Are you up for a Northern California road trip? It might shock you to know how few California natives fully explore their home state. (Holding hand in air 🙋♀️) Then, one day, along came a pandemic.
And we hit the road.
This California native jumped at the chance to explore - finally. Growing up, traveling north through California was the way to get to Oregon. Between then and now, I made a few trips to Mendocino - and that’s about it.
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So late October 2020, I finally hit the road to drink up the beauty of Northern California. And there is so much of it (beauty and California itself - the state’s gargantuan.) So read on and then follow in my footsteps when you get the chance.
What you need to know about taking a Northern California road trip during the pandemic:
- You travel in your car with a pandemic pod mate
- You have touchless check-in at hotels/rental homes
- Rental homes and hotels have a 24 hour decontamination-cleaning period between guests
- Hotels have individual HVAC systems per room - you’re not sharing air with the neighbors
- Dining is outdoors. Period.
- This trip was a masked adventure - 99.9% of the people we encountered wore them.
While it’s a loss of potential connections and conversations with locals, you’re out, you’re safe, and it’s a road trip. Oh, and heads up for some great news - you’ll be out of cell phone service for much of this trip.
North on Hwy 101 From San Francisco
We started this journey from San Francisco and, once across the Golden Gate Bridge, it was an hour and 35 minutes to our first stop in Hopland.
It’s a straight shot north on Hwy 101, but you’ll find yourself wanting to zig and zag at almost every exit. When the cities drop away, it’s one quaint town after another wrapped up in beautiful fields, farms, and vineyards.
Vineyards?!? Yep, welcome to a not-so-secret, much less expensive, California wine region located northwest of the famous Napa and Sonoma. Definitely not as crowded and it produces all types of varieties, including world-class Pinots and Chardonnay.
The town of Hopland is filled with great restaurants and wine tasting rooms. The wines come from all around the area and, according to the Mendocino Winegrowers webpage, the Mendocino appellation is filled with many small, family-owned wineries.
The problem? There are so many wineries, the wine is so good, and you’re in a dang car. (tiny road trip drawback.) Plan around this by spending the night in the area - then relax and drink, er, taste wine. We did this on the return leg of the trip.
Stay tuned for those details below. ⬇️
Where to Eat
We stopped in Hopland for lunch and even though dining options were limited in the Pandemic Fall, we had choices! Hopland Tap was the winner, located right on Hwy 101, which turns into a 2-lane road a bit north of Santa Rosa.
Hopland Tap has a large side yard area for dining outdoors. Even in late October, the weather was sunny and warm (welcome to California.) If you’re in the mood for breakfast at lunch, hit the Bluebird Cafe right across the street.
Where I wanted to stop and eat and eat and eat...is The Golden Pig, but alas, pandemic hours made it unavailable. I have health issues with gluten, and their menu includes many gluten free items. This is a spot that came highly recommended, so I’ll be back!
Another sad-to-miss-mid-pandemic is the Stock Farm Restaurant and Inn. And this is where I’ll stay and dine on my next visit north. The sister property of Campovida, an organic vineyard, winery, and garden, Stock Farm includes a 7-room inn and restaurant, serving locally sourced ingredients.
I won't say “don’t stop and taste some wine” but there are incredible little shops on the main drag, too. It’s a quiet, relaxing break - which is mandatory on a Northern California road trip. Soak it up. Or stop long enough to do some hiking.
In the foothills east of Hopland, the University of California has a Research and Extension center that offers nature walks. While the center itself is closed to the public during the pandemic, there are self-guided hikes sponsored. Take a look at the info on the website before you go since you’ll need a reservation.
Book a Room, Stay Awhile
Staying in the area means either snagging one of the 7-rooms at the Stock Farm Inn, backtracking to Cloverdale, or venturing further north to Ukiah - less than 15 miles in both directions. Or - you can stay at a winery! We stayed in the 3bd/2ba guest house at the Jaxon Keys Winery, just 3 miles up Hwy 101. (Bonus: winery tasting room at the bottom of the driveway.)
Make "The Lost Coast" Part of Your California Coast Road Trip
The next destination is 2 hours and 33 minutes north and west from Hopland. We’re headed to Shelter Cove, a little village where the hiking is epic and the sand is black. The drive will lead you into and through beautiful, ancient Redwood forests.
After a long, twisty-turny drive, you’ll drop down onto the very edge of California’s coastline. It’s known as the Lost Coast because Hwy 1, which covers 660 miles of the coastline of California, cuts inland just above Fort Bragg. The geography is so rugged - the highway builders said NOPE.
You can fully explore the Lost Coast of California by hiking the Lost Coast Trail, stretching 25 miles along the coast. This wasn’t on our agenda but if it’s appealing to you, check out the information on the Bureau of Land Management site. (full transparency, they lost me when I read “Bear Spray required.”)
Our route took us off of Hwy 101 at Garberville. We exited onto Redwood Drive to Redway, and then a left onto Briceland Road to travel through the King Range and Redwoods. At Thorn Junction, the road changes names to Shelter Cove Road and takes you to the ocean and into town. (did I mention it’s steep, twisty, and turny?)
Gas up before the turn-off and if you need any other supplies, you’ll find them across the street. (cough cough)
While You’re There
We planned our trip to include a sampling of what Shelter Cove had to offer. If we go back for a longer stay, we’ll charter a boat for fishing, whale watching, and the glorious view from the ocean. This trip we explored:
- Cape Mendocino Lighthouse
- Black Sands Beach, starting at the trailhead on Beach Road
- Harbor seals, sea lions, and tide pools
On the northern California coast, sunshine is fickle. You can ask locals what time of year has the best weather and you’ll hear every possible answer. It's either going to be foggy, sunny, or rainy and possibly all three. We had a little sun, a lot of fog, and it was beautiful.
The village has a small airstrip, residential areas, and several non-descript hotels all built to capture the oceanfront views. But the effect of the sea air on buildings is rough.
Also accessible a short distance from Shelter Cove are several shorter hikes in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Anytime you can be among these giant trees - take advantage of it. If you can only fit in a short hike, try the Hidden Valley Interpretive Trail, a moderate 2-mile hike in the King Range National Conservation Area.
Where We Stayed
Our room on the top floor of the OceanFront Inn practically hung over the cliff at the oceans’ edge. It was a night filled with the sound of crashing waves and barking sea lions. Beautiful and restful. The pandemic left us with few options but this Inn was perfect.
Where to Eat
Restaurant choices were also difficult due to the pandemic. The OceanFront Inn's on-site restaurant was open when we planned the trip. By the time we arrived, the chef had fled home to Thailand to be with family sick with the virus. We made do with dinner on the deck at Mi Mochima, a Venezuelan restaurant. Lunch was also outside for pub food at Gyppo Ale Mill.
The Southern Loop
Heading South to Fort Bragg
Take a look at the map image. The roads look like blue-colored intestines because they’re winding roads. The routes to Hwy 101, from Shelter Cove, and then over to the coast again north of Fort Bragg, are more narrow and curvy. But the whole drive is so beautiful.
You’ll find yourself driving through a Giant Redwood cave with dappled sunlight (if you’re lucky to catch a sunny day as we did), or driving parallel to the Pacific Ocean. Don't be surprised by diversionary driving, as in - you’re gonna want to stop and divert from the course.
Go ahead - there are areas to access the beach, with parking, as you drive south to Fort Bragg. If you want to stop or even camp near the beach, check out this California State Park information.
Our stop in Fort Bragg was 3-hours long. We had time for lunch and a little exploring around town. Rather than disappointed at the shops and restaurants that were closed - we were surprised by the cool places we found open.
Where to Eat
Pandemic dining is about planning ahead and making reservations. We did not do that. So we found parking off of Main Street and explored our options.
What felt like the last choice turned out to be so yummy and perfect. Mayan Fusion Restaurant at 418 N. Main Street was serving outside in the back of the restaurant. The highlights on the menu are fresh seafood choices, tapas, and creative drinks (the blood orange, ginger, pomegranate sangria - mind blown.)
What we missed enjoying was the North Coast Brewing Co Taproom and Restaurant at 444 N. Main Street (on the corner of E. Pine). The taproom has a large tent and open area located right on the corner. So perfect for pandemic dining it was completely full with a waiting line. Next trip!
What To Do
Brace yourself - we shopped. Well in our defense, we love it, so there’s that. But with a little over an hour to kill after lunch, we set out to stroll the shops on East Laurel Street with little luck. Not much is open on a Sunday afternoon crossed with a pandemic.
But what was open was like falling into a rabbit hole. The Sherwood Company, 142 E. Laurel St., was filled with artist-ware, and unique crafts. You know, the kind of place where everything your eye hits is a potential keeper. Go, see, buy!
If you’re going to be in Fort Bragg long enough, here’s what we recommend (and will be doing on our next visit). Take the walking tour of Alleyway Art Project, a series of murals in Fort Bragg. Check out this webpage for a map and more background information on the artists.
The other two not-to-miss things in Fort Bragg are Glass Beach and the Skunk Train. Glass Beach, to the north end of Fort Bragg near MacKerricher State Park, is a treasure trove of sea glass. The source of the glass is not romantic: the beach is the site of an old trash dump. Get more info about visiting the beach and nearby hiking trails at this website.
And make time for a ride on the Skunk Train! It’s been around since 1885 and offers a perfect way to view the old-growth redwoods and all the nooks and crannies of the surrounding area. Get the information on the website here.
My plan for the return trip is to hop on the Skunk Train two-person railbike. It’s a two-hour excursion on an electric-powered rail bike and you can even bring your dog now! Pack a picnic for the stopover in Glen Bair Junction and come prepared for rain showers. Find all the details and information here.
California Coast Road Trip to Mendocino
We headed south on Hwy 1, hugging the very edge of the coast, for our 45 minute trip to Mendocino. On the drive, the redwoods are mixed with Eucalyptus groves and, most of the time, wispy coastal fog.
The town of Mendocino was not left unfazed by this pandemic and we found many stores and restaurants closed - some permanently. But there was live accordion music! ❤️ 🎶
We didn’t spend long in town but while we were there, we walked the streets for close-up views of the Victorian architecture and ocean views. The town is jam-full of bed and breakfasts, perfect for a romantic weekend. And hiking. Lots of breathtaking hiking trails and you can find info here.
Our final destination for the day, and the trip, was just 5.4 miles south of the town of Mendocino in Little River. The Heritage House Resort and Spa. Sadly, the spa and the restaurant on site were closed for the pandemic. However - it was the big bang ending to the trip.
Once upon a time, in 1978, a movie starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda was filmed at the Heritage House Resort. Universal Studios built a cottage, on the edge of the cliff the resort nestles on, to film “Same Time Next Year.”
If you’re old enough to have seen this movie - imagine arriving an hour after check-in only to learn your room is still not ready. But then they upgrade you to the “Same Time Next Year” cottage...Yup.
The cottage is now split into two rooms and we had the one closest to the cliff. From the Adirondack chairs on our deck, we watched whale spouts dotting the inlet just below our cliff. And the entire sunset. Perfect time, the perfect place for wine.
At the end of the day, we made our way inside, settled in comfy chairs, turned on the television over the fireplace, and found “Same Time Next Year” playing automatically. Perfect touch, Heritage House. We drank more wine, laughed, and cried and it was the perfect finale.
If you could take or leave the movie experience, you’ll still find the Heritage House a perfect spot. The trails wind around the edge of the bluff and you can’t find any place without a view.
Our dining options were limited but we planned ahead with the big, late lunch in Fort Bragg. We packed our own wine and tapas for a light view-infused dinner. When you visit post-pandemic, book a dinner reservation onsite. Otherwise, look here for other dining options.
Closing the Loop
We had a 3 hour and 20 min drive home to San Francisco, but this final leg of the trip took us down Hwy 128 before connecting to Hwy 101 in Cloverdale. The route passes through Boonville and miles of vineyards. If you do plan a trip focused on wine tasting - this is where you want to stay.
Right in the heart of Anderson Valley with all of its amazing world-class wines, sits the hamlet of Boonville. Well, who knows if anyone calls it a hamlet but me? It looks like I imagine a hamlet would look.
There are Pennyroyal Farms (think handcrafted goat and sheep cheese), winery tasting rooms, restaurants, and galleries. Since we were headed home, we just made a quick stop for lunch at the Boonville General Store and were pleasantly blown away by the food.
Ok, full transparency, we stopped to shop in the Farmhouse Mercantile. Stocked with a combination of artisan-made items both locally and around the world - we were hopelessly caught in its amazing net.
The Pick-Your-Story California Road Trip
Before you take this Northern California road trip, decide which aspect you are interested in - from hiking and wine tasting to romantic destinations. You can follow in our footsteps exactly and still have a different experience with a tweak of your timing, a little longer here, a little less there.
Most importantly, I hope you have the chance to take this trip post-pandemic. In some instances, where to eat and where to stay are left out due to all the changes occurring as a result of the pandemic.
But I promise you, while some places may disappear, other amazing replacements will come to life. So take this road trip - you know you want to.
If you're spending any time visiting San Francisco, check out these off-the-grid nighttime ideas.