Sophisticated San Francisco captivates you with its soaring Golden Gate Bridge, iconic seven hills, elegant Victorian homes, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, and forever breezy joie de vivre. But when you look beyond the 49-square mile cityscape and hit the road, you discover where your ‘Windows wallpaper’ comes from. Northern California is bejeweled with miles of vineyards, staggering limestone cliffs, giant redwoods, plunging waterfalls, fairy tale coastal towns and many off-the-beaten treasures.
If you have not done any of the breathtaking Northern California Road trips, you have not seen the soul of the Golden State. But it’s not enough just to jump in your car and drive. You need the right road with just the right amount of planning. Here are my 5 best Northern California road trips to bolster your soul:
1. YOLO County: Discover California’s newest Wine Mecca
MILEAGE: 87 miles from San Francisco
DRIVING TIME: 1.5 hours
WHEN TO GO: Anytime. June is ideal to see the blooming Sunflower fields
THE JOURNEY: Visiting California without spending a day at a winery is like going to China and missing the Great Wall. Some experiences are bucket list items, which can’t be missed and shouldn’t be missed. Wine tasting at a California Vineyard is one such experience. But being an offbeat traveler instead of choosing the usual, I decided to try a less famous but equally good destination – YOLO. Yolo, the shy kid, has been quietly fueling the Bay Area’s food revolution since the 1970s but has never got its share of publicity but, now things are changing.
BERRYESSA GAP, WINTERS
After one and a half hour of butter smooth drive from the Bay Area, I reached the family-owned Berryessa Gap Vineyards outside of Winters. Nicole, the award-winning winemaker, not only made me taste their signature wines but, also gave a tour of the adjoining production facility and the vineyard.
During our conversation, I got to know the important role immigrants have played in California’s wine revolution. The Mecca for wine was shaped by the immigrants. Berryessa Gap is one great example. In 1960, the Martinez family started farming fruits and nuts in Winters, later expanding into root-stock for vineyards and then wine production. I was trying to absorb everything Nicole was saying while enjoying my wine. I am not a wine Connoisseur but the local wines tasted at Berryessa Gap felt different to my palate. And the reason for that was:
23 different soil types, the rolling hills of the Coastal Range, Lake Berryessa fed Putah Creek; makes growing grapes in Winters unique.
Said Nicole Salengo after observing my happy expressions. The conversations and wine were so good I didn’t want to leave but Corrin, the Séka Hills Marketing Manager, had come in on her day off just for me, so I had to move on.
SEKA HILLS, CAPAY VALLEY
Yolo County is rapidly becoming known for its excellent olive oil and home to several mills and the UC Davis Olive Center. You can enjoy farm tours, beekeeping, tasting rooms, and one of a kind harvest celebrations such as Séka Hills Olio Nuovo Festival each November.
Said Jim Etters, Director of Land Management Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation /Séka Hills and I couldn’t agree more.
Travel See Write recommends 5 must-dos:
- Capay Valley Farm tour and products tasting
- Wine tasting and Springfest at Berryessa Gap in Winters
- Davis farmer’s market and ArtAbout evening for art lovers
- California agricultural museum in Woodland
- Old sugar mill for wine tasting and cultural events
2. Monterey and Carmel: Discover the North Coast
MILEAGE: 122 miles from San Francisco
DRIVING TIME: Over two hours
WHEN TO GO: Spring and Fall
THE JOURNEY: Before I arrived in San Francisco, my friend Mike had vehemently sold the Pacific coast drive to me and I am so glad he did. The rugged windswept coast of Monterey and Carmel is something that should be on everyone’s itinerary. My 12-hour long day-tour with Tower Tours started early in the morning. My bus was comfortable and we were provided with complimentary water and shuttle service.
I was hoping for a clear sunny day but the moody California weather was in a bad mood. The scenic highway along the winding roads of the Northern California Coast ensured I stay glued to my window. My eyes were relishing the stunning windswept mile-long sandy beaches, quiet coves, rocky outcroppings, and rugged coastline views.
During the drive, John, our tour guide, provided the right kind of information and entertainment. We first drove through Salinas Valley, the artichoke capital of the world. We stopped for some quick photos at Pigeon Point Light Station before heading to the charming coastal town of Monterey Bay.
The magnificent Monterey Bay has been called the greatest meeting of land, sea, and sky. Besides the splendid natural beauty, its biggest attraction is the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium with 35,000 animals and 5,500 plant species. I was more interested in exploring the Pacific Grove as it was the season of wildflowers and Harbor Seal Pupping. Taking in the gorgeous views and seeing the mom seals nurse their young pups on the Beach, I must have walked miles. I was so lost that I missed my bus by a minute. Yes, by a minute. I had to call the SF office to get me back on the bus.
Continuing down the coast and taking in the Cliffside outlooks of Pacific Grove we headed down to Carmel along the 17 Mile Drive studded with gazillion dollar homes, Pebble Beach, Golf course, the 300 years old Lone Cypress, and Seal Rock. The very quaint art-loving Carmel resembled an 18th-century European village with narrow streets lined with gallery-lined streets, unique boutiques, cozy gastropubs, and cafes and even cozier fine dining and casual eateries.
The historic town of Carmel established in 1603 is unlike any other town in the US. You won’t find any addresses, house numbers or red lights in Carmel. Every house’s landline is connected to Police station, in case there is any emergency.
Said John, as we bid goodbye to this living piece of history.
It was a long day of exploring the Northern Pacific Coast and it became even longer when I was mistakenly dropped at the other end of the Mason Street. An uphill trek in the cold rain-swept night of San Francisco wasn’t part of the deal. But I learned an important lesson – give the full address.
Travel See Write recommends 5 must dos:
- Walk or cycle around the Monterey Pacific Grove
- Spend some time at the beach just soaking the views – wildflowers and marine life
- Watching the penguin feedings, jellies, and the wild sea lions at Monterey Bay Aquarium
- Squirrels at pebble beach are very friendly but don’t feed them
- Have coffee and doughnut at the historic Carmel Bakery running since 1899
3. Yosemite National Park: Discover the High Sierra
MILEAGE: 211 miles from San Francisco
DRIVING TIME: 4 hours but spend 1-2 days in the park
WHEN TO GO: Spring
THE JOURNEY: One of the reasons why I madly fell in love with the US is its National Parks (Read The USA travel – things you should know before your visit). And the first National Park I visited was California’s showstopper National Park – the Yosemite. A UNESCO World Heritage site attracting 4 million visitors every year for its giant granite Monoliths, plunging waterfalls and alpine meadows.
My Tour bus picked me up early morning from the hotel and our first pit stop was in the agricultural region of the San Joaquin Valley. The rolling green hills adorned with 4930 wind turbines of Altamont Pass Wind Farm (world’s largest wind turbines at a place) gave me my first WOW moment of the trip. My second wow moment came when following the Highway 140 from Merced we passed through the rich Central Valley farmlands and wineries of the Sierra Foothills. Followed by the 19th-century Gold Rush town of Mariposa. Beyond Mariposa, wild and scenic Merced River accompanied us until we reached El Portal, about ten minutes from the entrance of the Yosemite.
Yosemite is a favorite national park for nature lovers, hikers and families alike. The biggest attraction for them is the treasure trove of giant cascading waterfalls. In the list of the worlds’ 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots – Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Being a hiker and a landscape lover, I wanted to hike up to see the Yosemite Falls in its full crowning glory but because I was on a time-bound tour I had to contend with an easy, but scenic 1-mile walk. The 189-meter Bridalveil Falls was another great WOW moment for me. The only drawback of seeing a waterfall from close-by is that it soaks you from top to bottom. And snow carpeted Spring is not an ideal time to experience it.
Our last stop of the trip was the Tuolumne Meadows, one of the most photographed regions of Yosemite. Two miles long lush green wide expanse cradled by high granite domes and peaks on both sides while the Tuolumne River adds the liquid delight. I really wanted to stay here for long but the Rain gods had a different plan.
Now here is a word of caution if you decide to hike in Yosemite – Spring can be a challenge. The snow on the slopes is turning to porridge and your backyard trail system is a mud slick. So, it’s a good season for a road trip but not ideal for hiking. On the flipside, the rivers are high, parks are less crowded, and resorts offer massive deals.
I visit Yosemite at least two to three times per week and still can’t get enough of it. My favorite season is Spring because it’s less crowded and you get to see so many seasonal waterfalls which vanish in summers
Said my guide, while I continuously nodded my head in affirmation.
This is one of the most famous among locals and tourists and there’s a reason for that. Go find yourself.
Travel See Write recommends 5 must-dos:
- Don’t miss a photo opportunity to click the Altamont Pass Wind Farm
- Spend some time at the historic village of Mariposa
- Hike up the Yosemite Falls but carry your rain gear along
- Do a picnic at Tuolumne Meadows but check weather before
- Stay over for one or two nights in the park and hike up to visit the giant sequoias
4. Mendocino Coast: Discover the North Coast
MILEAGE: 165 miles from San Francisco
DRIVING TIME: 3.5 hours
WHEN TO GO: Spring and Fall
Imagine a tranquil hamlet of Victorian villages stitched together by a rugged coastline and embellished with sprawling vineyards and towering redwood forests. Where art studios, boutiques, and performing arts are not hobbies but full-time passions. Where everywhere you look, there is a picture postcard waiting to be clicked. Where crashing waves and old-fashioned water towers embrace each other. Where picket fences are covered with flowers. Where beaches have glass bottoms and Botanical Gardens have oceanfront. No, this is not a fairytale. This is Mendocino – a photographers’ paradise, lovers’ hideout and artists’ retreat.
If somebody would have said the above to me before I visited Mendocino I would have brushed it off as an exaggeration. But after visiting Mendocino, I can vouch for every single word said above. With fewer than 1,000 year-round residents and this remote location, Mendocino offers tranquility in a spectacular North Coast setting.
Mendocino was supposed to be my first stop but as I passed through the gorgeous Point Reyes National Seashore, I couldn’t help but put brakes on my accelerator. The jaw-dropping views of the Pacific waves crashing into the rocky coast and the breathtaking vistas at the southern tip of the Point Reyes bluff is something that cannot be expressed in words. The wide array of blooming wildflowers along the trail made the place look like a fantasy land. But be prepared to be blown away – both figuratively and literally – by strong cold winds.
After a quick bite at Bodega Bay, I stopped 45 minutes South of Mendocino at the Point Arena Lighthouse for a quick photo op but the gusty wind forced me to take shelter in my car and move on to Mendocino.
The artsy Mendocino was such a relief from the humdrum of city life. The Victorian architecture and laid-back vibe of the coastal town of fewer than one thousand people were such a delight. The icing on the cake was the scrumptious local delights. I next headed to Fort Bragg, which has an interesting local lore of how it was formed – apparently from 1906 to 1967, everything from cars to batteries to bottles, and appliances were trashed over the cliffs into the ocean. Mother Nature turned this abuse into a great surprise – the tides over time smoothed and polished all the glass into kaleidoscopic sea glass treasure.
Mendocino is wild, remote and a vacation refuge. It offers tranquility in a spectacular North Coast setting with a trickle of tourists. Much of its charm is its undeveloped beauty and solitude. And I don’t want that to change ever.
Said Rob, a local who moved to Mendocino 20 years back from San Diego.
I was headed to Port Orford, so I couldn’t spend much time here. It deserves an extended weekend break.
Travel See Write recommends 5 must-dos:
- Start early to watch the splendid sunrise at the North Pacific Coast horizon
- Soak in the glorious ocean and staggering Cliffside views at the Point Reyes bluff
- Relish the delicious local bites at Mendocino
- Visit Art Galleries and USA’s only oceanfront Botanical garden in Mendocino
- Look for the colored glass treasure on the Glass Beach at Fort Bragg
5. Port Orford: Discover stunning Pacific Coast
MILEAGE: 493 miles from San Francisco
DRIVING DAYS: 2 days but keep at least 4 days to enjoy the beauty of this rugged coast
WHEN TO GO: Spring and Fall
In my last post, Why I left my heart in San Francisco, California, I mentioned how the immigration officer was amazed to know about Port Orford. A sleepy coastal town in Oregon, which would have never been a part of my itinerary, if Mike Shubic (the most road tripped man in the world) had not told me about this hidden gem. That’s why I always prefer local friends over guidebooks.
The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself. Driving from San Francisco to Port Orford nonstop takes approximately twelve hours but I bet nobody does that. This route is a feast for the senses, and frequent stops are practically mandatory.
I took the following route:
San Francisco – Mendocino – Humboldt Redwoods State Park – Eureka – Arcata – Trinidad – Redwood National Park – Crescent city – Brookings – Port Orford
Every mile of the Pacific Coast drive was gorgeous and no wonder it is the best drive in the West. The landscape changed dramatically from lush green winding roads to giant redwoods to jagged cliffs.
After visiting Mendocino, where Art and Culture merge with Mother Nature in a fairytale village by the sea setting, I continued up North.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
As I passed the soaring crashing waves, I noticed the surrounding redwood forests get taller and thicker. The 32 miles winding drive on U.S. 101 highway passed through the Avenue of Giants lined with towering redwoods of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
After enjoying the stunning wildness on the first half of my trip, Eureka was an inviting and lively switch. An art-fueled Victorian seaport, where nature and culture merge with a small-town feel. The blue hour was just the perfect time to click the beauty of this stuck-in-time small town.
It was getting dark and Port Orford was still far, so I reluctantly moved to Arcata. Next day, I left early morning for Trinidad, about 45 min south of the California border. A very cool and quirky place with lots of B&B’s, little supermarket, cozy coffee shops and excellent restaurant like Larrupen. Driving through Crescent City, I reached the California-Oregon border and the one hour drive from the border was arguably the most beautiful stretch of the Pacific Ocean in the U.S.
Red Woods National Park
The bustle of Trinidad dropped quickly as I reached Red Woods National Park, a World Heritage Site protecting nearly half of the world’s tallest trees. It is home to the world’s 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th tallest trees. I wish I had more time in hand. I would have loved to camp in this spectacular park of giant trees, lush groves, sheltered bluffs, and wild beaches. I was weaving in and out of forests and then back out in the spectacular coast.
Brookings – Port Orford
This 12-mile stretch of coastline consists of some of the most secluded beaches on the Western seaboard, along with impressive stone formations like Arch Rock and Natural Bridges. The Secret Beach near the Brookings and Bold Beach was a lucky find. It doesn’t show up on a lot of maps. The trick is to keep looking for it about one-third mile south of milepost 345 on U.S. 101 in Boardman State Park. One of Oregon’s most spectacular pocket beaches, the secluded stretch of sand is reached by a quarter mile trail from a small parking area along U.S. 101. The parking area comes up quickly, between Mill Creek to the north and Miner Creek to the south, on the west side of the highway. Blink and you’ll miss it because there is no sign. A waterfall on Miner Creek just above the beach adds to the idyllic scene.
Finally, I reached the funky little town of 1100 people. After a scrumptious brunch at Redfish, I strolled around the Battle Rock Park, Cape Blanco, Dolly dock port, and visited a couple of art galleries – Hawthorne and Triangle.
I just had a day on hand otherwise I would have loved to stop by Bandon Dunes, considered by the golf industry as arguably the finest public golf course in the country.
Travel See Write recommends 5 must-dos:
- Stay in the Victorian Inn of the tranquil hamlet of Mendocino
- Hike and camp in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Redwoods National Park
- Enjoy Open Mic, or live music at the Old Town Coffee and Chocolates in Eureka
- Stop over at the Natural Bridge and Secret beach for photo ops
- Visit Bandon Dunes North of Port Orford
I hope you are inspired to go on these 5 BEST NORTHERN CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIPS. The drive on any of these trips is so much more than getting from Point A to Point B.
So, what are you waiting for? Hit the road to Travel See and Write about the classic and hidden sites.
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