While many people take the coastal road from Los Angeles to San Francisco, why stop there? A trip from San Francisco to the Oregon border is really one of the most spectacular drives in the world. As I make the trek, I see so much jaw-dropping beauty it’s hard to know where to begin. Whether the road opens up for incredible ocean views, snakes through emerald-green hills, ascends or drops around heart-stopping curves, or makes its way through the majesty of some of the oldest and tallest trees in the world, it’s a drive for the ages, with plenty of lovely little towns to stop in for an hour or the night. It’s technically about a 10-hour trip, but I’d suggest leaving much more time, as you’re going to want to stop frequently. Take your time, several days if possible, and enjoy every moment.
SAN FRANCISCO TO MARIN
Let’s begin at the beginning: the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a great start to any trip. While this is for the most part a journey into the world of natural beauty, we’ll begin at this marvel of man-made beauty. As I drive across this gorgeous bridge, the city behind me, the Marin hills in front, and the water below, I feel a sense of adventure and excitement.
Heading through the low-lying hills of Marin County, the one-and-only Muir Woods and a series of beach towns appear. Ready for lunch? Stop in at Pelican Inn, just before Muir Woods and a short distance down to Muir Beach. You’re less than a half hour from the city, but we’re at the beginning of your “take it easy and go slow” classes, so here’s the first lesson: British food with a California flair. Who ever thought you’d be eating shepherd’s pie nestled between the ocean and lofty coastal redwoods. Two miles later, a stop at Muir Beach Overlook gives me a taste of more wonders to come, as I walk down a long trail dotted by purple and yellow wildflowers to the end of a cliff, seemingly suspended over the craggy coast. I look back, and I’m amazed at just how many shades of green there are in the plants. I look ahead to the pounding of the blue/green water against the jagged swoops of land. It’s the first of many such moments on the trip.
There are more such moments in Point Reyes National Seashore, which contains 71,000 acres spreading over a hundred square miles of bio-diversity. The lighthouse is its most famous landmark, and hopefully by the time you go the restoration of this lonely monument out on an isolated spit of land will be complete. You can choose from among dozens of trails through Douglas fir and open meadows, a visit to Pierce Point Ranch (where several hundred Tule Elk roam around), or of course a stroll along such stretches of sand as Drake’s Beach or Sunset Beach. Birdwatchers have a (pardon the pun) field day here, as this park actually contains over half of the species known in the United States. Flower fanatics come in spring for vast panoramas of lupine, California poppies, and wild irises. Whale watchers flock to the headlands to see these amazing creatures during migration months, while those who can’t be there during the right season can be content with the large populations of California sea lions and harbor seals that reside there. In short, there are worlds to explore in this huge and all-encompassing park, where a short drive brings you from agriculture to wilderness to beautiful coast.
Stop in the nearby Point Reyes Station, which is the epitome of a Marin County town. I love walking down the long main street past shops offering jewelry, basketry, art, and flowers. The one-and-only Toby’s Feed Barn offers just about everything you can imagine, from souvenirs to plants, artwork to agricultural supplies. There’s even a wonderful coffee bar where you can grab an espresso and sit at one of the picnic tables outside to enjoy it among the locals. If you didn’t stop for lunch yet, you might want to visit Cowgirl Creamery and grab some of the renowned cheeses at this woman-owned business. If you plan ahead, you might even find a cheese tasting or community dinner. Even if you don’t, though, do drop in and pick up the triple-cream Mt. Tam or award-winning Red Hawk, along with some baked goods from Bovine Bakery up the street, for a picnic lunch. As you’ll see, we’re about to find some primo picnic locations.
SONOMA COUNTY: MARIN TO JENNER
Between Marin and Sonoma Counties, the road actually travels inland for a large portion of the trip, though much of it does go along Tomales Bay, the world-renowned producer of oysters. I drive through tiny towns like Marshall (population 50), past bayside oyster shacks, and through the hills. It’s not until I enter Sonoma County that the road heads back toward the coast. The first town I come to is Bodega Bay, and if it has a familiar air, it might be because Bodega Bay was the location for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Stroll through some of the gift shops, head down to the harbor for a crab sandwich and delicious clam chowder at Spud Point Crab Co. and have coffee at appealing little Roadhouse Coffee. Then let’s get back on the road, because we’re about to come to one of the most gorgeous drives you’ve ever done.