North of San Francisco, California's Highway 1 clings to the state's western edge, winding north from Sausalito through Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties. North of Fort Bragg, it veers inland, ending where it connects with U.S. Highway 101 in the town of Leggett. This classic California road trip route follows the coastal contours, rising and falling, zig-zagging around coves and curving around hillsides slopes falling to the sea.
With over 200 miles between Sausalito and Leggett, the going can be slow and the passing lanes are few. Depending on how often you stop, it will take you at least six or seven hours to complete this trip, but you will enjoy it more if you spend the night somewhere along the way. Even if your time is limited, you don't want to speed past the Mendocino Coast, where the coastal mountains flatten out and make room for stunning woods and meadows. Driving along these coastal cliffs can be anxiety-inducing, but if you drive from south to north you'll be able to stay on the inside of the curves.
Time on this road because there are many wonderful places worth stopping for along the way. Consider breaking up the trip into three parts: from Sausalito to Bodega Bay; from Bodega Bay to Gualala; and from Gualala to Leggett. Take notes of the points of interest before you hit the road, but also be sure you know where to stop for gas when your tank starts running low. Gas stations and restrooms are few and far between, so make sure your tank is full and your bladder is empty before setting out.
Highway One through Marin County: Sausalito to Bodega Bay
Most of California Highway 1 in Marin County is inland, with a short stretch of ocean views near Stinson Beach, but that doesn't mean the road is straight and flat. Highway 1 in southern Marin County is said to be more twisty than along the famously winding Big Sur Coast, so expect to maintain an average 20 to 25 miles per hour. On this leg of the trip, there are no gas stations for almost 30 miles between, so prioritize getting gas in Sausalito, Mill Valley, or Point Reyes.
The points of interest on the first leg of the trip include popular beaches that attract day-trippers and a couple of towns where you can shop or get some seafood for lunch:
- Stinson Beach: Just 20 miles from San Francisco, this 3-mile beach is popular for its spaciousness and cleanliness and there are water sport rentals available.
- Bolinas Lagoon: At the tip of Stinson Beach, this lagoon is a tidal estuary that attracts over 60 species of water and shorebirds. It's also popular with local surfers.
- Point Reyes Station: Here you'll find the most shops and places to eat on the Marin Coast, plus the only gas station.
- Tomales Bay: Another estuary about a mile wide and 20 miles long, this bay north of Bolinas Lagoon is near the shoreline town of Marshall, which produces some of California's best oysters.
Highway One through Sonoma County: Bodega Bay to Gualala
In Sonoma County, CA Highway 1 sticks to the coastline. It's less curvy and hilly than in other areas and from Bodega Bay to Gualala, it's about 48 miles. During the summer, be prepared for damp, windy weather on this road, and in the winter you may encounter storms. Spring and fall bring the clearest days. Cellphone signals range from weak to nonexistent along most of the Sonoma Coast, except in the towns. You'll find gasoline stations and restaurants in Bodega Bay, Jenner, and Gualala, and restaurants at Timber Cove Resort and Sea Ranch Lodge.
Among the points of interest on this leg, you can find landmarks of filmmaking history and keep your eyes peeled for homes that were built to blend into the coastline:
- Bodega Bay: This was the shooting location Alfred Hitchcock's film "The Birds" and there are also plenty of restaurants and places to stay. Plus just north of the bay, you can check out the sea stacks on the coast. These dramatic monoliths formed when a rock resists erosion more than those surrounding it.
- Russian River: This river empties into the sea south of Jenner, running beside Goat Rock through Johnson's Beach, one of the Sonoma Coast's most photogenic beaches.
- Fort Ross: Originally built in 1812 as a hunting base, this fort a worthwhile stop if you like history.
- Sea Ranch: This planned community stretches along the highway for many miles, but is designed to blend in with the coastal landscape. It's a unique place for architecture buffs to explore.
California Coastal Highway One in Mendocino County: Gualala to Leggett
Once you get to Mendocino County, the mountains pull back from the ocean and contours are more rounded, making for the most beautiful views along CA Highway 1 north of San Francisco. Like the rest of the highway, this road twists and winds, but it's not as white-knuckle-inducing as the sheer drops you've already seen if you come from the south.
From Gualala to Leggett, you have about 102 more miles to go on Highway 1. You'll find gas stations, food, and lodging in Gualala, Point Arena, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg. Lots of cute little bed and breakfast inns and small hotels cluster along the highway, which means you'll have plenty of opportunities to rest for the night.
The northern leg of this route has a lot to see from gardens to historical lighthouses.
- Point Arena Lighthouse: This was the first steel-reinforced concrete lighthouse in the United States and is a good place to snap a few photos
- Mendocino: This is the county's most attractive tourist town and the best place to find lodging on your way north. The town has been the backdrop for several films over the years and it looks more like a seaside New England town than most places in California.
- Coast Botanical Garden: Situated between the Pacific coast and Highway One and home to rare plants that you may not find elsewhere, this garden is a nice place for stretching your legs.
- Point Cabrillo Lighthouse: You can tour this restored lighthouse, the Lightkeeper's Home and Museum, and the grounds.