North of San Francisco, there's a whole other world of California, where rugged cliffs, towering redwood trees, and artsy towns dot an idyllic coastline. Here, you'll find scenic views around every corner and vast areas of unspoiled nature perfect for peaceful outdoor exploring.
Marvel at the pastel glass covering Glass Beach, Fort Bragg’s historic former trash dump that’s now one of the largest sea glass repositories in the world. Discarded soda bottles and other items, tumbled and polished by the ocean waves, have been transformed into smooth, colorful jewels. A paved trail travels north from Glass Beach through MacKerricher State Park, offering wave-breaking views of Ten Mile Beach. Walk or bike its length, then cap off the day with a beer flight at North Coast Brewing Company in downtown Fort Bragg. The taproom hosts live jazz dinner concerts on weekend nights.
Point Arena Lighthouse
Reaching 115 feet into the sky, Point Arena Lighthouse stands sentinel on a rocky promontory, surrounded by water on three sides. Climb 145 steps to the top of this historic landmark, then soak in 360-degree views of sea stacks, rock arches, and crashing waves. Stop in at the visitor center to see a collection of maritime photos and exhibits. Can’t bear to leave? Book a stay in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
Stornetta Public Lands
Hike the paths off Lighthouse Road in Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands to see sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals. You’ll find everything a coast lover craves: blowholes, dunes, beaches, tide pools, and lingering sunsets. There’s even a waterfall in the wet season, when Stornetta Falls cascades 40 feet over the coastal bluffs and into the Pacific.
The dunes at Manchester Beach back a driftwood-laden swath of sand, ideal for long walks spent searching for washed-in treasures. Plan to leave thousands of footprints on this five-mile-long beach. When night falls, pitch your tent at Manchester State Park’s campground.
While in Point Arena, be sure to check your tide table. During extremely low tides, walk from Schooner Gulch State Beach to Bowling Ball Beach to see its astounding assemblage of round rocks, formed by millions of years of weathering.
Sonoma Coast State Park
The picturesque town of Jenner is the gateway to dozens of beaches in Sonoma Coast State Park. Drive out to the headlands at Goat Rock Beach to watch the harbor seals’ antics, then stroll along the tan sand. Take a longer walk on the Kortum Trail, tracing along the bluff tops from Blind Beach to Shell Beach. At the mouth of the Jenner River, follow steep paths downhill from Highway 1 to Jenner Beach. Scan the seas for gray whales or snap photos of postcard-perfect offshore sea stacks.
Where to stay
In Mendocino, the 19-room MacCallum House offers a cozy stay in a Victorian house built in 1882, with the option to book a luxury mansion overlooking the Pacific. Nearby, the eco-friendly Stanford Inn by the Sea gives a family-farm vibe, with its organic gardens and elaborate wellness programs. Ten minutes south in Albion, you'll find romantic oceanfront cottages at the Albion River Inn that include private decks, large soaking tubs, and fireplaces. For a serene getaway overlooking the rugged Sonoma Coast, the Sea Ranch Lodge gives visitors a very secluded place to relax after a day of wandering nearby hiking trails.
Romance finds a home in this idyllic coastal land, where ocean fog rolls in from the ocean to blanket hushed redwood forests. Along more than 100 miles of coast, artists set up their easels to paint scenes of pounding surf, picturesque headlands, and whitewashed cottages wrapped in rose-filled gardens. And in towns and hamlets, a new generation of farmers and winemakers focus on preserving the land as well as producing amazing food and wine. In this burgeoning culinary scene, every hyper-local specialty is worth a try: slapping-fresh seafood, artisan cheese, grass-fed beef, locally foraged mushrooms, bold ciders, and hoppy beer.
Favorite escapes include the romantic hamlet of Mendocino, roughly a 3-hour drive up the coast from San Francisco. Steep roofs, tall water towers, and leaded windows appear plucked from a classic New England town. Wander among the meticulously restored historic buildings to browse eclectic galleries and charming shops. Or visit the harbor town of Trinidad, nestled on picture-perfect headlands overlooking a teacup harbor; or stroll through history-rich Eureka, a former logging town filled with grand Victorians and gilded mansions. Every town along the North Coast celebrates its annual seagoing visitors—from December through May, about 20,000 gray whales travel along the coast on their annual migration.
Of course, this region is also the gateway to breathtaking Redwood National and State Parks, where the tallest trees in the world grow in primeval wilderness. Towering more than 300 feet high, the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) take your breath away, whether it’s your first time seeing them or your one hundredth. Drive the 31-mile stretch along Avenue of the Giants or the 10-mile Newton B. Drury Redwood Scenic Parkway to marvel at the massive trees right from your car. The stunning redwoods in Lady Bird Johnson Grove can be seen on a relatively easy 1.5-mile hike. Or go explore the otherworldly delights of the 0.7-mile Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which takes hikers through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to a steep-walled canyon covered in ferns.
See the forest, enjoy the trees, but don’t forget the “coast” component of the Redwood Coast. Hike the California Coastal Trail at Humboldt Lagoons, head to Moonstone Beach to watch pelicans swoop above the mossy cliffs, or check out Agate Beach to search for its precious namesake rock. If you’re visiting in November, December, March, or April, you have a good chance of witnessing the gray whale migration. Bring a pair of binoculars to High Bluff Beach, or get up close and personal with an ocean tour from Pacific Outfitters.
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