Blue waters. Big trees. Stunning vistas. Cute towns. California’s northern coast is not as popular as other portions of the state – or as well known – but it delivers on every point a traveler could want. In this guide, we will attempt to distill this huge region down into a manageable format, giving you the general information you’ll need to plan your perfect getaway.
First off, let’s define what the northern coast of California consists of. For the purposes of this guide, it will include the area north of San Francisco, and along the coastal highways, California 1 and US 101, depending on the area. (CA 1 doesn’t run the whole length of the state as US 101 does, but in parts of Northern California where the 1 exists, the 101 runs inland.) So this area includes everything from the Marin headlands (just on the other side of the Golden Gate) to the Oregon border.
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While there are several small airports like Eureka/Arcata, your best bet is to fly into San Francisco (or another Bay Area airport) and drive north. From SFO, head through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge (read about that experience here). From there, you can either cut directly over to the coast, or use a larger more inland city like San Rafael as your base for the southern portion of your trip.
As far as other major metro areas go, parts of the coast can be accessed from Sacramento in a few hours’ drive, or a full day from Portland. The isolation of the area, and the relative lack of population centers, makes for an incredible experience, but certainly a tougher journey.
To start, you’ll need a car. Even if you only pick a single portion of the coast to explore, there is no public transportation outside of the cities. And especially if you want to see more of the coast than a single location, you’ll really need good transportation. After all, just following US 101, without venturing onto CA 1, we are talking a five or more hour drive from San Rafael in the south to Eureka or Crescent City as your northern base.
The roads can be windy, and even the 101 is just a single lane in either direction in many parts. Take your time and try not to be distracted by the stunning vistas. Also be careful to stick to the posted speed limits, especially when the highway goes through a small town. Speeding tickets are a major source of income up here.
What to Do
To truly experience California’s northern coast, you’ll need at least two – and likely three – bases, or at least stopover points. My personal recommendations are: San Rafael in the south, Fort Bragg in the middle, and Eureka in the north. Why? Along the southern portion of the coast there are few towns, and from San Rafael one can easily day trip to the coastal spots. Fort Bragg is really the only place of any size – or with any hotels – in the central portion of the coast. And Eureka is both more convenient to the mighty coast redwoods than Crescent City (being between the two main areas to see them), but also has significantly more culture.
The Southern Section – Based in San Rafael
San Rafael is used often as a gateway to Napa, but Napa is not part of this guide. From a base here, you are less than two hours to each of the area’s top two coastal sights: Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes National Seashore.
Muir Woods is a small sliver of ancient growth forest that features a lovely flat boardwalk winding its way along a creek past redwoods. It gets crowded, and reservations are needed for parking, but it makes a delightful day, and a good introduction to the trees we will visit as we head north. (Read my guide to Muir Woods here.)
Point Reyes is a peninsula sticking out into the Pacific Ocean, one of the most stunning rocky pieces of shoreline on the coast. It’s a bit further afield from San Rafael than Muir Woods, but a beautiful drive. Read all about it here.
The Middle Section – Based in Fort Bragg
This is where CA 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) meanders its way along the water, while the 101 cuts inland. Towns are tiny, but both Mendocino and Fort Bragg (about an hour apart) have enough infrastructure to host visitors. This section of the coast doesn’t have the major tourist attractions of the southern or northern portions, allowing for a more relaxed night or two to just enjoy the slower pace and ocean views.
Fort Bragg is a cute town. While the main attraction is Glass Beach (read about it here), the town itself has a lovely waterfront, some good food, and lovely locals who are eager to offer recommendations to visitors. Grab a picnic fish and chips dinner and eat at any number of bluffs, just watching the water. Life could be worse.
The Northern Section – Based in Eureka
This is where the big trees are. Giant coast redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, with many reaching more than 350 feet! Eureka sits right between the two main groves of trees you’ll want to see: Humboldt Redwoods State Park to the south and Redwood National Park to the north.
Redwood National Park is the largest and best known collection of giant coast redwoods in existence. Unlike many national parks, admission is free, and there are a ton of areas to choose from. My personal recommendation is Prairie Creek, a walk focusing on Big Tree, aptly named. (My guide to Redwood NP can be found here.)
While Redwood gets the publicity and the tourist traffic, Humboldt Redwoods is possibly more impressive. The Avenue of the Giants parallels the highway and curves around the trees, and the Founders Grove will inspire you. Read about it here.
A note on Eureka. The town is adorable. It has old Victorian homes that are worth visiting, great food, a lovely waterfront, and even lovelier people. Spend at least half a day in town exploring. (Here is my guide.)
What to Eat
There is a lot of great food along the northern coast, so here are just a few of my favorites:
Fish and chips at Sea Pal Cove in Fort Bragg, followed by mushroom ice cream (trust me) at Cowlick’s.
Mushroom cobbler at Brick and Fire in Eureka, or the quail egg shooters at Phatsy Kline’s. Also, don’t forget to grab some oysters in Eureka; this is where they are best in the state!
Avatar’s Punjabi Burritos in Mill Valley, outside Muir Woods. So unique! And get a mango lassi as well.
Other Useful Information
The weather along the northern coast is cool year-round. To give you an idea, on my recent July trip, it was 58 degrees in Eureka when I left, and 104 when I reached Sacramento a few hours later. Fog is more prevalent in the summer, but can be evident at any time. It will normally burn off, but still be prepared for cool days and wear layers.
The highways can be slow going, especially if stuck behind a truck. Along the coast, construction is very common, as all of the Pacific Coast Highway is sliding into the ocean. There may be closures at any time; just be patient, drive slowly, and make sure to only try to pass when both legal and safe.
If you’re looking for beauty, seclusion, and an amazing place to escape the summer heat, California’s northern coast is a destination that truly has it all going on. A week among the giant redwoods or along the blue waters of the Pacific will cure most of what ails you, and will give you some great stories and better memories. I hope this guide inspires you to plan your coastal getaway today!
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