California’s Pacific Coast Highway: Hills and Dazzling Seascapes

Route Details Trip Tips Length: About 220 miles. When to go: Popular year-round, but best in winter, spring, and fall.

Gerstle Cove at Salt Point State Park
Waves splash against the rocky headlands of Gerstle Cove at Salt Point State Park.

Route Details

Trip Tips

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-

Print a map of this route.

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.”

3. Point Reyes National Seashore
Back on the Panoramic Highway,
follow the steep, tortuous road
through Mt. Tamalpais State Park.
At Stinson Beach the road regains
the shoreline and there parallels
the notorious San Andreas Fault,
following it north up Olema Valley
and Tomales Bay. Extending some
650 miles from the Mexican border
to Cape Mendocino, the fault
marks the junction of the Pacific
and North American crustal plates.
As these huge landmasses grind
past each other at a speed of two
inches per year, pressure builds up
and is then suddenly released when
the plates jump. A well-marked
trail offers a first-hand glimpse of
some of the damage caused by one
such memorable jolt, the great San
Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Just north of Olema, a turnoff
leads to 70,000-acre Point Reyes
National Seashore. Eons
ago, this orphaned hunk of southern
California granite was dragged
about 350 miles northward by
the San Andreas Fault. Wildlife far outnumbers
people here. Bobcats,
elk, mountain lions, and several
exotic, introduced
species of deer roam freely within
the park’s borders, while offshore
a lucky visitor may spot a gray whale, an
orca, or the fin of a
great white shark.

4. Tomales Bay State Park
Tomales Bay, a 13-mile-long
inlet that separates Point Reyes
from the mainland, is tranquil,
protected, and uneventful —
everything the Pacific is not.
Along these restful shores, the
ocean’s rages are quickly forgotten
and every sense is tickled by
a different delight: the
scent of pine, the whir
of waterfowl, the succulence
of a fresh oyster,
the warmth of the
waters along Hearts Desire
Beach, and the beauty
of the bay itself, backed by the
hills of the Bolinas Ridge.

5. Bodega Bay
Movie buffs may be struck by a
sense of déjàvu when they enter
the village of Bodega Bay, for it
was here that Alfred Hitchcock
filmed The Birds. Today the
town is more notable for its splendid
seafood and harborside views.
Spend an afternoon strolling along
its anchorage or hiking the trail
from Spuds Point Marina around
Bodega Head, a rocky promontory
that protects the tranquil waters
of the bay.

Bodega Head
also marks the beginning
of Sonoma
Coast State Beach, a
chain of parks that
parallels the drive for
the next 14 miles. No
seaside pleasure is absent
here. Climb the dunes or
look for underwater treasures
in the tidepools of
Salmon Creek. Picnic beneath
the cliffs of Schoolhouse
Beach. Marvel at the
pounding force of the Pacific
along the rocks of Duncans
Landing. Or stand at Goat
Rock, near the point where the
wide Russian River empties into
the sea.

6. Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve
In tribute to the very trees he
harvested, timber tycoon James
Armstrong set aside this 750-acre
redwood forest in the 1870s, making
it one of the first virgin redwood
preserves. Today the forest is accessible
to all; there’s even a trail for
visually impaired hikers.

7. Fort Ross State Historic Park
Visitors to this windswept coastal
terrace invariably wonder what an
Imperial Russian outpost is doing
here. The explanation dates back
to 1742, when Russian fur-trappers
first crossed the Bering Strait, the
body of water separating Siberia
from Alaska. The trade in sea-otter
pelts drew them deep into California, and by 1812, representatives
of the Russian-American Fur
Company waded ashore to establish
a fortified supply depot.

By 1820 hunting had decimated
the sea-otter population, and the
foggy coastal climate made farming
maddeningly difficult. In
1841 the Russians sold the whole
kit and kaboodle to John Sutter,
who stripped it bare and hauled
its livestock and arsenal to the
Sacramento Valley.

Today’s Fort Ross is largely a
reconstruction — though faithful
to the original. Carefully recreated
are the weathered redwood stockade,
the comparatively lavish
commander’s headquarters, and a
Russian Orthodox chapel crowned
by two towers.

8. Salt Point State Park
Giant toadstools, abstract sculptures,
delicate honeycombs —
sandstone formations like these,
nestled among the headlands of
Salt Point State Park, took some
50 million years to create. The park also
contains one of California’s first
underwater preserves, a natural
metropolis of anemones, nudibranchs,
sea stars, chitons, abalone,
and other marine life.

9. Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve
A short hop inland from the stony
wonders of Salt Point, this 317-acre forest preserve offers a more
delicate — and seasonal — variety
of beauty. Reclaiming a hillside
once devastated by fire, 20-foot-high
banks of rhododendrons
burst with pink blossoms every
spring. Bit by bit, the flowers are
yielding to the encroaching
woods — part of natural patterns
of plant succession — but in the
meantime they continue to paint
a lovely scene.

10. Point Arena
Hugging the coast, the drive takes
in some of northern California’s
most cherished countryside —
verdant pastures, dreamy ocean
vistas, and hills of tall grasses.
One of the region’s few towns is
Point Arena. Once a busy logging
port, the village was nearly obliterated
by the 1906 earthquake.
The Point Arena Light Station
fared no better, but it was subsequently
rebuilt and today is open
to the public. Climb its 147 steps
to arresting views of sea and coastline,
which is so treacherous that
10 ships foundered on these rocks
in a single night in 1865.

11. Van Damme State Park
Proving that trees don’t necessarily
have to be tall to have presence,
this park’s pygmy forest — mature
pines and cypresses stunted by
the combined effects of highly
acidic soil, poor drainage, and
wicked, salt-laden winds — barely
reach the knee in some locations. Still, not
everything here is pint-size. A
network of trails and old logging
roads along the Little River leads
into the heart of a mature, second-growth
forest, featuring Douglas
firs, Pacific hemlocks, and redwoods.
Fern Canyon is especially lush, upholstered
with a generous growth of
ferns, assorted
wildflowers, and a waterfall.

12. Mendocino
Gracious, picturesque, and charming
in every way, this hamlet of
1,100 residents seems to have been
imported from the coast of Maine.
Saltbox houses, Victorian gingerbread
mansions, and weathered
picket fences grace its tidy streets.

The East Coast ambience is no
accident: the town’s settlers, lured
west by the logging boom, were
homesick New Englanders. Hollywood
has used this Cape Cod look-alike
as a stand-in for numerous
movie and television locales. Fans
of the television show Murder She
, set in fictional Cabot Cove,
Maine, are sure to recognize Jessica
Fletcher’s cottage when they pass
by the Elisha Blair House, built
in 1888.

13. Russian Gulch State Park

The next headland to the north
marks the starting point for this
small but diverse natural reserve,
among the coast’s most picturesque
and remarkable. The park’s main
attraction is Devil’s Punch Bowl,
a 200-foot-long sea-cut tunnel
that has collapsed at its inland
end, forming a blowhole that becomes
active during winter storms.
The route crosses an arched bridge
over Russian Gulch.

14. Jug Handle State Reserve
At this unusual oceanside park, it
is possible to climb the stairs of
history, one eon at a time. Thanks
to coastal erosion and shifting
landmasses, five discrete terraces
stairstep from the sea, each about
100 feet higher and 100,000 years
older than the one below it. With
each step the ecology matures,
ascending from tidal pools at the
first level to pygmy forest at the
top. A well-marked tour explains
the flora and fauna at each level,
as well as the mighty forces that
built this living time machine.

15. Fort Bragg
Flower fans will rejoice at the
dazzling displays at the Mendocino
Coast Botanical Gardens, two
miles south of Fort Bragg. Not a
single square inch of this 47-acre
preserve is wasted, and each season
brings a new riot of color, from
blooming dahlias, foxgloves, and
roses to blazing Japanese maples.
There’s nothing flashy about
Fort Bragg (even the town’s best
eatery is named, simply, The Restaurant).
But the village is not without its attractions, including
a trip through the region’s history
at the Guest House Museum and
a ride on the Skunk Train, an old-time
logging railway that chugs
through redwood forest to the
town of Willits, 40 miles inland.

16. MacKerricher State Park

After hours of driving ever so
slowly on this long, serpentine
road, what could be more thrilling
than to gallop freely along a
wide crescent of sandy beach?
For equestrians MacKerricher
State Park is a rider’s paradise,
but you need not be on horseback
to enjoy the beauty of this
2,200-acre preserve, the largest
of Mendocino County’s coastal
parks and home to more than 90
species of birds. Along 10 miles
of ocean frontage, cliffs, beach,
and headland vie for control of
the shore but never hold it for
long. From the playful seals that
bask on the rocks below Laguna
Point to upland fields of tall grass,
poppy, and huckleberry, all the
gifts of the Pacific Coast are gathered here in one splendid package. Make the most of your visit: pack a picnic basket and spread a cloth on the grass overlooking the coves and bridges.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest