American Road Trips
Find Hidden Gems on a Road Trip Along California’s Pacific Coast Highway
Spend five days enjoying fresh seafood, leisurely hikes and gorgeous ocean vistas
Mother Nature does some of her best work along California’s popular Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) between Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, head north from the latter’s Golden Gate Bridge, and you’ll discover more of a secret: all the splendor that the highway delivers beyond the Bay Area. The road trip’s driving distance is short — just 172 miles from the bridge to Fort Bragg — but you’ll find pinch-me views, interesting pit stops and endless natural treasures on your journey (not to mention exciting whale-watching, primarily between November and April). It also offers the perfect opportunity to unplug: Cellphone service will be spotty on your journey.
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From San Francisco, make your way to Highway 1 via Highway 101, a thoroughfare that includes the Golden Gate Bridge. After crossing the storied bridge, continue north for 6 miles to the Stinson Beach/Mill Valley exit, where you’ll connect to Highway 1. Follow the two-lane road as it ascends through residential neighborhoods, eventually giving way to rolling coastal hills. About 4 miles up the scenic highway, make a slight detour and go east on Panoramic Highway to your first stop: Muir Woods National Monument (you must book parking in advance). Here, an easy stroll or longer hike takes you through groves of ancient redwood trees 600 to 800 years old.
Return to Highway 1 and continue for 4 zigzagging miles to Stinson Beach, a popular weekend destination for sunseekers who come to sink their toes into the gently curving crescent of white sand. Grab lunch at the Parkside Café (good choices: clam chowder, crab cakes and seafood stew), or sidle up to its snack bar for decadent soft-serve ice cream and milkshakes made with half-and-half. Spend the afternoon strolling the wide beach, watching surfers or napping in the sunshine. If you’re lucky, a fog-free sunset will cap off your day. When you’ve had enough beach time, hit the road for charming Bolinas, just 6 miles away.
Where to stay: At Smiley’s in Bolinas, you’ll find six well-appointed and comfortable hotel rooms up a leafy path behind its saloon, established in 1851 and rumored to be the oldest continually operating saloon on the West Coast. Dine on Mexican cantina fare and listen to live music on weekends.
Day 2: Bolinas to Bodega Bay (45 miles)
You could cover today’s driving distance in less than two hours, but this leg is about exploring on two legs, as well, not just four wheels — and deserves your unhurried attention. Fuel up for an active morning with coffee and made-from-scratch pastries at Bovine Bakery, a favorite local haunt in the small town of Point Reyes Station, 14 miles north of Bolinas. Then head to Point Reyes National Seashore for some hiking on its 150 miles of trails offering unrivaled California scenery (rugged cliffs, pastoral settings and wildlife). Its 9.7-mile out-and-back Tomales Point Trail runs along the ridge of a narrow peninsula, with 360-degree land and sea views. Keep your eyes open for tule elk, a subspecies of elk found only in California. For something shorter but no less spectacular, opt for the 1.7-mile Chimney Rock Trail, an easy out-and-back hike with impressive sea views. While on the trail, stop at the Elephant Seal Overlook, popular especially during pupping season, December–March — the prime time for spotting California gray whales, too, as they make their annual migration from Alaska to Baja, Mexico.
As you continue on, you’ll be skirting 15-mile-long Tomales Bay, known for its abundant oysters. On weekends, the Boat Oyster Bar at the beloved Hog Island Oyster Farm in Marshall serves tasty raw and barbecued oysters; fill up on the bivalves on outdoor tables (book in advance) with bay views. Eighteen miles farther up the road, you’ll pass through the hamlet of Bodega; here, an old schoolhouse, now a private residence, may look familiar since it had a cameo in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Another 6 miles and you’re in the harbor-hugging town of Bodega Bay, where you’ll want to saunter along its 1-mile-long Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail for some good birdwatching. The trail wraps around two freshwater ponds and overlooks marshland, a setting that attracts waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds year round. You can also do your watching from the back deck of Sonoma Coast Vineyard’s tasting room, sipping pinot or chardonnay. Or grab lunch in town at Spud Point Crab Company, known for its fantastic clam chowder and fresh-off-the-boat crab.
Where to stay: From the 86-room Inn at the Tides, walk to restaurants and shops. For dinner, take in unbeatable sunset views from its Tides Wharf Restaurant and feast on seafood dishes, such as Dungeness crab cocktail and zesty cioppino.
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Day 3: Bodega Bay to Point Arena (62 miles)
The highway continues north, skimming the Pacific Ocean for the entire length of today’s journey, with several diversions along the way. Start with a stop for fresh pastries at Café Aquatica in the tiny town of Jenner (population: less than 200), 11 miles from Bodega Bay. If you're up for it, get a little exercise out on the water on a guided kayak tour with WaterTreks, a local outfitter in Jenner. Be on the lookout for harbor seals and otters.
Back on the road, travel another 26 miles to Stewarts Point, stopping in at the 122-year-old Stewarts Point Store for car snacks and candy, and perhaps a picnic lunch of sandwiches or homemade calzones from Twofish Baking, a popular bakery inside the store. Dig into your lunch at one of the scenic picnic spots on ocean bluffs up the highway 11 miles at Gualala Point Regional Park in Gualala (pronounced wa-la-la). Make time for the Gualala Arts Center, a sophisticated venue on 11 acres of redwood forest with year-round art exhibitions, music and theater programming, a sculpture garden and nature trails.
Drive 14 more miles and end your day of coastal roaming in Point Arena. Climbing the 145 steps inside the 151-year-old Point Arena Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse on the Pacific coast, gives you an ideal vantage point for spotting gray whales in the winter and humpbacks year round.
Another fun option: Book a guided Land Rover tour ($35 per person) around the 110-acre B Bryan Preserve, a conservation area for African hoof stock, such as antelopes, giraffes and zebras.
End your day watching the sunset at the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room. Wash down local oysters or rock-cod tacos with one of the 30-plus beers on tap.
Where to stay: Once abandoned, the 14-room Wildflower Boutique Motel has been transformed into a cozy coastal getaway with custom furnishings crafted from fallen cypress trees.
Day 4: Point Arena to Mendocino (35 miles)
Though the road continues to dole out jaw-dropping scenery, it’s worth arriving early to Mendocino, a Victorian village on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, and a National Historic Preservation District. If you’re an oenophile, however, you might first detour to the Anderson Valley. Twenty-four miles from Point Arena, take California Highway 128 east for 45 miles to this small wine region producing some of state’s best pinot noirs.
The Mendocino Coast has its share of inviting state parks and open space, making it an outdoor candy store for bikers, hikers and beachcombers. Don’t miss the pygmy forest at Van Damme State Park, where trees more than a century old stand only about 8 to 9 feet tall, their stunting the result of a complex ecological phenomenon. The park’s easy Pygmy Forest Trail, a wheelchair-friendly boardwalk, wends through the shrunken woods.
The flat streets of Mendocino Village itself are delightfully strollable and freckled with boutiques, small museums, cafes and restaurants. For dinner, go Italian at Luna Trattoria (seatings at 5 and 7 p.m.); try the linguine with steamed clams.
Where to stay: Mendocino makes a great jumping off point for the next two days, so unpack at Blue Door Inns, whose 19 rooms are spread across three upscale boutique hotels in the heart of the village. Perks include breakfast brought to your room, fresh-baked cookies and evening wine and cheese. Or try the rustic cottages at Alegria and enjoy beach views as well as morning breakfast made with organic and locally sourced ingredients.
Day 5: Mendocino to Fort Bragg (10 miles)
Just 3 miles from Mendocino, stop at the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, if only to snap a photo of the cute-as-a-button 1909 lighthouse. With that crossed off your list, drive another 5 miles to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, a 47-acre beauty that showcases the best of northern California flora and fauna. Wander through this colorful living museum with canyons, coastal bluffs, forests and wetlands.
Less than 3 miles separate the gardens from Fort Bragg, once a thriving logging community. This city of about 7,500 people now brims with shops, galleries and friendly hangout spots. At the Headlands Coffeehouse, grab a beverage to go, check your email on the free Wi-Fi, and listen to live music each night. Imbibe at the Golden West Saloon, a Fort Bragg icon since the 1800s that hosts a mean Taco Tuesday.
At MacKerricher State Park, stroll along Glass Beach, named for the sea-smoothed pieces of colorful glass found mixed in with the beach’s many pebbles. Another not-to-miss attraction: the historic (unappealingly named) Skunk Train, which once carried passengers and redwood logs but now hauls sightseers through old-growth redwood groves into the heart of the Noyo River Canyon. For a memorable, low-impact activity that’s a definite splurge (about $250 for two people), consider a two-hour pedal on custom-built, two-person rail bikes (with electric assist) that takes you along the tracks through a lush redwood forest.
Wind down your coastal trek the way you started it, by crossing a bridge — in this case, Fort Bragg’s 44-foot-tall Pudding Creek Trestle, a 527-foot-long redwood fretwork built more than hundred years ago that you can now walk across. It was the beginning of a lumber route that led to the town of Eureka more than a hundred miles away.
Where to stay: Return to your Mendocino hotel and enjoy a California sunset from the coastal bluffs.
A Sausalito, California-based freelance travel writer, Kimberley Lovato has contributed to numerous publications, including Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and Virtuoso Life.