It begins with Highway 101 traversing San Francisco Bay along the iconically orange (clear day) or mysterious (foggy day) Golden Gate Bridge. 101 continues for a couple of miles before the bipolar (as drivers will soon discover) Shoreline Highway breaks up with it, somewhere in the Tamalpais Valley north of Sausalito.
It runs through forested suburbs, steep driveways breaking off from it at every turn. And then the houses disappear, along with any hope of cell service, and the road is winding through Green Gorge towards Muir Beach.
Instead of running through the small village the highway veers to the right to continue along the coastal bluffs. Here is the first view of many: wildflowers lining steep hills that spill into the tormented sea, which crashes upon the rocks below.
The views and the turns continue for a mile or two, until the highway drops into Stinson Beach (a small seaside town with one of the only proper beaches on the entire northern coast) for a visit. Then it picks up north again along the eastern edge of Bolinas Lagoon, where even in summer hundreds of birds can be seen dotting the salt flats.
For a long time the ocean disappears- there are only forests and hills covered in wheat grass. Here doesn’t feel like California at all- instead it’s like somewhere a few thousand miles northeast. Point Reyes Station is next, at the head of Tomales Bay. That’s the next body of water that the highway runs along- a long and slender gash east of the rugged Point Reyes, whose peaks appear on the other side of the bay from the highway. The small town of Marshall seems to be built entirely on stilts in the bay, and just before you can see the bay’s opening the fickle highway turns back inland, toward the city of Tomales.
And then for a while it’s just farmland: verdant hills dotted with those cows you see in commercials for California Cheese juxtapose with fields that seem transplanted from the Great Plains. Next comes the hamlet of Valley Ford, and soon enough, Bodega Bay: the famous setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. But soon civilization disappears and reappears again, where Salmon Creek meets the sea.
Ever north, atop cliffs looking out toward the endless blue. From above, the Pacific seems mightier than when you’re looking at it vis-a-vis. Perhaps because it looks bluer, perhaps
because of the waves, or perhaps because it could swallow you whole if you make a wrong turn. Soon the highway enters Sonoma Coast State Beach, a collection of sands, cliffs, and rocks that make up one of the most famous parts of the northern highway. Still no sign of cell service.
Not even after the road crosses the great Russian River into Jenner (the local area’s major city) does a cell phone make a sound- the only thing to hear is the yell of the wind and the crashing of the waves further west. After a series of particularly giddy switchbacks further north, the Shoreline Highway becomes much more rugged: hugging cliffs and navigating the rims of gorges. Soon comes Fort Ross, a Russian settlement in the 19th Century, then Timber Cove- with its strangely placed obelisk on a promontory looking straight to the west.
Next comes Stillwater Cove, characterized by a wealth of wildflowers growing from grasses above the cove’s rocks. Further north and Salt Point State Park, providing essentially the same experience, surrounds the highway. The next taste of civilization is Stewart’s Point: nothing more than the intersection of a couple of roads, some houses, and a store.
Another mile or so and the Shoreline Highway is enveloped by Sea Ranch: a vast community of environmentally conscious people residing solely in ranch house-style architecture.
There is not one structure in this settlement that does not adhere to the style of everything else- except, of course for the must-see Sea Ranch Chapel. For almost 8 miles the picturesque development straddles both sides of the highway until it abruptly ends at the shores of the Gualala River. One bridge and the highway crosses from Sonoma County into Mendocino County and the City of Gualala (pronounced wah-LA-la).
Still no cell service, but plenty of civilization to go around.
The highway ascends into the hills near St. Orres Creek and into Anchor Bay, just north of Gualala. The occasional driveway or back road connecting with Route 1 is a reminder, for now, that people do actually live here. Schooner Gulch and Bowling Ball Beach turn up on signs, then fade away as the road continues north to the slightly inland town of Point Arena and the Point Arena Lighthouse: the tallest lighthouse in California sitting atop the closest point in the continental United States to the Hawaiian Islands.
After Point Arena the highway doesn’t quite return to the sea. The occasional glimpse of blue reminds you that it’s there as you pass through Manchester, and finally rejoin the cliffs at Irish Gulch. After several miles transversing the coastal headlands the Shoreline Highway runs through Elk, an adorable town with no shortage of bed & breakfasts. Next comes the Navarro River, the last chance to turn southeast towards 101 and Cloverdale. Albion, the true beginning of the Mendocino Coast lies ahead, yet another settlement at the entrance of a river to the sea. Here are the rugged headlands, mist-shrouded gorges, and overpriced restaurants.
Van Damne State Park turns up next, the starting point for a number of hikes along cliffs and through fern-inundated primeval-esque forests, and kayaking trips through sea caves and past blowholes.
Just north of here is a cluster of inns, but that’s nothing compared to the village of Mendocino: a collection of bakeries, restaurants, shops, and boutique hotels: all whose prices are steeper than the cliffs to the town’s west and whose menus feature the words ‘house made’ ad nauseam. Here it is cliche to use the word ‘organic’ to describe a meal. On the same street as wealthy vacationers drinking local wine in an upscale restaurant is a glass-blowing store that sells hand-made, variegated marijuana pipes- both in colorful victorian buildings from the 1800s. The bookstore down the street that only seems to sell hardcovers is having a party for a local author’s release of a teen fantasy novel. A giant white tent housing the Mendocino Music Festival seems 10 feet away from tumbling over the cliffside. Hummingbirds whirring among the gardens of the town’s buildings are as numerous here as mosquitoes are in Florida. It’s certainly a place that takes some getting used to if all you were expecting was a croissant, some classical music, and a sunset or two.
But the Shoreline Highway’s nowhere near finished with its drivers yet. Next comes Russian Gulch and the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse & village of Caspar. After which civilization really gets going as the highway enters the city limits of Fort Bragg, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Eureka. No sooner do you cross the Noyo River than do you see the first supermarket. And the first gas station that sells gas for less than $4.20 a gallon. But it’s all over once you lay eyes on the first Starbucks you’ve seen since San Francisco. This city includes some of the area’s biggest tourist attractions, including the Skunk Train station (a half day trip transports you into the redwoods and back) and Glass Beach, where a city dump in the 1960s was transformed by the sea into a beach made of pieces of sea glass.
Next comes the tiny village of Cleone and MacKerricher State Park: a coastal collection of dunes, lakes, and impressive tide pools. But after the Shoreline Highway crosses the Ten-Mile River, civilization takes a vacation again. The last ‘town’ you lay eyes on is run-down Westport, and for just one or two more miles you’re hugging cliffs on the most rugged stretch of the coastal highway, where the road soars to dizzying heights above the rough sea. And then, just before Hardy Creek, you veer east and into the mountains, but not before you get one last glimpse of the untouched Lost Coast to the north.
Then the Shoreline Highway gets challenging. Very, very challenging. It rises up the edges of mountains and descends into their valleys with hundreds and hundreds of stark switchbacks through thick trees. Rarely is there a break from the dizzying madness, and for miles and miles you continue inland until the highway, mercifully, reaches the tiny town of Leggett and joins with Highway 101: the great road from which the winding, graciously circuitous Shoreline Highway began.