This year, Visit California published a magazine called “50 Amazing California Road Trips.” In it, was this exact Wild North Coast Itinerary that spans up the coast of Northern California. So when asked to experience it firsthand and get to go on a girl’s getaway with my close friend Michelle of Live Like It’s the Weekend, I couldn’t have been more excited.
[This post is created in partnership with Visit California.]
There’s something surreal as you wind your way up Highway 1. Time seems to slow down, in a good way. Pastoral headlands roll right into the cliff’s edge where just below, the Pacific Ocean crashes onto the shores. It feels wild and untamed, yet approachable in the sense you can spend a long morning gliding across the river that starts from the ocean and works its way through the forest. I’m talking about Mendocino County — the part of California that hugs the coastline on Highway 1 before it continues further north. It’s a part of California I’ve come to love, appreciate, and long for when I need to reset and take a breath. Having not been much further than this part of the wild coastline, I appreciated everything Mendicono had to offer and anticipated what was next.
Where the Highway 1 ends, you find yourself on Highway 101 North where you begin to enter Humboldt County. It’s easy to recognize the change — the trees get taller, wider, the air seems to have a different scent to it, and the road creeps higher in elevation. It’s everything I hoped for when it comes to driving the scenic Redwood Highway. Emerging from the towering redwoods, I discovered a new part of the coast. A coastline sprinkled with sea stacks, picturesque, with National and State Parks butted up against it. It was an entirely new playground. Beaches and bays to discover by foot or kayak, State Parks I had yet to explore, and along the way, a new community that reminded me why Northern California is a special place.
So why road trip California? Perhaps it’s for freedom and flexibility, the opportunity to stop when something catches your eye. For me, it’s a reminder that good things take time. And when it takes time, you come to appreciate even your own backyard in a new way.
This is the Wild North Coast and here’s what I discovered.
A Road Trip Guide to California’s Wild North Coast
What to Know Before Traveling
- ARRIVAL: To arrive, the best airport to fly into is San Francisco International or Sacramento International depending where you pick up the itinerary.
- PHONE SERVICE: It’s good to know that phone service is limited so I recommend using Google’s offline, downloadable maps before arrival.
- MONEY: Cash is needed for some establishments and exact cash is required for certain State Parks.
- DRIVING: A car rental is necessary to do this trip. The roads are well marked with signage.
- TIME OF YEAR: The best time of year to visit would depend on what you want to do or see. I find the months of September to November and May to June to be favorable. Weather in this area of California changes quick — I’d recommend always packing layers!
- AMOUNT OF TIME: To really get a good sense of this area, 1 week would be the right amount of time.
- FULL ITINERARY: Head here to find the full itinerary.
(in order of south to north)
- Glendeven Inn & Lodge: Nestled right in the side of the mountain, Glendeven Inn & Lodge is an idyllic spot to stay for a few nights. I would use this as a home base for exploring Mendocino County. The rooms are charming and come with a wonderful hot breakfast delivered to your room, with eggs from the chickens that roam right outside. Enjoy their wine hour on the patio and soak in ocean views from the room.
- Cafe Beaujolais: Be sure to reserve one dinner here when visiting Mendocino. French and coastal cuisine with an amazing wine list serves classics like steak tartar and seafood linguini.
- Flow: For a bite with a view, head to Flow. As you walk upstairs, the dining room and patio have views over the ocean — and their fish tacos are a must.
- Trillium Cafe: One of my go-to’s in town for a great dinner or lunch, with fresh and local ingredients.
- Patterson’s Pub: A classic in town for pub fare.
Do + See
- Outrigger with Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too: If there’s one activity I recommend to everyone, it’s this. I’ve rented outriggers on the Big River Estuary a handful of times and it’s an experience to remember. You work your way up the river where you’ll often see harbor seals and river otters while gliding on the turquoise waters.
- Van Damme State Park: One of my favorite headlands to go for a hike as you’ll have ocean views the whole time. You can pick up the trail at right next to the Inn at the Cobbler’s Walk.
- Big River Beach: Spend an afternoon or morning at the beach. It’s a perfect spot to go for a walk as well.
- Russian Gulch State Park: This picturesque state park is full of walks, hikes, and has its very own beach. I love the view back towards the bridge on Highway 1 as well!
- Explore Mendocino Town: The town itself has a few boutiques and streets to explore with a large community of local artists. I’d spend an hour or two exploring the downtown.
- Princess Seafood: Right in Noyo Harbor is this gem run by women who go out on the sea each today to find the best seafood. Order the crab roll, it’s so good!
Do + See
- Railbikes with Skunk Train: One experience to do while in Mendocino County is taking out the railbikes on a guided tour through the redwoods. Operated by the Skunk Train, they created these two-person bikes that sit on the railroad tracks and have motorized assist. You’ll get to bike while taking in the views and get insight into the history of the trains that built up this part of California.
- Glass Beach: Head down to the beach and visit the famous Glass Beach where pieces of smoothed out glass wash up.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park + Ferndale
Do + See
- Avenue of the Giants: This special stretch of road runs parallel to Highway 101 and the 30-minute drive is a must. It goes through some of the tallest trees in the world, the redwoods of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. You can pull over at multiple locations to even go for a walk, with the most recommended being the Founder’s Grove.
- Ferndale: One of the best-preserved Victorian towns in California, this picturesque town is a few miles off the highway. You can walk the downtown, grab a coffee at Mind’sEye Manufactory & Coffee, and get a bite at Ferndale Meat Co.
- Lost Coast Brewery: One of my favorite beers from Northern California has its brewery right off the Highway 101. Stop in here to try a few and eat dinner here (their burgers are perfection!.)
- Ramones Bakery & Cafe: For coffee and baked goods, this is your spot right in town.
Do + See
- Harbor Cruise on the Madaket: Get a taste of history and why the harbor played an important role in developing this part of Humboldt on this one hour guided cruise. The Madaket is the last surviving original ferries built-in 1910 for the mill workers and families. Fun fact is the boat is also the smallest licensed bar in California!
- Explore Old Town Eureka: Go for a stroll through the old town of Eureka where you’ll find shops, restaurants, and some exciting street art.
- Redwood Coast Vacation Rentals: For our stay, we were booked in a house available on Redwood Coast Vacation Rentals. This is a great way to settle in for a few days, have your own space to relax at, and a kitchen to cook if you like. This company has a large range of homes available up and down the coast — we stayed in this one in Trinidad.
- Beachcomber Cafe: Pop in here for breakfast and coffee. We went here three times, their coffee and breakfast is amazing. I also love that they do no takeaway plastic/containers so be sure to bring your own coffee mug or use one of theirs to return later.
- Murphy’s Market: Your supply store for any food provisions right in town.
- The Lighthouse Grill: This gem is known for their waffle cone stuffed with mashed potatoes, gravy, and bacon. It’s decadent and delicious.
- Moonstone Grill: A standout location right on the beach, head here for happy hour bites or dinner with a view.
- The Larrupin’ Cafe: My favorite meal on the trip was here (be sure to reserve). Their mesquite grill serves lamb, grilled oysters, and more with local ingredients from the region. I’d also book on the patio if they have a live jazz band that night!
- Kayak around Trinidad Harbor with Kayak Trinidad: Get out on the water for a chance to see bypassing whales and porpoises and soak the scenic Trinidad Bay. The calm waters (most of the time) are perfect for a kayak adventure and you’re in great hands with Kayak Trinidad.
- Spend a day in Redwoods National & State Parks: This is one of the highlights of the area. You could easily spend a day or two and still not see it all. I’d start in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to get a good sense of the area. Some of my favorite hiking trails here start at the Visitor’s Center right in the park, like the Foothills Trail to Big Tree and the informational Revelation Trail.
- Fern Canyon: A must while visiting this part of California. In Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, you take the road down to where it ends on the beach ($8 exact cash needed for a fee). In a 5 minute walk, you enter Fern Canyon. the 50-foot high walls tower over you covered in ferns, while a creek runs through. Boards are placed so you can easily navigate it. Fun fact is Jurassic Park 2 was filmed here!
- Visit Moonstone Beach or College Cove Beach: There are some great beaches in this part, my favorite was Moonstone Beach and College Cove Beach. Moonstone is great for the family and has a long stretch to walk down. College Cove Beach can be a bit tricky to get to but you’ll have fewer crowds. For College Cove, park at the gravel lot, and take the trail to the right to access.
For more information on California, visit www.visitcalifornia.com.