May 20, 2019
Head north out of San Francisco and trace the Pacific Coast Highway from the city to the shore, over curvy mountain passes and windswept cliffs, past offbeat towns and peaceful lagoons
The drive from San Francisco to Point Reyes takes less than two hours if you were to drive it non-stop, but there are so many reasons to pull over. We reckon it’s one of the most beautiful short drives in all California…
Depart from central San Francisco and you won’t have been travelling long by the time you reach our first stop, but the Vista Point Overlook on the northern side of the bridge is worth braking for. This is the classic view of Golden Gate looking back towards the city, and whether you get a clear blue sky or a hovering blanket of fog, it’s a sight you’ll never forget.
Highway 101. The right-hand turn-off for the overlook is just after you cross the bridge.
Carry on driving along Highway 101 and just north of Marin City turn west onto the Shoreline Highway (a designated section of Highway 1, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway). This two-lane road gains in elevation through the Tamalpais Valley, where you’ll pass plenty of envy-inducing homes tucked into the hills – as well as the turn-off for Muir Woods National Monument – before the landscape starts to feel more remote. A winding stretch of hairpin bends follows, revealing endless lush green hills.
After about six miles, you’ll arrive at the British-themed Pelican Inn, where a left turn leads down to Muir Beach. This will take you to the beach itself, which is wild and pretty, but the best views are further north. Carry on driving for another mile and turn into the Muir Beach Overlook road instead. A steep wooden walkway climbs over perilous clifftops and finishes at an abrupt bluff, rewarding you with one of the finest views along the whole of Route 1.
Muir Beach Overlook, Pacific Coast Hwy, Route 1, turn off just after mile marker 5.7.
Back on the Pacific Coast Highway, drive another five miles north to Stinson Beach. Keep your camera to hand; this is a particularly scenic stretch of road.
This beach is Marin County’s big draw, and on hot summer weekends it can get pretty crowded. That said, it has the feel of a real “local’s beach” rather than a tourist destination, and is a fantastic place to sit, contemplate and people-watch. Kitesurfers, dogwalkers, picnickers and sandcastle-makers all share the ample three mile strand with an enormous population of seagulls. The tiny town just beyond the shoreline has a couple of inns and B&Bs, and some bohemian cafes and stores of a decidedly northern California flavour – think locally-sourced organic fare, poetry readings and books on Zen Buddhism.
Stinson Beach, Pacific Coast Hwy, turn-off just after mile marker 12.5.
For the next four miles the road skirts the shore of Bolinas Lagoon, and our next stop is a short detour from its northern edge.
If Stinson Beach hints at a particular kind of northern California lifestyle, then Bolinas positively revels in it. This liberal-leaning, relentlessly progressive beach community is home to a populace of surfers, activists, writers, musicians, environmentalists and idealists, who famously ripped out the signpost on Highway 1 that led “outsiders” to their patch, yet are well-known for their values of tolerance, self-sufficiency and peaceful living.
Driving into the ‘town’ (little more than a main street) you’ll pass an appealing hodgepodge of houses, barns and co-operative farmlands being tended to by a mixed bag of locals, before pulling up on Wharf Road. The Coast Café is a central hub of the community; break here for lunch and get a real flavour of village life, or stock up on picnic items at the Bolinas People’s Store and head to the beach at the end of the road.
Bolinas, Olema-Bolinas Rd, take a left turn just after mile marker 17.1 on the PCH at the north end of the lagoon. The turning is unmarked.
Back on Highway 1, and it’s another 11 miles to slender Tomales Bay and the small town of Point Reyes Station, gateway to the Point Reyes National Seashore.
There’s something of a frontier-town vibe about this place, reflected in its clapboard buildings and the Western-style signage that fronts many of its commercial properties. But while it is undeniably low-key, unrefined it is not. This is where wealthy Bay Area weekenders come to combine a scenery fix with sophisticated dining opportunities, in a town that takes its foodie reputation very seriously. Point Reyes Station and the surrounding area is renowned for its restaurant scene and food specialists – check out Osteria Stellina, Station House Cafe, Bovine Bakery and Cowgirl Creamery for proof.
Point Reyes Station also marks the end of our mini road trip, and it’s a great place to spend the night. In or just outside town, try Point Reyes Station Inn or the vintage Abalone Inn, or check out Olema House or Bear Valley Cottage in neighbouring Olema.
West of town, the wild peninsula of Point Reyes National Seashore juts out to sea and is a prime whale-watching spot, especially between November and May. Other highlights include the Point Reyes Lighthouse, buffeted by strong winds and reached via a steep 308-step staircase; the hike to Chimney Rock, especially beautiful when covered in spring wildflowers, and the clifftop hike to Tomales Point which offers almost-guaranteed sightings of Tule elk, found only in California.
Point Reyes Station, Pacific Coast Highway, California 94956
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