The 10 Natural Wonders of Northern California

Photo by Casey Horner

The outdoor surroundings of Northern California make it one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We’ve got active volcanoes, massive waterfalls, pristine rivers, crystal-clear lakes and endless trails to boast, leaving little to the imagination for any outdoor adventurer.

When you think about it, not much of our outdoor destinations are completely natural. Many of our lakes and rivers are controlled by dams, trails are carefully constructed, and ill-conceived logging operations put human’s touch on most outdoor areas. We rarely get to see nature in its true form.

It remains nearly impossible today to see nature the way it was created, but there are still some places in NorCal that have remained natural. That’s why we created a list of the 10 natural wonders of Northern California, because we couldn’t limit it to just 7.

Burney Falls

Photo: Miles Sabin

Since President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed it the “8th Wonder of the World,” it has to come in first on this list.

Located just north of Redding between Lassen Peak and Mt. Shasta is Burney Falls, NorCal’s famous 129-foot waterfall, which cascades from Burney Creek down into Lake Britton. The falls are a sacred place for the Pit River Indian Tribe, who have held ceremonial rituals here for thousands of years.

While you’re there, don’t miss the Falls Loop Trail, which is a 1-mile hike to the base of the falls and back up. During the walk, you’ll see lava flows and fractured basalt — evidence of the region’s turbulent volcanic activity. After descending 100 feet into Burney Canyon, we’re rewarded with a cool mist at the base of the falls.

Learn more about Burney Falls

Mount Shasta

While there are plenty of big and beautiful natural landmarks in NorCal, you won’t find one any bigger and more beautiful than Mount Shasta.

Sitting at 14,179 feet tall and an estimated volume of 85 cubic miles, this volcano can be seen for miles in any direction in NorCal. The smooth slopes of the mountain are something of legend and aura of it is so palpable, that people travel from all over the world just to be in its presence. The Crown of California is as beautiful as it is a mystery to everyone who gets close to it. It’s the perfect outdoor playground for anyone, giving majestic slopes and tributaries to anyone that comes in its path.

There’s so many ways to enjoy Mount Shasta. You can earn insane views of the active volcano from Heart Lake. You can hike the lush meadows of the lower elevation areas. Or you can drink from the headwaters of the Sacramento River at the bottom of the mountain.

On any given day, you’re also likely to see one of the magical lenticular clouds that make Shasta so famous. The clouds lend to the legends surrounding the area, including sightings of aliens, Bigfoot and the beings living inside the mountain – Lemurians.

Learn more about the Crown of California – Mount Shasta

Redwood Forest

Did you know the 3 tallest trees in the world sit in the Redwood National and State Parks?

That’s right, the redwood trees might be the most fascinating natural wonder we have in NorCal. These redwoods can live over 2,000 years and grow more than 350 feet high, with the tallest tree in the world, Hyperion, standing at an astounding 379 feet. That’s nearly 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. The bark of these trees can grow to be more than a foot thick, making them fire, pest and fungal resistant.

The Humboldt Redwoods State Park is also home to the largest remaining contiguous old-growth coastal redwood forest in the world. It’s comprised of over 17,000 acres of forest that has never been logged, an astounding feat in California’s storied logging history.

Learn more about the Redwoods of Northern California

Yosemite Falls

Sitting in Yosemite National Park is the tallest waterfall in North America, and it’s quite a sight to behold in person.

Yosemite Falls is arguably the centerpiece of one of the world’s most popular parks, Yosemite National Park. It actually consists of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall, the Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Falls. The Upper and Lower sections of the waterfall are some of the most popular and beautiful destinations in the park.

If you take into account the three different drops of the waterfall, it cascades down a total of 2,425 feet from the top to the bottom, making it North America’s tallest. Upper Yosemite Falls accounts for most of the drop, with a 1,430-foot plunge, with Lower Yosemite Falls accounting for the bottom 320-foot drop.

Learn more about Yosemite Falls

Lake Tahoe

Photo by Mick Haupt

The crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe are something of legend, and the lake’s sheer size and depth make it one of the largest lakes in America. In fact, it’s the largest alpine lake in North America and sits only behind the Great Lakes as the largest by volume in the United States. It’s also the second deepest in the country, trailing only Crater Lake in Southern Oregon.

The lake was formed around two million years ago as part of the Lake Tahoe Basin and its current characteristics show why it has sat in its place for so long. The marshes surrounding the lake create a filter of sorts for the water, making it some of the cleanest natural water on earth. If you walked up to the water of Lake Tahoe in 1968, you’d be able to see 108 feet down to the bottom. Today, following over 50 years of human activity on the lake, you can still see 62-feet down into the water.

Of course, the surrounding mountains of the Sierra Nevada make the Tahoe area one of the great outdoor destinations in the country. With its famed ski resorts, camping opportunities and water resources, the lake is just one of the many great destinations to enjoy in the region. But it also remains one of the most unique lakes on the planet.

Learn more about the mysteries of Lake Tahoe

Lassen Peak

Photo by Anna French

When you drive around the different areas of NorCal, there are moments when you’ll look to the east and notice a beautiful mountain standing in all its glory. In fact, that is an active volcano known for its eruption just over a hundred years ago. Drive an hour east and you can see the beast up close.

Lassen Peak is one of the most marvelous destinations in NorCal, bringing with it a fascinating volcanic history to match its clean, mountainous shape. The hike to the top of the 10,463-foot volcano isn’t as difficult as you might imagine, providing unparalleled views of the area. If you aren’t up for a hike, enjoy its beauty in Lassen Volcanic National Park, with the best spots at Manzanita Lake and Lake Helen.

When you visit Redding, it’s hard to miss the massive volcano to the east keeping a constant eye over the region. It’s truly a marvel to see.

Read more about the Hike to the Top of Lassen Peak

Half Dome

Photo by Jason Hogan

Scoring views of Half Dome throughout Yosemite National Park is a treat for any visitor. But the true adventurer might prefer to get their kicks with the thrilling hike to the top of the legendary rock formation.

Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, Half Dome is a Yosemite National Park icon and a great challenge for many hikers. Despite an 1865 report declaring that it was “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot,” George Anderson reached the summit in 1875, in the process laying the predecessor to today’s cable route.

The 14- to 16-mile round-trip hike to Half Dome is not for you if you’re out of shape or unprepared. You will be gaining elevation (for a total of 4,800 feet) most of your way to the top of Half Dome. Most would say the reward is worth the effort. Along the way, you’ll see outstanding views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, and–from the shoulder and summit–panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.

Learn more about the Thrilling Hike to the Top of Half Dome

Fern Canyon

Humboldt’s Fern Canyon has become one of the most popular outdoor destinations in Northern California, with its 50-foot walls covered in ferns. The hike through the canyon is uniquely picturesque, much like walking through an ancient forest filled with dinosaurs.

Located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, it takes a bit of work to get to the North Coast gem known as Fern Canyon, but it’s worth it. From Highway 101 at Orick, drive unpaved Davison Road 10 miles to this spectacular canyon, a hidden paradise of ferns lining a narrow gorge carved out by Home Creek. Some of the seven different types of ferns clinging to the steep cliffs are ancient species, with ancestry tracing back 325 million years. Living underneath their leafy shade are some eye-catching amphibians, including Pacific giant salamanders, which can measure nearly a foot in length, and northern red-legged frogs.

The trail follows a series of small footbridges (installed in summer) deep into the canyon. Lush, drooping ferns create hanging gardens, miniature waterfalls pour down rock faces, and moss wallpapers every surface. The walls grow taller and squeeze tighter as you travel.

Learn more about Humboldt’s Fern Canyon

Clear Lake

Did you know that there’s a lake in NorCal that’s nearly a half a million years old, staking claim to the oldest lake in North America?

Clear Lake in Lake County is one of the most geologically unique lakes on the planet, sitting at 480,000 years old and being formed on top of a volcano deep below the earth’s surface. There’s volcanic activity such as fumaroles and boiling hot springs all around the area, a reminder of the lake’s storied past.

So how has Clear Lake sat in its same spot for this long? It’s actually a geological anomaly. The molten rock that sits deep below the lake is remnant from the volcano that once sat at the location, now dormant. That rock tilts a little bit every year, allowing water to seep through at a slow rate and keep the water level consistent for hundreds of thousands of years.

Learn more about Clear Lake

Trinity Alps Wilderness

Photo by Miguel Vieira

The Trinity Alps Wilderness, located just northwest of Redding, is a gorgeous mountain range providing backpackers with stunning views, pristine high-alpine lakes and unmatched wilderness isolation. It’s the perfect place for an outdoor adventure in the summer months.

For campers and backpackers looking for an introduction to the Trinity Alps Range, Caribou Lakes Trail is the perfect route! Along the trail, hikers run into enormous Caribou Lake (72 acres), Lower Caribou Lake, as well as stunning Snowslide Lake and a series of other smaller pools.

We also recommend taking the difficult hike to Grizzly Falls. Considering its length (14 miles) and altitude change (5,400 feet), Grizzly Creek trail doesn’t exactly fit into the category of “casual hikes”. Following the motto: “nothing worth doing is easy” though, Grizzly Creek Trail’s grueling hike leads to one of the best if not THE best payoffs in Northern California.

Learn about hiking the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

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