Northern California’s coastal stretches have long lured road-trippers, even before John Steinbeck, his wife, Elaine, and their peripatetic poodle rumbled down the Pacific Coast in 1960. In “Travels With Charley,” Steinbeck famously enthused about ogling the “ambassadors from another time,” referring to the region’s ancient redwoods. Last summer, as wildfires raged uncomfortably close to those redwood forests, four-wheeled vacationers steered clear. By the year’s end, fires burned more than half a million acres in Northern California alone but largely spared the coastal woods and villages. Now that the smoke is clear and the driving-vacation season is shifting into high gear, we’ve designed a detailed three-night itinerary. You set out from San Francisco, snake through Mendocino County and then on to Humboldt County, with the landscape growing wilder with each mile.
DAY 1: San Francisco to Mendocino
Escape from Alcatraz and all of San Francisco’s other loved-to-death attractions and hop on Highway 101 early enough to bypass the other fugitives. You’ll pass through Sonoma County, home to Petaluma’s antique stores and Healdsburg’s tasting rooms, but if you can cope with two-hours-and-change behind the wheel, hold out for less touristy Boonville, in the Anderson Valley. Stretch your legs at Pennyroyal Farm (1), which offers tours and fresh-off-the-goat cheeses (14930 Hwy. 128, pennyroyalfarm.com). Not ready to leave? Farmhouse Mercantile (2) has restocked an old general store with French country housewares (14111 Hwy. 128, farmhouse128.com).
A wiggly 45 minutes west, sunny terraced vineyards give way to chilly redwood forests and the Pacific-hugging Highway 1. In the teeny town of Elk, the Harbor House Inn (3) reopened last year after a total renovation brought a luxe gleam and notable chef to its clubby interiors. A dinner runs $180 per person for a tasting menu, but if you aim to arrive on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon you can dine a la carte on charcuterie, cheese plates and salads composed of ingredients from the garden—all served on a deck overlooking the beach (5600 Hwy. 1, theharborhouseinn).
With its wind-washed cottages and water towers, the town of Mendocino looks like it was built by a seafaring crowd rather than a tree-felling one, even though forestry was once big business here. After it faded by the 1950s, artists came in and now Mendocino pumps out pottery, paintings, glassware, jewellery and woodwork. Unapologetically touristic, the town’s Main Street (4) earns a stop with its comely row of cottages facing a cove; Gallery Bookshop is worth a ramble (319 Kasten St., gallerybookshop.com).
For dinner, backtrack south five minutes to Wild Fish (5), a deceptively modest spot beside a gas station. Its handful of tables frequently book up early with diners eager to dig into the fresh fish caught just up the coast. Arrive before dark because the dining-room windows nicely frame overwater sunsets (7750 N. Hwy 1, wild-fish.com). Time to crash: Across the street sits the Little River Inn (6). The finishes might be a bit faded in some rooms, but the surf’s roar drowns out the fretting of most fussbudgets. For a Jacuzzi, fireplace and private patio, book a suite (from $189 a night, littleriverinn.com).
DAY 2: Little River to Avenue of the Giants to Garberville
Start the day with a 2.5-mile hike just above Mendocino on the Ecological Staircase (7). It’s a decidedly unexciting name for a thoroughly enjoyable trail that zips through Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. The route goes from a wildflower-swept coastal prairie to an inland pygmy forest where acidic earth has prevented century-old trees from growing past a few feet tall. If that short circuit wasn’t enough for you, head just north to Fort Bragg, a company town before that company, Georgia-Pacific Lumber, left in 2002. Land that was formerly off-limits to the public became the Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail (8). Fully opened last year, the 5-mile trail provides access to bluffs and beaches. For lunch, pick up fish and chips at the Sea Pal Cove, (9) a shack sitting right on the Noyo River between fishing boats.
Nearly two hours later the drive reaches Avenue of the Giants (10). This narrow road running roughly parallel to the main highway twists around redwood spires. Though this detour is well worth the time it adds to the commute, download enough podcasts before you’re in too deep; sky-high trees block cell phone reception as rudely as skyscrapers. Along the route rises Founder’s Grove, a cluster of some of the tallest redwoods. Pitch up at dusk, after the tour buses leave, to perhaps find yourself alone with the colossal, prone Dyerville Giant. Impressive upright, these trunks are even more so lying down. When it toppled in 1991, the Dyerville Giant (362-foot-tall, 52-foot in circumference) registered as an earthquake on a nearby seismograph.
A 30-minute drive south (yes, you’ll need to backtrack again) leads to the Benbow Historic Inn just outside Garberville (11). Opened in 1926, this Tudor hotel has some fussy period furnishings and a dining room that feels like an Austrian hunting lodge. Order the Farmer’s Plate to get a wheelbarrow’s worth of vegetables including ones picked from the vines out front (from $165 a night, benbowinn.com).
DAY 3: Benbow to Eureka
Breakfast is an hour’s drive away, at the schoolhouse-red Samoa Cookhouse (12), plenty of time to build up the appetite required. Opened in 1893 as a lumberjack commissary, the restaurant serves unlimited flapjacks, biscuits and gravy family-style at long tables in a long room embellished with giant antique saws that were used to chop up beefy trees (908 Vance Ave., samoacookhouse.net).
The nearby town of Eureka fits tidily on a postcard with its pretty waterfront and boardwalk leading to an Old Town dotted with Victorian buildings. The most-photographed is Carson Mansion (13), built out of redwood by a lumber baron in 1884 with a dizzying series of turrets and gables. It’s usually closed to the public, but you can still skulk around the property snapping photos like a cat burglar.
A couple of blocks away and part of a growing wave of stylish businesses, the tasting room at Humboldt Bay Provisions (14) serves oysters pulled in right from the bay, alongside local ciders and cheeses (205 G. St., humboldtbayprovisions.com). If you’re up for another hour’s drive north (no pressure!), the 4.5-mile James Irvine Trail leads to Fern Canyon (15)—lush, furry walls so otherworldly they’re in a Jurassic Park film—before reaching a beach where elk sightings are more likely than human sightings.
Spend the final night at Humboldt Bay Social Club (16). Some bungalows sit in a eucalyptus grove on a quiet beach, with vintage furnishings and bay views. It’s so quiet you’ll sleep like logs; risky considering a biomass power plant consumes wood debris right down the road (from $150 a night, humboldtbaysocialclub.com).
The next morning, return to San Francisco either by a six-hour drive or by an 80-minute hop from the Humboldt County airport. The latter delivers a birds-eye view of all the terrain you just saw at street level.
Credit: Ryan Haase for The Wall Street Journal, 24 May 2019.