Plan the Ultimate Northern California Road Trip - Take one of California's Most Scenic Drives Along the Coast and Through the Redwood Forest. Check Out These Must See Road Trip Destinations from San Francisco to Humboldt County.
If you are planning to take a road trip in California, you must check out this epic Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary. We'll show you must see scenic stops along Highway 1, and share our favorite beaches and hikes to explore as you make your way up the coast of California. Depart from the city of San Francisco and take the coastal route all the way up to Humboldt County.
You can drive from San Francisco to Humboldt County in about 5 hours without making any stops along the way, but what's the fun in that?! Taking the scenic route via Highway 1 is the best way to make the most of your California adventure, and truly embrace the beauty of the Golden State.
If you plan on following this full itinerary, it is very much doable to take this California coastal road trip in 5 days but I would recommend dedicating a full 7 days if you have the time to explore at a slower pace.
Whether you are making the roadtrip as a local California resident or tourist, a good starting point is from San Francisco.
HWY 1 Road Trip Stop - Point Reyes National Seashore
The Point Reyes National Seashore is a 71,000 acre park about 40 miles North of San Francisco. The rugged coastline is absolutely incredible to see in person, and there is an abundance of Wildlife in the area. There are over 1,500 plant and animal species in this biodiverse wonderland including Tule Elk (Tomales Point), Elephant Seals (Drakes Beach), and over 490 bird species.
Don't forget to check out these scenic spots loved by photographers and tourists who come to visit Point Reyes National Seashore.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is jutting right out to the ocean and is a spectacular location with history dating back to 1870. Be prepared to get some steps in, as the staircase is about 300 steps down to the building. You feel like you are at the edge of the world at this picturesque location right on the coast.
Cypress Tree Tunnel
The Cypress Tree Tunnel is loved by many photographers, and golden hour may draw crowds. Be sure to look out for the sign that says "North District Operations Center" as it'll be a turn off on the same road as if you were heading to the Lighthouse. The tunnel of cypress trees has quite the mystique to it and would make for a great location for a proposal! There is a chance the gate leading to the tunnel could be closed so be prepared to park on the street.
Please note that traveling restrictions may be in place due to COVID and facilities and trails could be closed, so please check directly with the parks before visiting. Click here for more info.
HWY 1 Road Trip Stop- Bodega Bay
Bodega Bay is a great location to stop and grab some local seaside grub on your coastal road trip up North. You might recognize this small town on the Sonoma Coast from movies like "The Birds" (1963) or "The Goonies" (1985). There are amazing local restaurant options serving your sea faring favorites, like clam chowder bowls and fish and chips.
Some local grub favorites in Bodega Bay include:
Fishetarian Fish Market - Check Yelp Page
Spud Point Crab Company - Check Yelp Page
Fisherman's Cove - Check Yelp Page
Lodging near Bodega Bay
Bodega Bay is a good lunch spot before making your way up the Sonoma Coast on Highway 1. The drive is simply gorgeous, with the drastic coastlines and cliffs. Some other pit stop recommendations I have are are Duncan's Landing Overlook, and Cafe Aquatica in Jenner, CA.
HWY 1 Road Trip Stop - Mendocino + Fort Bragg
Mendocino County Points of Interest
Some of the most infamous beaches in Northern California are located in Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Luckily these two coastal cities are only 15 minutes away from each other. The Mendocino County Points of Interest are ordered from South to North to help you plan your stops as you make your way north to Humboldt County. See my Mendocino weekend guide here for where to stay, eat and more points of interest!
Russian Gulch State Park
This state park has it all for hikers, families and adventure seekers - explore the 15 mile forested canyons and rugged coastline. The park boasts a 36 foot waterfall, sinkhole called Devils Punchbowl, and the picturesque 100ft tall Panhorst Bridge.
Whether you plan on just passing through or staying for a few days in town, you can find an abundance of outdoor activities to do such as kayaking, camping, biking, horseback riding, fishing and hiking.
Find out further details on Russian Gulch State Park here.
Lodging near Mendocino
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
If you are looking for a peaceful walk through nature, then you might consider making a stop to see the largely diverse grounds of the Botanical Gardens. With over 47 acres to explore, you'll be delighted with various plants, flowers, and species to admire. They are most famous for their Rhododendrons that bloom in the spring and color the ground with their colorful petals by March-April. They also have a wonderful Dahlia garden, which is a popular time to visit in late Summer to see them in full bloom. Make sure to make a reservation ahead of time due to COVID, which can easily by purchased online for $15 here.
While we can't guarantee that you'll find a beach full of glass, the fun is in the hunt! What used to be a locals dumping grounds for glass bottles, turned into a location for tourists looking to get their hands on some of the gorgeous beach glass. Keep in mind, even though it's prohibited to take the glass home with you, you may be surprised to see little amounts still left there.
The Mendocino area is also very well known for their wines. If you don't want to stray too far off-course from the coast, you may consider checking out Pacific Star Winery which is directly on the coast with the most gorgeous views. Note: they are only open Thurs-Sun.
When we visited the Mendocino area, we glamped on the beach, which was an experience I will never forget and highly recommend as something to do once in your life. You can read about our 2 night glamping experience here.
HWY 1 Road Trip Stop - Humboldt County
Humboldt County Points of Interest
Avenue of the Giants
The Avenue of Giants is a right of passage when you visit Humboldt County, and easily one of the worlds most scenic drives. The two lane road twists and curves for more than 30 miles as you are engulfed by the various giant redwood groves. There are many stoping points along the way for you to stretch your legs and soak in the largest remaining virgin redwood trees left in the world. If being a tourist excites you, then you may want to check out the Shrine Drive Thru Tree to take a picture! And don't worry, the Avenue parallels the highway so you won't have to stray off course to take advantage of this mandatory detour.
Check out these unique Redwood trees along your way! Visit the Ten Must See Redwood Trees according to visitredwoods.com.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
There is no shortage of Redwoods in Humboldt County, as you have various National and State parks to choose from. Many visitors love coming to this park in particular for the infamous Fern Canyon, which you may recognize from Steven Spielberg's movie Jurrasic Park. The 50 ft. walled canyons are covered in ferns, making this a luscious tropical place to come find some peace and take photos.
You can easily do the 1.1 mile Fern Canyon Loop trail - but prepare to walk on logs, and cross small creeks depending on the time of year.
The drive in is like a mini adventure in itself, and although you can get by with a 2WD just prepare yourself for a bumpy ride. We even spotted some Roosevelt Elk on our drive out, and a few years ago encountered an Elk on the trail! It's a common area for Elk to gather so keep your eyes peeled at all times, and remember to keep your distance.
Trinidad Points of Interest
Trinidad, CA, is a coastal town about 15 miles north of Arcata, and has some of the most dramatic and serene coastlines on the Northern California coast. Patricks Point Drive to the north of town and Scenic Drive to the south hug the rugged coastline and provide access to and views of the ocean, sea stacks, and cliffs. You really can't go wrong visiting any part of the coast up in this territory, but here are some of my favorites. If you plan on spending the weekend in Trinidad, CA see my full travel guide here.
See Lodging Near Trinidad
A beautiful and quiet beach with views of Pewetole Island and Trinidad Head, this hidden gem is loved by locals, dogs, and the occasional nudists! Although we didn't experience any nudists here, it is something that is accepted so keep in mind before you visit. It is a nice little steep walk up from the cove, but definitely worth while!
A gorgeous coastal park along the Pacific Ocean with hiking trails, camping, surfing, and a great place to have a picnic. Don't forget to check out Wedding Rock, a large rock formation jutting into the ocean.
Great family friendly beach and spot to catch the sunset. As you take a walk along the beach you can explore small caves, tide pools, and rock formations.
If you are looking to stop off somewhere just for the view and not get sandy then this is your spot! When you arrive to the very small parking lot you'll see a trail which leads out to a point with stunning views of the coastline. It has an epic view of Camel Rock and various other sea stacks. 10/10 recommend coming to this hidden little gem! Here is the location on the map
That concludes the Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary for now! If you want to add another scenic stop on your way back, you can take the long way home and check out the volcanic legend of Mount Shasta. I have a weekend guide for Mt.Shasta here for you to read.