Take the roads less traveled on this coastal road trip. From San Francisco, head north to discover secret wine country, driftwood-strewn beaches, and romantic coastal hamlets such as Mendocino. Escape to cozy B&Bs and exclusive inns, paddle a quiet cove, watch the horizon for spouting whales, and watch the fog roll in at sunset.
Start your trip to one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to explore “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a park, or head into Golden Gate Park to visit museums and row across a secret gem, Stow Lake. Continue along the flat Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Exploratorium science and learning museum.
Return your bikes and hop a cable car to ride over the hill to the high-end shops and enormous Macy’s, NikeTown, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus around bustling Union Square, with a stop for Italian pastries and cappuccino at Emporio Rulli right in the square. Nearby, stroll boutique-lined Maiden Lane—pedestrian only thoroughfare during the day, when cafes set up tables and chairs right in the street. Nearby Westfield Mall, a dazzling complex on once scruffy but now spiffed up Market Street, glitters with even more stores, including an deluxe food court on the lower level. At night, catch a show in the theater district, or head to North Beach to see Beach Blanket Babylon, a raucous and irreverent San Francisco institution. For more nightlife and dining, stroll Valencia Street in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hotbed of restaurants and bars, and awesome late-night scoops at Bi-Rite Ice Cream.
Next stop, drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge to unforgettable Point Reyes National Seashore.
Follow the coast, past broad Stinson Beach and the sparkling Bolinas Lagoon (a great place for kayaking and birding) to this extraordinary peninsula. Jutting dozens of miles out into the sea, Point Reyes is loaded with amazing discoveries, including remarkable wildlife, deep forests, dramatic sea cliffs, and remote beaches.
No matter what time of year you visit, there’s something extraordinary to see and do. In winter, travel to the tip of the point (a shuttle takes you the last few miles) to look for migrating gray whales passing remarkably close. (It helps when you just out into their swimming lanes). In spring, walk the trail to Chimney Rock to see countless wildflowers (look for puffins nesting on oceanfront cliffs), or follow a trail lined with irises into a rare Bishop pine forest. In summer, watch the cool fog tumble in, then have a cup of cocoa in the cozy village of Point Reyes Station. And in fall, listen for the eerie bugle of tule elk bulls; can usually spot individuals or small herds of these native elk in the Tomales Point preserve area, at the tip of the park.
To get yourself oriented, stop by the outstanding Bear Valley Nature Center, with kid-friendly displays, maps, and helpful rangers. The fairly flat, stroller-friendly Bear Valley Trail makes a popular leg-stretch or bike ride.
Your road trip now heads inland to explore some of the finest wine country in the world.
Continue north along the wild coast (plenty of turnouts for photos) to this charming hamlet, perched on a wave-carved headland, sandwiched between thick forests and a restless sea. With fewer than 1,000 year-round residents and this remote location, Mendocino offers tranquility in a spectacular North Coast setting. Mendocino’s dramatic location is a natural magnet for artists, and you can often see them, easels propped and paint palettes out, capturing the scene on their canvases. Mendocino is meant for walking, so stroll the little streets with shops selling local artwork, then pop in for a coffee and chat with the locals. Take a walk along the bluffs, especially at sunset on fog-free evenings. The region’s wild natural setting and isolation have also drawn alternative thinkers and environmentalists, and the word “organic” pops up on many a menu. Victorian-era homes, converted into B&Bs in every level of poshness, look like gingerbread houses come to life. Mendocino also knows how to throw a good party, especially when it comes to food, and annual festivals celebrate mushrooms, wine, and crab, as well as the region’s largest inhabitants, whales.
Head to Fort Bragg for a trip through coastal redwoods on the historic Skunk Train.
Continuing north, past crashing waves and sea stacks offshore, you’ll notice the surrounding redwood forests get taller and thicker—in fact, this region is home to the world’s tallest trees. Explore them in a fun, old-timey way with a ride on this California classic. Originally built to transport redwood logs from the rugged backcountry to the coast, this 1885 heritage railroad now ferries sightseers to and fro between the waterfront town of Fort Bragg inland to the cowboy town of Willits. Steam- and diesel-powered trains chug through the lush redwood forests of the California Coast Range, zigzagging along the Noyo River—keep your eyes peeled for deer, egrets and other waterfowl, and the occasional river otter. Riding “The Skunk” is a long-standing family tradition for many Californians, with new generations getting wide-eyed and excited when the conductor bellows, “All aboard!” Little ones leave nose prints on the windows as Ole’ No. 45 charges through a 1,122-foot tunnel, crosses over 30 trestles, and sends clouds of steam skyward. Year-round trips range from sunset barbecue cruises to overnight excursions where passengers spend the night in tents set up on the site of a historic logging camp.
Next stop is a drive through the Avenue of Giants for dramatic views of towering coast redwoods.
From Fort Bragg and the Skunk Train fun, continue northeast to this remarkable route—a narrow strip of U.S. 101 with coast redwoods so close and so tall that they create a dramatic wall of enormous russet trunks rocketing skyward as you wind through the forest.
Some of the route’s 32 miles/56 kilometers passes through the impressive stands protected within Humboldt Redwoods State Park (for more details, see next stop). Aside from the park and the sheer beauty of the drive, there are other historic finds along the way, such as the lookalike cottages in the tiny town of Scotia, once a booming “company town” for the local lumber company. And there are a handful of gift shops with tables made out of redwood burls, and folksy attractions that can add a kitschy charm to your visit. Order an espresso in the famous One-Log House (we know it’s famous because it says so right on its sign) and the privately owned (in other words, there’s a fee) Shrine Drive-Thru Tree. This is the kind of stuff that it really is fun to buy a bumper sticker and say you did it when you get back home.
Plan time now to explore historic and impressive Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Now that you’ve seen the towering trees lining Avenue of the Giants, here is your chance to learn more about these remarkable giants of the plant world, and explore the emerald-green habitat where they live. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy strolls in this 53,000-acre/21,448-hectare—ask for suggestions with a visit to the excellent park headquarters in Weott. Avenue of the Giants (U.S. 101) runs right through the park, so you can easily turn off to explore on an assortment of trails. A great way to go is to follow the Bull Creek Loop for as long as you like—the first mile or so takes in impressive trees, including those Founders Grove, honoring the people behind the formation of Save the Redwoods League in 1918, an organization that played a critical in the permanent protection of these remarkable trees. Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, complete the entire 7.5-mile/12-km loop, which lets you experience the remarkable Rockefeller Forest, home to the world’s 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th tallest trees.
Continue north to the fairytale village of Ferndale.
From Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the land gets even wilder, the redwoods even taller and thicker. If you’re feeling adventurous, follow Mattole Road, a squiggle of pavement winding west then north along the coast, for some of the wildest and remote vistas anywhere in California. (In fact, the region south of here, King Range National Conservation Area, is nicknamed “The Lost Coast,” a legendary destination for backpackers.) For a tamer drive, continue north on U.S. 101, then head southwest on State Route 211 to Ferndale. This remote village features of carefully preserved Victorian-era century homes, feels like a fairytale come to life, a visual and architectural feast. On a peaceful foggy morning or sunny afternoon, stroll Main Street to see buildings in all their gingerbread finery; many buildings now house B&Bs, artisan chocolatiers, galleries, and craft shops. (Holidays are especially magical, with locals stringing twinkly lights everywhere, and horse-drawn carriages giving clip-clop rides around town.)
But no, this is no façade dressed up for show only. Ferndale is very much a working town, the provenance of Scandinavian, Swiss-Italian, and Portuguese immigrants who settled the tucked-away community in the mid-1800s, drawn here by the booming dairy industry. Read their names in Ferndale’s 1868 cemetery, one of the state’s most beautiful burial sites. Take in sweeping views of the one-square-mile town. Let your eyes follow the Eel River westward to the sea, five miles away—a view little changed since those settlers came here long ago.
Continue north to the historic logging city of Eureka.
This lively seaport town, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, has split-personality charm: a sense of history in the handsomely restored, Victorian-era Old Town district, a still-working seaport where crusty fishing boats chug in and out of a protected harbor, logging trucks rumbling through town, and an eco-conscious college vibe thanks to Humboldt State, in the nearby town of Arcata. Hundreds of ornate 19th-century homes, like the Carson Mansion, a paragon of Queen Anne architecture now housing a private club at the end of Second Street, reflect the prosperity of Eureka’s formative years, when lumber was king. The entire city is a state historic landmark, a captivating mix of nature and culture with a small-town feel.
Start your visit along the waterfront, where a pretty esplanade provides nice views of the harbor and adjacent Humboldt Bay. Visit the small maritime museum, then board the MV Madaket, a snug ferryboat plying the bay since 1910, for 75 -minute guided cruise. In adjacent Old Town, beeline to the outstanding Humboldt Bay Tourism Center, where you can sample local wines, beers, and local oysters, ask for tips on nearby galleries, gift shops, and eateries, and book guided tours and adventures.
Continue south along the wild coast (plenty of turnouts for photos) to Mendocino, one of California’s most romantic hamlets.
The bustle of Eureka drops away quickly as you head north towards the northwest corner of the state. In less than two hours you’ll reach one California’s crown jewels, a World Heritage Site protecting nearly half of the world’s world’s tallest trees. This spectacular network of national and state parks has dozens of soft paths letting you walk among soaring coast redwoods, which grow over 350 feet/107 meters high. Learn more about the region, and get great tips from knowledgeable rangers, by starting your visit with a stop at the outstanding Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, on a sandy bluff on the south end of the parkland. Ask about ranger-led walks through emerald-green Fern Canyon, or where to see majestic (and big) Roosevelt elk graze in grassy prairies. (Our tip: head to appropriately named Elk Meadow, or to the dunes of Gold Bluffs Beach, both in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. For a novel way to explore, consider a guided horseback ride with the Redwood Creek Buckarettes, or ride mountain bikes with Redwood Adventures. Camping is popular here, especially in summer, with sites in lush groves, sheltered bluffs, or wild beaches; reservations strongly advised.
Insider tip: The region is green for a reason: annual rainfall, which normally falls from October through April, averages 60 to 80 inches/152 to 203 centimeters, so bring raingear and sturdy, nonslip shoes.
Next stop takes you north to Crescent City and a pair of historic lighthouses.
The last stop on this spectacular road trip ends at the very last city in California. Only 20 miles south of Oregon, sea-faring Crescent City is home to the northernmost of California’s lighthouse stations. Overlooking the town’s harbor, the 1856 Battery Point Lighthouse, built with 22-inch/56-cm-thick slabs of granite, sits on a tiny island that can only be reached on foot at low tide. When the water recedes, visitors walk across the causeway, climb the narrow spiral staircase to the lamp room, then crawl up a ladder and through a trap door for a spectacular 360-degree view. A few miles away is Crescent City’s other lighthouse at St. George Reef, 6 miles/9.6 kilometers offshore. It was built after the 1865 shipwreck of the Brother Jonathan, which carried passengers and rumored to hold 1.5 tons/1,361 kilograms of gold coins and bullion, much of which has never been recovered. See the lighthouse from the public walking trails along the bluffs at Point St. George. Its original first-order Fresnel lens can be viewed at the Del Norte County Main Museum.
After getting your fill of lighthouses, wander the Crescent City waterfront and marvel at how this city was entirely rebuilt after a devastating tsunami in 1964 (you’ll see tsunami warning signs all over town). At Ocean World aquarium, the sea lions balance balls and play catch with visitors, while at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, injured elephant seals and sea lions get some TLC and healing time before being released back to the wild. Call ahead to find out the pinnipeds’ feeding time, the most interesting time to visit. On the town’s west end is oceanfront Pebble Beach Drive with easy access to Pebble Beach, a great place to search for agates and other semi-precious gemstones.