In the first of an occasional new series, we're looking at the best short road-trips in our destinations; those that can be easily completed in a day, or even a few hours.
First up, we're driving north out of San Francisco, tracing the Pacific Coast Highway from the city to the shore, over curvy mountain passes and windswept cliffs, past little-known 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 just so many reasons to pull over. We reckon it's one of the best, most beautiful short drives in all of California...
Stop 1: North Vista Point
If you're departing from central San Francisco, you won't have been in the car all that 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 and 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 turn-off for the overlook is just after you cross the bridge.
Stop 2: Muir Beach Overlook
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 and you'll pass plenty of envy-inducing homes tucked into the hills before the landscape becomes more remote. A winding stretch of switchbacks and hairpin bends follows, revealing endless sweeps of lush green hills.
After about six miles, you'll arrive at the British-themed Pelican Inn and see a left turn 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 half a mile and turn into the Muir Beach Overlook road instead. A steep wooden walkway negotiates its way 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.
Stop 3: Stinson Beach
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, and 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 bent - 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.
Stop 4: Bolinas
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 and 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 who 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 by an appealing hodge podge of hand-built houses and the uplifting sight of co-operative farmlands being tended to by a mixed bag of locals, before pulling up on Wharf Road. The Coast Cafe 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.
Stop 5: Point Reyes Station
Back on Highway 1, and it's another 11 miles to narrow 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; evidenced by its wide main street, wooden clapboard buildings and the wild west-style signage that fronts many of its commercial properties. But while it is undeniably low-key, unrefined it is not. This is where sophisticated weekending San Franciscans come to combine a scenery fix with great dining opportunities, in a town that takes its foodie reputation very seriously. Point Reyes Station has become renowned for a number of highly regarded restaurants and food specialists - check out Osteria Stellina, Station House Cafe, Bovine Bakery, Cowgirl Creamery and the lovely 50s-style Pine Cone Diner - for proof.
Point Reyes Station also marks the end of our mini road trip, and is a great place to spend the night. Try Point Reyes Station Inn or Abalone Inn, or Point Reyes Seashore Lodge, Bear Valley Inn and Olema Druid's Hall in neighbouring Olema.
West of town, the wild peninsula of Point Reyes National Seashore points 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 will give you almost-guaranteed sightings of herds of Tule elk, found only in California.
Point Reyes Station, Pacific Coast Highway, California 94956
Header shot of Point Reyes National Seashore © Yufengw | Dreamstime.com, above shot © Mtilghma | Dreamstime.com, Golden Gate Bridge © Photoquest | Dreamstime.com. Thanks also to Flickr photographers jdeeringdavis and p0ps Harlow.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.