Highlights of this California coast road trip include stops at famed Glass Beach, Avenue of the Giants and charming Ferndale. Take in breathtaking coastal vista's, relax in quaint seaside towns, and hike in impressive coastal redwood forests. This is a five day driving itinerary that allows you to fully explore the area. If you have more time we recommend spending a little longer with at least two nights camping amidst the Redwoods.
THE 5 DAY NORTHERN CALIFORNIA COAST DRIVING ITINERARY & MAP
This 5 day driving itinerary begins in San Francisco and winds its way up to California's northern border. At the end of your driving tour you can jump on Interstate-5 and head back to your starting point. If you haven't explored San Francisco before, you should spend a day or two seeing San Francisco's highlight's.
You can also extend your road trip north to include the Oregon coast. If you plan on driving the Oregon coast too, you can see this post on Best Stops Along The Oregon Coast.
MAP OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA DRIVING ITINERARY
This is a 5 day itinerary which allows you to fully explore this gorgeous part of California. You could probably visit all of these places in two days but then you really wouldn't get to experience what this part of the state has to offer. It would also be one very tiring trip!
This road trip is perfect if you have a week off work and looking for somewhere new to explore or if it's part of a bigger road.
Day 1: Explore Mendocino and Fort Bragg - Spend the night in Fort Bragg
Day 2: Explore Avenue of the Giants - Spend one night at Avenue of the Giants
Day 3: Explore Ferndale and Eureka - Spend one night at either Ferndale or Eureka
Day 4: Explore the coastline and visit Redwoods State Park - Spend the night in Crescent City
Day 5: Spend the day relaxing in Crescent City and exploring nearby attractions.
We recommend getting yourself a guide book to Northern California to make the most of your trip!
We always take a travel guide book with us to ensure we don't bypass any special stops or miss out on those must visit restaurants. You know they come highly recommended for a reason!
Best Times To Visit Northern California
We have done this trip several times! Summer is our favorite time to visit but that's because we are warm weather people and everything is better with a little sunshine! This time of the year is perfect for swimming in some of the incredibly beautiful rivers and for the extended daylight hours. But obviously places of interest are going to be a lot busier and campgrounds especially fill up quickly!
Winter as expected, was very wet. Expect lots of rain. Don't however let it dampen your mood. The Redwoods look particularly magical and mysterious drenched and shrouded in fog. Also, you won't find many other visitors. Spring could go either way, sunny or rainy... but it won't be day after day of constant rain. And we haven't been in the fall yet!
Begin Northern California Coast Road Trip
SAN FRANCISCO TO FORT BRAGG - 182 MILES
DIRECTIONS: Head north on Highway 101 until you reach SR128 then drive westward until you reach the coast!
First up, visit the quaint seaside town of Mendocino for an hour or two where you will find tabletop headlands to admire the carved out sea caves below, cute cliff-side inns and Victorian homes painted in Easter egg colors.
The entire town of Mendocino is designated a historical landmark and was established in the 1850's. The architecture is reminiscent of a New England village with charming saltbox cottages and Victorian mansions because many of the original residents came from Maine.
Next head a little further north to the blue collar town of Fort Bragg which has breathtaking views of the Northern California coastline along a 7 mile trail along its headland.
This is where you will find the famed Glass Beach. It is known for its dazzling sea-glass rounded by the rolling waves. It is on most traveler's California Bucket List so it could be quite busy at the time of your visit. However, our visit was in early spring and there were very few people. Most people that visit collect some of the glass as souvenirs and for this reason the sea-glass is diminishing.
Glass Beach was originally a dump site for local residents between 1906 and 1970. The sea-glass is a result of the wave action on broken glass bottles. The beach is located at MacKerricher State Park.
Both Mendocino and Fort Bragg are filled with lovely bed & breakfasts so you might want to think about spending the night here on your road trip. They are both really pleasant towns to spend time relaxing in. You can view more information on B&B's in the area in the 'lodging & accommodation tab above.
BED & BREAKFASTS
If you like the idea of camping but not willing to completely forgo comfort you should try glamping! If you haven't head of glamping it is basically a glamorous version of camping. The tents are safari style and usually made of canvas with all modern furnishings...including a bed!
There are two hosts that offer glamping in Mendocino. You can click on the images below to learn more about staying there. And, if you're new to airbnb you can sign up here and get $40 off your first night's stay.
HOTELS IN MENDOCINO
HOTELS IN FOR BRAGG
FORT BRAGG TO AVENUE OF THE GIANTS - 90 MILES
DIRECTIONS: Make your way up the coast along the Pacific Coast Highway, passing through forgotten coastal towns and stopping at vista points to get photos of the dramatic coastline below. When you reach Leggett, get back on the 101 and head north until you reach the southern entrance of the Avenue of The Giants drive (SR258).
This world famous scenic drive is 31 miles long and is surrounded by the Humboldt Redwoods State Park which has the largest remaining stand of virgin Redwoods in the world. You will find plenty of roadside attractions that are worth stopping at such as the One Log Tree House (a house created from a single hollowed out log), Shine Drive-Thru Tree and many gift store filled with treasure made from coastal redwoods.
The best attraction (besides the tree's themselves) would have to be the Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor's Center located just south of Weott. Here you will find wildlife exhibits, history on the area and an RV made from a redwood tree which has traveled across the country 3 times!
There are many Redwood groves you can stop by and go for short or long hikes depending on your fitness level or how much time you have in your schedule.
The Eel River snakes its way alongside the highway and is great for fishing or cooling off if you happen to be visiting in the summer months.
There's nothing quite like camping among these giants so spend a night or two at one of the campgrounds. Find information on campgrounds here in the 'Lodging & Campgrounds' tab above.
If there is anywhere you want to camp it is here under the majestic Redwood Tree's!! It is a truly wonderful and unique experience and you can't come here and not stay at least one night in the area. The campgrounds do get taken very quickly in the summer months as you can imagine and are a little pricey at about $35 a night but this is typical prices of California campgrounds.
AVENUE OF THE GIANTS TO FERNDALE - 45 MILES
DIRECTIONS: Leaving Avenue of the Giants behind make your way north on HIghway 101 through the small towns of Rio Dell and Fortuna until you reach SR211 where you will take a left turn.
Ferndale, named one of America's prettiest towns is a small town which contains dozens of well-preserved Victorian homes and storefronts.
Visiting Ferndale is like taking a step back in time with many of the buildings dating back from the 1880's. The beautiful homes are also known as 'Butterfat Palaces' due to the wealth that was generated by the dairy industry that led to their construction.
An interesting fact for movie buffs is that the Jim Carrey film The Majestic was filmed here.
Take a stroll down Main Street and admire the buildings in all their gingerbread finery, visit the local galleries and craft stores or get naughty at the artisan chocolate shops.
Ferndale is a romantic place for couples to spend the night at one of the charming inn's or bed & breakfast's in town. The most notably popular is the Victorian Inn and the Gingerbread Mansion.
Before reaching Ferndale make sure you swing by Fortuna and visit the Eel River Brewing Co for lunch. They serve up amazing food (large portions!!!) that include fresh seafood and tasty organic beer. They have some great happy hour deals so check them out!
FERNDALE TO EUREKA - 26 MILES
DIRECTIONS: Get back on Highway 101 and head north. The highway will lead you straight through the town of Eureka.
Leaving Ferndale behind your next destination will be Eureka where there is enough to keep you entertained for the whole day!
Eureka, like Ferndale, is known for its lovely Victorian architecture but its most notable building would be the Carson Mansion, an elaborate combination of Queen Anne, Italianate and Eastlake styles built in 1885.
Walk the city streets and admire the restored buildings or peruse through the many art and craft boutiques.
In the summer, be treated to free outdoor concerts or climb aboard the M.V. Madaket, a small boat built in 1910 that provides short tours of Humboldt Bay.
If you have the kids in tow take a trip to Sequoia Zoo! The kids will love the cute and cuddly Red Panda's and mischievous Otters.
When its time for dinner, head to the Samoa Cook House which serves up "lumber camp style" in one of the last logging camp-type cookhouse left in the USA.
For fishermen, there are quite a few fishing charters in the area too which would make a great day trip idea.
We have stayed at the Redwood Coast Cabins & RV Resort (formerly a KOA) and loved it! It had everything to keep the kids entertained... and ourselves. Pool, hot tub, basketball court, putt putt and great shower facilities!!
HOTELS IN EUREKA
Eureka has a lot to choose from when it comes to accommodation. Most of the hotels are fairly inexpensive. This town is probably the largest on the Northern California coast so if you need to pay any large grocery stores or chain stores a visit for supplies do so here. It's also a very central place to base yourself, especially if you weren't able to get a campsite in the Redwoods.
You could also look up available properties in Eureka on airbnb as an alternative style of accommodation. This way, you might be able to rent a whole house for the price of a hotel or on the other hand if you're on a budget you might be able to rent a room in a house.
BONUS! If you're new to airbnb we are giving you $40 off your first night's stay when you decide to book. The deal is good all over the world!!
EUREKA TO KLAMATH - 63 MILES
DIRECTIONS: Back on highway 101 and northbound to Klamath.
On your way to Klamath, you will drive through the blink and you'll miss it town of Orick. Orick is worth a stop because it has one of the largest Roosevelt Elk herds in the USA. They can usually be seen in town from the Elk Meadow Turnout or at the Elk Meadow Day Use Area off Davison Road.
There is a small grocery store here if you need to pick up snacks or use the restroom and some local gift stores selling Redwoods related gifts and items.
On reaching Klamath, explore the rugged Pacific Ocean shores, go beach combing or hike the forest trails.
In Klamath, you can drive through the 'Tour Thru Tree' or drive 5 miles north and visit the Trees of Mystery. Other attractions include riding the Sky Trail, getting your picture taken with Paul Bunyan, and jet-boating on the Klamath River.
KLAMATH TO DEL NORTE REDWOODS STATE PARK - 12 MILES
DIRECTIONS: Head north on Highway 101.
Tall trees meet the sea at Del Norte Redwoods State Park. With up to 100 inches of rain a year, this parks grow the tallest trees in the world and also protects 45% of the Earth’s last remaining old-growth redwood forests.
You can stop at one of the few turnouts and marvel at these prehistoric beasts. This is our favorite of the Redwoods State Parks because it is the least visited.
You can hike the Coastal Trail which provides glimpses of the Pacific Ocean or take on one of our favorite hikes, the Damnation Creek Trail.
In two short, steep miles, the Damnation Creek Trail leads from fern and redwood forests down to rocky tide-pools and the violent crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This is one of our favorite hikes on the west coast and worth the trudge back up the steep cliff-side. A word of warning, some parts of the trail are very narrow and can be slippery when wet.
DEL NORTE REDWOODS STATE PARK TO CRESCENT CITY - 9 MILES
DIRECTIONS: Northbound on Highway 101.
Last stop on this exhilarating Northern California Coast Road Trip is the seaside town of Crescent City.
Crescent City is the last city in California before you hit Oregon. The town was built as a seaport and supply center for inland gold mines in the 19th century.
There are some lovely beaches to watch the sunsets from and a Marine Mammal Center for the kids.
The beaches here are a lot safer for swimming than some of the areas along the northern coast and there are quite a few surfboard and kayak rental shops if you plan to vacation here for a few days and want to get active in the water.
Crescent City is where you will find the most affordable accommodation so you can spend a few extra days relaxing here whether you are camping or unwinding at a vacation home. For more information on lodging in Crescent City see the tab above.
VACATION HOMES IN CRESCENT CITY
A good alternative to staying in hotels or motels in Crescent City is booking a vacation home. Vacation homes in Crescent City are fairly inexpensive and in most cases the same price as a hotel. It would be a nice way to end your road trip relaxing in a cozy cabin or oceanfont condo. You can view a list of all the available properties on VRBO.
HOTELS IN CRESCENT CITY
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