Sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination. While that may seem like a cliché, it’s true for this classic Northern California road trip.
Rugged coastlines, towering redwood trees and quaint towns beckon along California’s forgotten coast. Time seemingly moves slower while traversing the backroads and jaw-dropping cliffs along the Pacific Coast Highway. The steep hills of San Francisco quickly lend way to rolling hills and vineyards in Sonoma County and the Anderson Valley. Wineries, farms and pastures are plentiful before meeting the towering redwood trees that flourish in the far northern parts of the state. The rugged coastline of Mendocino is picture perfect, as is the Victorian town of Ferndale. The port and fishing towns of Eureka, Arcata and Trinidad teem with a true-grit, working-class attitude while integrating the nature-loving, free-spirit boldness of Humboldt County.
Take in the city
San Francisco is the most practical starting point for a northern California road trip. Direct flights from Phoenix are abundant. While in the city, a stay at the Clift Hotel in the Union Square district provides a central location for shopping and sightseeing. Be sure to check out the classically elegant, hip and popular Redwood Room, aptly titled with walls made from a redwood tree. The bees the hotel keeps on the rooftop produce 50 gallons of honey a year that is used for its craft cocktails and food.
Do all the touristy musts that San Francisco offers such as riding a cable car, visiting Ghirardelli Square for some chocolate and exploring the many museums. Be sure to take a ferry to Alcatraz Island and spend a couple of hours retracing the home of some of Americas worst criminals.
Skip Napa Valley and head directly to Sonoma which has a more laid back, casual vibe. Here, a stay at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn is a relaxing, luxurious experience and destination unto itself. One of the oldest resorts in the area, the hotel was built on top a natural, underground mineral spring. The hot mineral waters feed the spa, pools and mineral baths bringing its “healing waters” to guests.
Be sure to take a stroll around downtown Sonoma. Its historic town square park is a nice shady spot to cool off on a hot day. Every Tuesday, May through September, food trucks and a farmers market line the square. Notable restaurants include the Girl and the Fig, Mary’s for pizza and pasta and Sweeties for ice cream.
From the square, catch the open-air Wine Trolley to explore area vineyards such as Benzinger, Imagery, Mayo Family Winery and Paradise Ridge. There are more than 1,000 wineries in Sonoma County alone. The Wine Trolley will visit about four or five wineries over a six-hour span, with plenty of time for tastings at each location with lunch provided.
The little town of Glen Ellen is only 8 miles from Sonoma so be sure to make a stop at the Jack London State Park. Home of the famous writer and his wife, visitors can tour the museum and hike several trails on the grounds, including the ruins of the authors dream home, The Wolf House.
It’s here, in the inland valleys, that one can discover unique, small towns such as Healdsburg, Geyserville, Yorkville and Booneville. A stop at the Artevino Maple Creek Winery in Yorkville allows an opportunity to meet artisan winemaker Tom Rodrigues, a self-taught artist from Marin County who decided to leave they hectic pace of the bay 19 years ago and “live his passion.” Rodrigues designs his own labels for his award-winning wines. He and his staff provide “personal experiences” and will chat about anything from politics to art to raising Mangalitsa pigs (he’s got 19 or so of the woolly sheep-like pigs on the property).
Scenic jagged cliffs, steep and narrow roads greet drivers along the Pacific Coast Highway. This route isn’t for those in a hurry as the curvy roads tend to slow you down, but the views are spectacular and it’s all about the journey anyhow. Plenty of scenic overlooks provide breathtaking sights of the crashing ocean waves. Stops at both Point Arena and Point Cabrillo provide tours of the iconic lighthouses.
Near the small village of Mendocino, lies the Brewery Gulch Inn, a peaceful retreat with luxurious accommodations. This is another destination all on its own. The owners truly go out of their way to provide guests with the ultimate stay. Sit back and take in the views of Smugglers Cove across the highway while sipping local wines. A light dinner buffet each evening for guests means you never have to leave. The cooked-to-order breakfast the next morning provides a great start to whatever adventure awaits.
In Fort Bragg, take a ride on the Skunk train. The Pudding Express route takes riders on a 7-mile, one-hour journey from the train station, alongside Pudding Creek, old-growth redwood groves, over scenic trestle bridges, and into the heart of the Noyo River Estuary and back.
As the road trip continues and the highway curves back inland, the trees become taller, the foliage greener and thicker and the air crisp and clean. Highway 1 meets up again with Highway 101 and meanders through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. While you may have had a glimpse of these towering giants, it’s here that you really begin to understand their magnificence. Plenty of stops allow for exploration of the fern-laden forests.
The small Victorian town of Ferndale has been a movie backdrop for decades. Films such as “The Majestic,” “Salem’s Lot” and “Outbreak” were all filmed here. Victorian homes, quaint shops, restaurants and art galleries line Main Street. At local diner, Poppa Joe’s, retired local dairyman play poker and help the staff when things get busy. Ferndale Pizza Factory offers up a good slice. For a great place to rest, the “Barndominium” and adjacent “Quarters” Airbnb offers vintage charm as an option to the town’s Victorian bed and breakfast options.
The fishing, trade and logging community of Eureka is still very much a hub of commerce serving Humboldt County. A stop at Fort Humboldt will provide insight into the towns logging roots, the fort and its role in history. A 75-minute harbor cruise on the Madaket, the oldest continually operating passenger boat, takes visitors around Arcata Bay. The 67-acre Sequoia Park, nestled in town and adjacent to the zoo, offers easy hikes amongst the towering giant redwood trees and a calm and quiet oasis within the city. For breakfast, lunch or dinner, the Samoa Cookhouse has been serving loggers and patrons since 1890 and is a must-stop offering home cooking, served family style.
Heading even farther north, Trinidad State Park offers great views of the marina, set below its towering cliffs. Put your feet in the sand and listen to the crashing waves at Trinidad Head. Redwoods dominant the terrain a little farther north and the Redwood State and National parks are worthy of at least a drive through.
Last, but not least, a stop at the kitschy roadside attraction, The Trees of Mystery in Klamath, is worthwhile where giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Blue greet visitors. After purchasing tickets, you’ll take a short hike through the redwood forest before boarding a gondola that takes you on a 7-minute ride to the top of the mountain. There’s an observation deck to take in the views before descending back down.
Northern California has so much to offer and is as diverse as it is scenic. Walking amongst redwood trees is a way to feed your soul in ways that can’t be explained. Take the time, slow down and explore the untamed and natural forgotten coast and valleys of Northern California.