Why Not Drive Highway 101 Down the California Coast in 3 Days?

Highway 101 Roadtrip

I have long dreamt about driving Highway 101 down the California coast, or possibly the entire West Coast from Seattle to San Francisco. I did not dream about taking my kids on this road trip, as they are currently inclined to complain about a 15-minute drive to the store unless donuts are involved.

Instead, I convinced my long-suffering and always-says-yes mother to drive Highway 101 with me. We both had major birthdays this year, and while this may not have been her dream trip, she is my mom, so she said yes.

Mom and I headed south from Tacoma, Washington, and zoomed as far as we could get in one afternoon – Grants Pass, Oregon. We had subsequent stops planned in Mendocino and Carmel-by-the-Sea, then a flight home from San Francisco. Three nights, two women, 911 miles. Sounds like a great plan, right?

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Pacific Ocean Highway 101
The gorgeous, wild, rugged coast of California and the Pacific Ocean, seen from Highway 101.

Step 1: See the Redwoods and Find the Ocean

The next day, we arrived in California and headed straight to the redwoods of Redwood State Park. They were as impressive as advertised. As a plus, I felt like I was in a forest of giant Twizzlers (maybe I have a candy problem?). You should spend more than one hour exploring the redwoods of California, but we didn’t have time for that. We took a short hike, wandering through a grove of trees as the light filtered magically down from the heavens. Then we launched ourselves back onto Highway 101.

Redwood State Park
At Redwood State Park, I felt like I was in a forest of giant Twizzlers. Also, isn’t my mother adorable?!

Here’s what nobody tells you. Or maybe they do, and I just never bothered to research: the northernmost portion of Highway 101 is a frighteningly twisty maze of narrow road amid rocky cliffs and trees. You don’t see the ocean for many, many miles. You’re driving about 20 miles an hour and shaking your head at the RVs and cyclists (yes, cyclists!) you pass.

You may believe at one point that you will NEVER SEE THE OCEAN.

You may become giddy with desperation, believing you will be trapped in these hills FOREVER.

You may start to mentally plan your children’s futures without you, and regret not updating your will.

Finally, however, you will arrive at the majestic Pacific Ocean. As the cliffs slide into the deep blue ocean on your right and rise above you on the left, you will want to stop many, many times for photo ops. JUST DO IT.

Step 2: Follow Highway 101 All The Way to Mendocino

The key to our road trip — which I do not recommend — was speed. Our destination the next night was the adorable beach town of Mendocino. 

In order to make it all the way from Grants Pass to Mendocino in one day, we had to miss Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, but we did manage to stop for a peaceful sunset dinner at Noyo River Grill. As the sun set, we watched fishing boats come in from the sea while a guitar player crooned nearby. It was magic.

We arrived at Agate Cove Inn just north of Mendocino as the sun was setting. I can’t say enough good things about this inn. It is relaxing perfection. A glass of wine while watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, followed by a hot bath and a comfy bed…this is basically the perfect vacation for women of a certain age. Which we are!

Mendocino California
Mendocino Country Store is a great example of Mendocino’s general charm.

Step 3: Give Yourself a Few Hours in Mendocino

Mendocino looks like it came right out of Hollywood. It is the quintessential charming California beach town. It turns out that Murder, She Wrote was filmed there…so if you are planning a trip with someone who is either old or a big fan of Angela Lansbury (and we happen to be both), don’t miss it!

We spent the morning walking around Mendocino Headlands State Park, paid a visit to Mendocino Art Center, and wandered the historic homes and adorable shops. If you have time (which obviously we did not), it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump from here to the famed wineries of Napa Valley, too.

Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach, outside San Francisco.

Step 3: Get Back on Highway 101 and Drive to San Francisco

So…we could have skipped this portion of Highway 101 and saved ourselves quite a bit of driving time, but if I was on a Highway 101 road trip, I was going to drive Highway 101, dammit! 

I’m not going to lie. Highway 101 is slow and curvy. Sometimes, the view is totally worth it. Sometimes, it’s not. We happened to be traveling during an unusual June heat wave, so droves of people were driving to the coast, slowing us down even more. 

As you get closer to San Francisco, you’ll have lots of options for interesting sights — if you have the time to see them! The famed hippie town of Bolinas, where residents tear down signs to keep tourists away, is easy to find in this era of GPS. The road is extremely twisty, but I loved driving above Stinson Beach, then through Marin County (and more adorable little towns) as we approached San Francisco.

Carmel Mission
The Carmel Mission is gorgeous and absolutely worth a stop if you’re in Carmel-By-The-Sea.

Step 4: Zip Down to Carmel-By-The-Sea

Unfortunately, we spent so much time that morning enjoying Mendocino that by the time we got to San Francisco, there wasn’t time for much more than a quick dinner, followed by acceptance that we were going to have to trade our coastal road for five-lane freeways for a couple hours, and bypass Monterey, too, unfortunately.

We made it to Carmel-By-The-Sea quite late at night, and with the shocking realization that there was a reason our hotel room was outrageously expensive — we had arrived during the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. (Are we golf-ignorant idiots? Possibly yes). 

I will say this: I LOVED Carmel-By-The-Sea. It turns out that popular places are popular for a reason! This gorgeous town, with its fairy tale homes and luxurious gardens and tempting shops and perfect beach (from which you can watch the golfers on Pebble Beach) was absolutely worth the stop. 

Things I loved about Carmel: staying close enough to the beach that we could wander down in the morning while it was still empty; buying candy for my kids at the Cottage of Sweets; having lunch at La Bicyclette, where the tables are so European-close that the suspiciously young, friendly, and independently wealthy Mexican guy next to me could easily share his oysters with us; and visiting the Carmel Mission, which feels peaceful, gorgeous, and sacred regardless of your religious affiliation.

Carmel Beach
Sandy toes, happy hearts…that’s how it goes, right? At Carmel Beach.

Step 5: Fly Home

A trip this short does not allow a drive home, so we sadly headed to San Francisco International Airport that afternoon. 

This type of speedy trip down Highway 101 is not for the faint of heart (or anyone prone to carsickness). Were I to do this again, I would trade a little freeway time for more time spent wandering California’s charming coastal hamlets.

But I have no regrets. Mom and I sat on Carmel Beach and watched seabirds dive and golfers golf, and what more can you really ask for in this life?

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