What if I told you there’s a place that feels like home even if you’ve never been there?
Northern California’s stretch of rocky coastline is magical. It’s changeable, sometimes foggy, always dramatic, perfectly situated for stellar sunsets and full of redwoods, the tallest living thing on Earth.
As a California native and Pacific Coast Highway enthusiast, let me share my favorite things to see on the Northern California coast:
Where to stay:
This stretch of the coast is full of nice inns with beautiful views. My friends and I loved the balcony, fireplace and huge hot tub at the Little River Inn in Mendocino. The views were amazing and they even have a little trail to Van Damme State Park.
To say the sunsets there were spectacular would be an understatement. They also have a delicious and adorable garden restaurant!
If you can swing it, spend several days in Mendocino. There is so much to see and this is my favorite part of the whole trip.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Our trip starts in San Francisco, with many stops along the way. This trip can take days or weeks, depending on what feels right for you and how much time you have.
While Baker Beach in San Francisco is a great choice for photographing the Golden Gate Bridge, I like the view from the other side even better.
If you have a clear day, stop by and walk around a bit, saying goodbye to San Francisco as you embark on an epic road trip.
This view is incredible, and you don’t even have to try that hard to get it! Mount Tamalpais is perfect if you prefer the kind of amazing viewpoint you can get to by car (the map with each stop is embedded below!).
Although this viewpoint is a detour off Highway 1, it’s worth it if you have the opportunity to see a sunset or the low clouds. It creates a beautiful atmosphere from the top of the mountain all the way down to the sea.
Like most of this route, Point Reyes offers beautiful views of the coast. But what sets it apart is this tunnel of cypress trees. If you see it during golden hour (the hour before sunset) on a sunny day, you’ll have the best photo opportunity.
Reminiscent of the Dark Hedges of Northern Ireland, isn’t it?
Travelling alone? Check out my guide on how to take selfies that don’t look like selfies.
Part of the Sonoma Coast State Protected Area, Bodega Head offers a unique view of beautiful rocks from the sand, as well as whale watching opportunities (which is true for this entire coast).
This part of the coast is especially rich in ocean life. The Bodega Head area contains one of the most significant upwelling plumes on the entire California coast. This results in great diversity both below and above the waves.
Sonoma Coast State Park
Along the Pacific Coast Highway there are several waterfalls cascading into the sea. McWay Falls in Big Sur might be the most famous, but the waterfall at Sonoma Coast State Park is also a sight to see.
The way it tumbles over the rocks in dramatic fashion with the wild Pacific makes it a photographer’s dream.
Salt Point State Park
You may be sensing a theme here: this coastline is STELLAR for sunset ocean views. Salt Point also offers unique rock formations and several coastal trails to choose from. If you’re into snorkeling or freediving and don’t mind icy water and thick wetsuits, this is a great place!
They also have a pygmy forest and two campgrounds. While there are many places that offer those things, it’s the rock formations, with porous rocks and arches, that make Salt Point worth a stop.
Stewarts Point is an unincorporated community on the Sonoma Coast. It has a crazy history that includes murder and cannibals, but more importantly, this was an area of great importance to the original inhabitants, the Pomo Indian people.
It’s a beautiful area with very peculiar architecture.
Point Arena-Stornetta public lands.
Famous for the Point Arena-Stornetta Lighthouse, the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands offer sea arches that are some of the most defined and arch-shaped on the entire trail.
Hike the cliffs above the ocean along the coastal trail and prepare to be amazed.
Van Damme State Park
Staying at the Little River Inn, mentioned above, gave us easy access to Van Damme State Park. The entrance fee is $8 to enter the park and see the pygmy forest and walk the trails, but entrance to the beach, just across the road, is free.
Check out some of the best stops in Mendo in the video:
I visited four times to watch the sunset, hang out in the sun and enjoy quiet morning meditations.
Interested in meditations? Check out my favorite chakra meditations.
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Surprise, surprise, we have another stellar sunset spot on the list! Mendocino Headlands State Park, which encompasses most of the Mendocino coast and inland trails along the river, is perfect for sunset.
We hung out on one of the bluffs over the water all afternoon, watching the birds and the waves, and ended up with the amazing sunset you see in the photo.
Russian Gulch State Park
If you want to see a waterfall with a different flavor than those on the coast, hike the Fern Trail at Russian Gulch State Park. You’ll pass plenty of ferns, lichen, and redwoods on this quiet path to the waterfall. The hike is fairly easy, at 3 miles round trip, and can be turned into a loop.
Russian Gulch is also famous for its bridge, with a short overlook hike that can be accessed near the fern trailhead. Entrance to the park costs $8 per vehicle.
Glass Beach Fort Bragg
Perhaps the most famous beach on our list, Fort Bragg’s Sea Glass Beach is a former landfill turned fairytale beach.
The first time I visited in 2019, I didn’t find much glass, but in 2021, I found it everywhere! The best way to experience this beach is in the late afternoon until sunset, when the light catches the glass. You can read more about the history and tips for all of Fort Bragg’s attractions here.
Skunk Train to Redwoods
What is a skunk train? Good question, and I’m glad you asked, because it’s a funny story.
These rails that run through the Redwoods were used by trains back in the day that apparently smelled like skunk thanks to the fuel mixture.
Today you can take the train (which no longer smells) or pedal yourself on the railbikes to the Redwoods. It’s a unique experience and the only railbike I know of of this type on the Northern California coast. You can read more and book the train or bikes in my guide to the best things to do in Mendocino County.
King Range National Conservation Area
As we move deeper into the area known as the Lost Coast, you will begin to notice the towns getting smaller and smaller, the coastline even more forested and rugged, and the wildness of it all increases.
At this point Highway 1 merges with Highway 101 and you’ll have to take another road to access this part. However, if you commit, you’ll find beautiful wildflowers and uncrowded coastline in the King Range National Conservation Area.
Moonstone Beach in Humboldt
I really like Humboldt County, I’ve visited 5 or 6 times now. Although there are many beaches in the area, I am partial to Moonstone Beach. With the beach being especially flat and the water running into the sea, it creates the perfect long, wide reflection for the sunset.
Check out my guide to Humboldt County to learn more about my favorite things to do and eat there.
Hiking in Redwood National Park.
One of the things that makes this area so wonderful is the abundance and accessibility of redwoods. I’ve already mentioned that the coast redwood is the tallest tree on Earth, but there can only be one that reigns supreme, and that is the Hyperion tree. The Hyperion is the tallest known official tree on Earth, standing 115.85 m tall.
Sail inland a bit until you reach this one in Redwood National Park. It’s worth the short trip off the coast.
Hike in Redwoods State Park of the North Coast.
I’m sure we can all agree that there aren’t too many sequoias. So on your way to the Oregon border, visit the North Coast Sequoia State Park to embrace even more trees and enjoy the incredible views.
Here’s a map to help you plan your trip:
A friend of mine told me that California was in my blood. When you’re born and raised in a place, it’s always a part of you. I guess that’s why every time I’m on the California coast, even if it’s hours north of where I grew up, I feel like I’ve come home. Not just to me, but to the nature, the quiet and the peacefulness. I hope you feel that way too.
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