Northern California Coast Road Trip: Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Last Updated on May 7, 2021

I’ve always been intrigued with the Pacific Coast Highway. Hugging the shoreline from Los Angeles to Leggett, Highway 1 is famous for spectacular views as well as legendary twists and turns. Driving at least part of the route has long been a dream of mine, and last month my husband Daniel and I decided to make that dream a reality. After a journey across the southwest, we headed to San Francisco for a Northern California coast road trip.

For this adventure, we spent 3 days driving from Muir Woods to the Avenue of the Giants in our 2000 VW Rialta motorhome named Appa. Built on a Eurovan chassis with a Winnebago interior, Appa is a 21-foot long gutless wonder with fabulous gas mileage and a touchy transmission. She doesn’t do well on hills and we have to constantly watch our gauges to ensure she doesn’t overheat.

We were both curious to see how she’d handle Highway 1’s famous curves and hills on a Northern California road trip. As it turns out, not so well.

The Pacific Coast Highway: The ultimate Northern California Coast road trip
The Pacific Coast Highway

Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary At-A-Glance

Here’s a snapshot of our Northern California coast road trip itinerary from Muir Woods to Garberville, which is at the southern entrance to the Avenue of the Giants. We gave ourselves three days to drive 230 miles so we had plenty of time for sightseeing and because our RV isn’t particularly fast.

  • Day 1: Muir Woods to Bodega Bay
    • 12:30 pm – Explore Muir Woods (arrival time dependent on parking reservation)
    • 3:00 pm – Visit Muir Beach Overlook
    • 4:00 pm – Stop at Point Reyes Station for gas
      • Optional – Drive to Point Reyes Lighthouse which adds at least 1.5 hours to the driving time
    • 5:30 pm – Camp at Bodega Bay
      • Optional – Stop in the town of Bodega which is 10 minutes inland from Bodega Bay along Highway 1
  • Day 2: Bodega Bay to Mendocino
    • 10:30 am – Explore Bodega Head
    • 11:30 am – Eat Lunch at Fisherman’s Cove
    • 1:00 pm – Visit Carmel Beach
    • 2:30 pm – Hike Vista Trail
    • 5:00 pm – Take photos at Point Arena Lighthouse
    • 6:30 pm – Stop in Mendocino
  • Day 3: Mendocino to Garberville
    • 10:30 am – Visit Mendocino Headlands State Park
    • 12:00 pm – Eat lunch in Mendocino and explore the town
    • 3:00 pm – Arrive at Leggett, the official end to the Pacific Coast Highway (we arrived later due to car troubles)
    • 3:30 pm – Visit Redwoods attractions such as Legend of BigFoot
    • 5:00 pm – Arrive in Garberville

Northern California Coast Road Trip Day 1: Muir Woods to Bodega Bay

On the first day of our Northern California Coast road trip, Daniel and I drove 57 miles from Muir Woods National Monument to Bodega Bay. Wanting to avoid the big city in our RV, we had camped the previous evening at the KOA Campground in Petaluma. The drive to Muir Woods took us over some big hills in Mill Valley that we hadn’t anticipated. We almost had stop and let the transmission cool down before we even made it to Muir Woods.

The rest of the day’s driving was equally difficult. I knew that Highway 1 was a curvy road, but I hadn’t anticipated the number of hills along the route as well. We’ve never driven this kind of terrain in our RV before and it was rough. Driving around all the twists and turns felt like a whole body workout. Our RV had a hard time making it up the hills and we had to pull over more than once to let the transmission cool off.

Fortunately, the views were incredible so it was a great excuse to stop for awhile and take photos.

The Pacific Coast Highway: The ultimate place for a Northern California road trip
The Pacific Coast Highway

Muir Woods

Entrance Fee: $15 (Children 15 and under are free)
Parking Fee: $8.50 for standard vehicles

One of the last stands of old growth coastal redwoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muir Woods National Monument encompasses 554 acres of towering trees and dripping green moss. Established as a National Monument in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt, Muir Woods is named for legendary naturalist John Muir. I’m a big fan of John Muir, so Daniel and I thought that Muir Woods would be a great place to start our Northern California coast road trip.

While not technically on Highway 1, Muir Woods is located off of the Panoramic Highway near the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 101. Due to its proximity to San Francisco, Muir Woods is a popular place. Permits are required to park at Muir Woods which can be purchased in advance online. The National Park Service also usually offers a shuttle service to the park, but this was not running during our visit due to the Coronavirus. I learned about the parking situation on the morning of our visit and luckily was able to reserve a spot for later that same afternoon.

I recommend visiting on a weekday if possible to avoid the crowds. Even with the parking enforcement, the crowds are a bit overwhelming on the weekends.

Daniel stands along the path in Muir Woods to take some photos while Redwood trees tower around him
Daniel is dwarfed by Redwood Trees
Park bench along a wooden path in Muir Woods National Monument
A nice spot to take a break

Muir Beach Overlook

After concluding our visit to Muir Woods, Daniel and I headed west and rejoined the Pacific Coast Highway at Muir Beach. Tucked away in a sheltered cove with gorgeous sandy beaches, Muir Beach is a popular swimming and sunbathing destination. The Muir Beach Overlook is just up the road and provides amazing views of the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stop at Muir Beach or the Muir Overlook because our vehicle is too big. Since it was a Sunday, the parking lots were packed and hard to maneuver. We were able to find a pull-out just up the road from Muir Beach Overlook, however, where we finally got to see our first views of the incredible Northern California Coast.

A path along the headlands of the Northern California Coast
Owl Trail near the Muir Beach Overlook
On of many overlooks along the Pacific Coast Highway on a Northern California Coast Road Trip
There are lots of places to stop and take photos along the Pacific Coast Highway. Here you can almost see all the way south to San Francisco.

Point Reyes National Seashore

The next stop on our Northern California coast road trip was Point Reyes National Seashore. Or at least, that was the original plan anyway. The park is supposed to have amazing hiking trails and incredible ocean views, along with a historic lighthouse. What I was really excited about, though, was the drive to the lighthouse. The road is lined with gnarled and twisty Monterey cypress trees, creating a picturesque tunnel.

We ultimately skipped this stop when we learned that the roads near the lighthouse were closed on weekends to prevent overcrowding. This is now firmly on my bucket list for the next time we are in the area. In the meantime, I found this photo online to give you an idea of what the cypress tree tunnel looks like.

I really wish I could’ve seen this amazing Cypress Tunnel at Point Reyes National Seashore (Photo is not mine).

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Bodega Bay

Daniel and I ended the first day of our Northern California coast road trip at beautiful Bodega Bay. There are several campgrounds in the area at various county and regional parks, although most did not have availability. We chose Westside Regional Park Campground because it is located right on the bay (and because it was one of the few places that had any openings and took online reservations).

I was surprised at how tired I felt. We had planned to visit the nearby town of Bodega to see shooting locations from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, but had to strike that off our list too. We hadn’t driven *that* many miles, but we weren’t used to driving such winding and hilly roads. It was exhausting.

Bodega Bay is lovely, however, and we enjoyed staying at our campsite and walking along the beach.

Bodega bay looking inland with green hills in the distance and small birds in water
Bodega Bay
Daniel stands on the beach at Bodega Bay to conclude Day 1 of our Northern California Coast Road Trip
We are happy to be done with traveling for the day!

Northern California Coast Road Trip Day 2: Bodega Bay to Mendocino

On the second day of our Northern California Coast road trip, Daniel and I drove from Bodega Bay to Mendocino for a total of 97 miles. After our experience the previous day, we had a better idea of what to expect and found the drive easier to manage. We started earlier and drove slower and paced ourselves along the way.

This time, we weren’t surprised when we had to pull over and let the transmission cool down.

Sonoma Coast State Park – Bodega Head

The rugged point at the end of Bodega Harbor, Bodega Head is a rocky promontory with stunning views of both the Pacific Ocean and Bodega Bay. About four miles long and one mile wide, this narrow strip of land shelters the harbor from strong ocean winds. Part of Sonoma Coast State Park, Bodega Head has several parking areas with vault toilets next to beaches and hiking trails.

If we had more time during our visit, I would have hiked the 1.7-mile Bodega Bay Trail which loops around the end of the peninsula. We contented ourselves with walking down some steps the beach, however, and marveling at the granite rock formations. As previously mentioned, it was *very* windy. I had to leave my hat in the car so it wouldn’t blow off my head.

A sandy beach at Bodega Head lined with jagged granite rocks, a great stop on a Northern California Coast Road Trip
View from one of the parking areas at Bodega Head towards the Pacific Ocean
Sandy beach lined with rugged granite rocks at Bodega Head
Rugged rocks line the beach along Bodega Head

Lunch at Fisherman’s Cove

Before leaving Bodega Bay, Daniel and I stopped at Fisherman’s Cove for some lunch. We had passed multiple seafood shacks the previous day on our drive along the coast and kept meaning to stop at one. Well, now was the time. We had worked up quite an appetite after exploring Bodega Head and were ready for some food.

Fisherman’s Cove is a seafood restaurant and bait shop on Bodega Bay specializing in local fresh oysters. Their indoor seating area was closed during our visit, but they have outdoor seating and were doing a brisk business at the walk-up window when we arrived. We each ordered an oyster po boy ate them in our RV away from the wind.

It was one of the best oyster po boys that I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating, hands down. Yum!

The outside of Fisherman's Cove Restaurant with a line of people at the walk-up window to order food
Fisherman’s Cove Restaurant on Bodega Bay
Oyster po boy sandwich with three large fried oysters, lettuce and tomato, on a plate with pickled carrots
One of the most delicious oyster po boy sandwiches that I have ever eaten

Sonoma Coast State Park – Carmet Beach

Daniel and I continued our exploration of Sonoma Coast State Park with a stop at Carmet Beach. This is just one of many great pullouts and coastal stops in the area that are all managed by Sonoma Coast State Park. Honestly, all of the pullouts looked pretty amazing and I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong no matter where you stop.

Carmet Beach features a steep set of stairs down a bluff to small sandy beach lined with rugged rocks. There were some particularly nice sea stacks in the beach which we enjoyed photographing.

The road sign for Carmet Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway on our Northern California Coast Road Trip
Welcome to Carmet Beach!
A sandy beach interspersed with rugged rocks and a sea stack poking out of the water
Sea stack at Carmet Beach

Sonoma Coast State Beach – Vista Trail

After driving into a particularly steep ravine and up the other side, we pulled over to let the car cool off at the Vista Trail parking area. Also, the name implied that a vista was involved so we were eager to check it out. While there were no views to speak of near the parking area, we did find some great views once we started walking.

Vista Trail is a one-mile wheelchair accessible loop to an observation point with views of the Pacific Ocean and Sonoma Coast. The trail was in good shape when we hiked it and should be accessible to most wheelchairs and strollers. There are also some wheelchair-accessible picnic tables near the vista point as well.

Wheelchair-accessible trail leading to an observation point on Vista Trail in Sonoma Coast State Park
Wheelchair-accessible path along Vista Trail

Point Arena Lighthouse

We ended the second day of our Northern California coast road trip with a visit to Point Arena Lighthouse. Standing alone at the end of rocky Point Arena, the lighthouse is only a 3-mile drive from Highway 1 and easily accessible by car. The lighthouse and grounds were completely closed off during our visit due to the pandemic so we parked outside the gates.

According to the Point Arena Lighthouse web site the station and museum are open again but the lighthouse tower is still closed to visitors. However, a virtual tour of the tower is now available.

Even from outside the gates, the views of the lighthouse are incredible. It’s a great place to explore and a fun way to end the second day of our road trip before arriving in Mendocino where we spent the night.

Point Arena Lighthouse stands on the end of a rocky bluff along the coast - a must-do for any Northern California Coast Road Trip
Point Arena Lighthouse

Northern California Coast Road Trip Day 3: Mendocino to Garberville

On the third day of our Northern California Coast road trip, Daniel and I drove from Mendocino to Garberville for a total of 76 miles. We expected it to be an easier drive than on previous days because only the first half is along the coast. After that, the road turns inland and rejoins Highway 101 at Leggett. That is the official ending point of the Pacific Coast Highway and the beginning of the Redwoods Highway.

Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. As it it turns out, the road crosses small mountain range as it heads inland towards Highway 101. This road is steep and curvy and we had a difficult time driving it in our RV. We had to pull over not once but twice and let the transmission cool down.

The road was much easier to drive once we made it to Highway 101 at Leggett. From there on out, it was smooth sailing as we drove through the rest of Northern California.

Our 21-foot RV, Appa, parked on the side of a curving road in the woods on Highway 1
Appa takes a break in the shade along Highway 1

Mendocino

I hadn’t known that to expect when we arrived in Mendocino, but it ended up being one of my favorite stops on our entire trip. Mendocino is a cute little seaside town located along Big River where it empties into Mendocino Bay. The town is famous for its wooden towers which are seemingly everywhere. Built in the late 1800, the towers were designed to supply Mendocino with water because the city has no central water supply (and some are still in use today!).

During our visit, we booked a room at the Hill House Inn. It’s an old-fashioned bed and breakfast type of a place and reasonably affordable. It was nice to stretch out and take a break from the RV for the night.

Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department building with a quaint red-and-white color scheme and an old-fashioned bell out front
Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department
A historic building along Mendocino's Main Street with a wooden water tower in the backgound
One of the shops along Main Street with a water tower in the background

Mendocino Headlands State Park

No visit to Mendocino is complete without exploring Mendocino Headlands State Park. In fact, the park is rather hard to miss. The city is located on a little peninsula and Mendocino Headlands State Park follows the entire coastline, surrounding the city on three sides. Several hiking trails ramble along the bluffs for those wanting a closer look at the rugged shoreline.

Since we were in a hurry, Daniel and I drove around the peninsula on Hesser Drive to access some of the further viewpoints. There are several small parking areas with access to bluffs along the Mendocino coastline.

View of the rugged coastline and crashing waves at Mendocino Headlands State Park
Watching the waves crash at Mendocino Headlands State Park
A vista point on an outcropping of rock at Mendocino Headlands State Park
A little promontory off the coast at Mendocino Headlands State Park

Welcome to the Redwoods

After leaving Mendocino, Highway 1 follows the coast for another 30 miles before heading east. Here the road crosses a small mountain range and enters Redwoods country. Leggett also marks the official end of the Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 1. From here, the road joins with Highway 101, which is also called Redwood Highway in this area.

While we had seen some Redwoods prior to this, it wasn’t until we reached Leggett that we really began seeing these magnificent trees everywhere. This is also where we encountered our first drive-thru tree (apparently there are more than one) and other tourist attractions. My favorite stop in this area is Legend of Big Foot, a kitschy shop filled with all kinds of random gifts and quirky things you don’t need (but are compelled to buy anyway).

We ended our Northern California coast road trip at Garberville, where we planned to start the next leg of our adventure… the Avenue of the Giants auto tour!

The Legend of BigFoot gift shop filled with knickknacks and kitcschy items and a great way to end a Northern California coast road trip
Welcome to Legend of BigFoot!
Large roadside map of the Avenue of Giants and Redwood Highway
Avenue of Giants Map

Planning a Northern California Coast Road Trip

There are lots of cute seaside towns along this 230-mile route with facilities for camping and eating as well as comfortable hotels. While you could just get in your car and wing it, here are a few tips to keep in mind if you’re more of a planny type (like me):

  • Advance reservations are recommended at campgrounds near San Francisco. The further we got away from the city, the easier it was to find accommodation. The same goes for the Redwoods.
  • While there are plenty of gas stations, they can sometimes be few and far between. Don’t let your gas gauge get too low and know how far the next station is.
  • Advance parking reservation (or shuttle reservation) is required for visiting Muir Woods National Monument. Try to visit on the weekday to avoid the crowds.
  • The road leading to Point Reyes Lighthouse is sometimes closed on the weekends to prevent overcrowding. Check online before visiting (and go on the weekday if possible).
  • Plan for extra driving time on this road trip. Highway 1’s famous twists and turns take longer to drive than you think.
  • This is not a great route for anyone prone to car sickness.
  • I wouldn’t recommend driving this road in a large RV or for an older vehicle that is prone to overheating. Our RV is only 21 feet long and it had a hard time making the drive (but then again it is rather gutless)
A cow with brown shaggy fur and big horns stands in a green pasture
We spotted this handsome fellow among a herd of Highland Cattle off the Pacific Coast Highway as it winds through farm country

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out some of my other posts about traveling in California!

Like this article? Pin it!

21 thoughts

  1. Your poor RV! I mean, I guess it worked out for the best as you had to make lots of extra stops to stop it from overheating…it looks like this coastal road trip has spectacular scenery whenever you stopped! I already wanted to visit the redwoods, but it looks like the entire coastline is stunning!

    p.s. I had to google oyster po boys as I’ve never had one. It sounds incredible!

    1. Oyster po boys are incredible! The first time I ate one was on New Orleans. I highly recommend if you get a chance someday 🙂

      1. I love kaki fry in Japan, it sounds similar to that, but in a sandwich. Om nom nom. I will totally try it if I can!

  2. The Northern Cali Coast is definitely on my bucket list! Thanks for sharing your awesome experiences! I’d actually never heard of the Avenue of Giants before!

    1. The Avenue of the Giants is incredible! I hope you get to see it someday. I’ll be doing a whole separate post about just that someday ☺️

  3. This is such a great road trip itinerary! I am actually planning on revisiting California this June for my birthday and I cannot wait to see some of these spots. I’ve been to the Redwoods and it’s such a cool area with the tall trees. I really hope to see Point Reyes National Seashore when I go back. 🙂

  4. I’d love to go on a road trip in California someday, so I loved your post! I’ve only ever been to southern California. It’s such a big state!

    1. It is such a big state isn’t it! I’ve explored all over the state but I still feel like I have only scratched the surface.

  5. Omg you are brave souls to take on the roads around Muir Woods in an RV! I’ve been up there twice in a compact car and even that was terrifying. Looks like a gorgeous trip though!

    1. Ha! We had no idea what we were in for or we may have reconsidered LOL! It all worked out ok though.

  6. Perfect timing for reading this post – we’re planning a northern California RV trip this summer and I was just looking for more info on the Mendocino area. Your pics are fantastic!

  7. Looks like such a lovely road trip. I get what you mean about having to strike stuff off your list due to driving fatigue. Roads trips are such fun, but can be tiring too! All in moderation. : )

I want to hear from you! Leave your comment below: