California

Sacramento to the Sierra Nevada: An Out-of-the-Ordinary (and Extraordinary) California Road Trip

Written by Jane Wilson
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Think of a California road trip and often the iconic Highway 1, the ribbon of scenic road between Los Angeles and San Francisco, springs to mind.

However, our Wellness Writer Jane Wilson found her Zen on a Golden State road trip between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, where she was wowed by lush valleys, smalltown charm, delicious food and wine, and the aroma of pine tree forests on this less-travelled route.

Start in Sacramento (or use it as a home base). From there it’s easy to discover off-beat locations in Fairfield, Yolo and Placer Counties. Then cap off the journey at stunning Lake Tahoe, high in the Sierra Nevada.

Here are her suggestions for a road trip to remember on your next visit to Northern California.

California
The Gold Rush-era buildings, wooden sidewalks and Western heritage of Old Sacramento (photo by Frank Schulenburg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

Sacramento, California

One of the most historic cities in California. The capital of the 31st state is also America’s farm-to-table capital, making it a great spot to taste fresh food at every turn.

Sacramento lies at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, and its small and manageable airport is well connected to other California and U.S. cities.

Be sure to visit the  Old Sacramento Waterfront,  a 28-acre National Historic Landmark District and State Historic Park that harks back to the city’s Gold Rush era, with wooden sidewalks, wagon rides, and swinging door saloons, along with lots of shops, restaurants and museums.

Look out for the many murals decorating the city, especially of Johnny Cash. An annual street art festival called Wide Open Walls takes place each spring.

One of several museums in Old Sacramento, the California State Railroad Museum depicts the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, one of the country’s earliest technological feats.

You can also tour the state Capitol building. Public tours run weekdays on the hour from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Sign up at the Information desk in the Rotunda. Tours are limited to 20 people on a first-come, first-served basis.

Where to stay

Lively Hyatt House and the trendy boutique Fort Sutter Hotel are highly recommended.

 

California
Wine Tasting at Caymus-Suisun in Fairfield, California is a must (Photo by Chantel Elder)

 

Fairfield, California (69 kilometres/ 43 miles from Sacramento)

Family-owned farms, farmers markets and modern taprooms give this city its character and it’s a good half-day trip from Sacramento, or stop if you’re visiting Napa.

For artisan olive oil, head to Suisun Valley to II Fiorello Olive Oil Company where you can savour farm-curated olive oil tastings and tours while enjoying views over the 3,000 olive trees and valley from the outdoor patio.

Caymus-Suisun is a relatively new winery located just over the mountain from Napa Valley, separated by just an invisible county line. Suisun Valley became an AVA in 1982, just one year after its famous neighbour, yet this exceptional wine region remains largely undiscovered.

The stylish and contemporary winery offers guided tastings—sample the 2022 Bay Rose, Rose of Grenache of Suisun Valley and the 2020 Grand Durif, Petite Sirah.  Enjoy a glass of wine on the terrace with views of tractors and farm trucks working their magic, turning land to liquid. Or walk through the extensive fruit orchards, and flower and vegetable gardens.

Have a sweet tooth? Visit the Jelly Belly Candy Company for a factory tour or ride the Jelly Belly Express train. Along shelves laden with goodies, expect to find wine, beer and chocolate renditions of this original candy confectionery.  And there’s a jelly belly art display – look out for the portrait of former President Ronald Reagan who had a sweet tooth and has been recreated as a mosaic with up to 14,000 beans.

 

California
Winters, California, brims with small-town charm in a rich agricultural area (Photo courtesy of DiscoverWinters.com)

 

Yolo County (48 kilometres/ 30 miles from Sacramento)

Yolo County is perfectly situated in Northern California just a short distance away from Sacramento, Napa Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Winters is a charming small town bubbling with community spirit, which is reflected in its family wineries, local farm flavors and countryside experiences.

Along its Main Street, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Streets, L’Apéro les Trois has a unique wine and spirits lounge where you will find aperitifs created by infusing wine from local vineyards with seasonal fruit from the orchards. The women-owned business also serves classic French appetizers like tapenade and Gougères alongside sparkling wines, and the experience is accentuated with music from a player piano.

Where to stay

Hotel Winters is a small yet stylish boutique hotel with 78 oversized rooms, a courtyard, an on-site restaurant, and a spa.

 

Sign up for a free tour the Capitol Building in Sacramento, California (Photo courtesy of VisitCalifornia/Carol Highsmith)

 

Placer County (99 kilometres/ 62 miles from Sacramento)

On the way to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra foothills, Placer County is often referred to as the fruit basket of the U.S.

For oenophiles, the Placer Wine & Ale Trail includes 23 wineries open to the public and 21 breweries, involving chefs, vintners, brewers and growers, re-embracing its heritage as a viable California wine-producing region.

On the trail is  Vina Castellano Vineyards which offers wine flights and lunch pairings in its cave. Nearby is the historic town of Auburn and known as the Endurance Capital of the World for the two 100-mile races it hosts and the miles of trails and rivers nearby.

Auburn’s Old Town has a picturesque courthouse that traces its roots to the Gold Rush era and restaurants and shops to browse.

 

Lake Tahoe (180 kilometres/112 miles from Sacramento)

Writer Mark Twain once called Lake Tahoe  “the fairest picture the whole earth affords” and it’s hard to disagree.

Lake Tahoe is a year-round destination that straddles the border of California and Nevada, just a 2-hour drive from Sacramento (but can be much longer in winter).

The Lake is the largest freshwater alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a year-round playground with world-class ski resorts, hiking and biking trails, fine dining, and beaches, as well as some of the friendliest people around. It also has clearest tap water you’ll find in the USA: Lake Tahoe water is 99.7% pure, about the same as distilled. So leave your plastic bottles at home, please.

Said to be over 2 million years old, Tahoe is counted among the 20 oldest lakes worldwide and measures 21.2 miles north to south and 11.9 miles wide, with depths of up to 1,645 feet. It also sits at the dizzying height of 1897 metres ( 6,225 feet) above sea level. Lake Tahoe is renowned for its ski resorts and sapphire blue and pure water, and amazing mountain scenery, which was the top attraction for me.

Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay is its crown jewel. Located on the southwest shore, the small inlet had me spellbound with its enriching colours shimmering in the sun, blue and green tones dazzling beneath the surface, and mountain reflections.

Guided kayaking is popular with clear kayaks providing views of up to 75 feet below the water’s surface. The guided tours navigate into hidden coves, beneath towering cliffs fringing the shoreline, as well as the geological rock formations that display the history and origins of Lake Tahoe.

At night, LED stargazing tours benefit from the moonlight on the Sierra Nevada. Other activities include scenic hiking in Van Sickle Bi-State Park, mountain biking along trails snaking above the lake, overnight backpacking expeditions, and snowshoe tours.

 

California
Emerald Bay is the jewel of Lake Tahoe, popular with hikers, boaters and kayakers (Photo from Pixabay)

 

Emerald Bay State Park

Emerald Bay State Park is a national natural landmark, 12 miles north of the town of  South Lake Tahoe and the setting for one of the first summer homes built at Lake Tahoe. Vikingsholm, built by a stagecoach magnate and known as the Hidden Castle, is one of the most photographed spots in the United States. It can be reached by walking a one-mile trail downhill (then up), or by boat and is open daily for tours during summer months, from June to September.

Fannette is the only island in Lake Tahoe and sits in the middle of Emerald Bay. The stone structure on top that looks like a miniature castle are the ruins of the “Tea House”,  built at the same time Vikingsholm was constructed, between 1928-29.

Where to Stay and Dine

The pedestrian-friendly Heavenly Village is in the city of South Lake Tahoe on the California side.

It’s a bustling place with restaurants, shops, bars, live outdoor music and even an axe-throwing venue. A 2.4-mile journey will take you to Heavenly Mountain on the Heavenly Gondola, which runs almost year-round to enjoy the panoramic views of the Lake. Margaritaville Lake Tahoe Resort is a 399 all-suite, island-style hotel in South Lake Tahoe with five dining concepts restaurants and even a 13-foot iconic flip-flop sculpture in the lobby.

For an ultra-luxury experience, head to Edgewood Resort, Lake Tahoe’s only lakefront golf resort and home to the American Century Celebrity Championship.

The Riva Grill is located in the Ski Run Marina with a large deck enjoying the backdrop of the Lake and the Sierra Mountains. Here they serve the famous Wet Woody, a frozen rum drink with peach schnapps, a winning cocktail with more than 3 million sold and enjoyed.

On Lake Tahoe’s Northshore in Incline Village, the Hyatt Regency has a private beach, a boat dock with rentable boats, a casino, a spa, and more.

 

California
The Tahoe East Shore Trail near Incline Village is a scenic and easy (paved) walk with magnificent Lake Tahoe views Vi (Photo by Kimberley Lovato)

 

From the small-town charm of Winters and Auburn to the capital creativity found in Sacramento to the awe-inspiring natural beauty of Lake Tahoe’s dramatic peaks and vast expanse of blue water, this part of California is worth slowing down for on your next road trip.

***

BeSeeingYou In: Sacramento, California and beyond

Good To Know:  Lake Tahoe never freezes due to its depth, and average temperatures are ‘refreshing’, even on summer days.

WOW Factor: Emerald Bay on the southwest shore is a watercolour canvas in a palette of blues and greens that changes according to the water’s depth

Tip: Traffic around Lake Tahoe’s small road during summer is BAD. Consider public transport like TART and Tahoe Transport.

***

Author bio: Jane Wilson, The Wellness Traveller

Read more about Lake Tahoe and responsible tourism here

Read more travel inspiration at BeSeeingYou

Jane Wilson

Jane is a travel journalist who specialises in wellness travel, an area which has moved beyond the spa and yoga mat and is firmly on-trend. Think slow travel, rituals, retreats, indigenous therapies and destination medi-spas for the ultimate make-over for mind, body & soul. Whatever the reason, Jane considers travel as an investment in health and wellbeing.

As a regular contributor to BeSeeingYou, you will always discover that healthy twist laced into her articles. Jane writes for a range of UK magazines as well her own online media The Wellness Traveller.co.uk

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