The Northern California Coastal Road Trip
By Kimberly Graf. Published on September 15, 2018
The coast of northern California is one of most beautiful sections of countryside America offers. Between San Jose and Crescent City lies miles of ocean-side highway, unique Californian culture and forests of towering redwoods. Highways 1 and 101 twine together and separate again for the entirety of this 450-mile drive, and though you could plausibly drive the distance in one day, you aren't going to want to. There are so many things to do and see along this route that you could easily spend two weeks traveling just within a few miles of the highway, taking in a diverse countryside riddled with vineyards and breathtaking views.
Here are some of the things you aren't going to want to miss on your trip north from San Jose.
The city of San Jose is charming – it offers a view into the technological development center of Silicon Valley, where Apple and Microsoft got their start, while also offering a unique cultural experience. You could easily spend the first day of your trip sightseeing here. The famed Winchester Mystery House lives here, a hulking construction with dead-end passageways, staircases that lead nowhere and doors permanently bolted shut. It's a little spooky, definitely quirky, and there's no place quite like it.
If you're interested in ancient history, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum provides several exhibits, displays, and the largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts on this side of the United States. And if more recent history is more your speed, the Tech Museum of Innovation gives visitors just a small taste of the technology of Silicon Valley.
Just a few hours north is the sprawling city of San Francisco.
San Francisco has an entirely different atmosphere, replete with good food, world-class nightlife, and more traditional sights like historic cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge. It's worth spending some time in this city just to soak up the feeling – and if that isn't enough, there are plenty of things to do. Take a tour of Alcatraz, reachable by ferry in the San Francisco Bay. North of Alcatraz is Angel Island, a state park covered with hiking trails and gorgeous views of the city. Camping is permitted on the island.
A trip across the famous Golden Gate Bridge puts you into northern Coast territory. A few miles north of the bridge is a turnoff for Highway 1, the scenic route.
Point Reyes National Seashore
It seems as though the moment you leave the city you are entirely surrounded by state parks. Point Reyes National Seashore is only 42 miles north of San Francisco. It's a beautiful stretch of coastline with beaches and forests, and plenty of wildlife to observe. Elephant seals congregate here and you might even be able to spot a few whales in migration. There are hiking trails and campgrounds available.
Point Reyes to Bodega Bay
The nearby town of Point Reyes Station is a quaint little tourist town with a wild-west theme, and just a few miles up the road is the Tomales Bay area, famous for their various oyster restaurants.
The road north to Bodega Bay is a two-lane scenic highway that veers away from the coast for about half an hour. This 32-mile drive passes through a handful of small towns and displays some of California's beautifully rugged countryside. All along this route are various campsites for tent or RV camping if you want to take in more of the area.
Bodega Bay itself is a relatively sized town littered with bed and breakfasts, seafood restaurants, and a marina. There is beachfront access from various points around the city, including Bodega Head and Doran Beach. Both offer stunning ocean views and beautiful stretches of sand – and from Bodega Head, you might even be able to see some migrating whales.
Bodega Bay to Leggett
It's almost 97 miles up to Mendocino, and the countryside is diverse and changing on the way. The road weaves towards and away from the coast, but you should always be able to keep the ocean in sight, making this drive relaxing and picturesque. Just north is Sonoma Coast State Park, with beautiful coast access and camping near the ocean.
Along the road north is Fort Ross, a reconstructed Russian military compound and museum. The road from there is littered with state parks, beaches, and trails. Point Arena even has a lighthouse and museum.
From Mendocino and its stunning views, it's 54 miles to the end of Highway 1. This area is dotted with vineyards and outdoor recreation areas. Leggett is the small town where Highway 101 begins, and the views switch from coast to towering redwood forests.
Leggett to Eureka
This section of the road is called the Redwood Highway. These are the famous trees that come to mind with any mention of Northern California – and while the first section of this highway boasts almost no redwoods, the further north you get the more numerous they are. Avenue of the Giants takes you off of the highway on a 31-mile detour through the boughs of these towering trees. At the end of this route, it's another 24 miles up to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, preserved habitats for the fish and migratory birds of the area. There are restaurants and other activities, and it’s a good place to get out and stretch your legs. A further 13-mile drive along sparkling Humboldt Bay puts you in Eureka, the largest town in the area.
Eureka is a historic town and there are several historical markers to observe here, including an original Victorian commercial district. It's an interesting place to spend some time, to say the least.
Eureka to Crescent City
The last leg of this amazing American road trip is an 85-mile drive on Highway 101 through both coastal area and redwood forests. The road weaves between the two seamlessly. More beaches and state parks litter this area, making it entirely possible to spend several days just exploring the countryside and playing in the ocean.
Crescent City marks the end of this trip, as it’s the largest town close to the Oregon border. Named for the beach on which it sits, Crescent City has access to both redwood state parks and ocean beaches.
The northern California coast is a unique and diverse stretch of highway that winds through some of California's most interesting cities and beautiful views. With an astounding number of state parks and miles of sandy beaches to explore, this road trip should definitely be on your travel list.