If you were shown unlabeled photos of the California North Coast, you might think you were looking at the New England coast. With rugged cliffs and dark blue water, the wild vistas are unlike the shimmering emerald green of Big Sur or the vibrant cerulean blue of Laguna Beach, both to the south.
Still, the north coast of California holds untold charms begging to be discovered, and is an especially romantic getaway for couples.
I recommend starting your California North Coast road trip at Sacramento. Another alternative would be to start in San Francisco, but I’ve included San Francisco as the starting point for my mid-California coast road trip so it’s not on this California itinerary.
Founded in 1850 by gold rush pioneers, Sacramento is one of the best things to do in Northern California. Located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, Sacramento is known for its culture, history, gardens, and outdoor activities. Despite being named “the most hipster city in California” and “America’s most diverse city,” California’s Neoclassic-designed capital is arguably the state’s most underrated destination.
The district of Old Sacramento, aka “Old Sac,” harkens back to the city’s Gold Rush era. A ghost town in the 1900s, the 19th-century restored buildings, railroads, riverboats, wooden sidewalks, and horse-drawn carriages helped the city to flourish again.
For history buffs, the California State Railroad Museum has exhibits portraying the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, one of the country’s earliest technological achievements.
Don’t miss the WAL Public Market—a vintage market in midtown selling a myriad of unique, retro, and quirky wares.
2 Napa Valley
Known for the more than 400 wineries in the hillside of the Napa Valley wine region, Napa, considered the heart of California’s wine country, is more than just a stop for wine tastings. In fact, it is widely considered to be one of the best things to do in California.
The historic Napa Valley Wine Train takes tourists on a scenic tour of the area and even offers a murder mystery tour.
For a taste of delicious regional gourmet food, head to Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa. In addition to fresh produce, seafood, and cheese, the market also sells furniture and other items for purchase.
Outdoor enthusiasts can hike sections of the 47-mile Napa Valley Vine Trail, still undergoing construction.
3 Point Reyes
Nestled along the Pacific Ocean on Highway 1, the Point Reyes Peninsula includes giant redwoods and rolling hills juxtaposed next to the deep blue beaches, estuaries, marshes, and coastal wilderness.
The highlight is the 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore park, , where you can walk on top of the infamous San Andreas Fault Line. The ever-sliding tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, slices California in two from Cape Mendocino to the Mexican border. Just follow the marked “Earthquake Trail” for your Instagram moment!
Along the fault boundary, the plates grind against each other, making the Pacific Plate creep northward at a pace of approximately two inches a year. In 1906, the most significant movement of the fault occurred when the Point Reyes Peninsula jumped 20 feet to the northwest.
4 Sonoma Coast
With 55 miles of dramatic craggy coast, long sandy beaches, bluffs, and secret coves, Highway 1 along the Sonoma Coast is a spectacular, must-do drive in northern Cali.
There are many places where you’ll want to get out of the car, too. Stretch your legs with a walk on one of the trails and take in the scenic overlooks.
Note: we were there in March and it was really cold and windy, so make sure you check ahead for weather and dress appropriately.
Mendocino, reminiscent of a small Maine colonial coastal town, is known for its stunningly rugged landscapes, rolling sand dunes, world-class wine, and…fog. But don’t let that put you off; embrace the mysterious vibe and pack layers – the fog will usually burn off as the day progresses.
Taking a stroll along the coast is the perfect way to start the day. There are various trails you can take, depending on your level of fitness and how much time you have.
Russian Gulch State Park is one of the best spots to hike in Mendocino, with 15 miles of trails. The most popular is a moderate 6 ½-mile loop that meanders around the park, taking in an abundance of gorgeous scenery. In the park you’ll find a 36-foot waterfall, the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a sunken sea cave, and the Instagram-worthy Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge. The trail is not very well marked so make sure you get a map. Some of the best views can be found at Mendocino Overlook in the park.
6 Fort Bragg
Nestled at the spot where the redwoods end and the ocean begins, the city of Fort Bragg was once a base for pre-Civil War soldiers. Today, it’s a picturesque, quiet coastal town with chic restaurants and boutique shops.
Fort Bragg is one of the few places where you can still ride a Skunk Train – a 131-year-old steam locomotive that transports tourists on a one-hour, seven-mile route through the towering redwoods of the Noyo River Canyon. The historic route began in the days of logging back in 1885. The Skunk Train was so-named because it originally was said to have smelled so badly people claimed they could smell it before they saw it.
7 Glass Beach
Part of sprawling MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg, sparkling Glass Beach is one of the most fascinating beaches in the world. It’s truly a “hidden gem” (pun intended!).
Boasting the highest concentration of sea glass (aka “mermaid tears”) in the world, the multi-hued glass pebbles were created from years of dumping trash onto the coastline, thinking the ocean would wash it away. But instead, the rough ocean tides tumbled and mixed the debris with minerals, rounding the razor-edged shards and creating millions of smooth, rainbow-colored crystals to produce Glass Beach. Thankfully, in 1967, the North Coast Water Quality Board created a new dump away from the ocean.
Warning: shoot as many photos as you like, but resist removing any of the bedazzled glass from the beach as it is against the law.
8 Shelter Cove
Shelter Cove is known as the gateway to California’s Lost Coast. Windy and wild, the unspoiled beauty will impress even the most skeptical.
There are opportunities for hiking, kayaking, fishing, whale watching, or sipping some of the best wine in Northern California. But our favorite adventure included soaking in a hot, hot, outdoor hot tub in the chilly, windy weather with a glass of prosecco while the sun went down over the ocean horizon. Great fun….until it was time to get out!
If you don’t mind the chilly weather, here are some things to do in winter in California.
9 Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Humboldt Park was the highlight of the California North Coast road trip! Standing next to the world’s largest remaining contiguous old-growth forest of redwoods is surreal!
At the entrance to the redwood belt, is the Chandelier Tree in Leggett. What makes this tree so unique is that you can drive through it.
I was mesmerized as we drove along the scenic world-famous 31-mile stretch called Avenue of the Giants, eager to jump out and smell the pungent pine-scented air and explore the spectacular thousands of years old emerald green giants. Humboldt Redwoods State Park encompasses 53,000 acres, so there’s plenty of space to explore the neck-straining 15-story high trees without bumping into other people.
10 Lost Coast
Natural and untamed, the Lost Coast is aptly named – it’s the most remote and underdeveloped stretch of coastal land in Northern California and due to the steep topography, there are no major roads leading to it. We had to drive through King Range to get to it. It’s an incredibly winding road and our quick pace started to make me a bit nauseous, necessitating a slow-down.
The area also experienced a severe decline in population in the 1930s after the Stock Market Crash in 1929.
Covering forests, fog, and beaches, the 24-mile long Lost Coast Trail is a popular hiking trail and typically takes three days to complete.
For me, the highlight of the Lost Coast was Black Sands Beach. A short hike leads to your first peek at the black sand, formed by dark compressed shale called “greywacke,” a result of the tectonic activity of two ocean plates and a continental one.
Tumultuous crashing waves brand the beach dangerous for swimming, but the wild, epic magnificence makes it worth the effort for a least a stroll on the compressed sand.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.