Story by Carol Canter.
(Feature Image: Marin Headlands, Rodeo Beach)
Traveling north from San Francisco on Highway 1, one of the world’s most glorious ribbons of coastal road, is a trip on the edge. This is land’s end, where mountain cliffs drop precipitously to the sea, their edges chiseled, pounded, even torn apart by the ocean’s power. Huge boulders stand firm against the surf, glistening shapes in a watery rock garden. Windblown cypress sweeps up the cliffs, only to disappear when the fog rolls in and obliterates all coastal detail into an obscure world of pewter gray.
Such a drive inspires communion with nature and countless opportunities to experience its raw power. Days can be spent walking headland trails, discovering lustrous tidepool treasures, canoeing tidal estuaries, and eyeing marine life as tiny as scampering rock crabs and as leviathan as the gray whales that travel these coastal waters. Refreshingly little human intrusion mars the route. The best diversions are the small coastal fishing villages and tiny hamlets, civilized outposts where cozy inns and exceptional food welcome you at day’s end.
DAY ONE: San Francisco to Bodega Bay/Jenner
U.S. 101 North is the no-toll direction across the Golden Gate Bridge, and the first tunnel you’ll enter is arched with a rainbow — a fitting way to begin a north coast journey.
Shortly after taking the turnoff for Highway 1, the transition begins. Freeway driving becomes a memory as your car hugs the curves along the tree-shaded slopes of Mount Tamalpais. Inhale the eucalyptus-scented air and, rounding the next curve, prepare to behold the sea. While spectacular ocean vistas will dazzle you over the next few days, this first glimpse of Muir Beach, across rolling hills and pasturelands, is still dreamlike.
Between Muir and Stinson Beaches, the coastal road twists tortuously past wave-lashed coves and along sheer cliffs. Fifteen-mile-per-hour U-shaped curves take you to the periphery of forests, with oak branches dripping Spanish moss nearly overhead, then thrust you back out toward the sea. Don’t worry, it’s not all white-knuckle driving in low gear. The road straightens out at Stinson Beach, three miles of white sand where swimmers often brave the chill waters without wetsuits. The highway then edges Bolinas Lagoon, a rich nature preserve populated by harbor seals and wading birds. To watch these graceful, long-legged birds — great and snowy egrets, and great blue herons — that nest in the nearby redwoods, plan a stop at Audubon Canyon Ranch.
A stretch of pastoral landscape leads to tiny Olema, the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore. Detour to the left and follow signs to the Bear Valley Visitor Center, the headquarters of this moody 65,000-acre peninsula. Walk the Earthquake Trail — if you dare — along a stretch of the infamous San Andreas Fault that shattered San Francisco in 1906. With more time, head out to the 153-year-old Point Reyes Lighthouse at the peninsula’s westernmost point, or hike the stunning Tomales Point Trail.
Back on Highway 1, follow the eastern shoreline of Tomales Bay, rich with oyster farms, and stop to survey the aquaculture and buy fresh bivalves at Hog Island or Tomales Bay Oyster Company. On weekends, Nick’s Cove and Tony’s Seafood in Marshall pack ’em in for fresh barbecued oysters.
Highway 1 winds inland to Valley Ford, at the Marin/Sonoma County line, then returns to the coast at bustling Bodega Bay, home of the busiest commercial fishing fleet between San Francisco and Eureka. Watch the fishermen unload their catch on the docks of the town’s two best-known restaurants, Lucas Wharf and The Tides Wharf. Listen to the screaming seagulls scavenge for scraps. Just watch out! This was the setting of Hitchcock’s avian chiller, The Birds. Stop for the night in Bodega Bay or 13 miles north at Jenner, where the Russian River flows into the sea. For a view of Beniamino Bufano’s last, and unfinished, sculpture, continue 25 miles north of Bodega Bay to the Timber Cove Resort.
DAY TWO: Bodega Bay/Jenner to Mendocino
Expect the unexpected along this hidden stretch of Sonoma County coastline: Russian imprints on coastal California, pygmy forests, and even an elf-like environmental chapel. And all along the way, an alluring string of beaches invites tide pooling, crabbing, fishing, birding, beachcombing, and cozying up to the dunes. Twelve miles north of Jenner, enter a little-known chapter of history at Fort Ross, the southernmost outpost of Russian Alaska in 1812. Climb upstairs in a weathered wooden watchtower of the reconstructed fort and visualize the days when dozens of boats skimmed the waves in search of pelts so profitable that the sea otters were hunted to near extinction.
About five miles farther north, the 6,000 acres of Salt Point State Park encompass such diversity as a pygmy forest of stunted cypress, pine, and redwood trees, and strange honeycombed patterns of sandstone called tafoni. Divers can descend to one of California’s first underwater marine reserves at Gerstle Cove, and folks with an archaeological bent can seek out Pomo Indian camp and village sites. Just remember to look but do not touch. Adjacent Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve blazes with color in spring when rhododendrons up to 30 feet tall are in bloom but in any season five miles of hiking trails thread you under a lush, silent canopy of redwoods and Douglas fir.
A sanctuary of a different sort, with stained glass windows and a roof that soars like a bird, invites passersby to stop for a moment of reflection at the tiny nondenominational chapel in Sea Ranch.
The Gualala River, the boundary that divides Sonoma from Mendocino County, signals entry into the town of Gualala, where purveyors of gracious living have created a base. Art galleries and fine food abound, and the Russian-style onion domes of St. Orres Inn and Restaurant spiral in a curvaceous fantasy of wood and stained glass. Nicknamed “the Banana Belt” for a location often bypassed by coastal fog, Gualala makes an alternative stopping point for the second night.
The tiny hamlets of Elk and Albion are similarly endowed with stunning inns and settings, but today’s final destination is Mendocino, the county’s artistic center. The architecture is New England saltbox, but Mendocino’s heart and soul are pure California: counterculture-gone-gourmet. A town of cozy B&Bs, boutiques, bakeries, and gardens brilliant with butterflies and blossoms, Mendocino is inviting, yet the wild windswept headlands that frame the town on three sides beckon with their coastal trails, knee-deep wildflowers, and inspiring vistas.
DAY THREE: Mendocino to Redwood Country (Fort Bragg/Leggett/Garberville/Miranda/Myers Flat)
All aboard the Skunk Train for a morning roll through the redwoods: Before leaving Mendocino, grab a breakfast burrito or pastries, then travel to Fort Bragg to catch the three-hour round-trip ride. For the remainder of the day, comb for wave-polished treasures at Glass Beach or take a horseback ride along wildflower-studded dunes at MacKerricher State Park. Horse rentals are at Lari Shea’s Ricochet Ranch, north in Cleone.
When the road turns inland near Rockport, the trade-off begins as the nobility of the coast gives way to the majesty of the redwood forest. Soon after Highway 1 merges with U.S. 101 near the town of Leggett, you enter the domain of the giants, the coast redwoods. The tallest living things on earth, these ancient trees (whose lifespans are measured in millennia) grow along a narrow coastal strip stretching from Big Sur to Oregon. It is this light-dappled realm, pungent with the rich smell of moist earth, that you now enter. Even in the busy summer season, you can find private sanctuary in the cathedral-like groves of Humboldt Redwoods, California’s third-largest state park, encompassing over 50,000 acres.
Exit U.S. 101 to follow Avenue of the Giants, a scenic two-lane alternate route that parallels the freeway for 33 miles, tracing the course of the Eel River. Pick up a driving tour brochure at the entrance and select some walking trails and points of interest that will get you out of your car and into the silence, light, and shadow of these sylvan sentinels. Don’t miss Founder’s Grove, near the South Fork of the Eel River, where you’ll meet the 346-foot-tall Founder’s Tree. The grove is dedicated to the preservationists who had the foresight to establish the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1918.
Check into the elegant, Tudor-style Benbow Inn, or stop at one of the area’s numerous developed or primitive campgrounds. Camping in the redwoods is pure magic: sleeping on a bed of soft needles, protected under a ceiling of branches, and awakening to shafts of morning light filtering through a lacy canopy. Evening campfire programs and morning nature walks are daily activities led by rangers and naturalists in summer.
DAY FOUR: Redwood Country to Ferndale/Eureka
Linger among the redwoods, then plan a stop in the Pacific Lumber Company-owned town of Scotia to take a free self-guided tour of the world’s largest redwood mill. Along catwalks above the mill, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of raw logs transformed into commercial products after they’ve been debarked, cut, sliced, graded, sanded, and glued.
A five-mile detour off U.S. 101 at the Fernbridge exit leads to the Victorian world of Ferndale. The entire town is a State Historic Landmark, so pick up a free walking tour brochure at any shop or at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre and poke around town. You’ll learn about these “butterfat palaces” built by wealthy dairy farmers. Ferndale might look like a stage set, but it’s a real town. At the Gingerbread Mansion, Ferndale’s most famous B&B, you can stay in a suite where two claw foot tubs pose side by side.
There are more dazzling Victorians in the seaport of Eureka — in fact, over a hundred. Surely the most photographed confection is the Carson Mansion, the former home of a lumber baron and now a private club. With a Victorian architecture guide, available at the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, you’ll begin to differentiate a Queen Anne from an Eastlake from a Craftsmen’s Bungalow.
Biking is a great way to check out the Victorians and explore Old Town, Eureka’s gentrified neighborhood of stylish shops, restaurants, and galleries. A more refined way is by horse and buggy. For an offshore look, take the Humboldt Bay Harbor Cruise aboard the 1910 vintage MV Madaket, the oldest passenger-carrying vessel in operation in the nation. Save time for the Clarke Memorial Museum’s Victoriana, and don’t miss its renowned collection of Northwestern California Indian basketry.
If you’re a lumberjack, fisherman, or coastal traveler, no trip to Eureka is complete until you’ve experienced a meal at the Samoa Cookhouse located on a small peninsula across the bay. Bring a logger-sized appetite for a hearty breakfast, lunch, or dinner, served family-style daily.And while you’re digesting your meal, look back at the shoreline and reflect on the more than 270 miles of northern California coastal and redwood territory just covered over these four days, and all that the journey has stirred in your soul.
IF YOU GO: Use the Visit California website to begin to plan your North Coast Journey: https://www.visitcalifornia.com
And to narrow the focus to Mendocino, Ferndale and Eureka, use this link: https://www.visitcalifornia.com/region/north-coast/
This article originally appeared in Carol Canter’s Travel Column on Medium.com. You can read more of her global adventures at https://medium.com/@carolcanter.
For more of Carol’s articles click here.
For more California travel destinations on TravelExaminer, visit the California page and for California travel destinations on Epicurean Destinations.com you can follow this link.
Feature image of the Marin Headlands at Rodeo Beach by John Sundsmo.
Nice article Carol. Makes me want to visit.
Thanks, Alan. We’ve been to Philo together multiple times, but never made it from there to the coast. Maybe this summer!