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North Coast Road Trip

Stop along the way on Highway 1 for seals and otters, bluffs and beaches, and one-of-a-kind roadside shops and restaurants.

Via Staff
  • a white church in Mendocino, California, sits on the bluffs with the ocean below, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Nelson Minar/Wikimedia Commons
    Photo caption
    The town of Mendocino sits on high bluffs next to the blue Pacific.
  • Highway one cuts along the Northern California coast between Fort Bragg and Leggett, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Fietsbel/Wikimedia Commons
    Photo caption
    California's scenic Highway 1 weaves along the edge of the coastal mountains between Fort Bragg and Leggett.

From Bodega Bay to Gualala In Bodega Bay, although taffy houses and a winetasting spot dot the roadside, this town remains at heart a working port. Battered fishing boats bob beside salty-dog restaurants. Spud Point Crab Company serves chunky clam chowder rich with garlic and cream, as well as sweet Dungeness crab in tangy sandwiches or simply cracked. A tip for gourmands: Local crab season opens in mid-November. 1910 Westshore Rd., (707) 875-9472,

Tides Wharf Restaurant, which enjoyed a cameo in The Birds, showcases photographs of actress Tippi Hedren under assault by murderous flocks. 835 Coast Highway 1, (707) 875-3652, At Bodega Head, a nearby promontory and great whale-watching spot, their feathered relatives wheel and cry. But the birds are only bit players in this show—the coast itself is the star.

The road north from the harbor curls alongside Sonoma Coast State Beach, a 17-mile expanse that is not one beach but a string of them, only some visible from Highway 1. Several can be reached by the Kortum Trail, which cuts over the bluffs to craggy outcrops and hidden coves. Goat Rock Beach, near Jenner, where the Russian River ends its journey to the sea, offers a wide swath of sand sweet for strolling.

Winter skies here are dramatic, if often rainy, just as they were in the early 1800s when Russian traders founded Fort Ross. A stockade, chapel, and barracks today grace a state park with ample exhibits on the lives of the early settlers.

Up the highway, a 93-foot-tall column made of concrete, lead, and mosaic was erected in 1969 by sculptor Beniamino Bufano announces Timber Cove Inn, a stone-and-redwood lodge. Rooms, most with ocean views, fireplaces, and spa tubs, promise comfort and seclusion, while paths along the bluffs are ideal for sunset rambles. (707) 847-3231,

In the hour-plus it takes to reach the county's north shore, the main draw is the splendid isolation. At pine-shrouded Salt Point State Park, visitors are free to hunt wild mushrooms in the rainy season. At Sea Ranch, a strand of carefully spaced shingled homes interrupted by lanes leads to rocky overlooks and five public beaches. Just north, Gualala Point affords a view of the town of Gualala. For many travelers, hitting the Sonoma County line is a cue to put the ocean on their right and head back south. For others, Mendocino County promises more world-class views and great towns. —Josh Sens

Jenner, Calif.: Weekend at the sea Perched on the Sonoma coast where the Russian River empties into the Pacific, Jenner offers a ringside seat for a wildlife extravaganza starring river otters, harbor seals, great blue herons, and ospreys. You can contemplate the watery vistas while paddling in a kayak, standing on beaches and bluffs, or dining in a restaurant. It’s quite a show. Area code is 707.

Gaze at the Russian River at Cafe Aquatica, a cozy coffeehouse that dishes up freshly baked apple scones and focaccia, as well as creamy chowder crowded with clams and organic veggies. Jazz on Sundays on the deck. 10439 Hwy. 1, 865-2251,

Inside the old Jenner Boathouse, the Sonoma Coast State Park Visitors Center includes an education center and a bookshop, with puzzles, trail maps, and exhibits for kids on river ecology. 10439 Coast Hwy., Jenner, 865-9757.

Take a guided kayak outing with WaterTreks EcoTours and learn about the flora, fauna, and American Indian history of mid-river Penny Island. 865-2249,

Fly kites over craggy sea stacks or watch a colony of harbor seals at easily accessible Goat Rock Beach, one in a 17-mile strip of beaches and bluffs comprising Sonoma Coast State Park. Linked bluff trails go on for miles.

Local crab and citrus salad, Sonoma lamb sirloin bordelaise, and wild mushroom soup are just a few of the offerings you may find at Alexander’s inside Timber Cove Inn. Dine on the outdoor patio or indoors, where the river rock hearth and floor-to-ceiling windows face the untamed ocean. 21780 Hwy. 1, 847-3231,

Just north of the village proper on a ridge with dynamic views, you can sample complex, estate-grown pinot noirs, zesty chardonnays, and the lush pinotage at Fort Ross Vineyard Tasting Room. 15725 Meyers Grade Rd., 847-3460,

Indulge in a sunset feast at the intimate River’s End Restaurant, overlooking the river’s mouth and endless beaches. Pair a Russian River gewürztraminer with Tomales Bay oysters and wasabi tobiko (flying fish roe), followed by Petaluma duck fixed three ways. 11048 Hwy. 1, 865-2484 ext. 111, —Deborah Franklin

From Gualala To Fort Bragg Brilliant sunsets, weathered barns, hillside pastures, lively arts, and redwood-fringed ocean views: This 60-mile stretch of rural Highway 1 tracing the jigsaw curves of California’s coastal bluffs stirs reflection and romance. Area code is 707.

At the Gualala Arts Center, a popular venue, you can pick up a list of its gallery exhibits, live music shows, and theater performances by artists from Mendocino’s creative coast and beyond. 46501 Gualala Rd., 884-1138, The Shoreline Highway’s curves are best savored with frequent infusions of good coffee. Fill up your travel mug at Trinks Cafe and grab a spicy pork-shoulder sandwich with house-pickled carrots for the road. 39140 S. Hwy. 1, 884-1713, Thirty minutes up the coast, the 145 steps at the 1908 Point Arena Lighthouse provide a workout as stimulating as the views. In winter and late spring, watch for spouting gray whales on their regular commutes. 882-2809,

Farther on, wind and churning waves relentlessly nibble at the shoreline cliffs and towering sandstone sea stacks at Greenwood State Beach in Elk. Don’t miss the park’s visitor center with its dizzying mural of the rickety 19th-century trestle that once carried railcars transporting redwood timber to tall ships. Perched on coastal bluffs, the well-preserved clapboard village of Mendocino deserves extended exploration. Even if you’re short on time, be sure to pause at the wild and lovely Mendocino Headlands State Park to marvel at the roiling surf powering through rock tunnels and spray-spewing blowholes.

Dreamy coastal stretches finally give way to the outskirts of Fort Bragg. At the 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, heathers, heritage roses, and perennials start putting on a show in May and last into early fall. 18220 Hwy. 1, 964-4352,

Buy a snack pack of smoked cheddar and some German sausage for the return drive at Roundman’s Smokehouse in Fort Bragg. Or, for a savory souvenir, take home a party-size fillet of alder- and apple-smoked salmon or smoked albacore. 412 N. Main St., 964-5954. —Deborah Franklin

Fort Bragg, Calif.: Best Beach Town The Fort Bragg Mill closed in 2002, and since then the town has been busy reinventing itself, starting with the lumber mill’s former company store. Trimmed in redwood, the century-old building now bustles with local businesses, from the At One Yoga studio to the Fort Bragg Cyclery. Wheel a lightweight hybrid out the door to pedal to Pudding Creek Trestle—a spindly span on the original log-hauling road, now a paved path to MacKerricher State Park that passes cliffs and sandy stretches.

For contrasting oceanscapes, visit Glass Beach, where waves have worn glass and porcelain fragments from a former dump into a field of glittering, smooth pebbles. Or wander footpaths at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, where heritage roses scent the air and the teal Pacific seems almost tropical.

Back in town, the Bookstore & Vinyl Cafe has new young owners who have expanded the 30-year-old institution, adding an upstairs record shop and listening room. 353 N. Franklin St., 964-6559. At the Lost Coast Culture Machine, gallery cofounder Anne Beck recruits from the region’s rising creative contingent, exhibiting paintings plus video and sculptural installations by artists throughout the summer months. 190 E. Elm St., 961-1600. Short-lived trend or full-scale turnaround? Discuss it over beer and a New Yorker, a pleasantly salty, thin-crust pepperoni pie at Piaci Pub & Pizzeria, a wellspring of barstool banter within view of the old mill. 120 W. Redwood Ave., 961-1133, —Erin Klenow

Eureka: Redwoods, Wildlife, and Victorians The past is always present in this vibrant Northern California seaport, famed for teeming fisheries and towering redwood forests. Hundreds of ornate Victorians hark back to the lumber trade that boomed in the 1850s. Today, Eureka draws travelers with a mix of dining, shopping, and outdoor diversions. Area code is 707.

A self-guided walking tour of the historic Old Town district brings you face-to-face with dozens of grand Victorian and Queen Anne buildings—such as the Eagle House—many of them open to visitors. The renowned, castle-like Carson Mansion is closed to the public, but well worth ogling from the outside.

Spy on egrets, cormorants, and harbor seals as you bike or stroll on the Hikshari’ Trail, a 1.5-mile paved path through the Elk River Wildlife Sanctuary. The Redwood Region Audubon Society offers guided bird walks.

Fill up like a lumberjack at the Samoa Cookhouse, the last logging camp–style dining hall in the West. Think pancakes, roast pork, and other hearty fare served in all-you-can-eat portions on long tables covered in red-checked cloths. The Cookhouse and Logging Relics area displays artifacts that helped account for the healthy appetites of bygone days. 908 Vance Ave., 442-1659,

Shaded by an ancient redwood grove, the Sequoia Park Zoo—the oldest zoo in California—is home to white-handed gibbons, alpacas, peccaries, and more. The newest residents will be salmon, otters, and bald eagles in an exhibit opening by the end of summer. 3414 W St., 441-4263,

At once old-fashioned and new-fangled, Living the Dream Ice Cream scoops a rainbow of flavors, including maple bacon and chocolate lavender. 1 F St., 407-3508,

Slurp fresh oysters and sample local wines and beers at the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center, a traveler’s resource that doubles as a raw bar and tasting room. 205 G St., 672-3850,

The eclectic assortment of antiquarian books, maps, photos, and ephemera at Eureka Books thrills spontaneous browsers and serious collectors alike. 426 Second St., 444-9593, —Josh Sens

Discover more road trips across the West. 


This article was first published in June 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.