Any road trip has its challenges but for those braving Northern
California’s narrow, twisting highways and coastal routes, it’s well worth the
effort. Villages and fishing communities
full of color and character; artist enclaves and historical sites are tucked
along the coastal highway. Getting there takes a bit of doing. A drive from the
Marin headlands, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, will take the better
part of the day but mostly because of the intriguing stops along the way.
Northern highway 101 flows inland en route to Petaluma, with
its bustling, historical storefronts that have been popularized in movies and
wine tours. Once the self-proclaimed ‘Chicken Capital of the World’ today the
town is full of cafes serving trendy cuisine and artisanal brews.
2. The Routes
Further north, past hillsides corrugated by vineyards, are
two routes to the beach: Highway 20 through the town of Willits leads directly
into Fort Bragg. The southern route, Highway 128 meets the coast just south of
Mendocino. Both are scenic and offer different diversions.
The Highway 20 route is somewhat quicker but also a more
remote, two lane road through forests and has spotty cell phone service.
Highway 128 is a more open, rolling route with easier turnouts for slower
traffic and trucks making their way between the coast and businesses. Coming
and going from San Francisco it’s simple to take one route in and another out.
3. Wine tasting
From the 128 route, get out and stretch your legs at Husch, the
oldest winery in the Anderson Valley. Success came after decades of growth and
now the family-owned label caps production at 45,000 cases. You can find out
why this might be some of the best wine you’ve never heard about at wine
tastings offered seven days a week between 10am and 5pm.
4. Van Damme Park
The Shoreline Highway north to Mendocino from 128 is
sprinkled with small coves and tide pools. Van Damme Park is worth a visit. There’s
a small campground sitting right next to the beach and trails through the pygmy
forest. Nothing remains of what was once the hub of the local forestry industry
where chutes sent logs to waiting steamer ships, a school house once filled
with over 100 children and a mill stood tall on the headlands.
The village of Mendocino shared a history buttressed by
logging wealth, but turned towards tourism before 1900, beckoning San
Franciscans to its Victorian homes and views of a rough and picturesque bay.
Today the Blair House Bed and Breakfast holds onto its more recent notoriety as
the exterior location for the TV series, Murder She Wrote, and its star, Angela
Lansbury once strolled the beachfront boardwalk. There are fashionable
boutiques, small hotels and many delicious cafes, enough to explore for several
6. The Glass Museum
As you continue north along the Shoreline Highway small
galleries and cafes are scattered alongside the road. The most eccentric is the
Glass Museum, lovingly curated by Captain Cass Forrington, a retired sea
captain. The petite space holds the history of the area in shards and panes.
Glass cases are filled in chronological, color and source order and the entry,
where the Captain spends most of his time, features all manners of jewelry
fashioned by the mariner as he waits for guests. If you have time get his
directions to the local glass beach and spend a few hours along the rocky cove
wiggling your toes in polished glass pebbles.
7. Noyo Harbor
As you enter Fort Bragg take the turn-off down to the
working piers of Noyo Harbor. Once the hub of the California Salmon Industry,
today hearty divers comb the local kelp beds for sea urchins and other seasonal
catches. Before the railroad came through this sheltered harbor was port to
every passing ship en route to San Francisco. Today kayaking and sport fishing
is available with reservations. There are several seasonal restaurants along
the harbor but the largest, Silvers, hosts great sunset views from the dining
room and a patio for summer’s sunny days.
8. Skunk Train
In the 1800’s, getting redwood logs to builders in San
Francisco was big business in the northern forest regions. Logging companies
invested in a steam engine rail line between Fort Bragg and Willits to
supplement what ships were providing. Eventually the trains were retired and single
motor coaches plied the rails, filled with passengers warmed by pot-bellied
stoves fed with crude oil. Its pungent smell led to the Skunk train moniker. Today
the line runs daily and offers special events, a forest stop-over B-B-Q and
even a camp site in the summer months.
Which of these stops sounds best to you?