Driving to Nowhere on Highway 1 North of San Francisco

Despite many years living in California we’d never ventured far on Highway 1 North of San Francisco. Everybody has heard of the Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles (it’s a classic – you should do it!). But when you realise that Highway 1 doesn’t stop at San Francisco but keeps on going – don’t you want to know you can find along this stretch of Highway 1 North of SF? There are rumors of sandy beaches, redwood trees, and gorgeous coastline. And lots of wine. Hmmm, wine.

Last weekend, I dragged Jack out of the bed against his protests, put him in the driver seat of a rental car, and told him to drive. “Where to?” he mumbled with a look of resignation.

“North. We’re going North.”

Best Viewpoints on Highway One North of San Francisco

And off we go on one of my weekly exploration missions or as Jack likes to call it: a mission to spend countless hours in a car driving to some vague destination.

San Francisco to Jenner

One of the most exciting things about heading towards Highway 1 north of San Francisco is crossing the Golden Gate bridge. Marin Headlands on the other side of the bridge provides some of the best viewpoints of the Golden Gate Bridge. A stop here is mandatory when you’re on a road trip north of San Francisco.

Tip: It’s better to visit Marin Headlands for the view in the afternoon because of the light.

Golden Gate Bridge from Marin Headland

Along the way we passed small beach towns that look like they haven’t changed much since 1960’s. We stopped by Stinson Beach and Dillon Beach. Both were packed with visitors and we didn’t stay long.

the town of Point Reyes, California
The town of Point Reyes, California
Dillon Beach, Highway 1 north of San Francisco
Dillon Beach, Highway 1 north of San Francisco

For breakfast on the road, we stopped at Shoreline Coffee Shop in Mill Valley, soon after we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a hipster-vibe kind of breakfast place serving egg dishes, huevos rancheros, and breakfast burritos diner style. All organic and locally sourced if it’s your kind of thing.

We passed Tomales Bay, famous for its oysters. Lines of cars outside every oyster bar are testaments to these oysters’ fame. If you find oysters delectable and not slimy molluscs that they are, Tomales Bay is where you need to go.

Bodega Bay is our preferred stop. It’s a little bit further north from Tomales Bay. I’d get a crab sandwich from Spud Point Crab Company ($13) – it’s filled with crab but not so filling that it ruins my appetite for lunch – perfect for that in-between meal (and what’s a roadtrip without in-between meals?)

Pro tip: Have the sandwich to go and eat it at Bodega Head Trailhead at the end of the road for a meal with a view. There are trails to meander on afterwards for bonus points.

View from Bodega Head
View from Bodega Head

North of Point Reyes on Highway 1 is where the coastline gets crazy. 17 miles this rugged and desolate coastline broken by long, sweeping beaches is part of Sonoma Coast State Park. There are many coves and beaches where you can pull over and enjoy the view. It was achingly beautiful and I felt so grateful to be living in this crazy state we’ve called home on and off for the past 12 years. Jack grudgingly agreed that this part of California coastline was worth waking up early that Sunday.

north of san francisco on highway 1

Sonoma Coast State Park, highway 1 north of San Francisco coastline

I was aiming roughly for Mendocino. I’ve heard someone likened it to a ‘New England fishing village’ which sounds idyllic enough to make me want to go there. Mendocino is 169 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 1, a 5 hour one way drive. It’s a much more suitable as a weekend getaway trip destination from San Francisco.

So since we’re only doing a day trip we turn inland from Jenner, on to Highway 116 heading inland passing tiny communities nestled among groves of redwood trees. We curved southward in Russian River Valley passing many vineyards. Unfortunately, many were already closed for the day.

Tip: if we’re doing this again as a day trip from SF, we’d do a counterclockwise loop: head north inland and south down the coast.

Jenner to Mendocino

A few months later, we repeated the trip but this time as an overnight trip from San Francisco to Fort Bragg. This gave us more time to make a few more stops along the coast on our way to Mendocino, focusing on the stretch north of Jenner where we turned back before. Some highlights on this stretch of Highway 1 include:

Fort Ross, this southernmost Russian settlement in North America in 1800 is now a State Park. It contains the oldest windmill in California as well as an original structure from 1800’s, Rotchev House.

Fort Ross on Highway 1 was a Russian settlement between 1812 to 1842
Fort Ross on Highway 1 was a Russian settlement between 1812 to 1842
I never knew that there used to be a Russian settlement in California.
I never knew that there used to be a Russian settlement in California. Learning something new every day ๐Ÿ™‚
View from Fort Ross, California
View from Fort Ross, California

Stewarts Point Store This historic landmark building now houses a general store and the famous Twofish Bakery. Rumor has it they make one of the best sourdoughs in the State but we never got here early to get our hands on one. They run out by late morning. Nevertheless, the place makes great sandwiches and calzones. Tip: If you don’t like mayonnaise (any other anti-mayo people here besides me? Anybody?) try their tuna sandwich – they make it sans mayo.

Stewarts Point Store. This building has been around since 1860.
Stewarts Point Store. This building has been around since 1860.
Inside the Stewart's Point Store
Inside the Stewarts Point Store
Point Arena Lighthouse, a short detour from Highway One
Point Arena Lighthouse is a short detour from Highway One

Mendocino itself is a cute little artisty town with lots of galleries and fine restaurants. It’s a popular weekend getaway from San Francisco but to be honest, the vibe is definitely more high class than we’re used to. We did enjoy a quick stroll around town, with a long stop at Gallery Bookshop.

Fort Bragg, a 10 minute drive north from Mendocino on Highway 1 provides more budget-friendly accommodation and dining options. Try the fish and chips at Sea Pal Cove. They also have my favorite beer, Deschute’s Fresh Squeeze on tap – yumm!

Mendocino is perched on a cliff over a beach. Perfect for an evening stroll.
Mendocino is perched on a cliff over a beach. Perfect for an evening stroll.

Places to Sleep in Mendocino:

Brewery Gulch Inn – a boutique hotels with just 11 rooms, this highly rated hotel has stunning views and serves great food at its restaurant. Rooms start at $450 (weekend rate).

Places to Sleep in Fort Bragg:

Surf & Sand Lodge – beachfront accommodation. Rooms start at $180 (weekend).


So the rumor was true. You’ll find wineries, redwood, and miles (and miles) of wild coastline on Highway 1 north of San Francisco. On the way back to SF, I’d recommend taking Highway 128 through Anderson Valley for even more wineries and views of green rolling hills. A perfect end to the perfect San Francisco weekend getaway.

Many say that the coastal route of Highway 1 between LA and San Francisco to be one of America’s best road trips. I’d say that the stretch of Highway 1 north of San Francisco can safely compete.

One of these days, I’d drive the whole length of Pacific Coast Highway although it’ll definitely be more than a weekend getaway trip.


Best Viewpoints on Highway One North of San Francisco

Looking for something different to do in San Francisco itself? You should go on a ghost tour! With a city so rich in history and culture such as San Francisco, you’ll understand why some people moved here and refused to leave – if you know what I mean.

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27 Replies to “Driving to Nowhere on Highway 1 North of San Francisco”

  1. I realize I’m posting this comment a terribly long time since you made this entry, but I’m curious what is your reason for driving North Inland and then South along the coast? Is it just so you can get up there faster and have more time to work your way back? My hubby and I are doing a day and a half trip from SF to uh, somehwere North of Fort Bragg in a couple of weeks and I’m trying to plan the route, so hard knowing that there are some many things to see along this piece of coastline!!! PS: I did the lost coast scenic drive many years ago, I definately reccomend it, it was possibly the most memorable trip I’ve ever taken.

    1. Hi Dottie, it’s because we wanted to hit the wineries (located inland) before they’re closed ๐Ÿ™‚ and we’ll be driving along the coast in the late afternoon when the lighting is best.

  2. I am looking at taking a drive from San Fransisco north through Oregon and into Seattle this June. I anticipate flying from Orlando to San Fran and renting a car. If I take PCH all the way to Oregon, how much time should I plan? San Fran to Seattle via highway is 14 hours. Should I triple the time?

    Thanks for input, and your photos were beautiful.

    1. Thanks Don. I usually at least double the drive time when taking the coastal road to account for slower speed limit and stops for pictures. So you’re probably looking at around 28 hrs? At minimum.

  3. gorgeous photos- Highway 1 looks absolutely gorgeous! How far of a drive from San Francisco is it? Going there this summer and thinking (and hoping) I can fit this in!

    1. A couple of hours. If you have the time, you should do it! There's so much good stuff up there in addition to the coastline: wineries, redwood trees, cute little towns, etc.

  4. We drove up the coast and the Oregon coast several years ago. I wish we spent more time in each of those towns. The drive is much further and takes more time than you expect.

  5. I can stay whole day here and watching the sun sets on the horizon and still wanting to take in all the beauty. This is amazing and SF just continue to be one of those great places I would love to see in the future.

  6. Ahhh – the Pacific Coast Highway – I've ridden it often but never drove it… can't sight see as much if you're driving ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Beautiful shots! We've driven the Pacific Coast highway from LA to Oregon and it was just one stunning view after another.

  8. I was there at Dillon Beach just 6 months Ago. The water of the beach looks quite crystal clear but the sunny day made us to be relaxed in it till the evening. In evening , it's a Good place for the camp fire and roasted chicken.

  9. Road trips are the best! You're so luck to live in a place where you don't need to go far to see beautiful sceneries from the road.

  10. California has the best scenic coastline in the whole of America. Too bad the ocean is too cold to swim in.

  11. It's a gorgeous drive at any time of day, but make sure you're in the passenger seat so you only have to concentrate on not thinking – just see it ALL. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. The redwoods are next on my list to see in California. Although, I may get sidetracked by all that wonderful wine on my way there…

  13. I think San Francisco is most amazing place on the earth. I had visited San Francisco in last summer vacation with my family and had great experience. Thanks for reminding my beautiful memories once again.

  14. I absolutely love the region north of San Fran right up to Portland. It is such beautiful country.

    1. Right up to Portland is right! ๐Ÿ™‚ We love suggesting that people head to California and make the drive all the way to Vancouver, B.C. Some of the best landscapes and communities on the planet ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Gorgeous country up there. I can't wait to get back to the northern California coast. The landscape changes when you get into Mendocino county. Lots of evergreens and the views are simply awe-inspiring. Yet another reminder why I need to live on the Left Coast!

  16. These views look very familiar because one of my favorite places to visit is the coast. We spent a couple of great vacations in Point Reyes and Bodega Bay. I haven't been to Mendocino yet, either. btw, I don't think I knew that you two lived in SF.

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