If sand, sea and solitude are on your road trip wish list, this is the perfect itinerary for you.
Trinidad is what happens when picture-perfect headlands collide with a teacup harbor dotted with wave-sculpted sea stacks. One of Northern California’s prettiest villages, the seaside enclave makes a great base for exploring up and down the Redwood Coast or staying local and discovering under-the-radar beaches. Off Stagecoach Road, forested trails lace across the Elk Head bluffs, dropping down to secluded College Cove Beach. Sprawl on the sand and enjoy breathtaking views of tree-covered Pewetole Island and offshore sea stacks. At Patrick’s Point State Park, search for sea-polished agates and moonstones at Agate Beach, then climb to the top of Wedding Rock. Without leaving town, you can kayak around Trinidad Bay to see seabirds, seals, and tidepool creatures, or hike to the top of Trinidad Head to scan for whales. Afterward, refuel at the Lighthouse Grill with a mashed-potato waffle cone loaded with bacon and cheese. For the trip home, pack your car with smoked, line-caught seafood from Katy’s Smokehouse.
Enjoy sightseeing and a jolt of artisanal coffee at Mind’s Eye Manufactory in Ferndale.
On the northern end of California’s remote Lost Coast, the King Range Conservation Area writes “coastal grandeur” in very large letters, with peaks soaring 4,000 feet above the sea. Get a taste of the region at Mattole River Beach, a narrow and winding drive from US 101. The river’s sandy mouth is prime beachcombing terrain, with shifting dunes and a supply of driftwood that’s perpetually replenished. Getting here is a commitment—it takes 90 minutes to drive the 40 miles from Ferndale—so consider spending the night at 14-site Mattole Campground. In the morning, hike south for 3.5 miles to the abandoned lighthouse at Punta Gorda, which warned ships away from this rocky coast from 1912 until 1951, when it was replaced by an offshore navigational beacon.
Thirty miles north of Mendocino lies three-mile-long Westport Union-Landing State Beach, a largely deserted swath of sand backed by white-crested waves. The water is too rough and cold for swimming, but the beach is a fine place for capturing photos of the raw and romantic shoreline and ancient offshore rocks, or taking long walks searching for washed-up treasures. Make footprints on the sand all day, then set up your tent for the night. Three separate campgrounds line the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, all perfectly positioned for sunsets. In spring and summer, get up early to watch the surf fishermen hauling in spawning smelt. (If you’re not into camping, book a room at Howard Creek Ranch Inn’s oceanfront farmhouse, where you’ll enjoy lavish breakfasts and glorious gardens.)
Miles of Brussels sprouts fields line both sides of the highway north of the vibrant city of Santa Cruz. Stop at Wilder Ranch State Park for a 1.2-mile seaside stroll along the coastal bluffs, passing crashing waves and diving seabirds. Follow the Old Landing Cove Trail to the Ohlone Bluffs Trail and Fern Grotto Beach, where a hidden, fern-draped cave is fed by an underground spring. Allow a little extra time to explore the park’s historic buildings, which include an 1859 Greek Revival farmhouse, an 1897 Queen Anne Victorian, and several dairy barns and outbuildings. Mountain bikers find nirvana on Wilder Ranch’s 35 miles of single-track and hilly ranch roads on the eastern side of Highway 1.