There are moments in which the only thing a person wants is to get a little lost in the world. There are moments where one longs to experience that profound mixture of freedom, wonderment, and vulnerability that comes with seeing new places. Often times we look to faraway destinations and packed itineraries as the means to scratch these itches. However, I would urge the inquisitive traveler to consider options close to home. The United States offers opportunities for some of the most breathtaking and visceral sights in the world. Californians are particularly privileged to have numerous world class destinations and landscapes in their backyard such as Yosemite, Los Angeles, San Diego, Death Valley, and Lassen Volcanic National Park to name a few. For those living in the Bay Area, a stretch of highway from San Francisco, CA to Eureka, CA is an absolute must see.
The Pacific Coast Highway is widely lauded as one of the premier drives in the world. Sheer cliffs and powerful waves contrast the tranquility of quiet towns and lush green forests to provide the backdrop for an invigorating drive. The road is saturated with rich ocean air and features the occasional hairpin turn. Punctuating the road are numerous coastal towns and brilliant vista points. These distinct features provide a dynamic setting for travelers of all ages and interests. It is a road that offers solace and comfort in the simplicity it represents.
In addition to the striking landscape that is offered, one of the Pacific Coast Highway’s great appeals is its accessibility for the budget minded. For under $300, one can enjoy much of what the highway has to offer in a weekend. These factors constitute a highly recommended excursion for anyone visiting the Golden State and an absolute must for Bay Area residents. Given that the drive itself is enough to justify a spot on any traveler’s bucket list, one can go into the trip knowing little to nothing about the area and have a tremendously memorable trip. However, the following are recommended pauses on this gorgeous and substantial drive.
Point Reyes Lighthouse & Alamere Falls
Between Stinson and Dillon Beach is Point Reyes National Shore, a prominent cape featuring superb hiking trails in addition to whale and elephant seal watching spots in winter. Stopping here serves as a great opportunity to stretch and soak in the coast. This is an area rich in history stemming back to the expeditions of Sir Francis Drake. Here you will find two notable landmarks that reward those who are confident in their lower extremities.
Alamere Falls is a rare example of a tidefall (1 of 3 in the US) that is only accessible via an 8.5 mile hike along the Palomarin Trailhead (4.25 miles if you do not intend on coming back). Accomplishing this hike gives travelers a rare opportunity to see a waterfall cascade into the Pacific Ocean. The other landmark, Point Reyes Lighthouse, was built in 1870 and can be reached provided one is willing to descend about 300 steps. Luckily, one does not have to tackle the stairs in one go as there are several benches and rest areas along the way.
For film aficionados Bodega Bay is a must visit given its place in cinematic history as the filming location of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “The Birds.” One can spot familiar buildings while walking around this small town such as the St. Teresa of Avila Church and Potter schoolhouse. With a population of slightly over 1,000 people, this pop culture gem can be explored entirely on foot. However, one does not need to be a film buff in order to enjoy this quaint town as Bodega Bay also holds a reputation for its freshly caught seafood. One can sit down at Spud Point Crab Company and enjoy a well-deserved meal of clam chowder and a crab sandwich (After conquering the stairs at Point Reyes, you certainly have earned it).
Mendocino & Fort Bragg
Mendocino is well regarded along the coast as a hub for the arts. In addition to its many galleries powered by local artists there are music and film festivals throughout the year. The community has a significant pulse fueled by independent artists and travelers. Venture down to the Mendocino Art Center and one will find galleries from various artists in residence from across the country. Across the street from the downtown area is a stunning view of the ocean that serves as the backdrop for many of the galleries.
From Mendocino, continue north for 20 minutes to reach Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg is one of the bigger cities on the coast and one can find more familiar amenities such as Safeways and Starbucks. Given this, it is a good stop to restock on necessary supplies and indulge any particular habits one has developed from decades of city living. While here, Glass Beach is a must see sight for anyone traveling up the PCH. Glass Beach is named for the glass pebbles that wash up on shore creating a shimmering beach not unlike what one would envision in a fantasy novel. The glass pebbles are the result of years of dumping garbage into designated areas in the northern coast. Items from these dumps such as glass bottles are worn down by the currents forming the pebbles. While collecting these pebbles is discouraged, many tourists end up taking some resulting in a gradual depletion of this site so see it while you can!
Avenue of the Giants
Past Fort Bragg is a stretch of road known as The Lost Coast, named so because the landscapes were too rugged to build a highway along the coast. The primary draw of this portion of the trip is the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic highway that runs parallel to 101. The Avenue of the Giants or route 254 takes drivers through the outer parts of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Redwoods are native to only California, parts of Oregon, and China. It is nothing less than a profound privilege to be able to experience both the sweeping views of the Pacific and the towering majesty of the redwoods. Roll the windows down a bit and take in the smells of the forest as rays of light peak through the trees. At some point be sure to stop and step out of the car to enjoy the quiet humming of an ancient ecosystem.
Further down 101 is Eureka, a historic city with its roots in the California Gold Rush. One of the city’s significant distinctions is the Victorian era architecture found throughout the city. There are hundreds of examples of 19th and early 20th century architecture to be found such as the Carson Mansion. If you do not find Victorian architecture particularly interesting maybe you will enjoy the numerous murals scattered throughout the city. While basking in this snapshot of a time long gone, also take a moment to enjoy the access to several trails and parks that give you glimpses into the ruggedness and beauty of the Lost Coast.