This weeklong road trip will take you along the stunning, uncrowded coastline of Northern California from Bodega Bay north to Mendocino, before heading back through some of California's top wine regions. After taking it slow in The Sea Ranch and kayaking through sea caves near the charming village of Mendocino, you'll make your way via the Anderson Valley wine region to the famous Napa Valley for hot springs and more vineyard hopping before returning to San Francisco.

Highlights

  • Visit Fort Ross, the southernmost Russian settlement in North America
  • Climb to the top of Point Arena Lighthouse
  • Experience the multi-colored hues of Glass Beach
  • Sip the best reds and whites in Anderson Valley and Napa Valley
  • Soar in a hot air balloon over wine country

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 San Francisco to The Sea Ranch The Sea Ranch
Day 2 The Sea Ranch to Mendocino Mendocino
Day 3 Sea Cave Kayaking and Glass Beach Mendocino
Day 4 Mendocino to Calistoga via the Anderson Valley Calistoga
Day 5 Self Guided Calistoga Wine Country "Sip & Cycle" Calistoga
Day 6 Explore Napa Valley Wineries Calistoga
Day 7 Calistoga back to San Francisco  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: San Francisco to The Sea Ranch

Fort Ross
Fort Ross

This morning, head across the Golden Gate Bridge to start your adventure along the Northern California coast. You'll follow 101 to Petaluma, then cut across the rolling hills of Sonoma County to Bodega Bay (67 miles, approximately 1.5 hours). We recommend the fish tacos at The Birds Cafe if you got a later start and you're craving a bite to eat.

From here, twisting Highway 1 hugs the dramatic coastline of craggy rocks and crashing surf. After crossing the Russian River, be sure to take a break and stretch your legs in tiny Jenner (population 136), clinging to the hillside where the river meets the Pacific (10 miles, approximately 20 minutes). Grab a cup of coffee on the waterfront terrace of Cafe Aquatica, or a bite to eat if you didn't fill up on fish tacos in Bodega Bay.

Not far beyond Jenner, Highway 1 begins to climb the Northern Coast Range mountains that rise sharply out of the sea. The views from the top are spectacular, better perhaps than the more famous Big Sur stretch of Highway 1 a few hundred miles to the south. A little further, don't miss Fort Ross State Historic Park for a little-known piece of California history (12 miles, approximately 25 minutes). This well-preserved fort was established by the Russian American Company in the early 19th century as a fur trading outpost, and was the southernmost Russian settlement in North America. Be sure to spend some time wandering the buildings within the walls of the fort, including its Russian Orthodox church.

After Fort Ross, you'll make your way further up the scenic coast before arriving at your eventual destination: Sea Ranch. This modernist planned community along a 10 mile stretch of coast was built in a manner to harmonize with the surrounding landscape. Settle in and spend the remainder of the day exploring some of Sea Ranch's 50 miles of trails.

For dinner, although the Sea Ranch Lodge has the only restaurant in the community, we recommend heading just north to Gualala. If you're in town on a Friday night, Trinks Cafe serves great, locally-sourced fare, followed by their fresh-baked desserts. Alternatively, you can't go wrong with Upper Crust Pizzeria.

Day 2: The Sea Ranch to Mendocino

Point Arena Lighthouse
Point Arena Lighthouse

Don't rush to leave Sea Ranch. There's no cell service here, and it feels a world away from the city. If you've already explored the coastal trails, we recommend packing a lunch and heading to the picnic area located on the Gualala River known as the "Hot Spot." Alternatively, see if you can spot harbor seals in Gualala Point Regional Park where the river meets the sea.

Heading north in the direction of Mendocino, the Point Arena Lighthouse is worth a quick detour (20 miles from Gualala Point, approximately 30 minutes). The lighthouse is perched on a scenic bluff overlooking the Pacific. You probably won't catch any tropical breezes here, but this is the closest point on the mainland to the Hawaiian Islands, located 2,353 miles away. You can take a guided tour, and visit the small museum explaining the history and importance of the lighthouse on this rough stretch of coast.

Continue onward to the charming hamlet of Mendocino (36 miles, approximately 55 minutes). Located on a point sticking out into the Pacific, its quaint streets are full of shops, restaurants, and B&Bs. Take some time to wander the village's streets, and to explore the surrounding bluffs of Mendocino Headlands State Park. If you're looking to relax, head to Big River Beach. This sandy beach where the Big River flows into the Pacific is usually relatively sheltered from the strong winds that regularly blast the coastline.

For dinner, Trillium Cafe is a good bet for locally-sourced Californian cuisine.

Day 3: Sea Cave Kayaking and Glass Beach

Sea cave exploration (courtesy of Kayak Mendocino)
Sea cave exploration (courtesy of Kayak Mendocino)

This morning, enjoy a leisurely breakfast at your hotel or B&B, and then make your way to Van Damme State Park in nearby Little River. Here, you'll meet your guide from Kayak Mendocino and get ready to paddle out to a number of picturesque sea caves (all equipment is provided). After a safety briefing, you'll get situated in your kayak and head out along the Mendocino coast. The paddling here takes you through sheltered coves as you glide peacefully between caves, and is open to everyone regardless of age or experience level. The tour lasts approximately 90 minutes before you head back to shore.

After returning to your hotel or B&B to change, make your way over to Café Beaujolais in downtown Mendocino for a delicious French- and Californian-inspired lunch. Afterward, you'll make the short drive north to Fort Bragg (10 miles, about 15 minutes). Your destination here is Glass Beach, covered with multi-colored pieces of sea glass that glitter as the waves wash over them. This beautiful phenomenon is actually man made: for decades, this site and a few others in Fort Bragg were locations for locals to dump their garbage. However, after numerous cleanup efforts later in the 20th century, all that remains from the former dump site are these small pieces of glass and ceramics that were shaped over the decades by the pounding surf and other elements.

After taking a stroll here and heading up the road further to explore more of MacKerricher State Park (of which the beach is a part), return to Mendocino for a late afternoon walk along the headlands. This evening, we recommend savoring a sunset dinner with fantastic ocean views at the Little River Inn Restaurant.

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Day 4: Mendocino to Calistoga via the Anderson Valley

Mendocino headlands
Mendocino headlands

After breakfast at your hotel or B&B, make sure you pick up a loaf of bread for later at Goodlife Cafe and Bakery. As you start to make your way back to San Francisco, there are a few worthwhile detours along the way for wine lovers. Your route will take you through the heart of the Anderson Valley, still under-the-radar compared to Napa and Sonoma to the southeast. However, this region is becoming increasingly renowned for the quality of the pinot noir produced here, as well as Gewürztraminer.

If you want to save most of your wine tasting for the next leg of your journey, and only have time for one stop, we recommend Navarro Vineyards (30 miles, approximately 40 minutes). As you relax with a glass and admire the views of the surrounding vines, you can also sample the cheeses and meats available from their deli and pair them with the bread you picked up this morning for a savory picnic lunch.

After lingering at Navarro for a while, it's time to head onward to Calistoga, a small town north of Napa that's famous for its hot springs and mud baths (72 miles, approximately 1.5 hours).

Once you settle into your hotel, it's time to check out the hot springs.  There are a number of hotels with hot springs we can recommend. Many of them come with a spa package that includes mud baths, massages, and body treatments.  If your hotel doesn't have a hot spring, there are a number of day spas where you can indulge in their therapeutic benefits.

For dinner, you could consider splurging at Solbar, the Michelin-stared restaurant of the Solage Resort.  The dishes at Solbar are always made with flavorful, farm-fresh ingredients, and present their own unique take on Californian cuisine.  

Day 5: Self Guided Calistoga Wine Country "Sip & Cycle"

Castello di Amorosa (Photo curtesy of Castello di Amorosa)
Castello di Amorosa (Photo curtesy of Castello di Amorosa)

"Sip & Cycle" your way through the nearby wine country today.   This self-guided trip takes you through 4 different wineries.

First, head over to the Calistoga Bike Shop, which offers a vast fleet of rental bikes.  Once you have your ride, head to your first stop of the day, Castello di Amorosa Winery.  Castello di Amorosa is a re-creation of a 13th-century Tuscan-style castle that includes a chapel, great hall, and open-air terrace.  You would be forgiven for thinking you've stepped into Medieval Italy.  This is an especially great stop for families with young children, as kids love exploring the resident stone gargoyles and iron suits of armor. This winery is more than just looks however, with award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and a dedication to crafting classical Italian-style wines. As you sip their fine product, kids get their own tasting of the winery's grape juice alongside you.  Reservations are required for the castle tour. ($30 pp).

Our second stop, Dutch Henry Winery, is on the famous Silverado Trail that connects Calistoga with Napa.  Dutch Henry is a family-owned winery that specializes in Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.  While you can't go wrong with any of the tasting options, the wine cave tour is a highlight.  The entrance of the cave resembles the houses in "Hobbiton".  However, as you enter, you will find over 4,500 square feet of wine storage in the giant cave.   As a part of the tour, taste 5 premium wines as well as a complimentary sample of the estate-grown olive oil.  ($45 per person) After your tasting, you can stay a bit longer and enjoy another glass as you play a fun game of bocce ball on the courts at the estate.

By now, you've probably worked up an appetite for lunch.  We are heading back to downtown Calistoga for a lunch break before continuing with the second half of the tour.  For a casual bite, you can check out the Clif Family Bruschetta food truck and winery.  There are many organic salads and yummy bruschettas available there for a quick lunch with a glass of wine.  Another good option is the Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery, with plenty of outdoor seating on the patio and a beer garden along the Napa River.   Lastly, you can never go wrong with the iconic Sam's Social Club, located at the Indian Springs Resort. With plenty of outdoor dining options and a classic Californian wine country menu, there is bound to be something to please everyone.

After lunch, head over to Chateau Montelena Winery.  Besting French whites in the ’76 Judgment of Paris, a Chateau Montelena ’73 Chardonnay placed first in the grand tasting at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris. This acclaim gave rise to the California wine industry. It is not only the wines that draw visitors to Chateau Montelena.  The grounds of the vineyard are also serene and romantic.  Take a stroll through the Chinese gardens, and snap a picture of the sparkling sunlight on Jade Lake or the ivy-covered walls of the chateau.  (Tasting $40 pp)

Our last stop of the day is Benett Lane Winery.. This place is home to over sixty 90+ point wines, but you'd never know it from the laid-back, friendly feel of the tasting room staff.  If you love Cabernets, this is the place to be, and the staff is super knowledgeable and happy to answer questions about how the wines are produced.  

There are lots of ways to customize this day to exactly what you want to do!  If this is too much cycling, you can stick to the wineries north or south of Calistoga to make it a half day tour. 

Not enough cycling? You can extend the tour with a few more noteworthy wineries in the area.  Schramsberg Vineyards is one of the oldest vineyards in the region and is a must for sparkling enthusiasts.   Tamber Bay Vineyard is a great choice because you can see Old Faithful Geyser erupting in the distance.  Phifer Pavitt Winery is also excellent, and you will see one of the most beautiful tasting rooms in the valley (Phifer Pavitt requires an appointment).

Day 6: Explore Napa Valley Wineries

The Chateau at Domain Carneros (Photo courtesy of Domain Carneros)
The Chateau at Domain Carneros (Photo courtesy of Domain Carneros)

After a leisurely breakfast, you'll work your way south to Napa to begin your day of vineyard hopping along its namesake valley.  Your first winery stop today is Domaine Carneros, known for its award-winning sparkling wines and Pinot Noir.  Housed in an eye-catching 18th-century-inspired chateau, this winery is impossible to miss as you enter Napa.  It's first on your list because it can get quite crowded later in the day, so we would recommend an early visit. Gaze out at the rolling hills and gorgeous vineyards as you sip the bubbles from your patio table (tastings start from $35 pp).

Your second stop is just a stone's throw away.  Artesa Vineyard and Winery is one of the most extraordinary wineries in the valley.  You will drive along a back-country road lined with fields of wildflowers up a hill.  The road stretches on, dramatically leading up to what appears to be a castle atop the hill.  The winery structure, an architectural wonder, is built into the side of the hill, with reflecting pools and sculptures. There are a number of daily tours available to try the wines on offer, and you can choose one that will work best for your schedule and party. On the weekends, you can opt for the truly special treat of a Vino con Queso pairing, and enjoy artisan cheeses paired with reserve wines (tastings start at $10 pp). This winery is notable for its world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

Your final winery stop for today is Louis M. Martini Winery in St. Helena.  Founded in 1933, this was one of the first Napa Valley wineries to open after the repeal of Prohibition.  True to Napa's reputation for creating the best Cabernet Sauvignons, Martini offers an acclaimed portfolio of these spectacular reds.  The winery and grounds have been magnificently restored offering both indoor and outdoor tastings (tastings start at $30 pp).

For a late lunch, there are many options in downtown St. Helena.  Some favorites include Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch for its farm-to-table restaurant.  Farmstead offers delicious food sourced from responsible farms.  For more upscale fare, try The Grill at Meadowood.  Lunch at Meadowood stands out for its fresh seasonal ingredients, and has a great wine list to match. 

As the afternoon winds down, its time to head back to your hotel and take another dip in the hot springs. For dinner tonight, we recommend a relative newcomer, Evangeline, a French & Creole bistro.  With a large outdoor patio, it's the perfect place to enjoy dinner under the stars.

Day 7: Calistoga back to San Francisco

Hot air balloon over vineyards (Photos courtesy of Calistoga Balloons)
Hot air balloon over vineyards (Photos courtesy of Calistoga Balloons)

It's your last day in the wine country today.  If you are looking for some adventure, there is no better way to see the whole valley than on a hot air balloon as the sun rises.  Your ride will start very early (before dawn), and by sunrise you will be soaring 2,000 feet above the valley.  Views of vineyards and mountains in the distance make for an amazing end to your weekend getaway.  Depending on the winds of the day, you might get a birds-eye-view of Castello di Amorosa winery, Palisade Cliffs, Mount St. Helena, Old Faithful Geyser, Sterling Vineyards, or Chateau Montelena, the winery featured in the movie Bottle Shock.  

Don't feel like waking up before dawn? The alternative is to enjoy a sleep-in and a late brunch and coffee at the Calistoga Roastery.  Wander through the quaint Main Street stores, or take a final dip in the mineral pool at your hotel before heading home.