California coastal road-trippin’ offers fall delights

Big Sur or North California coastal road-trippin’ offers fall delights

Fall road-tripping along the California coast; weather is often beautiful, summer crowds are gone, the ocean, rugged coast and adventure beckons. Here are two suggested road-trips, one south, one north of San Joaquin County. Each includes a one-way drive of three-plus hours, so, best to plan an over-night trip in a choice of several stunning locations.

The Big Sur coast, three hours southwest of Stockton, has long been a favorite of both explorers and romantics. This section of the rugged California coast offers secluded getaways, rocky coastline around every corner, photogenic historic bridges, lovely resorts, marvelous restaurants and spectacular campgrounds.

Bixby Bridge, circa 1932, on the Big Sur coast.

The Spanish called it “El Sur Grande”, the Big South, for the vast reach of rugged and treacherous coastline. Mexico offered land grants in the early 1800s, but settlers in numbers would not arrive until just 85 years ago. Highway 1 was completed in 1937, only then opening the coast to growing tourist visitation. We recently toured south of Monterey and Carmel, passing several spectacular state parks (with a Mediterranean climate – camping is possible and often sunny this time of year).

Special campgrounds are found here; Andrew Molera State Park is just 20 miles south of Carmel; 4800 acres with a variety of exploring opportunities from beaches to the Big Sur River, as well as Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Lime Kiln State Park. Kirk Creek Campground is a bit further south, a US Forest Service gem perched on the bluff overlooking the Pacific – first come, first served.

Elephant seas crowding the beach, just a few miles north of San Simeon.

Ragged Point Inn on a bluff high above the ocean is a favorite overnight and dining retreat, with ocean views spreading in several directions.  Offering motel, cabins and restaurant surrounded by gorgeous gardens, grandeur and solitude is a feature. Another favorite restaurant is the Big Sur Roadhouse, open just a few years and getting rave reviews for breakfasts or lunch, a bit less expensive than some of their competitors.

Ragged Point Resort on the Big Sur coast.

Journey just north and see elephant seals at Ano Neuvo State Park (reservations for Ranger-led tours required) and at the six-mile long Piedras Blancas rookery, just north of San Simeon, with parking right off Highway 1, a short walk and no reservations required to view these massive animals. San Simeon’s Hearst Castle is certainly worth the tour, if you have not been to this great palace in the coastal mountain range.

Bodega Bay north to Mendocino offers spectacular highlights of the north California coast.From Stockton, it’s both easy to reach (about three hours) and offers some of the most stunning waterfront in the United States! Fall weather makes it a go-to destination, for either a long day trip, or better, several days.

Granddaughter Jessica, spouse Susan in front of Bodega’s old church,
site of filming of the classic movie, ‘The Birds’ in 1963.

This portion of California offers impressive vistas, spectacular food, access to numerous Sonoma vineyards, wonderful places to stop for the night and great camping options.  Make Bodega your first destination (the town is different than Bodega Bay), just off Highway  116, site of the old school where part of the 1963 Hitchcock movie classic ‘The Birds’ was filmed.

Just six miles beyond is Bodega Bay, on the water, offering additional ‘Birds’ movie locations and home to a variety of fine restaurants, motels and several nearby beautiful campgrounds. Stop at the Tides Restaurant for delicious breakfasts or lunches, and check out a myriad of state parks for tenting or trailering options. A favorite, Wright’s Beach State Park, between Bodega Bay and Jenner, is right on the ocean!

Scenic California coast, just north of Jenner.

Heading north on Highway 1, cross the languid Russian River to reach the town of Jenner, where the Russian spills into the Pacific. Stop at River’s End Restaurant for great food and stunning views; looking down from their deck above the river, a cadre of harbor seals usually is visible sunning themselves on a sandy spit near river’s end (the restaurant offers a telescope for a closer view).

Just north is Ft. Ross, the old Russian outpost from the early 1800’s and worthy of a stop for an early history lesson, then pass through a host of cute coastal towns like Sea Ranch (the Sea Ranch Lodge offers lodging and meals), Gualala (St. Orres, a unique restaurant built in Russian style, featuring American dishes and seafood, and Gualala County Regional Park just south of town, with secluded campsites) and Point Arena (check out the Point Arena lighthouse, for stunning coastal views).

Point Arena Lighthouse on the California coast.

Further north, one passes through Manchester, Elk, Albion, then Mendocino. Mendocino is the quintessential California coastal town, with trendy shops and several restaurants – but don’t miss Mendocino Headwaters State Park, just west of town for superb ocean views and rocky bluffs. If you are camping, Van Damme State Park is just south of the city, with secluded campsites in deep riparian forest, and Ocean Beach just steps away, including kayak rentals!  Ft. Bragg is just north, if you have time to extend your journey on the gorgeous California coast!

Ocean Cove, site of a private campground north of Jenner, one of our favorite places – particularly if you can snag a campsite right above the ocean!

For more information: Big Sur coast,; Camping,; Sonoma Coast,

Contact Tim at or follow him at Happy travels in the west!

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