Creating itineraries has long been a passion of mine. So, I wanted to share my ultimate Northern California road trip itinerary for exploring the coast. When I think back to my fondest memories from travel these last years, it has certainly been exploring the Northern California coast.
As a Northern California native, I’ve spent most of my life exploring these coastal towns, cities, and outdoor destinations. I feel like I know them better than anywhere else. But with that said, each time I visit, I find something new. Maybe I see it in a new way or the weather is different so the atmosphere feels entirely changed. It’s these little things that make the coast of Northern California so dynamic and appealing to visit over and over again.
Having lived in San Francisco for almost a decade, the drive up the scenic Highway 1 is one I adore. You can go as far as you like or even just go for an hour or two and still have a wonderful experience. The Pacific Coast Highway goes as far south as San Diego and stretches right through the heart of the Northern California coast.
So I’m taking the best of these California road trips and compiling it into what would be my ultimate Northern California road trip itinerary. As you read this post, the best part is you can pick and choose from any of these stops. You can spend as little or as much time as you want. It will help you create your ultimate bucket list road trip in Northern California.
The Ultimate Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary
What to Know Before Choosing Your Itinerary
Where to Start or Fly Into
I’d recommend flying into San Francisco Airport or Oakland Airport in the Bay Area. Both of these international airports have the best flight itineraries for several domestic destinations. You’ll most likely want to start your trip in San Francisco as well if you haven’t been there before. Keep in mind that road trips will require a car (which isn’t need in San Francisco). I’d recommend Hertz as a reputable car rental company.
Amount of Time Needed
This is a tricky and a frequently asked question. You could spend two weeks and not see it all. I always recommend a minimum of two full days for San Francisco and then a night or two for each major destination after that. So anywhere from a week to ten days will give you a great experience.
Weather and Time of Year
Weather on the coast of Northern California is tricky — it’s often opposite of what you’d expect. San Francisco runs the foggiest and coldest from June to August. The rest of the coast is actually pretty mild year-round with definitive colder temperatures in the winter. I’d recommend reading this in-depth post on the best time to visit Northern California. If I were to pick my ideal months, it would be April – May and September – October.
How to Use this Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
You can pick and choose from this itinerary as you like! If there is a stop that may not be of interest, then skip it and spend more time elsewhere. And vice versa, if you’re limited on time, pick what will fit for your itinerary.
I have my recommended stops here in a one-way order from San Francisco, heading north. It means that the way back will be longer than the way there so you could consider doing the reverse. I personally don’t mind doing one long stretch back as often that’s a travel day anyways.
This map below has all of the stops saved with recommendations for restaurants and things to do in each destination.
Stop 1: San Francisco, California
Recommended time: 2-3 nights
I suppose I’m biased after living there, but San Francisco is truly a wonderful city. There is so much to do there — everything from a visit to the MOMA and the De Young Museum to walking Crissy Field Beach. Two full days here would definitely give you the right amount of time to explore the city and its wonderful neighborhoods. I love heading to the Mission to grab a coffee at Ritual and perusing the local boutiques on Valencia Street. Golden Gate Park and Sutro Baths are wonderful green escapes within the city limits if you’re looking for some greenery as well. One other bucket list item to do is walking over the Golden Gate Bridge!
Don’t forget to watch sunset from Twin Peaks (my old hood!) and head to the weekend farmer’s market at the Embarcadero.
When it comes to food, here’s my secret list.
For coffee, these are my personal selects.
And for photography lovers, you’ll love these locations.
With the latest Proper Hotel opening here, this would be my first choice for design and a centralized location. There are wonderful boutique hotels and incredible luxury hotels as well.
Peruse all options here:
Stop 2: Point Reyes, California
Recommended time: 1-2 nights
Point Reyes is a special place for me. I’ve grown up coming to this magical and very intriguing coastal destination for years. The foggy inlets surrounded by towering trees make it mysterious. I feel like it’s one of those “best-kept secrets” in Northern California. I love coming here for two things: getting outdoors and eating locally. The pastoral lands here are home to some of the best dairy farms in the state and the local produce and seafood is incredible. I love grabbing oysters at Nick’s Cove or at Hog Island. The farm tours at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co are also a major win for foodies. The town of Point Reyes Station itself is incredibly charming, great for a bite and stroll.
The nearby outdoor destinations are incredible. Point Reyes National Seashore is home to hiking, wild elk, and the beautiful Cypress Tree Tunnel. You can rent kayaks for the day on the inlet and explore by water as well. Point Reyes has a truly lovely, slowed-down pace to it.
Get my list of recommendations with the weekend guide to Point Reyes.
I stayed at Nick’s Cove this previous year and wondered why I hadn’t before. These adorable cottages on the water are cozy. Breakfast is served in-room and what better way to start a day than a crackling fire and hot coffee. There are only a few rooms, so if they sell out, many options are available on Airbnb.
Stop 3: Timber Cove + Jenner
Recommended time: 1-2 nights
As you make your way up north, be sure to stop at Bodega Bay along the way — mostly to eat at Spud Point Crab Company for their crab sandwiches. The coast along this way has the most accessible beaches so if you’re looking to sit out on a beach, this is when to do it. You’ll notice the cliffs getting steeper as you pass into Sonoma County.
Timber Cove is your next destination, a personal favorite for a wild coastline. Anywhere between Jenner and Timber Cove is a great home base as you have access to a few key points of interest nearby. You can hike in Salt Point State Park or take an afternoon to explore the eccentric town of Guerneville. Kayaking with Watertreks Eco-Tours in Jenner will get you up close with the local wildlife and be sure to go wine tasting at Fort Ross Vineyards for one of the closest wineries to the Pacific Ocean.
There is plenty to do within 20 minutes in every direction from Timber Cove, so it’s my favorite last stop in Sonoma County on the coast before going much further north.
*A little further north is Sea Ranch with the scenic Pebble Beach and Gualala Point for hiking as well.
Arguably the best and most expensive hotel in Timber Cove is Timber Cove Resort. It’s splurge-worthy and has incredible views. The food here is also great, so you could also pop in for a bite. Since this one is often very expensive, I’d recommend the Jenner Inn as another option or consider staying in Guerneville which is about a 20-minute drive to the coast. There are great rentals there for homes.
Stop 4: Mendocino, California
Recommended time: 2 nights
One of the longer stretches of drives up the coast is from Timber Cove to Mendocino. There’s not a ton to do on the way, at least that I found, but you could stop in Sea Ranch if you hadn’t done so already. One other option is the town of Elk which I love for the hotel there, but there is an amazing local store in town that has sandwiches to go.
As you get into Mendocino, you’ll see that it’s the hub of life in this area. There is so much to do in this coastal town. I’ve come here at least a half dozen times and am always excited to return. Some of my favorite things to do include: renting an outrigger at Catch-a-Canoe, hiking in Russian Gulch State Park, walking the headlands at Van Damme State Park, exploring Fort Bragg (home to Glass Beach) further north, and more.
The food here is also amazing, so be sure to book a few reservations in advance at restaurants like Café Beaujolais and Wild Fish.
For all of my recommendations, please read the weekend guide to Mendocino.
There are several options for hotels here ranging in different prices. I love the experience of glamping at Mendocino Grove Glamping, the views from Little River Inn, the upscale experience at Brewery Gulch Inn, and the charming stay at Glendeven Inn & Lodge.
For those looking for an even more upscale and unique stay, I’d recommend booking a night at the Harbor House Inn that is further south in Elk. Their restaurant has been awarded a Michelin Star and it’s one of the most incredible stays I’ve had on the coast. You’ll have to drive a bit further to get to Mendocino to enjoy the town but still worth it.
Peruse all options here:
Stop 5: Trinidad, California
Recommended time: 2-3 nights
The final stretch of the drive will be the longest in miles, but the rewards at the end are worth it. You’ll cut back into Highway 101 as you work your way up to Trinidad, where along the way you can stop at the famed Avenue of the Giant. This park that is part of Humboldt Redwoods State Park is home to some of the tallest redwoods in the world.
As you pass further north, you’ll go through the town of Eureka, home to Lost Coast Brewery (great lunch stop) and a historic town. Your final destination and the best place to rent a home for a few nights in Trinidad.
I fell in love with this part of Northern California last year and could have spent a week here. There is so much to do as you’re close to Redwoods National State Parks and the iconic Fern Canyon (a must-visit). Nearby, the scenic beaches of Moonstone Beach or College Cove Beach are great to hang out for a walk or afternoon hang. You can go kayaking with Kayak Trinidad if you want to get out on the ocean.
The local restaurants are good here (a little pricey) but serve fresh seafood — The Larrupin Cafe and Moonstone Grill were my favorite. Be sure to go to Beachcomber Cafe for breakfast as well. This area is a good spot to end a road trip and makes for a great finale to your time in Northern California.
When I was there, I stayed in this home rental called Whalesong right in the heart of Trinidad. There are several options for home rentals and b&bs in the area.
Peruse all options here:
What to Pack for a Northern California Trip
One thing I learned quickly in Northern California is how fast the weather can change. I really recommend having good layers for any outdoor adventures on the coast. You’ll definitely want to have a good windbreaker as well for any windy days.
Here are some of my favorite outdoor pieces:
Other Nearby Destinations to Consider
Yosemite National Park — A lot of trips in Northern California include a few nights in Yosemite. It’s certainly an iconic destination for California road trips but not necessarily in the route of this itinerary. You can go out there for a night from San Francisco if you got an early start. It takes around three hours from San Francisco one-way with no traffic.
Sonoma and Napa Valley — If you’re looking for day in Northern California that is not on the coast, the wine regions of Sonoma and Napa are a great choice. You can easily pop in from San Francisco and could consider going there first before continuing up the coast.