Highlights of this Northern 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 region. If you have more time we recommend spending a little longer with at least two nights camping among 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. If you haven't been to San Francisco before, you should spend one or two days exploring San Francisco's highlight's. At the end of your California coast driving tour you can jump on Interstate-5 and head back to your starting point or you could extend your road trip north to include the Oregon coast. If you would like to continue north, see this Southern Oregon Coast Road Trip Itinerary.
This is a 5 day itinerary which allows you to fully explore this gorgeous and more isolated part of the California Coast. 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. Also, do not underestimate how far the distances are between each of the stops and how much there is to see and do in each town and along the way.
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 which you know come highly recommended for a reason!
Best Times To Visit Northern California:
We have done this trip several times. Summer is our favorite time of year to visit but that's because we are warm weather people and everything is better with a little sunshine! Summer is perfect for swimming in some of the incredibly crystal clear rivers and because of 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 so… expect lots of rain! Don't however let it dampen your mood because the Redwoods look particularly magical and mysterious drenched and shrouded in fog. Also, you won't find many other visitors traveling through this time of year. 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!
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 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.
Established in the 1850’s, the entire town of Mendocino has been designated a historical landmark. The architecture found here is reminiscent of a New England village with charming saltbox cottages and Victorian mansions because many of the original residents came from Maine.
When you’ve finished sightseeing in Mendocino head further north to the blue collar town of Fort Bragg which has breathtaking views of the Northern California coastline that you can enjoy from a seven mile long trail along it’s headland.
Fort Bragg is where you will also find the famed Glass Beach which is well-known for it’s dazzling sea-glass rounded by the rolling waves. This beach is on many traveler’s California Bucket List so it could be quite busy during the holidays. In saying that, we visited in spring and there were very few people. Most visitors’ collect some of the glass as souvenirs and for this reason the sea-glass is diminishing so don’t expect it to be as amazing as you see in photograph’s. To find Glass Beach and see what else there is to do in Fort Bragg see the travel guide above.
Both Mendocino and Fort Bragg are filled with charming bed & breakfasts so you could consider staying at either location. They are equally pleasant towns to spend time relaxing in however Fort Bragg does have cheaper lodging options.
If you haven't heard 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 is one host that offers glamping in Mendocino.
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 stores filled with crafts made from coastal redwoods.
AVENUE OF THE GIANTS
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!
Along the drive there are many Redwood groves you can stop at 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.
CAMPING IN HUMBOLDT REDWOODS STATE PARK
If there is anywhere you should 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 $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 here is like taking a step back in time with many of the buildings dating back to 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.
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. Afterwards, head back to one of the town’s many elegant Inn’s or B&B’s, the most notably popular being 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 fantastic food (large portions!!!) that include fresh seafood and brew their own organic beer. They have some great happy hour deals so please 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.
Ways to spend you time here include walking the city streets and admiring the restored buildings or perusing 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 you might like to visit 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’s left in the USA.
Eureka to Del Norte Redwoods State Park - 75 Miles
On your way northbound 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 Redwood related gifts and items.
When you reach Klamath you can explore the rugged Pacific Ocean shores, go beach combing or hike the forest trails. Attractions in the area include the ‘Tour Thru Tree’ (a Redwood tree you can drive through) or visit the Trees of Mystery which is five miles north of Klamath. Other attractions here include the Sky Trail and the giant statue of Paul Bunyan. For those who are interested in adventurous activities, you can organize a jet boating experience or go rafting on the Klamath river.
Del Norte Redwoods State Park
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 Redwood State Parks because it is the least visited. Here, you could hike the Coastal Trail which provides glimpses of the Pacific Ocean or take on the Damnation Creek Trail.
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 most loved 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 so please be careful.
Del Norte Redwoods State Park to Crescent City - 9 Miles
Last stop on this 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.
The beaches here are a lot safer for swimming than some of the other beaches found along the northern coast. There are quite a few surfboard and kayak rental shops if you want to get active in the water or you could just relax and take in an incredible sunset. Crescent City is where you will find the most affordable accommodation so feel free to extend your time here if your schedule permits you to do so.