Most visitors to California’s coastline head for the southern half of the state. Yet, if you set out for a northern California coast road trip, you’re met with rugged coastlines, historic lighthouses, and tasty food—as well as some stops that are a little more off the beaten path.
You could spend weeks exploring all the ins and outs of this pristine coastline, but 5 to 7 days in northern California is usually plenty for a first trip to the area.
This article takes a deep dive into everything you need to know about driving the northern California coast.
How Many Days in Northern California?
The sweet spot is 5 to 7 days in northern California. With this amount of time, you can cover a lot of ground without feeling rushed or switching accommodations every night.
With 5 days in northern California, you’ll have plenty of time to drive from the Bay Area to Redwoods National and State Parks. You could opt to turn around sooner and spend more time at each stop. You’ll have time to spend a day or so exploring the towns, overlooks, and beaches you visit without feeling terribly rushed.
Should you have 7 days in the northern part of California, you have two options for how to spend your trip. First, you can go beyond Redwoods National and State Parks to explore the coastline closest to the California-Oregon border.
Our itinerary below offers a few suggestions for places to stop for the extra two nights. Your second option is to simply spend more time at each stop between SF and the Redwoods.
No matter how much time you spend in northern California, set aside time to check out the highlights as well as wander off the beaten path. Here is where you’ll find the hidden gems!
Getting To & Around Northern California
You’ll want a car for a northern California road trip—there’s really no way to make the trip without your own vehicle.
If you’re flying in from out of state, you can rent a car from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and return it to the same place when your trip concludes.
There are no places to rent cars along the drive outside of SF, nor are there any options for guided tours to get you between cities. Renting a car or having your own is absolutely needed. You can browse Rentalcars.com to compare prices or alternatively have a look at Outdoorsy if you prefer to rent an RV or campervan.
For most of the drive, you’re heading along Highway 101 or Highway 1 – also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or the PCH. This highway is well-known for its stunning views and curvy roads though it most popular when driving between LA and San Francisco. It’s important that you drive slowly.
If you’re easily carsick, have some remedies on hand to help ease it. While the road is curvy and narrow in places, you get incredible views of the coastline as you drive, so you’ll want to take your time. Stop anywhere there’s a safe pullout or parking lot to pause and admire the view.
5 to 7 Day Northern California Coast Itinerary
Our itinerary starts in San Francisco. If you’re flying into the state, you’ll most likely begin here. However, if you’re driving in, feel free to mix and match the itinerary stops in the way that makes the most sense for you. Plan for one long travel day at the end to return to San Francisco.
Day 1 – San Francisco
Plan to spend a day exploring San Francisco upon arrival. If you’ve flown in from a different time zone, spend some time readjusting to Pacific time and resting before kicking off your northern California coastal road trip.
If you’ve never visited the Bay Area before, now is a great time to check out the city. Walk along the Golden Gate Bridge, stroll through Golden Gate Park, visit Chinatown, or ride the famous cable cars. With enough time, you can even visit Alcatraz Island and wander Pier 39.
You could easily spend several days getting to know San Francisco, but for this itinerary, budget one or two days, depending on how much total time you have. Tonight, you can either spend another night in the city or head out to the coast in the evening. The drive from SF to Point Reyes Station is just shy of two hours.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Orchard Hotel – Located in downtown San Francisco, this cute boutique hotel is a great base in the city. They have a great location within walking distance of all of San Francisco’s top attractions and there is also breakfast available in the mornings. Click here to check availability
Axiom Hotel – Those after a luxury option to kick start their Northern California road trip will love this hip hotel right off Union Square. They have an array of lovely rooms to choose from and plenty of amenities available to guests. Click here to check availability
Green Tortoise Hostel – Budget and solo travellers looking to save a bit of cash or meet some other people will love this centrally located hostel. They have a number of dorms and privates along with good common areas and free breakfast. Click here to check availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Francisco!
Day 2 – Point Reyes Station
Point Reyes is the jump-off point to visit Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay State Park.
This charming small town is home to some lovely boutique hotels and rentals where you can decompress after enjoying a day on the coastline. Oysters are a must-try here, and there are several places where you can taste local seafood.
In terms of how you spend your time in Point Reyes, the short answer is to head out to the seashore! Visit Point Reyes Lighthouse, hike to Chimney Rock, and relax on Drakes Beach. One of the most picturesque spots is the Cypress Tree Tunnel. You can also seek out the elephant seals, visit local creameries, rent kayaks if the weather is on your side, and shop at local stores in town.
Tonight you can stay again in Point Reyes or head to Timber Cove in the evening. The drive is about an hour and a half.
Where to Stay Near Timber Cove
Jenner Inn – This quaint inn in the town of Jenner makes for an excellent base for this part of your Northern California road trip itinerary. They have a number of lovely rooms to choose from and plenty of good amenities for guests to enjoy. Click here to check availability
Timber Cove Resort – Located in a dramatic cliffside setting, this is a great choice for those after a luxury option while visiting Northern California. They have a range of gorgeous rooms on offer along with countless plush amenities on offer to guests. Click here to check availability
Private Rental – A private vacation rental is another great option on your road trip. There are countless properties – like this dramatic oceanfront house – available to choose from across a variety of booking platforms. Click here to browse more Timber Cove private rentals!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Timber Cove hotels!
Day 3 – Salt Point State Park & Timber Cove
Day three brings you to Timber Cove and Salt Point State Park. Located in Sonoma County (the wine regions of Napa and Sonoma are located just inland!), the state park covers over six miles of rugged coastline.
There are over 20 miles of hiking trails, but the area is well known for its diving. However, if you’d rather stick to dry land, Salt Point Trail, North Trail Loop, and Pygmy Forest Trail are all great options for easy-to-moderate hikes.
Tonight, head into Timber Cove. This quaint and secluded town is perfect for a quiet evening. There are several accommodations—all with incredible views of the rocky coastline. This area is known for its craggy sharp cliffs that drop down into pockets of sandy beaches.
Pay a visit to Goat Rock Beach, Fort Ross, and Gualala’s Sand Dunes. If you’re a wine lover, there are five coastal AVAs here for you to explore. Spend tonight in Timber Cover before heading to Mendocino early in the morning.
Day 4 – Mendocino
The drive from Timber Cove to Mendocino is just under two hours. It’s one of the longer stretches of coastline you’ll drive on this northern California road trip.
The town of Mendocino is charming, so set aside some time to walk around. There are plenty of delicious seafood restaurants and local bakeries to explore.
Mendocino is unique in that you have access to coastal landscapes and lush forested state parks. Russian Gulch State Park features the historic Russian Gulch Bridge and moderately difficult trails like the Falls Loop Trail that takes you to a 36-foot waterfall.
Along the coast, Big River Beach, Mendocino Bay, and Jug Handle State Natural Reserve are all worth a visit. At Jug Handle, hike the Ecological Staircase Trail takes you along the cliff, through a redwood forest, and to the pygmy forest filled with stunted and ancient trees.
Where to Stay in Mendocino
Headlands Inn Bed and Breakfast – This cosy bed and breakfast is a great, mid-range option in Mendocino. They have a number of cute and quaint rooms to choose from and makes for an excellent base for this part your your road trip in Northern California. Click here to check availability
Agate Cove Inn – Boasting incredible coastal views of the Pacific Ocean, this inn is a great base in Mendocino for those looking for a bit of an upscale stay. They have a number of bright and comfortable rooms to choose from, free parking and an excellent breakfast. Click here to check availability
Private Rental – There are also plenty of private vacation rentals – like this cute cottage in Mendocino village – to choose from in this area along the Pacific coast if that suits your travel style more. Click here to browse Mendocino private rentals!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Mendocino hotels!
Day 5 – Humboldt Redwoods State Park
No visit to northern California is complete without hiking amongst the impressive redwoods. There are pockets of protected national and state redwood parks throughout northern California.
If you only have a 5-day itinerary, make a stop at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Here, you can drive the Avenue of the Giants.
The 31-mile route should be at the top of your to-do list if your time in the park is limited. Founders Grove, Rockefeller Forest, and the Lost Coast Drive are all great ways to spend your time.
Now, if day five is the last day of your trip, here is where you’ll turn around and head back down to San Francisco. In total, the drive back to the city is 5 to 6 hours.
Day 6 – Trinidad
If you have 7 days to devote to exploring northern California’s coast, continue driving until you reach Trinidad.
This tiny coastal town features some of the best beaches along the route and several that are reminiscent of the Oregon coast.
Trinidad State Beach and College Cover are two iconic stops. Sue-Meg State Park with its rim trail and Wedding Rock climbs are well worth the visit.
For your overnight accommodation, there are several cabins or vacation rental homes that provide a comfortable stay.
Where to Stay in Trinidad
View Crest Lodge – This lodge located close to Agate Beach is an excellent place to stay in Trinidad. They have a number of rustic rooms and cottages to choose from along with free parking and a good breakfast available each morning. Click here to check availability
Trinidad Bay Bed and Breakfast Hotel – This is another great option right on the coast in Trinidad. They have a number of quint rooms on offer to guests, an excellent breakfast and a perfect location directly on the beautiful beach. Click here to check availability
Private Rental – If you’re looking for your own space in the Trinidad area, there are plenty of properties to choose from – like this romantic cottage near the beach. There is something to suit everyone across a range of platforms. Click here to browse Trinidad private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Trinidad hotels!
Day 7 – Redwoods National & State Parks
First thing first—there are actually four redwood parks throughout the state of California. They include Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.
All the parks are clustered in northern California, so you can visit all four parks if time allows. Within the parks, you’ll find some of the world’s most pristine old-growth redwood forests.
During your visit to Redwood National Park, make a stop at the Kuchel Visitor Center to learn about the park and get the latest updates about its trails.
Ladybird Johnson Trail, Redwood Creek Overlook, and Tall Trees Grove Trail are the three most popular routes. Within the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, head over to the wildly famous fern canyon for a truly unique hike.
Each park has its own unique trails, scenery, and hikes. If you’re pressed for time, pick just a couple to visit. The national park tends to see bigger crowds, so if you want to get away from other visitors, head for one of the lesser-trafficked state parks.
Have More Time?
If you have a little more time on your California north coast road trip, stop at Anderson Valley. It sits between Highway 101 and the coast. It’s a beautiful stretch of land filled with giant oak trees and sprawling vineyards.
There are two towns: Philo and Boonville. Anderson Valley is a wine lovers’ paradise. It’s one of the lesser-known wine regions in California, which makes it great if you want to enjoy the state’s iconic wine without fighting the crowds you’ll find in Napa or Sonoma. Hendy Woods State Park is full of great hiking trails. You could easily spend a day or two exploring this area.
It’s also worth your time to linger in San Francisco at the start or end of your trip. There is so much to do in this city that you could spend an entire week here and never run out of ways to fill your time. Relax in Dolores Park, visit the Painted Ladies, take iconic photos at Lombard Street, or visit any of the city’s amazing art museums.
Should you have more than two weeks in your itinerary, head inland to visit places like Lassen National Park, Yosemite National Lake, and Lake Tahoe. The area around Mount Shasta is also amazing for camping, hiking, and overlooks.
Finally, if you have more than 7 days to dedicate to the northern California coast, we recommend spending even more time in each destination. Ideally, a minimum of two days allows ample time to admire the location and relax. The redwood forests in particular warrant an entire trip on their own. You’ll be able to catch the highlights on this road trip.
Of course, you could continue north from your final destination in California and venture along the Oregon Coast and terminate in lively and eccentric Portland. Otherwise, you could even go for an entire San Francisco to Seattle road trip and see a good part of the coastal Pacific Northwest!
The northern California coastline is full of stunning landscapes and hidden gems. There’s so much to do and see that the trick is narrowing down exactly how to spend your time. No matter how long you visit or where you stop, your itinerary will be jam-packed with unforgettable sights.
Are you visiting northern California? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!