San Francisco to Mendocino: Pacific Coast Highway Roadtrip Guide

Driving from San Francisco to Mendocino is one of the longer drives you can do on Pacific Coast Highway. While the miles itself are not overly long, the drive is on a lot of windy roads that will take a while to complete. That being said it is never boring as the locations and views are majestic at almost every turn. The area from Jenner through Salmon Creek State Park is nearly as beautiful as some of the lower Big Sur coastline. Here are my recommendations for stops on the drive from San Francisco to Mendocino, be sure to leave yours in the comments below. One caveat, I do not recommend stopping at Point Reyes if you are in a rush as it deserves a full day to itself and would be hard to fit into a trip like this.

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Details

  • 189 Miles
  • 4-6 hours of driving

After grabbing coffee at a local shop I hit the road for a day of driving. I passed the Golden Gate Bridge without stopping as I had been many times but you can always stop at Battery Spencer if you didn’t the previous day. My first stop was the Muir Beach Overlook.

Battery Spencer

Battery Spencer is one of my favorite viewpoints for the Golden Gate Bridge. The parking is very sparse here, but the views are just incredible as you practically look down on the bridge. Read about it here.

Muir Beach Overlook (15 minutes)

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This staircase winds down from the cliffs edge to a beautiful vista point that overlooks both Muir Beach and the coastline above it. Muir Beach Overlook is a quick stop with only a 10th of a mile of hiking, but it is amazing and is well deserving of your time, especially if it is a clear day.

Point Reyes National Seashore

I know I said above to skip this area if you don’t have a full day to explore, but I wanted to include it as it is one of my favorite spots in all of California. There is so much to do here, from waterfalls and beaches to a lighthouse and elk. You can read my recommendations for the area here.

Millerton Point in Tomales Bay (20 minutes)

PCH Guide-1

This quick stop is an excellent way to get out and stretch your legs while taking a short quarter mile walk to the beautiful inlet that is Tomales Bay. I only spent a small time here but it was cool to see the oyster shells washing up on the beach and to see the bay from up close.

Hog Island Oysters (30 minutes)

Hog Island-11

Even if you are not a fan of oysters you owe it to yourself to try the oysters at Hog Island. When you park you will wait in line for your oysters, which they pull right from their tanks in the back. For an extra 5 dollars you can get them picnic style and take them to the picnic tables where you can shuck and eat them while looking over the bay. I even converted my wife to liking oysters after a visit here so you really need to check Hog Island out.

Bodega – The Birds Filming Location (15 minutes)

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This short stop is to see the movie site for The Birds. The old school-house, right off the highway (Bodega not Bodega Bay) is a beautiful piece of 1800’s architecture which had an impressive cameo in the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie. While everyone might not care about this, I was excited to see it and found it to be a short fun stop. Remember it is Bodega not Bodega Bay. The church next to the schoolhouse is also beautiful as well.

Gas and Salt Water Taffy Bodega Bay (10 minutes)

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There wasn’t anything in Bodage Bay that caught my eye so I used the stop to fill up with gas and visit the Salt Water Taffy shop on the way out-of-town for a snack. These taffys were great and the price was cheap, so it is a good stop.

Salmon Creek State Park

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To say this is a park is a little bit of a stretch. It is 20 miles of flawless coast with turn outs and beaches every few miles. I can’t even tell you where the best place to turn out is as there are so many and it is pretty much up to you to pick which one you like. This area can easily take half a day if you park and explore all the beaches but I just stopped and took pictures whenever something caught my eye. This part of the drive is amazing as well so it’s worth it just to take it slow and see whatever you are passionate about.

Kayaking in Jenner

This town is one of the bigger ones on this stretch of the highway. I did not stop here other than to kayak, but it is a good place for lunch if you are hungry. Read all about my amazing time kayaking on the Russian River in Jenner here.

Cafe Aquatica

If you want to have lunch you can stop at Cafe Aquatica. They have a bunch of great sandwich options and you can sit on the porch and overlook the water while you eat.

Armstrong Redwoods

If you have time during your drive, you can head inland 15 miles (about 30 minutes) and visit the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. This is a great place to see redwoods, but if you are continuing to Redwoods National Park after PCH then you can skip it.

Salt Point State Park (Bluffs Trail, Sentinel Rock and Fish Cove) (30 minutes)

Salt Creek Point State Park-12

There are many jumping off points for this park but I chose the Bluffs Trail that is about 1 mile in length. You will access the trail from the turn out for Fish Cove, where you take a right and park in the first parking lot near the Bluffs Trail sign. This trail takes you down to the bluffs which overlook the water then back up to the top of Sentinel Rock which overlooks Fish Cove. You can continue all the way down to Fish Cove if you are looking for a majestic beach to relax at or loop back to the car.

Trinks for Lunch (45 minutes)

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Trinks is a great sandwich and salad place in the town of Gualala that I enjoyed. They serve fresh food and the atmosphere is laid back and relaxed. All of the food I’ve had is great but the smoked salmon BLT and the sweet potato soup are personal favorites. Also, you can’t go wrong with the pies here either.

Point Arena Lighthouse (45 minutes)

Point Arena Lighthouse-3

After lunch you will be driving for a little while until you reach the town of Point Arena which is home to one of the most famous lighthouses on PCH. This lighthouse is a must visit and for $7.50 you can get a ticket to climb to the top. Even if you do not want to climb up it is worth it to go for the beautiful coastal views leading up to the lighthouse, they are hard to beat. The vantage point at the top is worth the $7.50 though and they will tell you a lot of information on the history which I enjoyed as well.

Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park (20 minutes)

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Right before arriving in Mendocino you will reach the Pygmy Forest which is 3 miles off Airport Road. I thought this place would be a lot crazier then it was as I pictured bonzi trees waiting for me, but the path you walk on is beautiful, so it is a good stop for an exploring family. The trees themselves are around 100 years old but only 6-10 feet high which is pretty crazy. 

Chocolate in Mendocino

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Before calling it a night I grabbed some chocolate at Mendocino Chocolate Company. They have a ton of options, and it was fantastic chocolate.

Pattersons for Diner

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For dinner I went to the pub Pattersons to share nachos and a drink with my wife. The nachos here are called “killer nachos” and it is easy to see why. The portions were enough for us both to be filled with one order. Pattersons is a fun place to relax at as the vibe is good and they have a lot of different food and drink options. It’s small and always packed but that’s what makes it fun.

Hill House Inn

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I stayed at the Hill House Inn, which is a lovely B&B right near downtown Mendocino. The rooms have a very old style, but they are homey and big. I enjoyed my stay here.

So there you have it, my Pacific Coast Highway trip from San Francisco to Mendocino. Read about my trip from Mendocino to Eureka here and Eureka to Crescent City here.

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About JoshMc

Thanks for checking out the blog, I am happy to be sharing my adventures with you! You can get to know me by reading my about me, which includes a video and additional information on the site, myself and my full disclosure. Also, follow along on Twitter here or read all of my posts on this blog here.

  • Denise

    I really appreciate you Josh for meticulously documenting your travel with a eye for the photographer. We can still enjoy the trip from our easy chair until we have the opportunity to get on the road.

    • Thanks for the comment Denise! Glad that you like the post and that it helps you to see California!

  • Raenette

    I very much appreciate your blog; it has allowed me to experience some awesome places I wouldn’t have discovered had I not seen it here. So, thank you and keep those adventures coming! 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment and I am glad you like following the adventures!

  • Chris

    We just followed this guide for our very quick trip up the cost. What a fantastic guide! Just a few thoughts, we started the day at sunrise at Point Bonita Lighthouse (so to watch the sunrise over through the golden gate bridge), seemed like a lot of other cool stuff nearby just didn’t have the time to explore the area further. The Point Arena Lighthouse closes daily at 3:30pm (if you miss it like we did, there are some excellent areas for quick hikes nearby, including over a sea arch just on the way into the lighthouse). From the lighthouse, we must have missed it but we never saw the Salt Creek State Park or any of the associated hiking, we saw something similar but nothing with that name. Not a big deal, we had a full day anyways thanks to this great guide!

    • Thanks so much for coming back to comment about your trip and for the insights you provided. I am sure they will be helpful for others!

  • Nat

    As we are planning our trip down the coast, I found your blog enlightening! Thanks for the tips! We will surely stop at some of the places you mention!

    • No problem, hope you have a great time. Let me know what your favorite spot is!

  • Monica

    Thanks to your blog we made an easy and relaxing 2 day trip from the East Bay Area upto Leggett on CA1 and returned via CA 101.We covered most of the of the places of interest you have mentioned.The Point Arena Lighthouse, Trinks restaurant, glass beach, the Trestle bridge and Drive thru tree at Leggett are highly recommended. The Pygmy forest is ok.We did not spend much time there.We stayed at Fort Bragg. Piacci’s pizza and the Handmade Icecream co in downtown Fort Bragg are worth checking out.Thanks Josh for your excellent documentation!

    • Thanks for the recommendations and I am so glad you enjoyed your time! I agree that the Pygmy Forrest leaves a little to be desired but I did like the trail as it was beautiful

  • Harvey Kulkin

    Josh, did you travel from Mendocino to Portland? We are going to follow your trip from San Fran. Let us know. swcolorwizard@gmail.com. Thank you.

    • I traveled all the way to the Oregon border on highway 101 but I haven’t gone past it yet so I am not much help in Oregon. You can see Mendocino to Eureka and Eureka to the Oregon border guides on my site though.

  • Mari

    Very helpful, thank you! Planning a road trip summer of 2017 and love ideas for stops. Do you know if there’s a “printer friendly” version of this itinerary? I’m a little old school and like to have print outs in case cell coverage fails on the road. Reading to drive to Eureka next!

    • I apologize, I do not have a specific printer friendly version. You can print this page if you would like, or you can purchase my PCH ebook which you can download to your tablet as well.

  • Laura Higgins

    I would recommend picnicking at the Tomales Bay Oyster Farm, but Marin County made them take down their picnic tables & grills.. such a shame.. as it was a great place to stop on the way north to relax and enjoy some oysters and the company of fellow travelers.
    They are trying to get permits to reinstate their picnic area and i wish them the best of luck

    • Thanks for the comment, I hope they are able to reinstate them because that sounds awesome!