A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase. Includes Places to Stay in proximity.
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
If your heart leaps with joy at the sight of long stretches of deserted beaches, rugged cliffs embraced by wind-bent trees, sheep quietly grazing near crashing surf, and groves of redwoods towering above carpets of dainty ferns, then this itinerary will suit you to perfection. Nowhere else in California can you travel surrounded by so much natural splendor. Less than an hour after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, civilization is left far behind you and your adventure into some of California’s most beautiful scenery begins. The first part of this route includes many well-loved attractions: Muir Woods, the Russian River, Sonoma County wineries, the Mendocino Coast, and the Avenue of the Giants. Then the route becomes less “touristy” as it reaches the Victorian jewel of Ferndale and the bustling town of Eureka, and concludes in the coastal hamlet of Trinidad.
Recommended Pacing: You can cover the distance between San Francisco and Mendocino in a day. It is approximately a four-hour drive if you are traveling inland on Hwy 101 and then cutting west over at Cloverdale on Hwy 128 back to the coast and Hwy 1 just south of Mendocino. It is approximately a six-hour journey if you follow Hwy 1 as it hugs the coast all the way north. However, if time allows, follow our routing and spend a night just north of San Francisco near Point Reyes National Seashore (more if you want to take advantage of the hiking and biking trails), and a night or two in the Healdsburg/Russian River area before arriving in Mendocino. Allow two nights for the Mendocino area and two nights for the Eureka area. Weather Wise: The weather along California’s northern coast is unpredictable: beautiful warm summer days suddenly become overcast when the fog rolls in (July and August). The prettiest months are usually June, September, and October. Rain falls during the winter and spring, while fall enjoys beautiful crisp, clear days.
San Francisco, a city of unsurpassed beauty, is a favorite destination of tourists and it is no wonder: the city is dazzling in the sunlight, yet equally enchanting when wrapped in fog. The setting is spectacular: a cluster of hills on the tip of a peninsula. San Francisco is very walkable and if you tire, a cable car, bus, or taxi is always close at hand. In the San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Coast itinerary we give you enough sightseeing suggestions to occupy you for a week. Avoiding commuter hours and congestion, leave San Francisco on the Golden Gate Bridge following Hwy 101 north. After you cross this famous bridge, pull into the vista point for a panoramic view of this most lovely city. For another spectacular detour, take the very first exit after the viewing area, Alexander Avenue, turn left back under the freeway, and continue as if you are heading back onto the Golden Gate Bridge but, instead, take a quick right to the Marin Headland. Some of the city’s most spectacular skylines are photographed from the vantage point of these windswept and rugged headlands looking back at the city through the span of the Golden Gate. The road continues through the park and eventually winds back to Hwy 101. Information and maps are available at the visitors center located in the old Fort Barry Chapel. (415-331-1540). Not to be missed is the Marine Mammal Center, where injured seals and other marine animals are nursed back to health by a multitude of volunteers. (415-289-7325, www.tmmc.org)
After returning to Hwy 101, continue on to the Mill Valley exit. Circle under the freeway and follow signs for Hwy 1 north. As the two-lane road leaves the town behind and winds up through the trees, watch closely for a sharp right turn to Muir Woods. The road takes you high above open fields and down a steep ravine to the Muir Woods entrance and car park where a park volunteer gives out a map and information. Near the park entrance a cross section of a trunk of one of the stately giant coastal redwoods gives you an appreciation of the age of these great trees. Notations relate the tree’s growth rings to significant historical occurrences during the tree’s lifetime: 1066-the Battle of Hastings, 1215-the Magna Carta, 1492-the discovery of America, 1776-the Declaration of Independence. But this tree is only a baby-some date back over 2,000 years. Your brochure guides you on the walk beneath the redwoods or you can take a guided tour with one of the rangers. Allow about an hour for the park, longer if you take a long walk or just sit on one of the benches to soak in the beauty.Leaving the park, continue west to the coastal road, Hwy 1. Turn left and then, almost immediately, right. There is a small sign marked Muir Beach, but it is easy to miss. Just before you come to the beach you arrive at the Pelican Inn, a charming re-creation of an English pub. The adjacent Muir Beach is a small half-moon beach bound at each end by large rock formations.
Return to Hwy 1 and head north along a challenging, winding section of this beautiful coastal road. The road descends to the small town of Stinson Beach where by entering the state park you can gain access to a fabulous stretch of wide white sand, bordered on one side by the sea and on the other by grassy dunes. This is a perfect spot to stretch and enjoy a walk along the beach.
Leaving Stinson Beach, the road curves inland bordering Bolinas Lagoon, a paradise for birds, and then leaves the water and continues north for about 10 miles to the town of Olema. At Olema you leave Hwy 1 and take the road marked to Inverness, just a short drive away.
If the weather is fine, allow time to explore Point Reyes National Seashore, a spectacular wilderness area stretching along the sea (www.nps.gov/pore). If you happen to be in the area on a weekend, in addition to taking advantage of the free ranger programs, call ahead (415-663-1200) to inquire about special field trips (such as tidepool studies, bird watching, and sights and sounds of nature) that are offered for a fee. The ranger station, located in a handsome redwood building at the entrance to the park, has maps, leaflets, books, a museum, and a movie theater where a presentation gives interesting information on the park. Be sure to stop here before your explorations to obtain a map and study what you want to see and do. A short stroll away from the ranger station is the “earthquake trail” where markers indicate changes brought about by the 1906 earthquake. Also within walking distance is the Morgan Ranch where Morgan horses are raised and trained for the park system. If the weather is clear, a drive out to Point Reyes Lighthouse is a highlight that should not be missed. As you drive for 45 minutes across windswept fields and through dairy farms to the lighthouse you realize how large the park really is. When you arrive, it is a ten-minute walk from the parking area to the viewing area. From there, steps lead down to the lighthouse. Be prepared: it is like walking down a 30-story building and once down, you have to come back up! In late fall and spring it is a perfect place from which to watch for migrating gray whales. After a visit to the lighthouse, look on your map for Drakes Bay, one of the many beaches along this rugged strip of coast, and named for the explorer seeking lands for Queen Elizabeth I of England. He is purported to have sailed into the bay on the Golden Hinde and christened it Nova Albion, meaning New England. If you are hungry, there is a café at Drakes Bay where you can have a bite to eat. Another interesting stop is at the Johnson Oyster Farm on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard-a sign directs you to it on the left on the drive toward Point Reyes Lighthouse. Stop to see the demonstration of how oysters are cultivated in the bay for 18 months before being harvested. If you choose to continue on to the northernmost point of the peninsula, travel Pierce Point Road, which ends at the Tule Elk Range. Before 1860, thousands of tule elk roamed here but were hunted to extinction; then in 1978 two bulls and eight cows were successfully reintroduced and now the herd numbers over 300. Trails lead through this wilderness and research area to the Tomales Point Bluff or a shorter distance down to McClures Beach and Elephant Rock.
Retrace your route through the park to Point Reyes Station where the Station House Cafe, a delightful restaurant with delicious, imaginative food, beckons you into its dining room or tranquil, brick-paved, cottage-garden patio. Continue north on Hwy 1 as the road winds through fields of pastureland and dairies and then loops back and follows for a while the northern rim of Tomales Bay, providing lovely vistas across the water to the wooded hills and the town of Inverness. About a 20-minute drive brings you to the village of Marshall. Soon after, the road heads inland through rolling ranch land bound by picket fences, passing the towns of Tomales (the Tomales Bakery, located in the old barbershop and open Thursday to Sunday, is worth visiting) and Valley Ford before turning west to Bodega Bay and the small town of Jenner. From here it is about a 15-minute drive to Fort Ross. “Ross” means “Russian” and this is the site where the Russians, in the early part of the 19th century, built a fort to protect their fishing and fur interests in California. After browsing through the museum, follow the footpath through the woods and enter the courtyard bounded by the weathered wooden buildings where the settlers lived and worked. Be sure not to miss the pretty Russian Orthodox chapel in the southeast corner of the compound. When you have finished roaming through the encampment, take the dramatic walk along the bluffs above the ocean. (707-847-3286)
Leaving the fort, retrace your path to Jenner and follow Hwy 116 inland along the banks of the Russian River. This is a tranquil stretch of road, passing through dense forests that open up conveniently to offer views of the very green water of the Russian River. (In winter after heavy rains the river can become a rushing torrent-no longer green and tranquil.) On weekends this road is very congested, but midweek and off-season this is a very pretty drive. The largest resort along the river is Guerneville and just a few miles beyond the town you come to the Korbel Winery (13250 River Road, Guerneville), a picturesque, large building banked with flowers. Three Korbel brothers came to this area from Bohemia to harvest the redwoods and ended up harvesting grapes. Korbel is famous for sparkling wines and the tour and video presentations are especially interesting. Tours of the historic champagne cellars last a little under an hour and are offered daily every hour on the hour between 10 am and 3 pm-to be safe, call to double-check the schedule. There is also a delicatessen and a pretty rose garden nestled on the slope to the left of the winery. The winery is open daily between 9 am and 4:30 pm and offers complimentary tasting. (707-824-7000, www.korbel.com)
Sampling champagne at Korbel will whet your appetite for more local wines. Leaving the winery, continue for a short distance along River Road, watching for a left-hand turn for Westside Road (if you go over the bridge, you have gone too far). Westside Road winds its way to Healdsburg, past vineyards, meadows with cows grazing, pretty apple orchards, and several wineries, including Hop Kiln Winery (6050 Westside Road, Healdsburg), which is open for tasting until 5 pm. The architecture at Hop Kiln (which, unsurprisingly, was originally built for drying beer hops) is very interesting, with whimsical chimneys jutting into the sky (707-433-6491, www.hopkilnwinery.com). The nearby Rochioli Winery, (6192 Westside Road, Healdsburg) offers tasting and tours by appointment (707-433-2305). Nearby Healdsburg has an attractive main square lined with quaint shops and restaurants. Make at stop at Oakville Grocery on the square for lunch, picnic supplies and gourmet treats.
Leaving Healdsburg, follow Hwy 101 north for the half-hour drive to Cloverdale where you take Hwy 128 heading northwest toward the coast. At first the road twists slowly up and over a rather steep pass. After the summit, the way becomes more gentle as you head down into the beautiful Anderson Valley, well-known for its delicious wines. Wherever the hills spread away from the road, the gentle meadows are filled with vineyards. If time permits, stop at the Navarro Winery, housed in an attractive contemporary building where complimentary wine tasting is offered (707-895-3686, www.navarrowine.com). As the road leaves the sunny open fields of grapes, the sun almost disappears as you enter a majestic redwood forest, so dense that only slanting rays of light filter through the trees. Upon leaving the forest, Hwy 128 soon merges with the coastal Hwy 1 (about a 60-mile drive from where you left Hwy 101). Here you join Hwy 1 going north along the coast through Albion and Little River, and then on to Mendocino.
Mendocino is an absolute jewel: a New-England-style town built upon headlands that jut out to the ocean. It is not surprising that the town looks as if it were transported from the East Coast because its heritage goes back to adventurous fishermen who settled here from New England, and, upon arrival, built houses like those they had left behind. (In fact, the “New England” setting, seen in the popular television series Murder She Wrote, was filmed here.) Tucked into the many colorful wood-frame buildings you find a wealth of art galleries, gift shops, inns, and restaurants. (Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, 707-961-6300, www.mendocinocoast.com.)
Do not let your explorations stop at the quaint town, but venture out onto the barren, windswept headlands-a visit to Mendocino would not be complete without a walk along the bluffs. In late fall or spring there is an added bonus: spouts of water off the shoreline are an indication that gray whales are present.
Mendocino makes a most convenient base for exploring the coast. However, if breathtaking views are more important to you than quaint shops and restaurants, then stay overnight instead 16 miles south of Mendocino in Elk, a tiny old lumber town hugging the bluffs along one of the most spectacularly beautiful stretches of the sensational Mendocino coastline. Elk has several places to stay that are described in detail in the inn section of this guide-each has its own personality, each has a magnificent ocean view. Note: If you choose to overnight in Elk instead of the town of Mendocino, when Hwy 128 merges with Hwy 1, go south to Elk instead of north to Mendocino.
For next edition check out the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg tel 707-964-4352 Staying in this area, you could most successfully be entertained by doing absolutely nothing other than soaking in the natural, rugged beauty of the coast. However, there are some sightseeing possibilities:
Whale watching is a must if you are here between Christmas and April when the gray whales migrate along the coast. We thoroughly enjoyed the two-hour whale-watching trip that we took from Noyo Harbor with Telstar Charters, owned and operated by Randy and Charan Thornton (Charan handles the reservations and Randy pilots the boat). Randy also takes people deep-sea fishing for crab, salmon, cod, and albacore year-round. (707-964-8770, www.gooceanfishing.com)
Fort Bragg. This is a sprawling town that, when compared to the quaintness of Mendocino, has little to offer architecturally except for an extremely colorful fishing harbor. At 18220 N. Hwy One you find the 47 acres of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. The mild, rainy winters and cool summers provide ideal growing conditions for the flowers, trees and shrubs, including 4,000 spring-blooming rhododendrons, fuchsias, Japanese maples, roses and more. The gardens are open daily between 9 am and 5 pm. (707-964-4352, www.gardenbythesea.org)
Much of Fort Bragg’s history can be viewed at the Guest House Museum, located on the corner of Main (Highway 1) and Laurel streets. Built for the Fort Bragg Redwood company in the 19th century, the building later became the Union Lumber Company guest house and now houses artifacts, photos and exhibits from the town’s early days.
Just behind the museum you find the Skunk Railroad, which runs between Fort Bragg and Willits (www.skunktrain.com). During the summer months you can take either the all-day trip, which makes the complete round trip to Willits, or a half-day trip leaving in the morning or the afternoon. The train follows the old logging route through the redwood forests. The outing is especially fun for children. (800-866-1690.)
Leaving the Mendocino area, continue to follow the coast north and enjoy a treasury of memorable views: sometimes the bluffs drop into the sea, other times sand dunes almost hide the ocean, and at one point the beach sweeps right up to the road. At Rockport, Hwy 1 turns inland and twists and turns its way through forests and over the coastal range on 20 miles of narrow winding road. Arriving at Leggett (just before the junction with Hwy 101), look for a sign to your right indicating a small, privately-owned redwood park where you can drive through a hole in a redwood tree.
From Leggett continue north along Hwy 101, signposted for Eureka. However, rather than rushing all the way up Hwy 101, follow the old highway, called the Avenue of the Giants, that weaves through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This is a 33-mile-long drive, but we suggest you select the most beautiful section by skipping the first part and joining the Avenue of the Giants at Myers Flat. As you exit at Myers Flat the two-lane road passes a few stores before entering a spectacular glen of redwoods. A lovely section of the forest is at Williams Grove. Stop at the nearby park headquarters and obtain a map that directs you off the Avenue of the Giants to Rockefeller Forest the oldest glen of redwoods left in the world-some date back over 2,000 years. The trees are labeled and a well-marked footpath guides you through the forest to the Big Tree, an astounding giant measuring 17 feet in diameter and soaring into the sky, and to the Flat Iron Tree (another biggie with a somewhat flattened-out trunk) located nearby in an especially serene grove.
About ten minutes after rejoining Hwy 101, exit to Scotia. Established in 1869, the picturesque town’s little redwood homes are dominated by the lumber mill. You will find the small shopping center worth visiting just for the sake of seeing the redwood building constructed from pillars made of whole tree trunks. Drive to the Scotia Museum-an all-redwood building styled after a Grecian temple with redwood-tree pillars (bark and all) instead of marble. The museum displays photos, artifacts, and machinery used in the logging camps. Open weekdays Memorial Day to Labor Day. (707-764-2222.)
Returning to Hwy 101, about a 10-mile drive brings you to the Ferndale exit. Founded in 1852, Ferndale is the westernmost town (more of a village than a town) in the continental United States. Downtown, with its gaily painted Victorian buildings, has changed very little since the 1890s. Main Street is a gem, lined with delightful little galleries and stores-a favorite being the irresistible candy shop where you view, through the window, hand-dipping of delectable chocolates. Many visitors enjoy the Repertory Theater on Main Street where some excellent plays are produced (707-786-5483). Epitomizing the colorful character of the town is the Gingerbread Mansion. Stop at Ferndale Museum to learn more about her past as you tour Victorian rooms and see displays of old dairy and smithying equipment. (Shaw and 3rd Street, open Tuesday through Saturday 11 am to 4 pm and Sunday 1 to 4 pm, 707-786-4466.)
Centerville Beach is 5 miles west of Ferndale on Centerville Road (turn right on Ocean Avenue at the end of Ferndale). Here you have 9 miles of beaches backed by dairy farms to the north and steep cliffs to the south. Watch for harbor seals in the breakers and tundra swans, which congregate in the Eel River bottoms north of Centerville Road from mid-November to February.
Leaving Ferndale, retrace your way to Hwy 101 and continue north for the 10-mile drive to Eureka. The area surrounding the 101 is full of fast-food chains, gas stations, and commercial establishments, but a portion of this large town, the Old Town Eureka, is well worth a visit (G and D between 1st and 3rd). On the northwestern edge of this restored project lies the ornate Carson Mansion (2nd and M), the most photographed, ornate, Victorian mansion in northern California.
About 20 miles beyond Eureka, exit the 101 for the coastal hamlet of Trinidad. Although its houses are now mostly of modern architecture, Trinidad Bay has an interesting history. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1595, claimed by the Spaniards in 1775, flourished in the 1850s gold rush as a supply port for the miners, and was later kept on the map by logging. Now Trinidad is a sleepy little cluster of homes nestled on the bluffs overlooking a sheltered cove where an untouristy wharf stretches out into the bay. Next to the wharf is the Seascape Restaurant where you can dine on fish straight from the little fishing boats. Stroll the mile-long path along the headlands enjoying the views and in winter the crashing rollers.