I’ve always wanted to take driving tours away from the Bay Area to see more of California, especially along the coastal roads. This June, I did long tours of both Northern and Southern California, and had a great time in each location. In this post I’ll give maps, a few details on things to do, and cover budget for the Northern trip.
Northern CA: Bay Area to Mount Shasta, west to the coast, Avenue of the Giants, Ft. Bragg/Mendocino
I found the northern portion of California beautiful. Once clear of the city and the weekend Napa/Sonoma traffic, Route 5 clears right out and it’s smooth sailing. Along the way, I stopped at Lake Shasta Caverns, which is well worth doing. You take a quick boat ride across the lake, then a bus takes you up the mountain to the cave entrance, where the lake view from the top is beautiful. Once inside it’s a cool ~60 degrees (feels like 70) and you have a guided walk through some very interesting caves, the largest of which is over 100 feet high. ($32 entrance fee.)
From here it’s an easy 1 hour drive to the town of Mount Shasta. I stayed at the Inn at Mount Shasta using Chase Ultimate Rewards Points – 16,700 for two nights, the cash price was just $114/night plus tax. This was a good bargain and the restaurants/coffee shops were all walkable from there. I enjoyed Seven Suns for morning coffee and snacks (try the cookies!).
Around town, there’s plenty to do. We hiked McCloud Falls the next day, which are beautiful and free to enter/park, as well as walking the mostly shaded trail around Lake Siskiyou.
Leaving Mount Shasta, I wanted to cut across to Route 3 to take a different route into Weaverville. Unfortunately, the forest service road across is 22 miles of unguarded drop-offs, rock slides, fallen logs and snow. Even with 95 degree temperatures, I hit a two-foot snow drift 5 miles in and decided to turn back. If you really want to take this route, you’ll have to go farther north to come across (south of Yreka). In my case, I backtracked along Route 5 then went west along Route 299.
I’d heard that Weaverville had some interesting history, which is true – it’s a historic Gold Rush town, many Chinese miners made their home here and there are some interesting original buildings. Unfortunately, the town is quite poor, with a large percentage below the poverty line. The downtown was deserted midday, with many stores out of business and very little to do.
Continuing onward, I was also excited to see Eureka, which is a state historical landmark city right on the coast with hundreds of original Victorian homes. This city was also a miss for me. Like Weaverville, almost a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. Unlike Weaverville, which is simply run-down, Eureka is downright seedy. Starbucks was surrounded by pawn shops, bail bond agents, and a lot of signs prohibiting trespassing/vagrancy. Looking at several different sources afterwards (Neighborhood Scout, Area Vibes), the downtown area scores an “F” for both property and violent crime. The most famous Victorian in town, the Carson Mansion, is a private club that is not in any way accessible to the public, a fact left out of the tourism brochures.
Avenue of the Giants
This drive through the redwoods is pretty, peaceful, and actually sprinkled with a few trails and small towns. Leave time to pull over and go on short hikes when you find trailheads, and be sure to pick up a map when you hit the North Entrance for your self-guided tour – I zoomed right by this before I realized they were there.
Leaving the Avenue of the Giants south, getting over to the coast is a challenge. Leave at least two daylight hours to do this, it looks short on the map but the road is very twisty and you’ll be doing 5-10 mph on large portions of it. Once you’re at the coast, things straighten out and the views are breathtaking, with very little traffic – I saw only a few cars in 50 miles of driving.
Fort Bragg and Mendocino
Fort Bragg has the famous sea glass beach, which does still have plenty of sea glass, despite other naysayers online. I didn’t explore much here, but the Noyo Headlands to the south are supposedly quite a bit larger than the main beach, which is fairly small and can get crowded. The beach was worth a visit, the town didn’t have a lot to do.
Mendocino, on the other hand, I absolutely loved. It’s what I was hoping Eureka would be: a quaint coastal town, very safe, super walkable, with blocks and blocks of independent shops, cafes and bookstores. Budget a few hours, there’s plenty to see and do! On top of eating here and going through the shops, we also spent an hour and a half walking through the Botanical Gardens ($15 entrance fee).
Just south of Mendocino’s Main Street, pop into Big River Estuary – there’s plenty of parking and you can take a long walk along the beach, great for kids and dogs.
The overnight stay was at Heritage Hotel and Spa, the grounds are absolutely beautiful. Spend some time outside here, they have games as well as chimeneas with kindling, wood, and chairs to watch the coast privately next to a cozy fire. The restaurant had quite a good menu and was open late until 10 pm. It’s fairly pricy at over $200/night, but this gets you a semi-private cabin with fireplace overlooking the ocean view.
South on Highway 1
The drive from Mendocino south along the coast is breathtaking. Expect to take your time, there’s always construction for one, and you’ll want to pull over occasionally to enjoy the views.
All of the towns are quite small, we stopped to eat in Bodega Bay after 7 pm, and many restaurants were closed. We ate at The Tides Wharf and I had what was perhaps the worst fish I’ve ever had in my entire life. It was rubbery, I could barely get through it with a fork, and from the coating and consistency had clearly been pre-fried, then frozen and just heated up. Seriously disgusting, and I was starving. The fries were ok, but for $21.95 – and that’s bar pricing, the restaurant is more – it’s a total insult. Go somewhere else, just get there earlier so you have more choice.
I gave some pricing above, and as you can see, these are not expensive areas to travel in. Mount Shasta is very reasonably priced, there were several comfortable hotels available for around $80/night. Mendocino is prettier to stay in than Fort Bragg, with many more B&B type accommodations, though more expensive. Fort Bragg has $50-60/night options at places like Motel 6, while Mendocino will be double that at private hotels. Basically, you can think of Fort Bragg as having all the budget chains, and Mendocino as having all the boutiques – make your choice accordingly.
All told, including gas, food, events, and accommodations (again, used points there), I spent $382 out of pocket.
Conclusion: Wonderful drive, beautiful coastline
I hope this trip log has given you some ideas of what you might like to do (and not do) on a northern California trip. Thanks for reading and feel free to send me questions or comment below!