Chuck PlaceWaves splash against the rocky headlands of Gerstle Cove at Salt Point State Park.
Length: About 220 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round, but best in winter, spring, and fall.
Nearby attractions: Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz Island, San Francisco.
Further information: Sonoma County Tourism Program, 520 Mendocinio Ave, Ste. 210, Santa Rosa, CA 95401; tel. 800- 576-6662, www.sonomacounty.com
Majestic cliffs rising over an endless, churning sea; workaday fishing towns set in tidy coves; ancient forests nourished by moist ocean air; and ridged hills that parade toward the shimmering blue waters of the Pacific — these are but a few of the sights to be savored along California’s North Coast. No wonder residents, who are never far from nature’s bounties, consider this coastal strip one of the state’s most prized possessions and regard its main thoroughfare — Rte. 1, known simply as the One — as a highway to heaven.
1. Marin Headlands It would be hard to imagine San Francisco Bay without this heroic, ruddy marvel. North across the bridge, the Marin Headlands — part of the vast Golden Gate National Recreation Area — offer exhilarating city and ocean views. From here, north of the Golden Gate, the city is framed by the bridge’s twin towers. Beyond, urban bustle gives way to natural splendor: the rounded hills, gray-sand beaches, and soaring seaside cliffs that characterize the North Coast. (Traffic lights will be few and far between for the next 150 miles, but the road’s many curves do a splendid job of governing the traffic flow.) A few miles north of San Francisco, take the Panoramic Highway west toward Muir Woods National Monument.
2. Muir Woods National Monument They are nature’s tallest trees, a living link to the age of dinosaurs. They are the redwoods of coastal California, and while specimens here are dwarfed by their siblings to the north, the redwoods of Muir’s Cathedral Grove — the last such remaining stand in the Bay Area — are awesome by any measure, soaring 250 feet above the ferny forest floor. The oldest among them, at 1,000 years, was a mere sapling when Vikings first set foot in the New World. Six miles of trails guide visitors along the banks of Redwood Creek and into the heart of the grove, which the naturalist John Muir, exaggerating only slightly, called “the best tree-lover’s monument in all the forests of the world.”