Welcome to our Northern California road trip itinerary planner.
Planning a Pacific Highway Road Trip along the coast of Northern California? This is certainly one of the most underrated trips in California and a favorite of ours!
On this North California Coast road trip, you will find charming coastal cities, state parks, amazing natural attractions like the Avenue of the Giants, and miles and miles of hiking trails.
The North California Road Trip starts as a Highway 1 Road Trip from San Francisco before joining Highway 101 past Leggett and goes all the way north up to the Oregon border.
We recommend keeping aside anywhere from 5 days to a week to explore this part of the coast. Here are our favorite stops that you should add to the North California Road Trip Itinerary.
Ultimate North California Road Trip Itinerary: Essential Stops
Northern California is quite different than the California stereotype of warm sunny days and a laidback lifestyle. We find it more similar to Coastal Oregon: expect windy, foggy days year-round and a blistering chill in the winter.
However, that doesn’t make summer a good time to visit! The coast is actually its foggiest from June to August and we would instead recommend spring or fall as the best times to plan your trip up the coast.
San Francisco is the best city to fly into to start your Pacific Coast Highway road trip up the North Coast. You can also fly into Oakland or San Jose. Any of the Bay Area airports are convenient for a trip up north. After you arrive, rent a car from the airport and ether rest for your road trip or check the highlights of San Francisco.
If this is your first trip to the city, we definitely recommend doing the latter. San Francisco is a big and vibrant destination and should not be missed! Keep two to three days to exploring the city or see its highlights in a day if you are short on time.
The #1 attraction in the city is of course the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! It is considered to be an engineering marvel and is one of the best places to visit on the West Coast. Other attractions include the Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, Twin Peaks, Lombard Street, and the Mission District. Don’t forget to ride the cable cars, sip on Ghirardelli Chocolate, and eat the dim sum in Chinatown!
Read our post on the Best Things to do in San Francisco to plan your trip to the city.
Point Reyes National Seashore
If you loved Big Sur and Point Lobos on the central coast, you will love Point Reyes National Seashore. It is foggy, magical, and enchanting. Point Reyes is also the windiest place on the continent, so be prepared for strong gusts and layer up!
The many miles of hiking trails in Point Reyes and amazing wildlife watching opportunities delight most outdoor lovers. The trail to the lighthouse and the Lighthouse Visitor Center, both, are also worth the visit. Don’t forget to check out the tunnel of cypress trees on your visit. You can also explore the waters around Point Reyes with a kayak.
Also, stop in the town of Point Reyes Station and take a stroll around its charming downtown. Located in Marin County along the Tomales Bay, the small town makes a perfect weekend destination in NorCal. Within the town, Highway 1 becomes Shoreline Highway along Main Street. Admire historic buildings built in the Italianate style of architecture. Check out the local boutiques and pick up souvenirs, apparel, and Northern California themed household goods and decor.
For food, try Nick’s Cove Restaurant for fresh seafood or at Saltwater Oyster Depot in Inverness for fresh shucked oysters. Visit the Cowgirl Creamery and buy cheese to munch on your road trip. It is really amazing to see this undeveloped town less than 30 miles away from San Francisco!
The road to Point Reyes passes by Muir Woods and Stinson Beach, but we do not recommend stopping here simply because you will get ample opportunities to see the redwood trees further up the coast.
After seeing Point Reyes, most people often head directly to Mendocino however there are many incredible destinations between these major attractions. If you have the time, you should definitely check out a few of these on your North California Coast Road Trip.
Tomales Bay is a narrow inlet of the Pacific that separates Point Reyes peninsula from the north California mainland. Stay on US 1 and you will soon find yourself driving past small coastal towns located on the eastern side of Tomales Bay.
The bay is most well-known for its oysters. The bay is quite narrow and the water is just a little over 10 feet deep in many places – ideal conditions for oyster farming. Some of the best locations to eat oysters in Tomales Bay include Hog Island Oyster Company and the Tomales Bay Oyster Company. There is nothing comparable to the joy of eating fresh oysters right by the beach! Tomales Bakery is also a great place to stop for some decadent baked goods.
Other popular activities in Tomales Bay include hiking along the coast, swimming, relaxing on the beach, and watersports. You can rent fishing charters, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, or boats in the towns along the bay. At night, you can watch bioluminescence along the bay in the summer.
Located in Sonoma County, Bodega Bay is one of the most underrated destinations on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip through northern California. Here you will find hiking and biking trails, outdoor excursions, beautiful coastline, and off course because we are in Sonoma County, wineries!
Visit the Sonoma Coast Vineyards for wine tasting. Then take a whale watching excursion around Bodega Head Peninsula or go fly a kite! The winds here are just perfect for kite flying. You can also rent bikes and cycle the county. Bodega Bay is an amazing relaxing place and it is really easy to lose yourself here.
A hidden attraction is the nearby town of Bodega. Take a detour from US Route 1 to reach the town and you will be surprised to find yourself in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Bodega was used as a filming locale for the movie, ‘The Birds’ and you can visit many sites in the town including the famous schoolhouse and the Church.
Jenner is a charming coastal town located at the mouth of the Russian River. This small town has a population of just over 130 and is a paradise for outdoor activities of every sort! Hike on the coastal bluffs, kayak the Russian River or go sea kayaking, watch the barking sea lions, lounge on the secluded beach, or go horseback riding. The sunsets are particularly spectacular at the Sonoma Coast State Park.
Take a detour from Highway 1 to drive inland towards Guerneville if you have the time. Here you will find a charming community, rustic buildings, redwood groves, wineries, tasting rooms, and the placid Russian River. Guerneville became popular during the flower-power era and since then, is a favorite vacation destination for San Franciscans. The main reason we recommend coming here is to sample wineries and float on the river. That’s right, you can rent tubes in the town and spend a lazy day on the water.
Timber Cove is a particularly remote stretch of Highway 1. Very few other tourists make the trip this far north of San Francisco and even fewer stop in Timber Cove. It is located about 15 miles up the coast from Jenner and is perfect for slow travelers. The coast is quite rugged here: you will find craggy rocks, secluded beaches, tidepools, lonely trees, and turquoise water.
The Timber Cove Resort is the most romantic place to stay on the West Coast. Its rooms are as beautiful as the grounds and this is a perfect place for honeymoons and anniversaries. The nearby Salt Point State Park has hiking trails and scenic views.
All right, now that we have discussed all the hidden, underrated attractions between Point Reyes and Mendocino it is time to talk about this beautiful city itself. It is famous for its fascinating location along the coast, cliff side hiking trails, and charming New England style architecture.
Take a stroll through the charming downtown, admire the art galleries, stay in a romantic bed and breakfast, explore the eateries in town, and shop for eclectic goods. Then take the time to explore the 3 amazing state parks near Mendocino. See the beautiful beach at Mendocino Headlands State Park, admire the bridge at Russian Gulch State Park, or hike the Pygmy forest in Van Damme State Park.
Read our post on the Best Things to do in Mendocino to plan your stay in the town.
The next stop while on the way north along the Pacific Coast is Fort Bragg. While the city has many attractions including museums, historic buildings, a lighthouse, the Skunk Train, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, and wildlife, the main attraction of Fort Bragg is the famous Glass Beach.
This one of its kind beach is formed by trash dumped in the ocean! The glass and rubble were rounded by the sea waves over several years to form sea glass. The beach looks absolutely beautiful to look at and is a highlight of the Pacific Coast Highway road trip. To visit the beach, drive to the southern end of the Mackerricher State Park. Or visit the Sea Glass Museum in the city to see rare and different types of sea glass pebbles.
After Fort Bragg, Highway 1 follows the Pacific Coast as far as Rockport then turns inward towards Leggett. Rockport had its origins as a timber town and today, there isn’t much to do in this community. Follow the road up to Leggett.
Leggett is most famous for its many large and tall redwood groves. Here you will find some of the largest trees in the world. The main attraction of Leggett is the Chandelier Drive-Through Tree. This 276-foot tall redwood is 16 feet wide and has a tunnel large enough for cars to pass! It is fascinating to drive through the base of the tree and see the tree standing in spite of the dug-out tunnel.
Leggett is the northern end of California Highway 1. However, your trip does not end here. Take the Pacific Coast Highway 101 in Leggett and follow it north all the way to the Oregon border.
Avenue of the Giants
Avenue of the Giants is a scenic highway that runs parallel to Highway 101 north of Leggett. Located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, this scenic road is located amidst incredibly tall redwood trees. The byway is 31 miles long and has many pit stops for hiking trails, redwood groves, picnic areas, and swimming locations along the Eel River.
On the Avenue of the Giants, you can admire many notable redwoods including the Immortal Tree, the Shrine Drive Through Tree, Founder’s Grove, Chandler Grove, and the Tree House. The views along the road are stunning: the tall trees line up on both sides of the road and cast dark shadows. Sunlight barely filters in here and fog is quite normal, providing an enchanting experience.
The Lost Coast
As we mentioned above, Rockport is the last coastal community connected by Highway 1. Then farther up in northern California, Highway 101 again travels close to the coast near Shelter Cove.
This part of the California coast between Rockport and Shelter Cove is known as the Lost Coast. It is so-called because the construction of roads near this part of the coast was estimated to be difficult and expensive, and hence the idea was abandoned. As a result, this is the most remote part of California and scattered communities throughout the Lost Coast are mostly cut-off from the state.
The only way to access this part of the coast is via the Lost Coast Trail. The route is 25 miles but needs at least 3 to 4 days since many parts of the trail are underwater at high tide. This trail is a real hidden gem and passes through King Range National Conservation Area. Along the trail, you will find a remote coastline and a moderately challenging backpacking experience.
Loleta is one of our recommended stops on a North California road trip for 2 reasons: dramatic coastal scenery and the Loleta Cheese Factory! Loleta is situated smack dab in the middle of beautiful state parks and reserves and makes an ideal destination for exploring them. While in Loleta, you can go hiking and beachcombing in Eel River Wildlife Area, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Mike Thompson Wildlife Area, or Table Bluff County Park. The Cheese Factory is now, however, closed and can’t be visited.
Eureka, a port city in Northern California, is known for its historic charm. Eureka provides a refreshing alternative after spending time in the small coastal towns and villages. In the Old Town area, you can see Victorian mansions. If you have kids, visit the Sequoia Park Zoo and the adjoining Sequoia Park to see the massive redwoods right in the town. Take a cruise aboard the Madaket Ferry to see the wildlife of the Humboldt Bay. Eureka is a great place to stop for the night on your California road trip.
Trinidad is a nice little coastal fishing town in North California. It is located on Trinidad Bay and surrounded by redwood trees. One of the popular attractions is the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse. You can also check out the museum or walk on the Pier. It is an excellent place for birding. Here you will find one of the largest seabirds nesting colonies. The colonies are based around Green Rock and Flatiron Rock and home to a variety of seabirds.
Patricks Point State Park
Patricks Point State Park is a great place to stop and explore on a Northern California road trip. You can beach comb for agates at Agate Beach and driftwood, spot tidepool creatures including sea stars and urchins at Palmer’s Point, hike to Wedding Rock, and spot migrating whales. At the visitor center, you can understand more about the Native people that lived in the area and their traditions.
Pacific Coast Highway 101 in this part of California is known as the Redwood Highway. The trees along the highway grow to over 300 feet long and over 15 feet wide. The scenic byway goes through old-growth forests and is just magical. You will find dramatic scenery on both sides of the road. This is definitely the most scenic drive in Northern California and worth taking the time to explore the stops.
Redwood National and State Parks
The Redwoods National and State Parks is a collection of parks that preserve the old-growth redwood forests. We have already mentioned some of them in this itinerary including the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Other parks include Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Redwood National Park.
Each of these parks has many large groves of redwood trees, some of them the oldest in the world. The parks are frequently covered in fog and absolutely beautiful. They are also home to abundant wildlife and have many hiking trails. We recommend stopping in these parks if you have the time to marvel at their majestic beauty.
Located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Fern Canyon is one of the best places to visit in California. This green shady canyon was made popular by the movie, The Lost World: Jurassic Park. That’s right, a part of the movie was filmed here and since then fans have made the hike deep into the canyon as a rite of passage!
The 30-foot tall canyon walls are completely covered in large leafy ferns which gives the prehistoric feel. The creek runs through the canyon floor adding to the adrenaline rush. You will find several different varieties of ferns here. Hiking through the canyon is an incredible experience. The trail is a mile long and quite family-friendly. We recommend waterproof shoes as your feet will get wet in the creek. The trail can be closed in winter, so check before you go.
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
Crescent City is so named because of its crescent-shaped stretch of sandy beach. This is the northernmost city in California and a great place to end your Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Located in Del Norte County, Crescent City packs outdoor attractions with a great city vibe.
History lovers should visit the End of Trail Museum and Del Norte County Historical Society Main Museum. Here you will see a large collection of Native American artifacts and historical exhibits. Also, you will find two gorgeous lighthouses at Crescent City: Battery Point Lighthouse and St. George Reef. If you have kids, visit the Ocean World Aquarium. The beach here is also very pretty.
For outdoor lovers, Crescent City is the perfect gateway to explore the majestic redwood forests. Or you can go hiking at Tolowa Dunes State Park. You can also rent kayaks, boats, or SUPs to explore the marine environment. There are also many hiking and biking trails in the area.
After exploring Crescent City, you can either fly back to your destination or take the 101 straight to San Francisco. The trip back takes about 7 hours without stopping. Or you can even explore the Oregon Coast up north by driving the Pacific Coast Highway 101 in Oregon.
Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Planner
Pacific Coast Highway 4 day Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 5 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 Day itinerary
All PCH Itineraries
Best Places to Stay along the Pacific Coast Highway
Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops