Summer was fleeting, so it was time to take advantage of the season before it was over. What better way to enjoy summer than with a good ol’ road trip up the California coast?
With a long weekend and a lifelong travel partner, I decided to make my way up to Redwood National Park by car, something I had attempted alone a few years ago (and failed, because who wants to do that much driving alone).
Here, I describe my recent Labor Day SF to Mendocino road trip with my boyfriend. Included in this post is a recommendation score for each of the towns I visited, with the overall rating determined by entertainment value, aesthetics, food options, etc.– the whole package.
Let’s get into it!
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Recommendation score: 10/10
In order to start the trip and get out of the Bay Area, we had to pass through San Francisco. We didn’t linger here too long since we tend to visit and explore SF about twice a month, but we did decide to grab a quick bite before embarking on our journey.
For breakfast on the way to the 101 N freeway, we stop at Arizmendi Bakery for a breakfast focaccia and a scone. My first time trying this iconic SF spot– I didn’t even get the chance to eat their famous pizza (pizzas start rolling out at about 11 am) but was already extremely impressed with the flavors of the morning options.
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Regardless of if you’re starting a road trip in San Francisco or not, this amazing city is worth exploring for a few days. If you like nature, stunning architecture, shopping, museums, kitschy/hipster bars, and exceptional food in a city with a laid-back vibe, San Francisco is a must.
If you only have a few hours to a day to explore, get some good food, and see some of the iconic spots like Fisherman’s Wharf and The Golden Gate Bridge.
If you have a weekend to spare, you can slow down a bit and really get to know some of our iconic neighborhoods such as The Mission District, Haight-Ashbury District, or North Beach / Chinatown. Plan for a visit to the ferry building (houses a bunch of artisan shops and restaurants, as well as an awesome farmer’s market on Saturday mornings), a trip to Alcatraz or a sunset bay cruise, and a visit to Golden Gate Park and Sutro Baths.
No matter what you decide to do here, you’re sure to have a wonderful time. Just be sure to bring layers and prepare for some unpredictable wind and fog!
Read more: Best San Francisco Neighborhoods To Visit (And What To Do Beyond SF)
Recommendation score: 9/10
Healdsburg is a small town filled with modern amenities as well as an abundance of world-class wineries and farm-to-table restaurants. It’s the perfect base for exploring the countryside of lush valleys and redwood forests that surround Lake Sonoma and the Russian River.
What a cute town to explore as the first stop! It’s structured similarly to Sonoma, with its downtown area dotted with art galleries, tasting rooms, high-end and casual restaurants, boutiques, and kitschy antique shops. There was something for everyone here.
Every corner of this town was meticulously decorated and kept up to high-quality standards. Since it was August and during the time of harvest, grape sightings were plentiful! All in all, we spent about 2 hours walking around and browsing all the town had to offer before hitting the road again.
Recommendation score: 7/10
In terms of a downtown area to explore, there really wasn’t much here as it was only one block long. Geyserville “downtown” consisted of a few wine tasting spots (check out Locals, they carry a ton of varietals and love teaching and talking about wine), market delis, and a visitor center.
Oh, as well as my new favorite Italian spot, Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria–I’m talking Michelin quality food for very, very affordable prices. Seriously, they serve up some of the best Italian-style pizza I think I’ve ever had (and I’d previously spent a whole month in Italy!)
We only ordered one pizza to share, “The Sonja”, but I would bet anything on the menu would also be stellar. I can’t believe such a gem of a restaurant is tucked away in this mini, mini town. From now on whenever I’m craving Italian, I’ll have to somehow make my way back here…
Upon visiting the Visitor’s Center and talking to a sweet elderly woman, we learned that Geyserville is way more than what meets the eye. In Geyserville’s surrounding countryside, you’ll also find many award-winning wineries, excellent B&Bs and inns, countless opportunities for outdoor adventure, and even a modern casino.
We opted out of wine tasting on this stretch of the drive but definitely planned on coming back to check out the wineries in the area, notably, the picturesque Ferrari-Carano Vineyards.
Recommendation score: 5/10
Strange time to visit (Friday before Labor Day) so almost everything was closed. It was, however, a very well taken care of town with quaint little houses and colorful gardens and a few sculptures placed about the downtown area!
Some notable shops that were open: a Goodwill, an Italian ice stand, Cloverdale Historical Center, La Hacienda (a very cute Mexican restaurant), and a local coffee roaster/shop. Art galleries, gift shops, and some restaurants were among the shops that were closed at the time.
Like many other towns in Sonoma County, tasting rooms were spotted throughout Main Street.
Recommendation score: 5/10
Welcome to the first stop of Mendocino County! Boonville is known as the hot spot on the road to the coast. Anderson Valley Brewing Company (beer) and Pennyroyal Farms (award-winning cheese) are notable stops here. Boonville is also home to winery tasting rooms, shops, and galleries.
We stopped here for coffee as we continued making our way up to Mendocino. This would make a good pit stop for a quick breakfast or lunch, ice cream, shopping for curated home goods, and picking up items at a general store.
My boyfriend and I were still full from the pizza in Geyserville so despite wanting to eat everything in sight, we just couldn’t. I noticed lots of B&B options here, for those looking to spend the night.
VAN DAMME STATE PARK
Recommendation score: 9/10
Van Damme SP holds a special place in my heart (experience from a previous solo camping trip years ago) and this is where we camped for the night. I had previously camped here before so I knew it was a prime spot to explore, not to mention it’s a fun, affordable alternative to the overpriced Mendocino bed and breakfasts.
We were at campsite 6, which was nestled in a corner and situated next to a light creek. Nothing puts me to bed better than a dark sky full of bright stars and the sound of gentle water babbling.
Before heading to bed, we explored the beach across the street, Van Damme Beach, famous for abalone diving. Since it was still low tide when we got there, we witnessed a lady catch two abalones without even getting her legs wet!
Quite jealous… though we heard abalone diving/catching will be restricted until their population restores over the next few years. (Be careful here because apparently, the rangers take illegal fishing very seriously and have a no-tolerance policy regarding that stuff.) Nevertheless, the beach had beautiful views backdropped by a calming sunset.
In the morning, we got up to pack our stuff up and proceeded to do the Fern Canyon Trail. This is by far one of the lushest and green trails I’ve ever experienced in California, very similar to the hiking found in Washington or Oregon!
So if you want to be transported to a “Jurassic Park” world, I’d highly recommend doing a portion, if not the whole 8.3 mile hike. At the end, you can continue on to see the Pygmy Forest, showcased by a raised boardwalk that winds through a thicket of stunted century-old trees no more than 10 feet tall.
Note: There are mosquitoes here, and I made the mistake of forgetting bug spray. Needless to say, I sustained a few bites here and there while hiking and walking about the campsite at dusk.
Recommendation score: 8/10
Mendocino is such a quaint and romantic town. During our time there, we came across spas, boutiques, gift shops, and chocolate shops preparing to close for the day (it was only 5pm on a Friday). We explored what we could after everything had closed, including the trails overlooking the cliffs as well as through the neighborhood to see all the houses with impeccably groomed colorful gardens.
Left open were an assortment of eateries ranging from casual and affordable to formal and more expensive. We opted for an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Luna, which ended up being a stellar choice!
I got the spaghetti alle vongole (clams with garlic in a white wine sauce) and my boyfriend got a sausage pasta in a red wine cream sauce, which tasted significantly better than it sounds or looks.
Of course, romantic and casual B&B options are plentiful here for those looking to spend a night or two. No surprise, it’s definitely one of the more romantic destinations in Northern California as we saw a ton of couples casually strolling around town hand-in-hand.
And this concludes part one of my Northern California coastal road trip!
Hopefully, you’ve been inspired by this Pacific Coast road trip from San Francisco to Mendocino to plan one of your own with some of the stops I mentioned in this post.
I’ve done multiple trips up north to Mendocino and have explored other places not described here, so check out my complete list of SF to Mendocino road trip stops here! Or, read about the continuation of my trip from Mendocino to Eureka here.