Emerald hills, glassy lakes, massive redwoods, rugged coastline—the geological diversity of this trip will take your breath away
You don’t have to be a student to enjoy the perks of this ag-oriented college town with a university at its core. Started as the agricultural extension for University of California, Berkeley, U.C. Davis soon became its own campus, with strong veterinary, viticulture, and agricultural departments. Davis’ flat-as-a-pancake terrain makes the town a haven for bicycles—it’s said there are more bikes than people here, and the town is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, with memorabilia and gear from top racers and events. Rent two wheels to follow some 100 miles of bike lanes and paved paths: loop through the lush U.C. Davis Arboretum, then pedal downtown along streets lined with shops, galleries, and restaurants serving international cuisine. Time your visit to sync with the twice-weekly farmers’ market, or to catch a performance at the soaring Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.
When the flowers bloom (June through September), Metzger’s Zinnia Patch in Woodland is open to the public for free picking.
The largest freshwater lake located entirely within the Golden State, Clear Lake is a fisherman’s dream. With more fish per square acre here than anywhere else in the country, the odds are strongly in your favor. Rent gear from Konocti Bait Shack, and fish off the piers at Lucerne’s Alpine Park. The shop’s friendly fishermen are happy to connect you with a local guide if you’d like to get out on the water. For those not interested in angling, water sports can be enjoyed in the spring, summer, and fall.
Stop at Marcel’s French Bakery and Cafe in Clearlake Oaks.
Lake County is an under-the-radar wine region with a number of vineyards nestled up in the hills. Elegant grounds, stunning views, and award-winning wines from one of only two transverse valley AVAs in California make Brassfield Estate in Clear Oaks a must-visit. Drive down a road lined with stately oak trees before reaching the Franciscan villa surrounded by topiaries. Each of the winery’s varietals are grown, produced, and bottled at the estate. Opt for a tasting or call in advance for the Farm to Bottle Vineyard Tour.
The rooms in this lakeside bed-and-breakfast are standalone train cars, each with a view of the water from the back deck or enclosed cupola.
Although it’s the largest city in Mendocino County, Ukiah retains a small-town feel. Agriculture is central here—drive through and you’ll see carefully maintained vineyards, serene pastures dotted with cows, and deciduous trees dripping in moss. On drizzly days, the water sticks to the moss, making the limbs sparkle in soft green. Stop in any one of Ukiah’s laidback wineries, or head to Ukiah Brewing Company, the first organic brewery in the United States. Visit J Bar and S Ranch to admire the bison before grabbing some homemade jerky for the car or a few fresh steaks to grill over the campfire.
Located in Leggett, this reserve serves as an ideal entry point to redwood country, which stretches to the north for miles. Experience the wonder of a walk-through tree or take a short hike to a 60-foot waterfall. Nestled against the south fork of the Eel River, Smithe Redwoods State Natural Reserve, named for the Frank and Bess Smith old-growth redwood grove, offers recreation in the form of fishing and swimming as well. Reserve a campsite to sleep under the shaded arms of ancient pines.
A drive down the 31-mile-long Avenue of the Giants is a guaranteed jaw-dropper. The narrow road snakes along one of California’s most beautiful greenbelts, a prehistoric forest featuring 2,000-plus-year-old trees. Kids love a squeeze through the privately-operated Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, and there are plenty of short hikes that are perfect for little legs. Stop in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center for a map and a ranger will help you choose a few groves to explore along the way. Favorites include the Immortal Tree, which has weathered floods and a lightning strike, and Founders Grove Nature Trail, where you can wrap your arms around a 325-foot-tall giant.
Pause in Fortuna’s Eel River Brewing for a late lunch and a pint of organic amber ale.
To drive over the Eel River into idyllic Ferndale feels like a trip through time; the quaint town embodies big charm. Streets are lined with intricately-painted Victorian homes complete with turrets and trim. In the 19th century, a booming dairy industry allowed prosperous farmers to build glorious estates known as “Butterfat Palaces.” Visitors can be their own dairy queen (or king) for a day with a stay at the impossibly cute Gingerbread Mansion Inn. Don’t miss the complimentary afternoon tea and wine service served in the rose-bush-filled English garden.
Less than six miles outside of downtown Ferndale, the Lost Coast Headlands look like the edge of the world in the most wonderful way. Rugged, beautiful, and almost supernatural, the headlands are an accessible section of California’s remote Lost Coast. Steep cliffs separate the coastline from lush pastures, which thrive with wildflowers in spring. Park at Fleener Creek trailhead for a short and steep hike down to the beach where you can comb for driftwood or enjoy an incredible sunset from the shore.