Take the roads less travelled on this coastal road trip. From San Francisco, head north to discover secret wine country, driftwood strewn beaches and romantic coastal hamlets like Mendocino. Escape to cosy B&Bs and exclusive inns, paddle along a secret river, watch the horizon for spouting whales and watch the fog roll in at sunset.
Start your trip with 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 transport. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that is 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 on 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 along boutique-lined Maiden Lane, a pedestrian only thoroughfare during the day, when cafés set up tables and chairs right in the street. Nearby Westfield Mall, a dazzling complex on once scruffy but now cleaned up Market Street, glitters with even more shops, including a deluxe food area on the lower level. At night, catch a show in the theatre district, or head to North Beach to see Beach Blanket Babylon, a raucous and irreverent San Francisco institution. For more nightlife and dining, wander alongValencia Street and adjacent streets in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hotbed of restaurants and bars, and try some great late night scoops at Bi Rite Ice Cream.
Next stop, drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge to unforgettable Point Reyes National Seashore.
Journey north through coastal mountains and valleys to this remarkable peninsula at the northern end of Marin County. Jutting dozens of miles out into the sea, this extraordinary peninsula is loaded with amazing discoveries, including remarkable wildlife, deep forests, dramatic sea cliffs and remote beaches.
To get yourself oriented, stop by the outstanding Bear Valley Nature Centre, with children friendly displays, maps and helpful rangers. The fairly flat, pushchair friendly Bear Valley Trail is a popular walk or bike ride.
No matter what time of year you visit, there is always 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 grey whales passing remarkably close. (It helps when you just push out into their swimming lanes). In spring, walk the trail to Chimney Rock to see countless wild flowers (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 cosy village of Point Reyes Station. And in autumn, listen for the eerie bugle of tule elk bulls. You can usually spot individuals or small herds of these native elk in the Tomales Point preserve area, at the tip of the park.
Continue north to charming and romantic Mendocino.
Continue north along the wild coast (plenty of places to pull over 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 tranquillity 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 through 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 quite a few menus. Victorian era homes, converted into B&Bs at every level of luxury, 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 will 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 fashioned way with a ride on this California classic. Originally built to transport redwood logs from the rugged back-country to the coast, this 1885 heritage railway 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!' Young children 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 north-east to this remarkable route, a narrow strip of Highway 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 pass 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 kitsch charm to your visit. Order an espresso in the famous One Log House, we know it is famous because it says so right on its sign, and the privately owned (in other words, there is a fee) Shrine Drive Thru Tree. This is the kind of stuff that you’ll want to buy a bumpersticker for 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 park, ask for suggestions with a visit to the excellent park headquarters in Weott. Avenue of the Giants (Highway 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 Founders Grove, honouring the people behind the formation of the Save the Redwoods League in 1918, an organisation that played a critical role in the permanent protection of these remarkable trees. Or, if you are feeling ambitious, complete the entire 7.5 mile 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 are feeling adventurous, follow Mattole Road, a squiggle of asphalt winding west then north along the coast, for some of the wildest and remote views 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 Highway 101, then head south-west on State Route 211 to Ferndale. This remote village features carefully preserved Victorian erahomes and feels like a fairytalecome to life, a visual and architectural feast. On a peaceful foggy morning or sunny afternoon, take a stroll on Main Street to see buildings in all their gingerbread finery. Many buildings now house B&Bs, artisan chocolatiers, galleries and craft shops. Christmas holidays are especially magical, with locals stringing twinkly lights everywhere, and horse drawn carriages giving clip clop rides around town.
ut 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 in this 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.
After so much wildness on the first half of your trip, Eureka is an inviting and lively switch. This once rough and tumble seaport town, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, has a 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 harbour, logging trucks rumbling through town and an eco-conscious college vibe thanks to Humboldt State University 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 harbour 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 Eureka Visitors 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.
Eureka also has the distinction of being the southern gateway to the Redwood National & State Historic Parks, a World Heritage Site and one of the most unforgettable settings in California. Continue there for your next stop.
The bustle of Eureka drops away quickly as you head north towards the north-west corner of the state. In less than two hours you will reach one ofCalifornia’s crown jewels, a World Heritage Site protecting nearly half of the 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 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 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 are strongly advised.
Insider tip: The region is green for a reason: annual rainfall, which normally falls from October through to April, averages 60 to 80 inches, so bring rain gear and sturdy, non-slip 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 lighthouses. Overlooking the town’s harbour, the 1856 Battery Point Lighthouse, built with 22-inch 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 offshore. It was built after the 1865 shipwreck of the Brother Jonathan, which carried passengers and was rumoured to hold 1.5 tons 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 Centre, injured elephant seals and sea lions get some care and healing time before being released back into 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 (not to be confused with the world famous Pebble Beach Resorts which is found further south on the Monterey Peninsula), a great place to search for agates and other semi-precious gemstones.