San Francisco has a lot to offer tourists in the winter time, as it’s actually the best time to skip the fog and have sunny (and chilly!) days. The best thing about the Bay area though, is that heading in any direction for the day can lead you to some of the most epic scenes in the world on the fabled California coast. My particular favorite is to spend the day heading north on Highway 1, making sure reach Jenner by sunset to watch the Russian River meet the Pacific. You will never forget it.
The Scenic Route
When on your trip take a look at the weather and plan it around that. You’ll want as much sunshine as possible. The roads are winding and in condition, rent a fun car for the journey. Make sure to pack the essentials: warm clothes, a couple blankets, beach chairs if you can, a picnic basket or cooler, and a great camera.
Start your day early and grab a quick bite on your way out of San Francisco. Take a scenic route through the presidio on your way to the Golden Gate Bridge to set the tone for the day. Head north on the 101 passed Sausalito and the outlooks that all the tourist books tell you to hit, and take the Highway 1 exit just a few miles up.
Follow the signs to stay on Highway 1 north, where you’ll stay for the remainder of the day. First stop is the John Muir Overlook, about 20 minutes from the exit. Sweeping views of the city and corroded bomb shelters to protect the peninsula during WWII greet you in this historic attraction right off the main road. The sweeping coastline in every direction and the direct view of San Francisco is breathtaking. Spend no more than 30 minutes here, because there’s lots more to come!
Moon ceremonies in Hippy-ville, anyone?
The next stop will be to the small town of Bolinas, and make sure it’s in your GPS because there are no signs to get here (on purpose). It’s about 30 minutes up the road, just after the town of Stinson Beach. It’s beyond charming and a crazy combination of historic Victorian and sixties hippy-ville. It’s tiny and all roads lead to the beach here. It’s a great place to stop and grab a quick bite if you’re hungry, and pop into the few shops they have. Notice the postings on the bulletin boards for moon ceremonies and local cleanses to take. Real northern Californians know that we are rooted in our hippy history of commune-living and surf culture and rock and roll; Bolinas is one of the few remaining examples.
Point Reyes National Seashore
When you’re ready to keep moving, get back on Highway 1 heading north. If you want to stretch this trip over a couple nights rather than just one, I suggest allowing some time at Point Reyes National Seashore. You can easily spend at least one full day and likely 2-3 on the various trails and beaches. For the purpose of this day, though, you will only stop in the town of Point Reyes Station to pick up some delicious and locally famous cheese and wine for later. Tell the staff you are headed up to the Sonoma Coast beaches and ask for recommendations for picnic items.
Once you’re back on the road this will be your longest stretch for the day, which if timed correctly should be around 11am – 12:30pm. You will weave through seriously lush green farmland and forests, as winter time is when our hills really glow.
Go fly a kite
If you like Alfred Hitchcock, you’ll make a quick detour into the town of Bodega (not to be confused with Bodega Bay, just a ways up) which is a quick right turn before you hit the coastline again. That tiny town is where the film The Birds was filmed in the sixties, and it’s a little local claim to fame. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to cruise by and check out, and it’s definitely worth it.
Once you’re back on Highway 1 heading north, you will be close to what I think is the best coastline in California. I love it so much because it’s virtually untouched, aside from the highway that connects Bodega Bay where you’ll begin this stretch and Jenner where you’ll conclude it. You should be pulling into this area in the early afternoon and should plan to stop at the famous Kite Shop off the highway to pick one up and make use of the notoriously windy climate once you land at a beach.
As good as it gets
As you slowly head out of Bodega Bay you’ll see what I mean. Cliffs and rocks and waves and birds and hills on one side and never ending skies on the other. It’s as good as it gets. And it will likely be cold! Pick a beach along the way to stop and enjoy your local cheeses and wine and fly a kite. None of these beaches are super easily accessible as there’s usually lots of stairs, so if that’s a factor take advantage of a pullout on the roadside with a picnic table instead. There’s plenty. It doesn’t matter where you pick to stop, it’s all glorious.
The stretch from Bodega Bay to Jenner without stops takes about an hour, so make sure you get to Jenner at least 30 minutes before sunset begins to really have the full effect. My favorite way to is to pull off the side of Highway 1 just above where the river and the beach meets with a lawn chair. Lots of fellow sightseers do the same. There’s also a lovely coffee shop that closes at night but has chairs out and available to sit on right where the magic happens. Save some picnic for this moment as well.
Once you’ve seen the sunset, I recommend grabbing dinner in charming Guerneville where tons of a local restaurants serve amazingly fresh and inventive cuisine. This town was once a getaway for the LGBTQ community back in the sixties, and maintains some of its original charm. Either stay the night here and head over to wine country the next day, or hop on the 101 south to San Francisco for about an hour and a half drive back.
Often times when people think of California beaches they think of Santa Monica or Malibu or San Diego; and the magic of northern California gets overlooked. Us locals think that’s just fine, keeping it a secret is what makes it so magical — take your time here, and share in its energy as the serene and natural wonder that it is.