers, of San Francisco Bay, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the funky curves of Lombard Street and more. 

Enjoy moving around the completely glassed-in top floor, getting all the photos you need from this panoramic view, before heading back down the elevator.

We spent another afternoon cruising the shops at Pier 39, finishing our souvenir shopping and eating a rather pricey but excellent meal at an outdoor restaurant across from the Fisherman’s Wharf area.  

Homelessness

On our walk back to the Union Square Hilton Hotel, we managed to veer a bit from our planned route, and ended up walking through some rather shady downtown streets.  It was immediately obvious that we had ventured into the areas populated by a large amount of homeless people.

While none of these people harassed us in any way, it was a bit jarring when some of them called out to us or asked for money, as we hadn’t encountered these kinds of situations thus far on our trip.

At one point on this interesting detour of downtown San Francisco, we came upon a cluster of police cars in an area, and soon we walked past a police officer near a long line of people we assumed were homeless. 

I overheard her speaking to someone, something about the fact that she was applying some iodine on the person’s arm.  Treating a needle wound.

This piqued my curiosity, and later I did some of my own research on the topic of homelessness in San Francisco and what the local law enforcement were doing about the problem. 

I was glad to learn that compassionate programs have been created to provide a humanitarian outreach to the homeless, to situations that need medical and behavioral health care, situations which do not involve weapons or crime.  

The fact that these people are homeless does not necessarily mean that they are dangerous or capable of harming people walking by. 

Still, when walking through these areas as a tourist, it is best to err on the side of caution in unknown, possibly shady areas of town.

Tunnel in San Francisco, Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days, jenniferstormnelson.com
Cruising through a tunnel somewhere near China Town, SF.

The advice I would give when mistakenly walking through any sort of seedy area of a big city that might make you uncomfortable:

  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Don’t wear earphones; stay focused.
  • Keep your head down, avoid eye contact with strangers.
  • Don’t interact with people that may confront you for money. (We did have some unstable characters call out to us, but we ignored them and kept on walking.)
  • Walk quickly towards a safer area of the city.

That said, there are other times when you might encounter homelessness closer to home, or in an area where you feel safe and would rather try to help the people, rather than avoid them.

When you are comfortable with your surroundings, and want to help those people in need, try the tips mentioned here.

More to Do and See in San Francisco

San Francisco is an amazing city to visit, and we have only scratched the surface of its many fun things to do! Do yourself a favor and search out all this famous city on the bay has to offer.

Here are just a few suggestions of great places to visit in San Francisco:

  • Ghiradelli Square – historical factory revitalized, turned into center of art galleries, restaurants, and shops.

San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park

  • High tea at historic hotels:
  • Ritz-Carlton
  • Angel Island State Park – Take a ferry ride from Pier 41. Enjoy hiking, biking, & camping. Great bay and city views, beaches, cafe, boxed lunches.

Day 4 – Up the Central Pacific Coast

Woke up on the 25th floor of the Union Square Hilton, packed up and left San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge, headed north.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is PXL_20210710_155455647.MP_-1.jpg
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge was a great way to start this highly photogenic journey!

Our day was to include a scenic drive up the Pacific coast, stopping for lunch with friends, and exploring and relaxing on a few beaches.

The Pacific Coast Highway, highway 1, is known for its breathtaking views of the Pacific ocean and its rocky beaches and cliffs around every twist and turn.

(Tip: Whilst manuevering the twists and turns of curvy highway 1, be sure to keep your head up, and your eyes on the horizon if you are prone to carsickness. My daughter found out the hard way, that putting on your makeup while riding in the back seat is NOT a good idea on this coastal stretch. The constant wheeling and lurching of the car put her in a state of icky discomfort that threatened to buzzkill an otherwise perfect day.)

We traveled up highway 1 to the Bodega Bay area, where we stopped at a few beaches to explore. Some of the beaches in the area were known to have dangerous “sneaker” waves from time to time, so we kept out of the water (it was too cold, anyway, to swim!) and never turned our backs on the mighty ocean while we were close by.

(A sneaker wave is one that suddenly comes up on the beach, towing anyone or anything in its path, back out with it with surprising speed and force. Beware!)

The central Pacific coast feels a bit desolate at times, just a few towns sparsely dotting the wiggly route. When our appetites reminded us of lunch time, we found a small town whose name made it an exceptionally perfect choice for me: “Jenner,” California, just like my lifelong nickname!

Jenner Sea gifts and wines, Jenner, CA. Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days, jenniferstormnelson.com
Jenner (me!) at this gift shop in Jenner, California!

The restaurant we chose, Cafe Aquatica, was a super hip, environmentally and vegan friendly little cafe right along the Russian River, where we could watch the frequent Stand Up Paddleboarders drifting by as we ate. Just walk right up to the counter, as it has the vibe of a coffee shop “with more”.

Russian River meeting the Pacific Ocean at Jenner, California

Lunch was yummy clam chowder, various salmon entres, or a vegan rainbow sandwich. The best part was sitting outside to enjoy the food with the view, and even live music if you’re lucky (like we were!)

You’re not only watching various paddlers going by on one side, but gazing out where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean on the other! Beautiful!

Goat Rock Beach

After lunch we took a quick jaunt over to Goat Rock Beach, which is right near Jenner, and part of the Russian River State Marine Conservation Area (SMRCA).

The beach is named after a humongous rock that sits mostly out in the Pacific. Over a century ago, goats had once grazed upon the rock’s flat top. This rock and many of the other large outcroppings that lay off the coast are heavily eroded by the wave action along this rocky shore.

A narrow sandbar separates the coast from the Russian River, and this provides a convenient parking area for the many sunseeking visitors in the warmer midsummer days. Picnic tables and rest rooms are also available, making it a popular spot for a relaxing day.

Goat Rock Beach, Jenner, California.

Swimming is strictly prohibited at Goat Rock Beach, due to the risk of strong rip currents and dangerous “sneaker” waves that are known to have perilously swept people off the rocks. Lifeguards urge visitors to stay out of the water, stay on the dry sand areas, and never turn your back on the ocean.

We had a beautiful time just walking up the beach and admiring the majestic waves crashing on the famous rocks in their wake. Also quite amusing to us were the strange, super-long, snake-like ropes of seaweed that we found sprawling across the sand.

Me and some kelp “snakes”.

We learned that these ropes of seaweed are a type of kelp that grows off the Pacific coast, from Alaska to Baja, California. Unfortunately, these kelp forests are diminishing due to ocean warming and a sea star wasting disease that is causing sea urchins to feed upon the kelp, having lost much of their sea star diet.

Kelp is important for both ecosystems and for human consumers. It is harvested for use in pharmaceuticals, for producing fireproof fabric, and for helping reduce climate change.

Kelp forest in the Pacific Ocean, California

East Coast vs. West Coast

Time for some quick comparisons again…this time it’s the Atlantic vs. the Pacific!

Having lived in North Carolina for over 26 years, I’m quite accustomed to the warm, humid beaches in summer time, and the ocean waters that heat up to like bath water by August! Seashells abound on the beach, and any seaweed scraps are just that, small scrappy pieces, nothing spectacular.

The California Pacific coast, this is something else! For one thing, it can be 110 degrees and blazing hot a couple hours inland, but the beaches are COLD! Fortunately this was one of those beautiful days in July, and the temperature was in the 60’s and breezy. I cannot imagine going there and actually enjoying it if the weather were any cooler.

The ocean water on the Pacific..it’s FREEZING!! To be a bit more factual, the average water temperature at Bodega Beach in July is 53 degrees. Fly about 3,000 miles east to Wrightsville Beach, NC, and you’ll bask in the warm Atlantic, where the average July temps are about 81 degrees! (Maybe I’m biased, but I tend to prefer the bath water.)

The drastic differences in water temps between the East Coast Atlantic and the California Pacific coast have to do with currents from Alaska, and the upwelling of colder water from the deeper parts of the ocean.

Napa Valley and back to the heat!

We said our goodbyes to the lovely Sonoma Coast and began our trek back inland. Our chosen route took us through the famous Napa Valley, one of the 2 largest grape-growing regions in California. The City of Napa, which is the largest and also the county seat of Napa County, was founded in 1848, named after the long extinct Napa Native Americans.

Napa Valley is about 52 miles northeast of San Francisco, sandwiched between the Vaca Mountains on the east and the Mayacamas Mountains on the West. Shielded from the heat of the Central Valley to the east and the cooler marine conditions of Sonoma County to the west, Napa Valley is perfectly incubated for growing grapes.

Napa Valley consists of over 400 wineries, so obviously going to wine tastings is high on the list of tourists who roam these parts. They are especially popular in the months of August through October, and March to May, the primary harvesting seasons.

While we were just speeding through the area to get back to my sister’s home before dark, we realized the potential for even more fun things to do in Napa Valley, had we had the time and lots more money to burn! From the obvious wine tastings, to cooking classes, balloon rides, bike tours, horseback riding tours, mud baths, paddleboarding the Napa River, kayak tours, golf, yoga, hiking and more, it’s definitely a place to check out in Central California.

For a range of choices in accommodations in Napa Valley, check out the options on vrbo.com or hotels.com.

Soon after passing through Napa Valley, we were back on I-85, driving to and through Sacramento to the little town of Newcastle. Funny that we started the day in chilly coastal temperatures in the 60’s for highs, and were now peeling off the layers as we returned to the drier conditions and high temps around 110 degrees. Talk about microclimates!

Day 5 – Take me to the River

The dry July heat continued into Day 5 of our trip, so we decided to take it easy and find a body of water to cool off in.

But what do you do in Central California when it’s another 110 + degree day and you’re far from the ocean? Find a river, of course!

Folsom Lake State Recreation Area was our park of choice. Just a leisurely Sunday afternoon’s drive from Newcastle, this park is located at the base of the Sierra foothills, where the North Fork of the American River flows into Folsom Lake.

There are multiple entrances to this lake and recreation area, accessible for a small fee. Activities offered include hiking, biking, running, camping, picnicking, horseback riding, water-skiing, fishing and boating.

We entered up the river a bit, where we took a short hike down the canyon until we found a suitable, shady spot by the water.

Though the summer sunshine and arid 110 degree air felt suffocating at times, the water in the river was remarkably cool, even chilling!

Not ones to be discouraged, we plowed right in and found it to be wonderfully refreshing!

What to Pack for Hiking and Watersports

When packing clothing and gear for a trip that involves hiking and outdoor activities, it’s important to choose items that are efficient, comfortable, easy to pack, and most of all, multi-purpose.

The following 3 items for hiking make the top of my list:

1. Sport Sandals

Dream Pairs Sport Sandals, what to pack for hiking, travel, jenniferstormnelson.com, Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days

The photo above shows how these Dream Pairs Sport Sandals can handle even the thickest muddy trails, yet still look great! (Actual photo was taken in the wet muddiness of the Caribbean, however, not bone-dry California!)

I wasn’t familiar with the Dream Pairs brand at first, but I am now so glad I purchased these sport sandals! They cost much less than the bigger brands but perform just as well if not better.

Their rubber soles are sturdy and super comfortable. They wash up clean after a muddy hike, and dry quickly. You can even walk through shallow streams in them. I left mine on while swimming, as the river bottom was quite rocky.

The sandals come in 9 different colors to choose from. Mine are the grey/coral selection.

From stomping the city streets of San Francisco to hiking dusty or muddy trails, I couldn’t have asked for a better pair of shoes for this trip.

2. hydration backpack

I can certainly attest to the handiness of the hydration bladder backpack. Having that water piped straight to my mouth from the water bladder in my bag was a life saver on various hiking trips I’ve been on. No more stopping, no more fumbling with bags and water bottles.

Sipping water from hydration bladder backpack, Limon waterfalls in Dominican Republic, jenniferstormnelson.com
Take a sip, keep on hiking!

3. quick dry hiking cargo shorts

I also love these quick dry hiking shorts!

Hiking outfit: quick dry cargo hiking shorts, water resistant sport sandals. jenniferstormnelson.com
Ready to hike!

For a day of mixed activities like hiking near rivers or oceans, swimming and pulling on shorts over wet swim suits, these shorts are perfect!

They’re super lightweight and cool, too, easy to pack and so comfortable.

Can’t not mention the roomy zip pockets, too, never lost my phone!

These great hiking shorts come in, get this, FOURTEEN different colors! (I may need to order more!) Find them on Amazon here.

Day 6 – Almost to Tahoe

Highway to Truckee, Lake Tahoe, CA, Central California Itinerary: What to Do and See in 6 Days, jenniferstormnelson.com

On our final day of our Central California adventure, we headed east on I-85 toward the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was our last day of the trip, so we wanted one last adventure: an upward climb into the mountainous area of central California.

We started in the valley area of Newcastle, CA, just past Sacramento. The altitude was about 945 feet there. As we drove east on I-85, we climbed higher and higher into the mountains.

By the time we reached Donner Lake, an hour into our drive, we had reached an altitude of 5,936 feet. The temperature, while still warm, was noticeably cooler than the 100+ degrees we had left back in Newcastle! Average July temperatures for the Donner Lake region lie around the low 80s, over 10 degrees cooler than its western neighbors.

What? These people ate each other??

Our first stop was the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center. If you haven’t heard of the Donner Party and their tragic journey westward through the Sierras, you will want to learn about the extreme hardships these pioneers endured enroute to the west coast during the Gold Rush days of 1849.

The video below will give you a quick synopsis of their harrowing, cannibalistic ordeal!

We enjoyed our visit of the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center. Besides giving us an interesting education of the Donner party tragedy through interactive displays, they also have a gift shop full of relevant and tasteful souvenirs from this beautiful area of central California.

Things to Do Near Donner Lake, CA

If you want to have a picnic by Donner Lake and enjoy a day at the beach, the $10 per car fee you pay to park at the visitor center will also cover your day of swimming, hiking, fishing and boating.

Are you ready for an outdoorsy adventure? The Donner Memorial State Park has 154 campsites with picnic tables and restrooms available. Be sure to use the metal, bear-resistant food lockers provided; not taking this legal precaution will cost you a fine. For more camping info and a place to reserve your spot, visit the California Parks & Recreation page here.

If you’re visiting Donner Lake in the summer, a great place for taking in all the water sports is at West End Beach. West End Beach is at the far western end of Donner Lake.

You can relax and swim at the large sandy beach. Lifeguards are on duty and areas are designated for swimming, boating and fishing. You can find rentals of paddle boards, sailboats, kayaks, inner tubes and more.

Kids of all ages can enjoy the grassy area complete with a playground, horseshoe pies, volleyball, tennis and basketball courts.

Bring your own food and have a picnic at the picnic tables or Pavillion, or buy food from the concession stand.

West End Beach is open June through August, 9-5, 7 days a week. Weekends only in May and September. Find more info here.

Donner Lake: Stay and play awhile

Before driving on to the historic town of Truckee, we detoured down a road that led us along the beautiful shores of Donner Lake. While we didn’t have time to stay and play, we got in a few photos while stopping near some very inviting vacation homes.

If you’re in the area for awhile, you will find a wonderful variety of accommodations in the area. Styles of vacation homes and hotels range from rustic, charming, or high end luxury. Be sure to plan ahead, though; Donner Lake is a popular area, and rooms fill up fast!

Here are a couple search engines to begin planning your California mountain getaway:

First one is Hotels.com, which includes both private vacation rentals and hotels:

Next is VRBO.com, or Vacation Rentals by Owner:

I love renting vacation homes on vrbo.com. Whether it’s a rustic cabin, a charming family cottage or luxury townhouse, these spaces have unique, personalized styles and a homey feel. Pick one with kitchen amenities, and you can save money by cooking your own meals.

Truckee, CA

Truckee, CA

The town of Truckee, CA is just up the highway from Donner Lake, a great central stopping-off point in the middle of all the mountain adventures in the area. The population of Truckee is around 16,000.

Besides its gorgeous placement in the middle of the Sierra mountains, its main attraction is its quaint, historic downtown. Downtown Truckee is a popular destination for tourists looking for a great meal, a warm cup of coffee on a snowy day, and plenty of souvenir shopping.

We enjoyed our lunch in Truckee, and wandered in and out of the many charming shops along the historic street.

If you’re looking for accommodation in Truckee, there’s a handful of hotels there to keep you near the action. Most of the overnight stays, however, may be located a bit further out in vacation homes and ski lodges.

Highway to Truckee, CA, Central California Itinerary: What to do and see in 6 days, jenniferstormnelson.com

Learn More about California

I hope you have enjoyed this breakdown of our 6-day adventure in Central California. There are so many things to do and see in this diverse area of the Golden State, that we have only barely skimmed the surface!

Still, I’m grateful to have finally set foot in this beautiful state and experienced it for myself.

If you would like to know more about Central and Northern California, I recommend the travel guide book, Northern California, published by Lonely Planet. This book covers everything central and northern California:

  • the Central Coast
  • Sacramento & Central Valley,
  • San Francisco,
  • Napa Valley and Sonoma Wine Country,
  • North Coast & Redwoods,
  • Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada
  • Lake Tahoe,
  • Gold Country, and the
  • Northern Mountains.

This guidebook gives a thorough, detailed and unbiased description of all you need to know for a great trip through Central and Northern California. While the internet is great for travel info, I still love to clutch a paperback guide in my hands, especially one published by the trusted folks at Lonely Planet.

The book is available on Amazon here.

If you’re planning on taking your next adventure by car, you’ll want to check out this post on planning a successful road trip.

Happy trails!

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