Paradise found on Northern California's wild, rugged coastline.
Up here, the coastline is wild, rugged. Undeveloped. Untamed. It’s cloaked in fog most of the time, save for when the sun breaks through and the view avails itself to you for a few brief moments. It's beautiful by car, sure, but it's best by land: Whether a surefooted ramble through giant redwoods, forging unsteadily over sloping coastal bluffs, or threading barefoot through shivering waves of beachgrass.
Technically, California’s Lost Coast contains Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, a region roughly bracketed by Rockport to the south, and Ferndale to the north. In this case, being overly nitpicky will rob you of the opportunity to explore the equally rigorous coastline north of San Francisco, from Point Reyes to Fort Bragg. In land as unruly as this, why limit yourself?
The road will be narrow and serpentine, but the payoff is a front row seat to the Pacific Ocean’s magnum opus.
All Points west: Point Reyes-Point Arena
If your starting point is San Francisco, no trip should begin without a celebratory beer and Smiley's Schooner Saloon & Hotel (est. 1851) in the sleepy enclave of Bolinas is the perfect launchpad. If oysters are more your speed, begin with a trio at Bolinas Coast Cafe.
From Bolinas, it's a short drive to Point Reyes, 71,028 acres of stunning views from any vantage point (it's a peninsula). Stop by the Instagram-friendly cypress tree tunnel en route to Point Reyes Lighthouse. Don't leave the area without dining at Saltwater Oyster Depot, whose fresh farm-and-sea-to-table prix fixe menu will have you ordering a second (or third) bottle of regional wine in no time.
Grab a loaf of bread for the road from Freestone's can't-miss Wild Flour Bread, and continue north. The road begins to narrow, the coastline becomes increasingly rugged. Step back in time at former Russian fur trading outpost Fort Ross, find your higher power at The Sea Ranch Chapel, and wander the windswept cliffs at Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. The key is to take your time. Sometimes, the road itself will demand it of you as it skirts the fluctuating coastline.
Beaches made of glass
In a time where the gravely cautionary narrative of the near-future in Disney's Wall-E looks more and more like a foregone conclusion presently, Fort Bragg's Glass Beach glitters as an unintentionally optimistic outcome of human carelessness. Established in 1906 (and eventually abandoned in 1967) by residents as a dump site, Glass Beach exists now as a coastal cove whose terrain is comprised of gently eroded pebbles of glass. Scoop up a handful on your way out of town.
North of Fort Bragg, the road will curve inland to merge with the 101. Stay the night at Benbow Historic Inn and begin the next morning with a drive through Avenue of the Giants. The scenic route runs parallel with U.S. Route 101 through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Take this one slow. Hopefully, you'll have your road trip playlists dialed, because you'll need one as you get lost among these coastal giants.
When the road begins to narrow
After finding solitude and awe among the redwoods, the road will point you westward once again. Stroll the quaint Victorian streets of Ferndale, hike one of many trails around Trinidad's lighthouse, and dine eclectically at local favorite Larrupin' Cafe. Perhaps the pièce de résistance of California's northern coast is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park's Fern Canyon. The mile-long trail winds through a narrow gorge bound by fifty-foot fern-blanketed walls. Foot bridges bisect a gurgling creek as the walls begin to narrow, bringing these majestic hanging gardens within arm's reach. It's fitting, really, that a coastline so untamable would offer up so many of its secrets to those intrepid enough to ask.