Coastal California to Mendocino
Just north of the Bay of San Francisco, a whole new world awaits the travelers. With its distinct history and culture, this incredibly diverse region is a micro cosmos of the best that Northern California has to offer. From lush redwood forests and gushing rivers to wine-growing valleys and small-town farming communities, from old lighthouses on the rugged coastline to tiny fishing villages, from an ancient Russian fort to the quaint artists’ colony of Mendocino, this is a journey of discovery of both of the past and the future of California.
This trip follows a loop route starting and ending in San Francisco. The itinerary is very flexible and versatile. The loop route can be undertaken in both directions. It can be undertaken as an extension of a visit to San Francisco and the Bay Area or as an entirely separate travel trip. It can also be combined with other trips to the Gold Country and Yosemite, Monterey Bay and Big Sur, or as the continuation of a road trip from Los Angeles. In other words, this trip can be highly customized to the particular circumstances of the traveler.
Length of trip
6 to 8 days
Best time to travel
Combination urban, nature and road-trip
Easy and relax
FIT/SAT. Individuals, families and small groups
- Drive to the Marin Headlands for stunning views of the Pacific Coast
- Walk across the suspended wood bridge to Point Bonita Lighthouse
- Hunt for treasures at antique stores near Sebastopol
- Hike among giant sequoias at Armstrong Redwood Forest
- Taste sumptuous wines and food at wineries of the Russian River region
- Enjoy a lazy afternoon in Healdsburg's shaded town-square
- Discover the best California wines in Sonoma County's small artisanal wineries
- Dine in style and al fresco at Coppola Winery's Rustic restaurant
- Take a slow drive through Anderson Valley to the wineries of the Navarro River
- Watch the whales go by from the lighthouse at Point Cabrillo
- Take in the peaceful vibe of the charming village of Mendocino
- Lunch on the freshest fish-and-chips at the port in Fort Bragg
- Experience Old Imperial Russia at historic Fort Ross on the Mendocino coast
- Revisit Hitchcock's "Birds" in Bodega Bay
- Enjoy the best oysters of the West Coast in Tomales Bay
- Experience the unique land and marin wildlife of the Point Reyes Peninsula
Suggested itinerary at a glance
This is a slow-paced and relaxed itinerary, with plenty of time for relaxation, exploration and opportunities for added outdoors activities such as hiking, sailing and kayaking. Starting and ending in San Francisco, we recommend 8 days (or more) for complete experience but the itinerary be enjoyed in as little as 6 days.
Day 1-2 • The wines and foods of Sonoma County
Just north of San Francisco, West Sonoma County is a land of narrow country roads, small farms and family-owned wineries, and charming communities set among rolling hills and giant redwood forests. The enjoyment of good food, superb wines and peaceful nature hikes is the theme for these days.
Leaving San Francisco, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands side of the Bay. After a stop on the esplanade or the promontory guarding the entrance to the Bay, leave the main highway and continue on the small country roads of Western Sonoma and the Russian River area. This is a region of wineries, cheese making and small family farms producing some of the best fruits and vegetables in the country. Stop by the road-stands or visit the wineries for an authentic taste of the local offerings.
There are at least three good reasons to visit Guerneville. Its easy access to the shore of the Russian River, its proximity to the majestic redwoods of Armstrong Woods and its charming main street with plenty of opportunity for food and shopping.
Sebastopol is known both for its trove of antique stores and its vibrant food scene. Visit the new Barlow neighborhood for some of the best microbrews on the West Coast or stroll downtown’s main street for the unique flavors of home-made ice cream.
Russian River and Dry Creek are only two of the appellations of this immensely rich wine region. It is home to both tiny small-production wineries as well as some of the most world-renowned vineyards. Take the time to pursue your particular interests. Taste the wines, visit the caves and meet with winemakers for a complete experience of the region.
Healdsburg is the unofficial seat of the Dry Creek valley. Its beautiful shaded plaza, surrounded by restaurants, outdoor cafés, boutiques and galleries are reason enough to visit and linger there.
A short drive away from town, visit the stunning Coppola Winery near the tiny community of Geyserville. Take the time to experience its beautiful grounds. Rest by the pool on a hot day, taste the wines at the bar and marvel at the extensive private collection of Coppola’s movie memorabilia. For an end to a perfect day, dine on the patio overlooking the vineyards.
Day 3-4 • Anderson Valley to Mendocino
Leaving Sonoma County for Mendocino County, Anderson Valley is home to both tiny rural communities and renowned wineries. Past its narrow entrance through a winding road from Calistoga, the Valley goes from open vineyards to dense redwood forests as it follows the path of the Navarro River to open up on the Pacific Ocean just south of Mendocino.
In Cloverdale, stop for a hearty meal at the self-described World Famous Hamburger and Ranch BBQ. This is hardly an exaggeration. Presiding over the wood fire, the open-pit master cooks some of the best ribs and other choice cuts anywhere in California. In the weekend, local bands often show up to play country and blue-grass music.
A drive through the beautiful Anderson Valley seems to take you back another era before chain coffee shops and mass produced goods. This is a place of pride and life at a leisurely pace. Stop and linger in Booneville for a taste of old-world meets new demands. Find your perfect fishing rod at the old hardware store, sip espresso at the new outdoors café, taste the seasonal ale at the saloon or the newly bottled wine at the bar. In season, discover the spectacular Mendocino County Fair where the rodeo, prize-winning apple pies and a sheep’s beauty-contest are only a few of the many attractions.
Tiny Philo is just up the road. It marks the beginning of the Navarro wine appellation. Visit some of the most renowned wineries among wine aficionados. The eponymous Navarro Vineyards, Goldeneye Winery and Roederer Champagne Vineyard are only three of dozens of opportunities for tasting and relaxation.
Visit Hendy Woods State Park, a beautiful forest well-known for its two ancient virgin redwood groves: Big Henry and Little Henry. The Navarro River runs the length of the park. With its warm climate and easy trails, it is a great place to appreciate nature.
Anderson Valley continues through Navarro River Redwoods State Park. Drive leisurely through its eleven-mile long road bordered on both sides by majestic redwoods. This imposing avenue of giant trees ends with the dramatic scenery of the Pacific Coast at the tiny village of Albion. Continue north along the coast to the small village of Mendocino, perched on the cliff overlooking the ocean.
Day 5-6 • Mendocino and Fort Braggs area
A dramatic Pacific coastline, ancient redwood forests, an elegant lighthouse, whale-watching, small coastal communities, fishing ports, art and history, hiking and kayaking. These are just a few of the things that make the Mendocino region a world apart. Slowing down to enjoy its unique character is the theme for these days.
Explore the charming small village of Mendocino. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this artist colony boasts beautiful Victorian-architecture, unique art galleries and great restaurants. Stroll along its streets, enjoy a piece of hand-made maple fudge and hike the easy trail at the end of town, leading from the cliff to the beach and its caves below. For a complete relaxation experience, treat yourself to a hot tub and massage in one of spas in town.
Fort Bragg is just up the road. Long a contender to the better-known Mendocino, this picturesque town is today a vibrant place for food, art and culture and outdoors pursuits. Visit its working fishing port straddling the meeting of the Ocean and the Noyo River and order some of the freshest seafood available anywhere. Board one of the vessels for a whale-watching journey. Take a stroll through town and over the pedestrian bridge crossing the Pudding Creek. Hiking, bicycling, beach-combing and kayaking are some of the local favorite pastimes.
Nearby, MacKerricher and Van Damme State Parks offer numerous opportunities for accessible hiking, beachcombing, bicycling, horse riding, exploring the about the history of the North Coast of California and observing marine wildlife. Complete your exploration of this diverse region with a hike on the accessible trail to the lighthouse in Casper for one of the spots on the Pacific Coast for whale-watching or with a hike through old redwood groves at the Mendocino Woodlands.
Day 7-8 • Highway 1, Bodega Bay and Point Reyes
From Mendocino to San Francisco, this stretch of Highway 1 is no doubt one of the most beautiful drives on the West Coast. Its dramatic coastline, dotted by small remote communities, is rich in distinctive historical sites and unique natural beauty.
Drive down the Coastal Route no. 1 at a leisurely pace, taking the time to stop for of visits of the tiny communities of Albion and Manchester. Leave the main road and meander down the coast to the lighthouse in Point Arena. This dramatic tall tower presides over a rugged coastline along the sea route from Alaska to San Francisco, a vivid reminder the maritime history of Coastal California.
The village of Gualala is just down the road. Discover this tiny coastal town known for its easy atmosphere and vibrant local artist community. Order a meal at one of the only handful of eateries or sip a drink and take the time to appreciate the slow pace of the place with the locals.
Fort Ross Historic Park is a place like no others on the West Coast. This is old Russian fort, dating to the time when Northern California was still under the imperial control of the Czar of Russia, is not to be missed. Explore the fort and learn how the relations between Russian settlers, French trappers, native Inuits, Pomo Indians and Anglo merchants shaped the history of California and the entire west coast of the US.
A short distance away, the tiny community of Jenner sits at the mouth of the Russian River. This is a great place for a drink on the patio of the local café overlooking the tides going in and out of the estuary. Follow the road inland along the river to Duncan Mills, Monte Rio, and Occidental. Take the time to visit these small villages, each with its own unique character on the edge of the Russian River wine country.
Protected by a bay from the wild whims of the Pacific Ocean, Bodega Bay is a picturesque fishing village. Stroll along the cliff at Bodega Head overlooking the ocean, hike the surrounding hills, watch for migrating whales, or simply relax at one of the local eateries. The town is famous for its clam chowder and crab sandwich. For a taste of outdoors adventure, take surfing lessons, go on a fishing trip or kayak along the protected coves of the Bay. Drive just a few miles inland to the tiny town of Bodega made famous as the site of the Hitchcock movie “The birds”. Nothing has changed much in the 50 years since then and birds still perch high on the roof of the schoolhouse.
As you drive along Tomales Bay, the road follows the natural path of the San Andrea Fault. It carved out this route, separating the Point Reyes peninsula from mainland California. Apart from its natural beauty, the area along the Bay is also famous for its delicious oysters. Stop at Hog Island place for a meal of oysters, seafood and local wines and beers on the patio overlooking the Bay.
The Point Reyes Peninsula is a place of unique beauty and character. As you approach from Tomales Bay, stop at Point Reyes Station for a strong coffee with the locals at Toby’s barn. Check out new boutiques, local bakery and the old hardware store, and then stroll to the famed Cowgirls Creamery for a taste of the best regional cheeses. Just outside of town, visit the Nature Center and walk along the “1906 earthquake trail”. Follow Francis Drake Road for visits of the many sites of the Peninsula. Wind-battered beaches, a unique lighthouse, the famed Drake’s Beach, the Tule Elk Reserve, sea lions and seals colonies, whale watching, kayaking on Tomales Bay, nature hikes, bird watching and more. Point Reyes is one of the most beautiful natural preserve on the West Coast.
Drive a few miles to the small village of Nicasio. A baseball field, a one-room schoolhouse and the local tavern make up the entire town. Settle comfortably at Rancho Nicasio restaurant and order local beers and delicious “bar food” for a relaxed meal surrounded by incongruous hunting trophies on the walls. On weekends, there is always a local band playing music on the stage by the bar.