We’re always looking for unique itineraries that offer a wide variety of experiences. That pushes us to try new things and travel in ways that maybe we wouldn’t on our own. The new Northern California trip itinerary offered by Globus Journeys did exactly that and more.
This itinerary offers 9 days of exploring some of the most popular and lesser-known places of Northern California.
The itinerary includes places like San Francisco, Sonoma, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, and Yosemite National Park. We knew we wouldn’t be disappointed.
Truth is, the trip delivered more than we expected and we’re thrilled to share it with you.
Our Northern California Trip with Globus Journeys
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We took the 9 Day California Dreamin’: California By Design tour in partnership with Globus Journeys and iAmbassador to experience the new Globus Choice Touring experience.
This new type of tour is designed to give you more flexibility, and the ability to combine the freedom of independent travel with the ease of group travel.
In select destinations within the itinerary, Globus offered us three options to choose from based on our interests. Of course, we always had a fourth option to have free time, too.
As strong independent travelers, that also enjoy group travel, we loved the concept of Choice Touring. We were very excited to see how it would work, especially in Yosemite National Park.
The secret’s out, we loved it!
Read on for a full overview of our experience on this Northern California trip with Globus Journeys.
Day 1 – Arrival in San Francisco
The first day of our tour was arrival day in San Francisco and checking in to the included tour hotel, the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. There aren’t any planned activities on arrival day. If you arrive early in the day or the night before, you’ll have some time to tour San Francisco.
We made use of our full day in the city and booked the San Francisco Hop On Hop Off bus tour.
It is a fantastic way to see the highlights when you’re short on time. Plus, you can get off and explore if something strikes your interest along the way.
Ultimately, we rode the loop and then hopped off at Pier 39 to grab lunch. We walked the pier, the waterfront, and Fisherman’s Wharf before walking back to the SOMA district through China Town.
Be sure to leave enough time to freshen up before you attend the Globus welcome happy hour at the hotel.
Day 2 – Sausalito, Sonoma & Sacramento
Our first official day on tour started with an included buffet breakfast and a reasonable departure time. After leaving the hotel, we were off on a guided bus tour of San Francisco as we headed towards Sausalito.
We drove through Chinatown and Haight, hearing stories about the city and the iconic people that have called it home. We even got a quick look at Lombard Street, the most crooked street in San Francisco.
The bus stopped at the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point, where we got to officially meet Karl. The name was given to San Francisco’s famous fog. Yes, it happens so often it has a name!
After leaving the viewpoint the tour bus made its way to the waterfront town of Sausalito. A place that offers a Mediterranean vibe and a laid-back vibe just across the Golden Gate Straight from San Francisco.
Here we were given some free time to explore the waterfront, walk the streets, grab a coffee, shop the local shops, and browse the various galleries.
Personally, we enjoyed our time spent on the waterfront boardwalk. There are numerous gardens, docks, and wildlife viewing opportunities to be had here.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyard
Cheers from Sonoma Valley! Delicious charcuterie & sparkling wine
Leaving Sausalito, we headed for Northern California’s famous wine country, the joint valleys of Napa and Sonoma. This tour, however, focuses on Sonoma and included a stop at the stunning Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyard.
Here we were treated to a tasting of their award-winning sparkling wines paired with a delicious charcuterie board. This took place on one of their outdoor patios that overlooked rolling acres of grapevines. It was the quintessential Northern California wine country experience.
Our tasting was accompanied by knowledgeable narration followed by free time to shop and wander the beautiful estate. You can’t come to Northern California and not do a wine tasting and Globus delivered a special experience.
Beautiful Sonoma Plaza
Leaving the Sonoma Valley and Gloria Ferrer behind, we headed to the small-town hub of Sonoma.
Sonoma Plaza ties the valley with fascinating history, and the people that have made this area of California their home.
The town features Spanish architecture and a central plaza that reminded us of Jackson, Wyoming. Alleyways and streets leading off the square brought us to artisan shops, wine bars, restaurants, galleries, and museums.
We grabbed lunch at the delicious Maya Restaurant before poking our heads into the Spanish San Francisco Solano Mission, Sonoma Barracks, and Sonoma City Hall.
Old Sacramento Waterfront
After a fantastic day, we arrived in the California capital city of Sacramento. Of all the destinations on this tour, Sacramento was the one that we dismissed. Mainly for the fact that it’s not on our radar. At all.
If we were traveling through California independently, we would never have stopped here.
Turns out, it’s a very underrated California gem and a place we can confidently say should not be skipped! Especially the historic downtown district.
As most of our day was spent exploring other places while enroute to Sacramento, we arrived in the late afternoon.
Upon arriving we checked into the included tour hotel, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Riverfront Promenade for 2 nights. Then followed by a quick waterfront orientation (yes Sacramento has a river waterfront).
In our free time, we like to wander. This is whether we’re on a group tour or traveling independently. This allows us to get acquainted with a destination and discover things we might not see otherwise.
There’s a lot to see in Old Sacramento and the night we arrived, it was just booming with people. There was a ton of atmosphere, so we enjoyed browsing the shops and people watching.
Fanny Ann’s Saloon
I promise it’s not all for me! Funky Fanny Ann’s Saloon!
Ultimately, we landed at one of the most famous saloons in Old Sac, Fanny Ann’s Saloon. The saloon was named for one of the steamboats that used to prowl the river during the Gold Rush.
While they’ve been feeding and hydrating people since 1973, the saloon is more like a living museum than anything else. It features three levels of entertainment including nostalgic memorabilia, posters, and relics from days gone by. If you stop to read things, you’ll learn quite a bit about the history of the city!
As far as the food goes, everything on the menu is out of the box, including the funky peanut butter burger. So, you really can’t go wrong with what you order!
Day 3 – Sacramento
After being pleasantly surprised by Sacramento when we arrived, we were excited to have a full day to dive a little deeper.
This would also be the first day that we would experience one of our customized Choice Touring options, too.
In Sacramento, Globus offered us 3 options for customization:
- DELVE: Prison Blues with the Man in Black – a visit to the Folsom Prison Museum
- TASTE: Hometown Roots – a Midtown Sacramento food tour
- GAZE: Off the Rails – a deep dive into the Gold Rush, Pony Express & Railroad History
In addition to an included group city tour, Old Sac Walking tour, and a group dinner. It was a busy day but we left few stones unturned.
Sacramento City Tour
To get us acquainted with the California capital we all hopped on the bus for a short tour that would introduce us to some of the city’s history.
This included a stop at the State Capitol Building. It was here, in 1854 after the Gold Rush, that Sacramento was established as the capital of California. The grounds are beautiful featuring several flower gardens and impressive architecture.
Our stop at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park taught us about the very beginning of Sacramento in 1839 and gave some insight into the perseverance that was required of the people that settled the land.
Lastly, we made a stop at the amazing 15-story high Johnny Cash Mural. It was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Folsom Prison Blues album but stands as a testament to Cash’s passion for prison reform.
When you stand underneath it, you’ll see that Cash’s gaze travels in the exact direction of Folsom Prison.
GAZE: Off the Rails Choice Touring Option
To customize our day, we chose the GAZE: Off the Rails option. This would have us discovering Sacramento’s historic role in the California Gold Rush, the Pony Express, America’s first transcontinental railroad, and the California State Railroad Museum.
The museum is very impressive, and we spent a solid hour admiring the train cars, reading displays, and learning the history of the railroad in California. Even if you’re not a train buff, the museum is well laid out and interesting.
Following the museum visit, we had 2 hours to grab some lunch and explore Old Sacramento. We opted to grab lunch at a Mexican restaurant before boarding the bus for the next part of our day.
A short drive from the city is the boarding area for the historic River Fox train. This experience offers a 1.5-hour scenic ride that is basically a happy hour. Along the way, you get to view some of the Northern California countrysides while enjoying local spirits.
There was no narration, and we were free to move around the train. Our favorite part was the open-sided cars that allowed an unobstructed view of the surrounding landscapes.
Overall, we enjoyed the experience and thought it was a fantastic way to spend a day in Sacramento.
Old Sac Walking Tour & Group Dinner
Later that evening, the entire group reconvened for a short walking tour with our Globus guide, Derek. He took us to iconic historical parts of Old Sacramento and taught us more about the early settler days, and the Pony Express.
To finish our day the walk ended at the Rio City Café, where our group enjoyed a lovely dinner. We sat on a beautiful outdoor patio overlooking the Sacramento River.
Day 4 – HWY 50, Lake Tahoe & Mammoth Lakes
Scenic Highway 50
Leaving Sacramento, we hopped on Highway 50 to take the Most Beautiful Drive in America towards Lake Tahoe. The drive leaves the valley and farmland behind, climbing into the mountains before arriving at Lake Tahoe.
As we were heading to the north side of Lake Tahoe, our driver opted for the Donner Pass road. This route took us right up into the mountains.
As we climbed, Derek gave us some insight into the history of the Donner Party. They were a group of doomed pioneers who faced a lot of heartaches and struggles along this very same route.
When we arrived at Donner Pass, we stopped to stretch our legs and walk a bit on the scenic trails. After learning about the Donner family, their bad decisions, and terrible luck, it was humbling to stand on the same mountain pass and contemplate their story.
Circumnavigating Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a place that has long been on our USA bucket list. Despite this visit being brief with short stops to admire its beauty, we know we will be back.
People travel from all over the world to admire the beauty of Lake Tahoe and its clear water that is fed from Sierra Nevada Mountain snowmelt. It’s North America’s largest alpine lake, sitting at 6,225 feet above sea level, and the second deepest lake.
I was surprised to learn that it’s deeper than the Great Lake Superior (the biggest freshwater lake in the world). It’s second in size only to Crater Lake in Oregon.
Arriving first to the north side, our scenic tour would circumnavigate the lake to the east, crossing into Nevada, before reaching the south.
Sand Harbor State Park
Our first stop would be at the stunning Sand-Harbor State Park, which is technically in Nevada. Here we had a generous amount of free time to explore.
We opted to climb down onto the big boulders you see in many photos. The water clarity here is unreal and the colors are equally impressive. We could have spent hours and are definitely inspired to return for a longer visit.
Logan Shoals Viewpoint
Next, we stopped at the Logan Shoals Viewpoint. This spot offers sweeping vistas of the lake in total contrast to our stop at Sand Harbor.
Here, the water is viewed from above, showing off its stunning sapphire color. We even stopped to smell the Jeffery Pines, which surprisingly smell like butterscotch!
Our last stop around Lake Tahoe was at Heavenly Village, a beautiful mountain resort town. Here we enjoyed free time to grab lunch at the Azul Latin Kitchen (the shrimp bowl was delicious) and wander through the shops.
Despite it being a long day of driving from Sacramento, we arrived in the evening at Mammoth Lakes.
We checked into the Mammoth Mountain Inn for 2 nights and then headed straight down to Mammoth Village for a quick stroll before landing at Mammoth Mountain Brewing.
The town itself was pretty quiet but we enjoyed the atmosphere, company, beer, and burgers. It was the perfect introduction to Mammoth Lakes and a sweet end to a full day of exploration.
Day 5 – Bodie Ghost Town & Mono Lake
Today would be our second chance to partake in Globus’s Choice Touring options for this itinerary. Like in Sacramento, our group was offered three options to choose from.
Unfortunately, due to COVID, two of the options (the gondola tour and Mono Lake kayak) were unable to operate.
While this might seem like a disappointment up front, it actually turned out to be the best option. Instead of only one choice, the Globus team was able to amend the schedule to combine two of the original options.
These options took place in the Mammoth Lakes region, near a place called Lee Vining, California.
STROLL: Strike Gold in a Ghost Town
With the other two options canceled, our only option was to join the tour to the Bodie Ghost Town, and we’re so glad we got to see it. Turns out, it’s one of the most well-preserved and detailed ghost towns in the entire USA.
The Bodie State Historic Park tells the story of an isolated town in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range that came to its height in 1876 after gold was discovered nearby. Within 3 years, it had grown to sustain a population of 10,000 inhabitants.
The entire site rests in a state of Arrested Decay, a term used to describe the fact that Bodie has remained untouched since 1942. This means when you peer through windows and enter buildings, you’re seeing everything exactly how it looked when people left.
I won’t lie, it’s a bit eerie to wander the streets, peek through windows, and enter buildings. Our park-provided guide did a fantastic job of telling stories to bring the ghost town to life for us.
We have visited plenty of ghost towns in our travels and we can tell you, without hesitation, that Bodie is the most impressive one we have ever seen. From the furniture to the stacks of medicinal items at the pharmacy and everything in between, you will not be bored when you visit.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
We had originally signed up for the Choice Touring option to kayak Mono Lake. So when Derek told us he was going to add a stop at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, we were ecstatic!
Why? Because this is one of the most unique places you can visit in the USA. Mono Lake is known as the Dead Sea of California. It is 2.5 times saltier and 80 times more alkaline than the ocean.
Due to the fact that the lake has no outlets, it is also the oldest lake in North America, officially considered ancient, and is 1 million years old.
Despite all those facts, what brings people to Mono Lake are the otherworldly tufa spires that rise out of the lake and along the shore.
They are made of solid calcium carbonate that is formed when freshwater springs bubble up and meet the alkaline waters of Mono Lake. It is truly a unique experience to see them up close!
Our group was brought to one of the visitor areas that features a 1-mile-long boardwalk and trail that follows the shore of the lake and then loops back to the parking area. This is one of the most unique and fascinating natural phenomena you can see in California.
After arriving back at the Mammoth Mountain Inn, a small group of us decided to hike the 3-mile return trail behind the lodge to a place called Minaret Vista.
Turns out, this is one of the best places to watch the sunset in Mammoth Lakes, and it did not disappoint.
The hike took us along a well-beaten trail through the forest with a small amount of grade before arriving at the scenic viewpoint.
It is from this viewpoint that you can see the beautiful silhouette of Mammoth Lake’s Minarets against the skyline.
Pairing this with a fiery sunset was one of the most memorable moments of our trip. It was well worth the steps and we highly recommend that you don’t miss it.
Day 6 – Yosemite National Park Sightseeing
One of the things that attracted us to this itinerary was the fact that it includes 3 days in Yosemite National Park. For a group tour, that is very generous.
I’ll admit, we were hesitant about what it would be like to visit a National Park on a group trip. We typically visit them independently and spend the better part of a week seeing it our own way.
Turns out, we had nothing to worry about. Short of partaking in some of the hikes, we saw SO MUCH of Yosemite and have no regrets about choosing a group tour for our first visit to the park.
Tioga Pass Road & Olmstead Point
Beautiful Tenaya Lake Unreal Olmstead Point
Since we were entering Yosemite from Mammoth Lakes, we had the pleasure of seeing the Tioga Pass area of the park. This is a lesser-known, lesser-visited area that is closed part of the year due to snowfall.
It was along this road that we got our first glimpses of Yosemite National Park. We stopped at the beautiful Tenaya Lake to stretch our legs and walk the lakeshore before moving on to Olmstead Point.
While most people flock to Glacier Point for views of Half Dome, Olmstead Point offers a completely different perspective of the backside. With my zoom lens, I was able to see people climbing to the top. They literally looked like ants marching along its solid rock outline.
After the spectacular introduction to the park, we arrived in Yosemite Valley where we had a few hours to grab a bit to eat and explore.
The valley is the most popular place to visit in Yosemite National Park. It offers lodging, camping, food options, a museum, the main visitor’s center, and access to many spectacular hiking trails.
We didn’t hesitate to hit the ground running and headed off for 2 hours of hiking on the valley floor in search of the best views we could find. It wasn’t hard.
Sadly, though, we did not get to witness the power and beauty of the Yosemite waterfalls. Every one of them was dried up, as it was late fall, and they rely on snowmelt.
This didn’t stop us from crisscrossing the valley on the various trails, including stops at Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite Valley Chapel, and the Merced River.
Scenic Viewpoint Stops
Tunnel View Valley View
Unfortunately, one of the Choice Touring options to take a tram tour of Yosemite’s best viewpoint was canceled due to COVID. However, it turned out to be a win for the entire group when Derek recreated the tour upon leaving the valley.
This had us standing in awe at the Valley View, Tunnel View, and El Capitan viewpoints in the beautiful evening light.
It honestly could not have been better executed and we were super impressed with Derek’s desire to make everyone’s experience in Yosemite National Park memorable.
After a good day, we checked into the stunning Tenaya Lodge for 3 nights, located just outside of the entrance to Yosemite National Park.
Day 7 – Choice Touring in Yosemite National Park
Today the Choice Touring options for Yosemite would come into play. Globus offers three options for you to customize your experience.
- GAZE: Westward Ho – a 2-hour tram ride to popular viewpoints
- STROLL: A Kaleidoscope of Black & White – 2-hour photo tour with the Ansel Adams Gallery
- TREK: Yosemite Naturally – a guided hike with a naturalist
We never pass up the opportunity to expand our creativity and knowledge in photography, so we were excited to join the photo tour.
STROLL: A Kaleidoscope of Black & White
Our photography tour took place in Yosemite Valley with the Ansel Adams Gallery. For those not familiar, Ansel Adams is famous for the black and white photos he created of America’s natural wonders. Yosemite, though, was his specialty.
The 2.5-hour tour walked us to some of the most famous vantage points of Ansel’s work and with a knowledgeable guide, we were able to recreate some of the images.
We also discussed the use of light, shadows, composition, color vs black & white, common misconceptions in photography, and the life of Ansel Adam himself.
Inspired by Ansel My favorite capture from the tour
Most importantly, we talked about how photography is a form of art. That means there really is no ‘right’ way to do it. Images become a manifestation of the story that the creator is trying to tell. That we shouldn’t be afraid of expressing ourselves or photographing things in an unconventional way.
Lastly, we talked about how photography evolves. This was something I really took to heart as a photographer.
My style has evolved and changed so much from when I started that I will often go back and rework entire collections of photos from our past travels. This is normal and this is healthy. As a busy creator, I needed to hear this.
The afternoon was a free time back at the Tenaya Lodge before a group of us met for dinner at the attached Jackelope’s Restaurant. Their food is excellent, by the way, and we never had a bad meal. The bar also serves strong drinks.
Immediately following dinner, we moved to the outside fire pits where we were able to roast smores, share stories, and contemplate the meaning of life with our new travel friends.
Seeing the sites is always wonderful but some of the best memories come from the human connections we make while doing that.
Day 8 – Free Day in Yosemite National Park
Our last day in Yosemite National Park was a free day with no scheduled activities. You had the choice to relax at Tenaya Lodge, book a spa appointment, hike around the lodge or book a day tour to see other parts of the park.
Normally people would have the opportunity to see the Mariposa Grove, the largest and most impressive grove in the park, that is located very close to Tenaya Lodge. However, the shuttle was not running and the only way to enter was via a 2-mile hike.
Due to having so many things on the Yosemite itinerary altered due to COVID restrictions, and the challenge of visiting the Mariposa Grove, Derek organized an included day trip to the Tuolumne Grove to see sequoias. Most people on the tour took this option and enjoyed their day.
Customizing with a Private Tour
Since we never turn away from a challenge, we opted for the ultimate in Choice Touring and organized a private full-day tour with Discover Yosemite Tours to visit the Mariposa Grove and Glacier Point.
Derek provided us with the information for the best tour company in Yosemite National Park and we were able to arrange our tour by phone with ease.
Our full-day private tour included transportation, lunch, water, Yosemite entrance fees, and a naturalist guide.
A handful of the other photographers on the trip joined us and we had an amazing day in the park. We put together a custom itinerary with a lot of hiking that gave us all the time we needed to take photos and create video content.
Mariposa Grove – Giant Sequoias
Mariposa Grove is the largest sequoia grove in Yosemite National Park and is home to 500 magnificent, mature giant sequoia trees. This includes the famed Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree.
The National Park Service usually operates a shuttle to access the grove in an effort to control and monitor the environmental effects of foot traffic on the trees. With COVID restrictions in place, the shuttle was not operating during our visit.
We were fully prepared to make the 4-mile round trip hike (not including hiking within the grove) to access the grove when we booked our private day tour.
Turns out, they had a better plan and knew of a more secret way to access the grove from the adjacent National Forest.
From this point, we were quickly within the grove and it was nothing short of magical. We walked among the giant trees in the most beautiful morning light and this was one of our favorite National Park experiences we’ve ever had. Hands down.
We hiked just short of 8 miles combing portions of the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, Guardians Loop Trail, Mariposa Grove Trail, and the Perimeter Trail.
Along this route, we had the pleasure of getting up close with the Grizzly Giant, California Tunnel Tree, The Bachelor, Three Graces, Wawona Tunnel Tree, the Telescope Tree, the Faithful Couple, and the Mariposa Grove Cabin.
After a dreamy morning in the Mariposa Grove, we called in at the Wawona Covered Bridge to enjoy our picnic lunch before moving on to one of the most scenic drives in Yosemite National Park, the Glacier Point Road.
This drive is popular because it offers access to many of the best hiking trails in Yosemite, such as Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, Bridalveil Creek, and the Panorama Trail. Additionally, it is not uncommon to see bears and other wildlife along this drive.
Something worth noting is that this road is only open from June to November as it gains a lot of elevation and becomes impassable with snow outside of that window.
While visiting in late September, we had no issues completing the drive to the top. It is here that you can hike around on easy trails to the various viewpoints that offer a bird’s eye view of Yosemite Valley and the front face of Half Dome.
Don’t miss a stop at the corner turn, just before you reach the top, for the famous road view of Half Dome.
Farewell Dinner & Stargazing
After an incredible day in the park, we all came together for an included farewell dinner in a private banquet room at the Tenaya Lodge. The wine was flowing, the food was tasty, and we spent the better part of 2 hours solidifying friendships made on our tour.
Following dinner, we all gathered behind the lodge for an informative and fun guided stargazing experience with one of the National Park Service rangers.
If you ever wanted to feel small, or really gain perspective on your place in the universe, this is one experience you shouldn’t miss.
We pointed out constellations, listened to stories, and learned about the park’s dark sky efforts. All while admiring a spectacularly clear sky and thousands of stars. It was the perfect way to end our Northern California trip.
Day 9 – Return to San Francisco
Leaving Yosemite National Park, we loaded up on the bus one last time and made our way back to San Francisco. It’s always hard to say goodbye to new friends, but we hug and remember that we’ll always have California.
Some of the people on our group tour opted to extend their trip in San Francisco with Globus, which includes accommodation and a couple of days of touring the city.
For us, it was a drop-off at the airport, a red-eye flight back to the Midwest, and on to the next adventure.
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