What if I told you there’s a place that feels like home even when you’ve never been there before?
The stretch of rocky coastline in Northern California is magic. It’s moody, sometimes foggy, always dramatic, perfectly situated for stellar sunsets, and full of Redwoods – the tallest living thing on Earth.
More of California’s secret places here:
As a California native and Pacific Coast Highway enthusiast, allow me to share my favorite things to see on the Northern California coast:
Where to Stay:
This stretch of coastline is all about cute Inns with beautiful views. My friends and I loved the balcony, fireplace, and huge jetted bathtub at the Little River Inn in Mendocino. The views were amazing and they even have a little trail down to Van Damme State Park!
To say the sunsets there were spectacular would be an understatement. They have a delicious and adorable garden restaurant too!
If you can swing it, spend multiple days in Mendocino. There’s so much to see and this is my favorite part of the whole drive!
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Our journey begins in San Francisco, with many stops along the way. This trip could take days or weeks, depending on what looks good to you and how much time you have!
While Baker Beach in San Francisco is a great option to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge, I love the view from the other side even more.
If you have a clear day, stop by and walk around a bit, bidding San Francisco goodbye as you embark on an epic road trip.
This view is incredible, and you don’t even have to work that hard for it! Mt. Tamalpais is perfect if you prefer the kind of incredible lookout that you can drive to (map with each stop is embedded below!).
Though this viewpoint is a detour from Highway 1, it’s a worthy one if you have a chance at a sunset or low-hanging clouds. It creates such a gorgeous vibe from the top of the mountain all the way to the sea.
Like most of this drive, Point Reyes serves up gorgeous coastal views. But what sets it apart is this cypress tree tunnel! Catch it during golden hour (the hour before sunset) on a sunny day for the best photo op.
It’s reminiscent of the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland, no?
Part of the Sonoma Coast State protected area, Bodega Head offers a unique view of gorgeous rocks from the sand, as well as whale watching opportunities (which is true for this entire coastline).
This part of the coast is particularly rich in ocean life. The Bodega Head area contains one of the most important upwelling plumes along the entire California coast. This results in much diversity both under and above the waves. It’s a stop on one of many incredible scenic drives in Northern California.
Sonoma Coast State Park
There are several waterfalls along Pacific Coast Highway that fall into the sea. McWay falls in Big Sur might be the most famous, but the waterfall in Sonoma Coast State Park is a sight to see as well!
The way it falls onto the rocks in dramatic fashion with the wild Pacific makes this a photographer’s dream.
Salt Point State Park
You might be sensing a theme here that this coast is STELLAR for sunset ocean views. Salt point also offers up unique rock formations and several coastal trails to choose from. If you’re into SCUBA or freediving and don’t mind frigid water and thick wetsuits, this is a great spot!
They also have a pygmy forest and two campgrounds. Although there are many places that offer those things, it’s the rock formations, with porous rocks and arches, that make Salt Point worth the stop.
Stewarts Point is an unincorporated community on the Sonoma coast. It has a crazy history including murder and cannibals, but more importantly, this was an area of great significance to the original inhabitants, the indigenous Pomo people.
It’s a gorgeous area with some funky architecture as well.
Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands
Famous for the Point Arena-Stornetta Lighthouse, the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands offer sea arches that are some of the most defined and arch-like of the whole drive.
Take a hike along the cliffs over the ocean along the coastal trail and prepare to be amazed.
Van Damme State Park
Staying at Little River Inn, mentioned above, gave us easy access to Van Damme State Park. Entrance is $8 to go into the park and see the pygmy forest and hike the trails, but entrance to the beach, just across the highway, is free.
Check out some of the best stops in Mendo in the video:
I visited four times to watch the sunset, hang out in the sun, and enjoy peaceful morning meditations.
Interested in Meditations? Check out my favorite Chakra meditations.
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Surprise, surprise, we have another stellar sunset spot on the list! Covering most of the coastline around Mendocino as well as trails inland along the river, the Mendocino Headlands State Park is perfect for sunset.
We hung out on one of the bluffs over the water all afternoon watching the birds and waves come in, finished off with the incredible sunset pictured above!
Russian Gulch State Park
For a waterfall with a different flavor than the coastal ones, hike the fern trail in Russian Gulch State Park. You’ll pass plenty of ferns, lichen, and Redwoods on this peaceful path to the waterfall. The hike is pretty easy, at 3 miles each way, and can be turned into a loop!
Russian Gulch is also famous for its bridge, with a short overlook hike you can access near the fern trailhead. Entrance to the park is $8 per vehicle.
Glass Beach Fort Bragg
Perhaps the most famous beach on our list, the Glass Beach at Fort Bragg is a former dump-turned-fairytale beach.
The first time I visited in 2019, I didn’t find much glass, but in 2021, I found it everywhere! The best way to experience this beach is in the late afternoon to sunset when the light is catching the glass. You can read more about the history and tips for all of Fort Bragg’s attractions here.
Skunk Train to Redwoods
What in the world is a Skunk Train? Good question, and I’m glad you asked, because it’s a funny story.
These rails through the Redwoods were used by trains back in the day that apparently smelled like a skunk thanks to the fuel mixture.
These days you can either take the (no longer smelly) train or peddle yourself on the railbikes to the Redwoods. It’s a unique experience and the only rail bike I’m aware of its kind on the Northern California coast. You can read more and book the train or bikes in my guide for the best things to do in Mendocino county.
King Range National Conservation Area
As we cross into the area known as the Lost Coast, you’ll start to notice that the towns become smaller, the coastline even more wooded and rugged, and the wildness of it all increasing.
At this point Highway 1 merges with the 101 and you’ll have to take another road in to access this part. However if you’re committed, you’ll find gorgeous wildflowers and uncrowded coastline in King Range National Conservation Area.
Moonstone Beach in Humboldt
I love Humboldt County so much, I’ve visited 5 or 6 times now. Although there are many beaches in the area, I’m quite partial to Moonstone Beach. With the especially flat beach and water running out to the sea, it creates the perfect, long and wide reflection for the sunset.
Check out my guide to Humboldt county for more on my favorite things to do and eat there!
Hike in Redwood National Park
One of the things that makes this area so wonderful is the abundance and accessibility of the Redwoods. I’ve already mentioned that the Coastal Redwood is the tallest tree on Earth, but there can only be one that reigns supreme, and that’s the Hyperion Tree. The Hyperion is the official tallest known tree on Earth measuring in at 115.85 m (380.1 ft) tall.
Navigate a bit inland to this one in Redwood National Park. It’s well worth the brief departure from the coast.
Hike in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
I’m sure we can all agree there’s no such thing as too many Redwoods. Ergo, on your way to the Oregon border, check out Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park for even more tree hugging and amazing tree views.
Here’s a map to help you plan your trip:
A friend of mine told me that California runs in my blood. When you’re born and raised in a place, it’s always a part of you. I guess that’s why every time I’m on the California coast, even if it’s hours north of where I grew up, I feel like I’ve come home. Not just to me, but to nature, tranquility, and peacefulness. I hope you feel that way too.
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