The drive up along the coastline of Northern California is not to be missed for its dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean, tiny seaside towns, and towering redwood giants located in one of California’s national parks. Bookend your trip in San Francisco, where you can spend time eating dim sum and strolling through Golden Gate Park. The remainder of the trip is relatively remote and is the ideal contrast to spending a few days in the City By The Bay. Here is what’s worth stopping for on a memorable trip from San Francisco to Redwood National Park and back again.
Planning Your Route from San Francisco to Redwood National Park
It is recommended that you take the more scenic route from SF and hop on Highway 1 to go to Redwood National Park. It takes a bit longer, but it hugs the coast and the views are unparalleled. On your way back you can take the quicker, but still stunning Highway 101 that goes through Napa and Sonoma.
Here are the times/distances for both routes:
Highway 1 (SF to Redwood National Park) – 6 hours 53 minutes (without traffic)/338 miles
Highway 101 (Redwood National Park to SF) – 5 hours 26 minutes (without traffic)/312 miles
Depending on how many stops you make along the way, a minimum of five days is recommended. Ideally, a full week is better so you can take your time and not feel rushed.
Here is the itinerary:
Start: San Francisco
Stop 1: Marin County: Marin Headlands, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Marshall
Stop 2: Sonoma County: Bodega Bay, Jenner, and Sea Ranch
Stop 3: Mendocino County: Mendocino and Fort Bragg
Stop 4: Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Stop 5: Lost Coast: Ferndale, Eureka, and Trinidad
Stop 6: Redwood National and State Parks
Stop 7: Wine Country: Napa and Sonoma
Getting from San Francisco to Redwood NP
There are two airports that you can conveniently fly into San Francisco International (SFO) and Oakland International (OAK). Oakland tends to be less chaotic but is a bit further across the Bay Bridge (where toll is required). Both airports are accessible by BART if you want to explore SF for a few days without a car (recommended) and then go back to the airport to get the rental car right before your road trip.
Best Time To Visit Northern California
Northern California weather differs from Southern California, where it rains often during the spring, fall, and especially the wintertime. The most popular time to go is during the summer when rain is nonexistent. Though to avoid peek crowds, going during late summer/early fall in September and October is a great alternative, since most kids have gone back to school. Make sure to check the roads for landslides/closed roads during the rainy season on the Caltrans website.
Packing List For Northern California
- Layers – Northern California tends to get chilly year-round, especially on the coast. Bring a down jacket for those foggy days, as well as a warm hat and gloves
- Rain gear – summer there is usually no rain, but during all the other times of the year there can be heavy rainstorms
- Emergency road trip/first aid kit – it’s important to be prepared, especially on less accessible roads
- Hiking boots – sturdy, well-fitting boots make a world of difference when hiking over often uneven terrain
- Plenty of food and water – especially when you’re in Redwood NP, stores/restaurants can be scarce
Important Things To Note About This Road Trip
Returning to San Francisco requires paying toll – going over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin is toll-free, but coming back into the city there is toll payment. The bridge has only electronic tolling so drivers do not have to stop. There are four different methods of payment: FasTrak Account, a License Plate Account, a One-Time Payment, or a Toll Invoice and these can all be found online here. Make sure to double-check if you are using a rental car if there are additional fees associated with toll.
Cell service can be limited – the more remote portions of Northern California have limited/non-existent cell reception so make sure to download any maps offline beforehand.
Entrance to Redwood National Park is free – unlike other California national parks like Yosemite and Joshua Tree, there is no entrance fee. Though please note that nearby state parks Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek Redwoods require a day-use fee and accept America The Beautiful passes (worth looking into if you plan to visit more than a few U.S. national/state parks within a year).
Take carsickness meds – the roads are quite windy up to Redwood National Park (especially along Highway 1) and taking motion sickness meds beforehand for passengers can be helpful.
Best Road Trip Stops from San Francisco to Redwood NP
Recommended stay: 2-3 days
Start your trip in this vibrant city. Forgo your car and explore the city by foot, public transportation, and/or rideshare vehicles. There is so much to do in the city and here are some highlights:
- Golden Gate Park – you could easily spend half a day in this spacious park wandering around the SF Botanical Garden, Academy of Sciences (or the de Young for art)
- dim sum – SF is spoiled with options for both take-out and dine-in dim sum including Wing Lee Bakery and Dragon Beaux both in the Richmond neighborhood
- Lands End – a hiking trail that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and views of the Golden Gate Bridge
- Crissy Field – a paved walking path as well as beaches where pups can run free. You can park at East Beach and then walk past the marsh towards Fort Point, a Civil War fortress under the Golden Gate Bridge
- The Mission – for good food this neighborhood has a lot of it, including Tartine for baked goods, Tuba for Turkish, Burma Love for contemporary Burmese, and La Taqueria for huge Mission-style burritos
Recommended stay: half a day
Located right across the Golden Gate Bridge is Marin, with plenty of outdoor spaces and picturesque views of the Bay. The Marin Headlines is the hilly area right after you exit the bridge and stretches down the coast. There is plenty of hiking opportunities and lookout spots for a memorable view of San Francisco and the bridge. Battery Spencer is an easy hike and popular viewpoint but get there early since the parking lot can get crowded.
Further down Highway 1 is Point Reyes National Seashore and Point Reyes Station, a small town next to the national park. This is a perfect spot to grab a takeaway lunch (Cowgirl Creamery is an excellent local option for sandwiches) and head out for an easy hike starting from the Bear Valley Visitor Center. The Point Reyes Lighthouse is currently closed as of 12/21/21, but you can still walk the half-mile from the small parking lot to take in the views.
If you like oysters, head over to Hog Island Oyster in Marshall, where you can enjoy fresh oysters with views of Tomales Bay.
Recommended stay: half a day
A bit further north across the county line is the coastal town of Bodega Bay, where you can whale watch at the Bodega Head hiking trail in the spring. There are also more fresh seafood options at Spud Point Crab Company and the Fishetarian Fish Market. Neighboring Bodega is worth wandering the one-block town where you can spot some of the buildings used in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Jenner is a small town that sits at the mouth of the Russian River and you can rent kayaks or take guided estuary tours from WaterTreks EcoTours. Explore Goat Rock Beach, which is part of Sonoma Coast State Park. Keep your eyes open for sea creatures big and small, including seals (summertime), whales (spring), and sandpipers. Treat yourself to a meal at the Coast Kitchen at the iconic Timber Cove Resort with dishes like seared ahi tuna.
About an hour north, stop at the non-denominational Sea Ranch Chapel, which looks like a bird taking flight and is filled with jewel-toned stained-glass windows.
Recommended stay: half a day
Further up Highway 101, the beautiful seaside town of Mendocino is not to be missed. Walk around the town to admire the colorful Victorian homes. Start at the Kelley House Museum to get oriented. Afterward, head to Mendocino Headlands State Park, where you can enjoy a view of the coastline, explore the numerous trails, and depending on the season spot a gray whale or two.
If you still have energy head to the small town of Fort Bragg, which is an easy 16-minute drive from Mendocino. On the way, you can stop at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens for it coastal views and 47 acres of plants or just continue on to the famed Glass Beach, which is located in MacKerricher State Park and is filled with colorful sea glass as far as the eye can see.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Recommended stay: half a day
Drive through the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of road (officially State Road 254) that runs adjacent to Highway 101 and is part of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Stop by the Humboldt Redwoods Visitor Center located in the town of Weott, where you can have a picnic, and learn about the area through informative exhibits.
The Eel River provides many great swimming options and there are plenty of picnic tables to have lunch at. If you want to go on an easy hike the Founder’s Grove is an easy ½ mile self-guided walk among the redwood groves.
Recommended stay: half a day
This 75-mile stretch of highway that starts where Highway 1 meets up with Highway 101 is not to be missed with its fog-shrouded coastline. It gets its name from the depopulation that it experienced in the 1930s due to its remote location.
Ferndale feels like you are stepping back in time, with its well-preserved Victorian buildings on Main Street against the backdrop of stunning coastal scenery. This tiny Redwood Coast town that was built on the dairy farming industry is the gateway to the Lost Coast and is a great place to wander around for a few hours. Make sure to stop by the Ferndale Museum for a dose of Humboldt County history.
Eureka is the largest city on the Lost Coast and also boasts over 150 beautiful Victorian homes that you can see in Old Town and the Waterfront. Stop by the Carson Mansion, which is not open to the public, but you can admire it from behind its gates. Visit The Pinc, a pink and white Queen Anne Victorian that offers tours with docents in costume.
Trinidad is a small seaside town that is the closest to Redwood NP (around 20 minutes) and is a good place to find lodging for easy access to the park the next morning. There are plenty of stunning beaches to watch the sunset, including Moonstone Beach and Trinidad State Beach.
Redwood National and State Parks
Recommended stay: 1-2 days
Four parks make up Redwood National and State Parks:
- Redwood National Park
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
As mentioned above, Redwood National Park is free, but the other three require a day pass of $8.00.
For scenic drives through Redwood parks, the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway offers a ten-mile drive through redwood groves and takes twenty minutes without stopping. Enderts Beach Road is another great option that includes the scenic Crescent Beach Outlook. To have a close encounter with redwoods, the Howland Hill Road is a ten-mile unpaved road where the trees are so close you can almost reach out and touch them.
For hiking, the Stout Memorial Grove Trail (Jedediah Smith), is a short half-mile trail but requires quite a trek to the grove of 300 foot-tall redwoods on the edge of the Smith River. Walk the popular Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which can take from 45 – 90 minutes depending on which route you choose and where you will get your feet wet along the scenic creek bed. The family-friendly Trillium Falls hike is located in the Southern portion of the park and is a half-mile hike to the falls and has plenty of parking.
There are four campgrounds inside the Redwood state parks: Elk Prairie, Gold Bluffs Beach, Jedediah Smith, and Mill Creek. All are open year-round, except for Mill Creek, which is open May 18-September 20. Make reservations well in advance, especially during the summertime to secure a spot.
Recommended stay: half a day
On your way home, take Highway 101, which is less windy and shorter than Highway 1. Depending on how much time you have left, there are plenty of noteworthy stops along the way, including Sonoma County that is known for its wine, food, and beautiful scenery.
Napa – wander around the historic Downtown Riverfront Promenade and make sure not to miss the Napa River Inn and the surrounding beautiful artwork including Alan Shepp’s Mosaic Fountain in Riverbend Plaza. Stop by the Cooking Classes at The Culinary Institute of America at Copia, where you can perfect your cooking skills under the guidance of professionals. Afterward, wander around the stunning campus that includes gardens and a restaurant/bar.
Sonoma may not have the world-renown fame of its larger neighbor, but it definitely has more charm. The walkable downtown is centered around Sonoma Plaza with wineries, cafes (try the Sunflower Caffe for brunch), and boutiques to browse. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and admire the homes and sometimes even see land with horses grazing on it.
For outdoor adventures, Russian River is a great place to spend an afternoon floating on the current and getting some sun on Johnson’s Beach that’s located in Guerneville.
Additional Stops To Add To Your Road Trip
If you have more time, here are a few more stops along the way:
Ukiah (Mendocino County) – located on Highway 101, this town is known as the gateway to Wine Country and is a worthy stop on your trip back. Stop at Ukiah Brewing Company for some local handcrafted beer or wine located in picturesque downtown Ukiah.
Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) – this city is known for its wineries, as well as the Charles M. Schulz Museum (of Peanuts fame) and Jack London State Historic Park, which has the grave of the famed author as well a museum and nature trails.
Petaluma (Sonoma County) – walk around the historic downtown and pick up a treat at Petaluma Pie Company. If you happen to visit on a Saturday between 2-5 pm from May to November, stop by the Petaluma Walnut Park Farmers’ Market and admire all the bounty from nearby farms.