Pacific Coast 3-Day Roadtrip Itinerary
Embark on an iconic California road trip along the famous Highway 1. Exploring the more than 50 miles of dramatic Pacific coastline that forms Sonoma County's western border will take your breath away.
Sandy beaches beckon to be strolled upon; craggy cliffs beg to be photographed; hidden-treasure cafés entice by using local ingredients. Slow down and take a few days to discover nature, enjoy outdoor activities and just breathe in the fresh salty air.
Begin your excursion slightly inland along Sonoma County’s southern border, in Valley Ford. Starting in the 1870s, Valley Ford was a stop on the North Pacific Coast Railroad connecting Cazadero to the Sausalito ferry. A must-stop is the historic Valley Ford Hotel, built in 1864. Located in the rolling hills of western Sonoma County, the inn has six charming guest rooms, each with a queen bed and private bath.
While exploring the inn, check out the Southern-inspired menu in the hotel’s restaurant, Rocker Oysterfeller’s. It’s worth coming back another time for dinner.
Continue north on Highway 1 to Bodega and/or Bodega Bay. Detour off Highway 1 to visit the burg of Bodega. Yes, there are two “Bodegas.” Bodega Bay and Bodega were film locations for Alfred Hitchcock's movie “The Birds.” There are several locations you can drive by (listed inland starting in Bodega, moving to Bodega Bay and then north):
Bay Hill Road, the backdrop for Tippi Hedren driving into town, at the north end of Bodega;
Potter School House in Bodega behind St. Teresa’s Church (see photo of church);
Taylor Street, from School House in Bodega Bay opposite Diekmann’s Store;
Tides Wharf in Bodega Bay on Highway 1, for the restaurant, gas station fire, and boat dock scenes;
and Brenner House on the west shore of Bodega Bay harbor.
For a little more action, ride along the waves on horseback. A working western horse ranch, Chanslor Stables offers guided horseback trail rides on miles of trails to lofty mountaintops, grassy meadows, coastal dunes, or along the beach. Horse N Around Trail Rides offers horseback rides through the sand dunes, along a long beach, and on inland trails.
If the ocean is still calling your name, catch a wave. Surf’s up in Bodega Bay, which boasts powerful waves perfect for surfing enthusiasts, as well as some of the best beginner waves. Bodega Bay Surf Shack rents out a variety of styles of surfboards. They offer private lessons for beginners, and also rent wetsuits, skim boards, body boards, and booties.
And for those who want to paddle, Bodega Bay Kayak rents kayaks or stand-up paddleboards, as well as offering lessons and tours on the ocean, bay, river or estuaries.
Stop by the Tides Wharf — yes, “The Birds” location. If you’re in need of a snack you will find several options here. In addition to a great restaurant and bar, you will find a snack bar and a gourmet market where you can purchase picnic items to enjoy on one of the picnic tables out back, or on a local beach. There is also a great gift shop and every seat in the building has a view of the bay.
Get an up-close look at marine life by taking a tour of the Bodega Marine Laboratory, part of the University of California's Natural Reserve System. This 362-acre research and teaching reserve includes a rich mix of coastal habitats protected for long-term studies. Public docent-led tours are available 2-4 p.m. on most Fridays for individuals and groups of less than 10 people. (Closed the Friday after Thanksgiving.)
More than 20,000 gray whales migrate past the Sonoma Coast each year. The whales are en route from the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea to the Gulf of Cortez in Mexico, where they will calf in winter. From January through May, the mothers and their newborns hug the shore as they head north to feed offshore of Alaska. They can be easily viewed from the ocean overlook on Bodega Head.
Go wine surfing at Gourmet Au Bay. This type of surfing doesn't require any more coordination than putting a wine glass to your lips: A flight of three wines is served on a small wooden surf board. Indoor and outdoor seating available, all with waterfront views.
After working up an appetite, enjoy dinner at the coast's nationally acclaimed Terrapin Creek Cafe. This is a casual neighborhood spot where friends and neighbors can gather to enjoy great local and international cuisine.
Stay at Bodega Bay Lodge. Located just one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lodge overlooks the Pacific Ocean, Doran Regional Park, and the spectacular green bluffs of Bodega Head. Here, all 84 guestrooms have ocean views, sweeping vistas, and sea breezes — all of which are enhanced by bird calls and the calming sounds of the distant fog horns.
On the second day, continue north on Highway 1, taking in the breathtaking coastal scenery. Be warned: The 10-mile stretch between Bodega Bay and Jenner could end up taking you a few hours as you stop to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Plan on taking some time to get to know the area by getting out of the car at one of the many beaches that make up the 17-mile-long Sonoma Coast State Park.
Miles of trails, some wide sandy beaches, and scenic overlooks beckon travelers to get out and explore. Take a hike along the Kortum Trail. This easy, bluff-top trail ties Wright's Beach and Blind Beach together. The trailhead is near the middle of the two, at Shell Beach.
Goat Rock is quite a spectacular rock. You can't climb it, but just looking at it is gorgeous. Hang gliders fly frequently in the area, and migrating whales are often sighted from Goat Rock Beach.
By the time you reach Jenner, you’ll want a break. Plan on lunch at River's End Restaurant & Inn. Many guests come for breathtaking views and romantic dining. Guests are amazed at the superb yet unpretentious service and wonderful flavors of the food. The dining room is small and intimate, making the view of Goat Rock and the Russian River entering the Pacific Ocean captivating from every table.
Continue north and discover a glimpse into Sonoma County’s history: Fort Ross State Historic Park, which celebrated the bicentennial of the fort’s founding in 2012. The park is open on weekends.
The settlement of Fort Ross — the name is derived from the word for Russia (Rossiia) — was established by the Russian-American Company, a commercial hunting and trading company chartered by the tsarist government. It was the southernmost Russian outpost in North America.
Trade was vital to Russian outposts in Alaska, where long winters exhausted supplies and the settlements could not grow enough food to support themselves. Company officials sought to establish a colony in California as a food source for Alaska and to hunt profitable sea otters.
A fantastic day traveling along the coast deserves an equally amazing room at the end of the journey. Named one of Sunset Magazine’s “10 Hideaways by the Sea,” the Timber Cove Resort offers guests a rejuvenating Sonoma hotel experience. The spacious rooms provide views of the dramatic coastline, hot tubs, and fireplaces. The property is surrounded by hiking trails, and after hiking guests can warm up by the cozy fire pit as they compare their experiences.
The drive to the Timber Cove Resort allows views of Benjamin “Bene” Bufano’s Peace obelisk, a towering, 93-foot homage to peace, the 1960s, and contemporary art, all located on the inn's grounds. Bufano was inspired by what he saw as symbols of peace — the Madonna, children, and hands.
The inn’s restaurant, the Coast Kitchen, is a culinary refuge serving local organic farm produce, meat, and seafood. Pair your meal with Sonoma County wines or locally brewed beers.
On the third day, head further north along the pristine Sonoma Coast. The views are stunning and there are enough gems along the way to make it a full day of exploring.
What could be more delightful than hiking through a pygmy forest? That’s what you’ll discover at Salt Point State Park. The Pygmy Forest Trail, a 3.8-mile loop, takes about two hours and offers a close look at the pygmy trees. These are mature — yet miniature — Mendocino cypress, Bishop pine, and redwood trees. Though some are more than 100 years old, most are only a few feet tall.
Continuing north, drop in at the adjacent Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve to be wowed by nature’s palette. This pristine reserve is known for its vast number of rhododendrons, yet the reserve also is home to second-growth redwood, grand firs, Douglas fir, and tanoaks. In May, these spectacular flowers burst into bloom, turning the forest brilliant pink with blossoms.
Discover the simply sublime by visiting the Sea Ranch Chapel, just off Highway 1, near mile marker 55.5. This small, whimsical building seems poised to take flight. It’s even more imaginative on the inside.
This is all part of The Sea Ranch, a planned community developed in the early 1960s for vacation, or second, homes. You can rent a home to enjoy the sense of living on the ocean and waking up to those marvelous views.
Most of the trails and roads in this privately-owned community are closed to the public. However, Sonoma County Regional Parks manages six Sea Ranch public access areas where you can hike along the bluffs or stroll on the beaches.
Take time to go a little further north to explore the town of Gualala, once the West Coast’s lumber capital. Discover history, arts, fine dining, and outdoor recreation that can’t be beat.
Stop in at Gualala Arts Center, a beautiful facility surrounded by trees, and learn more about its global focus – sharing cultures through the arts. Here you’ll find ongoing art exhibits, numerous programs including music, performing arts, and the popular annual Sonoma Mendocino Whale and Jazz Festival.
With its eponymous river and Gualala Point Regional Park, outdoor enthusiasts won’t run out of things to do in Gualala.
As your coastal adventure winds down, mark your map to remind you of the interesting places you didn’t get a chance to visit this time out. There’s always something new to explore on the Sonoma Coast.