A California coast road trip---Stunningly gorgeous!
Taking a California coast road trip is, hands down, the most SCENIC way to tour California. In fact, it's one of the most scenic routes that you'll ever drive ANYWHERE. The only problem for vacationers is that unless you actually live along the Pacific Coast, then it will be out-of-the-way for you to get there. On the other hand...no matter how far away you're coming from, the California Coastal Drive will reward you with some of the best scenery in the entire USA!
If you drive the California coastal route to Los Angeles, you'll take longer to reach Southern California than if you were to take Interstate 5. Ah...but isn't the whole purpose of taking a road trip to take a relaxing step away from the rush of everyday life? To refresh yourself with the "joy of living" by discovering new paths and byways that you never knew existed? The scenic route is slower because of its rustic, winding, 2-lane roads...but, on the other hand, the lack of freeways is an integral part of the California Coast's charm and appeal.
This page will cover California's Northern Coastal Route. Not all of the driving will actually hug the coastline, because the route veers inland for a number of miles. You'll also get to enjoy spectacular redwood-viewing, as well, during the time that the road jogs away from the water.
All of the attractions mentioned on this page are north of San Francisco. If you'd like to plan a coastal trip SOUTH of the Bay Area (along the Big Sur coastline,) you'll find that information on the Central California Coast Road Trip page of our site.
Note: this page will not be covering Pacific Coast Highway's scenic inns and hotels. The California coastal route is lined with quaint and charming, one-of-a-kind inns...which are all out of our family's budget range. However, you'll find good pictures and info about top Coast Highway inns on the www.Pacific-Coast-Highway-Travel.com website. Here's a link to that website's "Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway" page, for your enjoyment.
2 Coast Routes---Which do you choose?
Route Map for Napa Valley viewing: There are actually two different "coast" routes that you'll need to consider. Both of these routes hugs the coastline in the far northern part of the state and passes through Redwood National Forest...THEN veers inland for more spectacular redwood-viewing. This includes the fabulous "Avenue of the Giants" scenic road (near Weott) and several beautiful state parks that showcase redwood groves.
However, the route splits into two very different pathways at the town of Leggett. That's where you'll need to decide if you're going to head back towards the coast...or choose the inland route. Adding a convenient side-trip to the famous Napa Valley region is no problem if you choose the inland route. Here's a Google map showing the Inland Route from Crescent City (near the Oregon border) to San Francisco. And here is a Google map showing the Napa Valley side-trip that you may add to your journey (instead of staying on Route 101 through Santa Rosa.) Note: Napa Valley is VERY popular. Traffic can be slow-going during tourist season. However, if you want to see the famous Napa Valley (and many people do,) don't let the relatively relatively heavy traffic deter you. Because of its popularity, if you plan to stay overnight in any Napa Valley town, then you should make hotel reservations.
The 2nd option is heading back to the coast as you leave Leggett. This route is notable for its sweeping views of rocky shorelines, little towns with quaint inns, and plenty of peace and quiet. There is only one major town along the route---Fort Bragg, which offers tourists a good choice of hotels, restaurants and stores for replenishing supplies. Here's a Google map showing the US 1 Coast Route (in grey) in comparison to the Inland Route (in blue.) Both routes will take you past the famous Golden Gate bridge, so don't worry about missing it no matter which way you choose! The routes converge just a few miles north of the Golden Gate.
Which, of the two, makes for the best road trip? We prefer the Inland Route, mainly because we usually visit Big Sur on the same trip...and so we've already seen plenty of ocean views before we reach this leg of the journey. The inland route also has more plentiful travel services, and a faster speed limit.
Luckily, both routes share the same stretch of highway north of Leggett. The best redwood viewing spots are (in our opinion) NOT at Redwood National Park. They're at the Avenue of the Giants. We consider this to be a must-see attraction. In other words, do take your time going through this area. There's no need to rush on ahead to Redwood National Park while you skip on by the even-better Avenue of the Giants and California state parks.
It's also possible to see BOTH routes, if you've got the time. From San Francisco, simply go up one route and come back the other!
Stunning Redwoods National Park
Redwood NP activities
An important stop your California coast road trip is the beautiful Redwoods National Park.
Trees by the beach: Some of California's famous redwood groves lie inland, quite a drive from the shore. However, at this location the famous California Redwoods and the famous California beaches lie side-by-side together in a trees-by-the-beach setting. If you love scenery, Redwoods National Park has it in spades!
Get your bearings at interpretive centers: You'll find not just one, but FIVE interpretive centers at Redwoods National Park. You'll enjoy exhibits which explain the park's plant & animal life. One reason there are so many Redwoods visitor's centers is that the US National Park Service combines forces with the California State Parks in this area to help protect the redwood trees. The Redwood National Park buddies with California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast State Park, and Jedediah Smith State Park to give you an outstanding tour of Redwood Country. Together, these 4 parks protect and display 45% of all old-growth redwood trees remaining.
What activities can you and your family enjoy while visiting Redwoods National Park and its state park companions? You may go camping, take ranger-led walks, get the kids involved in Junior Ranger programs, learn from the interesting redwood and wildlife exhibits, scour the gift shops...or, if you've got less time, just enjoy a peaceful picnic in the shelter of the groves. Don't forget the coastline, either! Redwoods National Park doesn't just provide a "forest" experience; you'll find viewing areas for enjoying Pacific Ocean views, as well!
The Redwood National Park Center's address is 111 Second Street, Crescent City, CA 95531. They suggest that you use this address when writing the park; it's actually also the address of the park's "main" visitor's center, the Crescent City Information Center. The Redwood National Park phone number is (707) 464-6101. In addition, here's a link to the Redwood National Park website, where you'll get complete information about current events and activities, fees, and hours of operation.
US Hwy 101 turns inland, away from the coast---
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
The California Coastal route doesn't actually hug the Pacific Ocean's shore for the entire length of your road trip. Don't worry, though. As US Highway 101 turns inland, you'll enter a wonderland of greenery. You may enjoy camping and hiking amongst the redwoods, and taking a relaxing (yet awe-filled) drive along the redwood-lined Avenue of the Giants. We'll talk about the can't-miss Avenue of the Giants further down on the page.
First, however, you'll want to know about another must-see spot featuring great redwood-viewing, the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Weott, California. Here's a Google map of Weott, CA to help you get your bearings.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park activities
Humboldt Redwoods State Park, is a great place to enjoy view towering California redwood trees, and learn all about these fascinating giants, as well. The photo to your left was taken at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. As you can see in the picture, just the BASE of a giant redwood makes my strapping then-teenage son look like a dwarf by comparison! There are some things in life that a photo just can't adequately portray, and these huge monster-sized trees are just that type of thing!
One good thing for visitors traveling through the Humboldt State Park is that there are activities geared both to quick visits as well as more extended stays. You can tour fine old groves that are just off the highway, and require only a short walk from the parking lot to see. This takes a minimal amount of your time, yet you get to "see the best" of the California Redwood's beauty. If you have just a bit more time, you may also tour the Humboldt State Park visitors center and view the interesting explanatory exhibits.
On the other hand, if you'd like to stay overnight, you'll find campgrounds at Humboldt State Park---both developed (with hot showers!) and "natural." My family camped for one night, and we enjoyed the experience immensely. Our campground was so tree-enshrouded that its paths never saw the full light of day! MMM! Nice aroma, too!
Also, if you'd like to visit even longer, you'll find extensive hiking trails, fishing spots...and even a place to swim in the Eel River!
There, you'll find further info about the park, including a detailed map of the park's roadways and facilities...and even maps of several Humboldt State Parks campgrounds.
The Humboldt State Park phone number is (707) 946-2409. Humboldt State Park directions: Humboldt State Park is located along US Highway 101. It's 45 miles south of Eureka (or, 20 miles north of Garberville, if you'd rather think of it that way.) The Park and Visitors Center are open year round, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. However, campgrounds close in mid-October and re-open in the spring. (Exact dates vary from year to year, so touch base with the park if you need the specific dates for camping.)
California Coast Road Trip Ideas---
Avenue of the Giants scenic drive
When you're at Humboldt State Park, you'll ALSO be right in the middle of another absolutely stunning California Redwoods attraction: The Avenue of the Giants. The Avenue of the Giants is a scenic drive...and it's one you WON'T want to miss! A ride through the awe-inspiring scenic drive, the "Avenue of the Giants," takes you past HUNDREDS of gorgeous Redwood specimens. The road lies in semi-darkness even during the bright noonday sun, because of the thick green canopy that the trees knit over your head.
Even on your first visit to "redwoods territory" the area may look familiar to you. You're not dreaming---just about everyone in range of a movie theater has seen this area before. In the Star Wars series of movies, the California redwoods were used as a filming site to portray the Forest Moon of Endor in "Return of the Jedi!"
California Coast Road Trip -- Drive-thru Tree Park
The California Redwoods region has a few more family attractions "up its sleeve" that make wilderness purists shudder...but which we, personally, enjoy. One of these, as you can see in the photo to your left, is the Drive Thru Tree Park (formerly called the Chandelier Drive-Through tree.) Fortunately, the tree itself lives on hale and hearty, despite the tunnel running through it. (Well, if the tree weren't still healthy, it would be a SAD activity, not a fun one.)
A small to mid-sized car fits through the tree just fine. Unfortunately, we were driving a large conversion van on this particular California coast road trip...and it WOULDN'T fit through! We had seen photos of this tree since childhood & weren't about to give up on a chance to finally take a photo there.. Solution? We backed the van up to the tree (from in front of it) and snapped our shot!
You may find the Chandelier Drive-through Tree in Leggett, California. Leggett, CA is about 100 miles south of Eureka on US Highway 101 (near the junction of California Highway 1.) The Drive Thru Tree Park phone number is 707-925-6363. Drive Thru Tree website: For further details, here's a link to the www.DriveThruTree.com website.
Richardson Grove State Park
The Richardson Grove State Park is still ANOTHER great place to camp, hike and view California's sensational Redwood trees. If you have the time, you'll surely enjoy adding the Richardson Grove SP to your Northern California road trip's itinerary. For further information about the Richardson Grove State Park, follow the next link to the
Richardson Grove State Park official web page on the state of California website.
So far on your California Coast Road Trip, you haven't seen much of the California Coast! After viewing the Redwoods National Park, you headed inland in order to catch the spectacular California redwoods attractions located along US 101. But, when you reach Leggett, California (by the Chandelier Drive-through tree), you'll FINALLY be able to catch California Highway 1, and head back to the coast for an ocean view.
However, don't expect this to be an easy choice! If you stay on US 101 instead (and remain inland), your drive will bring you through the famous Napa Valley region! It's a tough choice---either route is a "winner!"
Shoreline-hugging California Highway 1
The Coastal Road south through Fort Bragg and Mendocino, CA
At Leggett, follow the signs for California Hwy 1 if you wish to take the coastline-hugging drive. (If you follow US Hwy 101 at Leggett, you'll head south to San Francisco or Napa Valley on the inland route.)
From Leggett to Fort Bragg, CA is 43 miles, which will take you about 1 hour and 15 minutes to drive---and that's if you don't pull over to gaze at any views. Fort Bragg itself is not extremely scenic, but it's very serviceable. This isn't a major sight-seeing town...but it IS a chance to stock up on your provisions! Not only is this the FIRST major town you've entered since Eureka, California...but it's also the LAST big town you'll go through on the coast-hugging route until you reach San Francisco. Therefore, tourists use Fort Bragg as a rest & supply base...and as a center for day-tripping to beaches and spectacular coastline views throughout the surrounding areas.
Ft. Bragg, California has shopping centers with full-service stores, plus a number of fast food restaurants. Of course, Fort Bragg has motels and plenty of sit-down restaurants, as well.
Heading south from Ft. Bragg down the coastal road, you'll pass miles and miles of rocky shorelines and steep bluffs. You'll make your way to the small town of Mendocino, California.
Mendocino hosts an artists colony and a selection of quaint bed and breakfast inns. Though it's a small town, Mendocino's stupendous natural beauty makes it a favorite destination for couples looking for an out-of-the-way romantic getaway.
Of course, you can find family-oriented activities in Mendocino, as well. If you'd like to see a list of the area's attractions, here's the
the Mendocino, California Chamber of Commerce official website.You'll find info about "things to do in Mendocino, California," including art galleries and showings, tours, outdoor activities and sports, and nearby state parks you can visit while you're in Mendocino.
One interesting state park near Mendocino preserves an interesting bit of RUSSIAN architecture! In the 19th century, the Russians explored Alaska and the West Coast. What I hadn't realized before a trip to Fort Ross State Park is that Russian explorers made it as far south as California! They did...and they built this fort which stands today for all to view and tour. Of course, you'll find educational exhibits at Fort Ross, so you can learn more about this interesting chapter in California history. Use the following link to view the
Fort Ross State Park official web pages at the California State website.
California Coast Road Trip -- Bodega Bay, filming site for Hitchcock's "The Birds"
Our family enjoys Alfred Hitchcock movies, so while on the coastal route, we made sure to drop by Bodega Bay to see the famous "The Birds" filming sites there. In the photo at left, you see a home in Bodega that was used as the school house in "The Birds."
Actually, if you're headed on a roadtrip down the California coastal route, enjoying Hitchcock's movie, "The Birds," on DVD together with your older children might be a fun "pre-trip" activity. A recent viewing of the show will refresh your memory on "what to look for" before you visit the filming sites in Bodega and Bodega Bay!
For more info about "The Birds" filming site, you may wish to read the following interesting article about The Birds from the BodegaBay.com website.
California Coast Road Trip -- Point Reyes National Seashore
Heading southward along the Pacific Coast towards San Francisco...when you're ALMOST there...you'll pass by the Point Reyes National Seashore. Here, you see a photo of Point Reyes at left. As you can see, it's a sandy, swimming beach rather than a rocky-but-beautiful one. (Which, as you'll know by the time you've driven this far down the coast, is a rare thing! Rocky beaches are fun for exploring; but sandy Point Reyes National Seashore is great for swimming!)
Once you've past the Point Reyes National Seashore...then you're ALMOST to San Francisco!
The Point Reyes National Seashore phone number is 415/464-5100. The Point Reyes National Seashore address is: 1 Bear Valley Rd, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956. For additional information about the Point Reyes beach facilities or the park's visitor's center...and many other questions you might have...use the following link to view the
Point Reyes National Seashore official website.