This 5-day northern California itinerary starts at Oregon’s border, but it’s easy enough to flip the days to start in San Francisco instead. You’ll be sticking to the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Hwy-1 or CA-1, for a good chunk of the trip. Famous for its narrow, twisting, cliff-side route, make sure your vehicle is in good repair.
Gold Beach to Arcata
(160 miles/258 kilometers, 4 hrs)
Head south on US-101, crossing the Oregon/California border, driving through thick stands of giant redwoods. Stop in Crescent City for lunch, before continuing on to the Trees of Mystery to ride the gondola and browse Native American art.
Exit US-101 to Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway and explore Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Return to US-101. After a few miles south, head west on Davison Road to Gold Bluffs Beach. Hike Fern Canyon Trail, marveling at the steep canyon dripping with green ferns—a vision of prehistoric times.
Continue south to Arcata. Get dinner before retiring for a good night’s rest at the Best Western Arcata Inn.
Arcata to Mendocino
(152 miles/245 kilometers,3 hrs)
Drive US-101 South, rounding the east edge of Arcata Bay then curving inland to the Avenue of the Giants, which runs through magnificent redwoods. At the US-101 South/CA-1 split (just before Leggett), take CA-271 South to the admittedly cool tourist trap Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree.
Backtrack to CA-1, then head south to Fort Bragg for lunch along the harbor. Continuing south, stop at Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park to explore the museum and marinelife exhibit. Don’t forget to take a few pictures of the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse.
Continue on to Mendocino, where you’ll spend the rest of the day strolling through art galleries and shops. Book a room at the charming MacCallum House, where you can dine in the restaurant, enjoy a cocktail at the bar, or soak in a hot tub.
Mendocino to San Francisco
(170 miles/272 kilometers, 4.5 hrs)
After breakfast in the garden at MacCallum House, pack a picnic lunch and drive south along the coast to the rocky coves at Salt Point State Park. Continue on CA-1 South to Bodega Head (watch for the sign!), the best spot for bird-watching, whale-watching, and your picnic lunch. Hike along Bodega Head for panoramic views of the coast.
Follow CA-1 South to US-101 South. Stop in the Marin Headlands to enjoy the view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge before crossing over it into San Francisco. Check into the Beatnik throwback Hotel Boheme. Greet the city with a 15-minute walk down Columbus Avenue to explore the waterfront shops. Dine with views of the bay in Fisherman’s Wharf or along the Embarcadero.
Explore Golden Gate Park. Choose between the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, or Conservatory of Flowers, all on-site at the park. Cross the bay for a fascinating tour of the island prison of Alcatraz. Shop in Union Square or ride the cable car to Chinatown. When the sun goes down, head to North Beach for an old world Italian dinner. Don’t want the night to end? Put on your dancing shoes and head to Ruby Skye or catch a show at the historic Golden Gate Theater.