The greatest value of a road trip is lost on pragmatists but treasured by romantics. Take the 60-mile drive north from San Francisco to Bodega Bay, for example. The fastest route is a teeming inland freeway, Highway 101. But the road worth traveling carves a leisurely path after you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, on scenic, snaking Highway 1.
This is a coastal journey of a thousand postcards, along dramatic bluffs and unspoiled beaches, past small farms and vast nature preserves. The speed limit comes naturally as you ease through tiny towns rich in recreational and culinary options, taking in a landscape blissfully beyond development’s reach.
As you set out, pull off at Vista Point just across the Golden Gate, gaze back for a fond farewell to San Francisco and its fabled span, and then turn to the pleasures that lie ahead.
The Parkside Café is a sweet breakfast spot that follows the golden rule of real estate. Order eggs Benedict or raisin-walnut bread French toast, then make the most of the prime location. A footpath behind the restaurant leads to the sandy shoreline that shares Stinson’s name. Those craggy formations on the horizon? They’re the Farallon Islands, more than 20 miles away.
Audubon Canyon Ranch
If you’re planning a springtime drive, you can catch the return of egrets and blue herons to their protected nesting grounds three miles north of Stinson Beach. The Martin Griffin Preserve is a research center, but amateur ornithologists flock to it, too. Ponds speckle the property, and the Henderson Overlook provides a perfect vantage point for watching the birds. Open to the public from mid-March to mid-July.
Five Brooks Stables
Hiking trails lattice Point Reyes National Seashore and its stunning coastal ecosystem. But another way to experience the area’s beauty is on horseback. Guided rides along the Stewart Trail, which begins at Five Brooks Stables between Stinson Beach and Olema, are ideal for beginners, and hand-led pony rides are perfect for kids. Five Brooks Trail Head, off Highway 1 three miles south of Olema.
Point Reyes Station
Pick up a rustic baguette from Bovine Bakery to make a seaside picnic. Or, for a full meal with knockout views from every table, visit Nick’s Cove.
A brief kayak orientation at Blue Waters Kayaking comes with the cost of rental so you can prepare for your paddle onto Tomales Bay, a blue-fingered inlet rimmed by pines and bluffs and populated by pelicans and harbor seals. After your excursion, sit outside at picnic benches and refuel on fresh shellfish at Hog Island Oyster Company, which plucks its bivalves from the waters you’ve just plied.
A century-plus after the Valley Ford Hotel was built in 1864, Shona Campbell and Brandon Guenther refashioned it as a quaint seven-room inn and opened Rocker Oysterfeller’s on the ground floor. Swinging saloon doors open into this bar and restaurant, where Guenther whips up potato and clam chowder, chargrilled Angus steak, and other hearty grub, and Campbell, a self-proclaimed “bar wench,” pours a wide selection of Sonoma County wines.
At Bodega Bay, you find yourself in the atmospheric seaside setting that Alfred Hitchcock used as his backdrop for The Birds. But the creatures to look for here are gray whales. In winter and spring they hug the coastline on their voyage south from Alaska to Baja California. You can watch their progress from Bodega Headlands (locally, "the Head"), a windswept promontory where volunteer naturalists are often on hand to provide deeper insights into what you see.