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California Coastal Road Trip: A Guide to the Top Stops

California Coastal Road Trip: A Guide to the Top Stops

Jill profile pictureJillMay 10, 2024

If you're planning a road trip along the California coast, you're in for a treat. The scenic drive offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, charming towns, and iconic landmarks. So without further ado, here's a guide to some of the top stops on your California coastal road trip.

As a bonus, we also rounded up the top vacation homes on the California Coast if you're planning to stretch your road trip for a few days. So buckle up as we're heading north!

San Francisco

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Your trip starts in San Francisco where you can explore famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, and Alcatraz Island. This vibrant city has a lot to offer, and you'll want to be sure to set aside some time to explore. Some must-see attractions include:

  • Golden Gate Bridge: This iconic landmark is one of San Francisco's most recognizable symbols. Fun fact: it is a suspension bridge that spans across the Golden Gate Strait, which connects the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Take a stroll across the bridge or snap some photos from one of the lookout points.

  • Alcatraz Island: Alcatraz Island is a historical landmark that was once a federal prison. It is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay and can only be accessed by ferry. You can take a ferry to this prison island and learn about its history as a high-security federal penitentiary where it once housed some of the most notorious criminals in American history.

  • The Palace of Fine Arts: The palace features a beautiful rotunda and a lagoon that offers stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you want to have a slow afternoon to just sit back and relax, this is definitely the place to be.

  • Fisherman's Wharf: This popular tourist destination offers a variety of attractions, including restaurants, shops, and museums. While you're in the area, be sure to not miss out on San Francisco's signature chowder served in sourdough bread bowls. Boudin Bakery and Cafe is the best place for that!

Santa Rosa

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Photo by Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center:

Santa Rosa is an underrated yet beautiful city located in Sonoma County, California. It strikes the perfect balance of stunning scenery and a rich history. So if you want the best of both worlds, there are plenty of great spots to explore in Santa Rosa.

  • Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center: This is a must-visit destination for any fan of Snoopy and the Peanuts gang. The museum houses the largest collection of Peanuts artwork in the world, including original comic strips, animation cels, and sculptures. You can also take a tour of Schulz's personal studio, where he created the beloved characters of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang.

  • Luther Burbank Home and Gardens: American horticulturist Luther Burbank once lived in this garden-turned-city park. The gardens feature a wide variety of plants and flowers that Burbank developed, including the Shasta daisy and the Santa Rosa plum. Don't miss out on this gem, especially during springtime.

  • Russian River Brewing Company: Another spot you shouldn't miss is this award-winning brewery known for its delicious craft beers, including the famous Pliny the Elder. You can take a tour of the brewery and taste some of their beers in the taproom.

  • Bonus: Hot Air Balloon Ride: If you've never been up in a hot air balloon, now is the perfect time to enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience. Up and Away Hot Air Ballooning company offers balloon rides that will take you over the lush landscape of Sonoma County. You have the option of choosing a shared or private trip.

Jenner

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Moving to the west, this charming town offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and is known for its natural beauty and wildlife. If you're the type who enjoys spectacular hikes with breathtaking views or a relaxing day at the beach, then buckle up because this town has something for you.

  • Sonoma Coast State Park: This state park is an absolute must when visiting the area. The park offers a plethora of breathtaking scenery including sheer cliffs, rocky coves, and sandy beaches. You can take long hikes with stunning views or enjoy the peace and quiet at one of its many secluded spots. The park also features several cultural sites such as a paleontology site and an old farmstead known as “The Hulbert Ranch”. There are also plenty of educational programs and workshops offered throughout the year.

  • Harbor Seal Nursery: You might get lucky enough to catch a glimpse of California sea lions and northern elephant seals in this area. At Goat Rock Beach in the Sonoma Coast State Park near the mouth of the Russian River, large sand spits are created during springtime which provide a perfect home for seals. In summer, the spit is crowded with adult harbor seals and their little pups.

  • Bodega Bay: If you have time to spare, you can head a bit down south of Jenner to Bodega Bay. This quaint fishing village offers plenty of activities for everyone - from kayaking to hiking, to fishing and whale watching. While in the area, don't miss out on visiting the famous Bird & Sea Gallery to browse through its unique collection of birdhouses made from driftwood and other natural materials.

Fort Ross

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Photo by Fort Ross Wineyards

Adventurers, history enthusiasts, and wine lovers will enjoy what Fort Ross has to offer. This small yet lovely town has quite a few spots to visit, so we recommend staying a day or two to get the most out of your trip.

  • Fort Ross Historical State Park: This is a must-see destination in the area. Fun fact: this park is home to an old Russian fort, which was settled by Russian fur traders back in 1812 and later occupied by California Grizzlies during the Mission Period. You can explore the ruins of the fort, learn about its history in interpretive displays, and take a guided tour of the area's Russian-era buildings.

  • Fort Ross Vineyard: While this vineyard focuses on Pinot Noir, they also make excellent Chardonnay and Pinotage wines. They offer an Estate Tasting Room which is open for limited reservations. You can book a 90-minute seated food and wine-tasting experience. You can purchase a few bottles to take home to family and friends too.

  • Timber Cove: Just a little over 2 miles north of Fort Ross is Timber Cove. We recommend dining at Coast Kitchen at Timber Cove Resort if you're looking for stunning ocean views and fresh seasonal fare. This upscale dining spot is great for special occasions, and it's best to make a reservation in advance so you can get the best views of the house.

Gualala

Wander vacation rentals with private hot tub

Photo by Wander

Admittedly, Gualala isn't many people's top choice when it comes to holiday destinations. It's a very small village perched on the northernmost edge of the Sonoma County coast. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have its charms and appeal. In fact, it's one of our favorite stops if you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination. Here are a few stops to consider in the area.

  • Wander Anchor Bay: At the risk of sounding a bit biased, Wander Anchor Bay is definitely worth a trip in itself. This luxury vacation rental in Anchor Bay (just a 5-minute drive from Gualala) comes complete with all your holiday essentials—a hot tub, sauna, and private gym. But perhaps the icing on the cake is the 5-acre outdoor space lined with wood-chip trails that give you direct access to oceanfront day beds, workstations, and viewing points.

  • Gualala Point Regional Park: Take a hike along Bluff trail and check out gorgeous views of the seaside at this regional park. The park features accessible areas and beaches so you can go biking, birding, fishing, hiking, and paddling. Dogs are allowed on a leash too, so feel free to bring your pup. And if you're up for a little adventure, you can also head down to Adventure Rents nearby for canoe, kayak, and paddleboard rentals and tours. Kayaking season normally starts in April but be sure to call ahead of time to confirm.

  • Sea Ranch Chapel: This chapel is a gorgeous non-denominational meditation space that looks like it came from Lord of the Rings! It's truly a must-stop when visiting Gualala. Not to mention that you can also hold intimate events here such as weddings, marriage vow renewals, anniversaries, baptisms, and small gatherings.

Detours

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Photo by Marty Aligata/Wikimedia Commons

Now, if you're not the type of traveler who sticks to an itinerary, then this next section is for you. We've also laid out possible detours from San Francisco to a little north of Gualala for the spontaneous traveler! Here are some fun ideas.

  • Muir Woods National Monument: Located just north of San Francisco, this national monument is home to trees ranging from 400 to 800 years old, with their height up to 250 feet. This place is great for an afternoon or morning stroll. Just take note that pets aren't allowed. The entrance fee is $15 (free for children ages 15 and under), and be sure to reserve in advance here. While the park is open everyday in a year, hours vary per season.

  • Arnot-Roberts Winery: A trip to the California coast won't be complete without a visit to one of its many wineries. Arnot-Roberts Winery stands out in particular because it has one of the best views of Sonoma County. They host tastings outside in their small production winery by appointment only. On top of that, you can also become a member to get wine delivered to your door monthly.

  • Redwood Forest in Elk, CA: Here's another unique experience you might want to try. Ross Ranch offers guided horseback rides along California’s Manchester Beach or the redwood forest in Elk, CA. Prices start at $70 per person for an hour and a half ride.

  • Point Reyes National Seashore: Located on Marin County’s coast, this national seashore features 70 miles of hiking trails with breathtakingly scenic views of both ocean and mountain vistas. Visitors can also enjoy kayaking, camping, horseback riding, whale watching, and more


A road trip along California's coast offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration. Whether you're interested in hiking through state parks or lounging on sandy beaches - there truly is something for everyone! Plan your itinerary ahead so that you don't miss out on any stops along your journey!

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