Entering California from Oregon Julie and I were super excited. We have many favorite places that we had been to in the country, but this area is in the top 3. The extreme northern part of California is just breathtakingly beautiful. It’s also very sparsely populated being a 6 ½ hour highway drive north from San Francisco or a 5 ½ hour drive south from Portland, OR. The huge trees, spectacular coastline and majestic mountain ranges, it really has it all!
Driving southwest on route 199 the road twisted and curved as it followed the Smith River. We passed small towns and saw people fishing and swimming in the river. Just before route 199 met up with Highway 101 we entered our first Redwood Grove, the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. When Julie saw these trees, her eyes got as big as dinner plates. The Redwoods are her heaven and we were back. We pulled over and she hopped out of the car and ran over to hug one of the majestic trees. Being next to one of these giant trees that are a few hundred years old really has a calming effect on us. You just feel one with nature.
Crescent City, CA
After spending a bit of time walking among the tree giants we headed into Crescent City, California’s northernmost city. We had been here two years prior and knew that while the city wasn’t much to look at it did have a pretty nice working port and waterfront area. We drove over to the city’s Battery Point Lighthouse, got out and walked around. This lighthouse is pretty unique as it sits on a small island just a few hundred feet off the shoreline. While it is connected to the mainland by a small causeway this causeway is low enough that it gets covered by water at high tide. This means the only time you can actually visit the lighthouse is at low tide. When we arrived, the tide had just started to come in but as we did not want to slip on the moss-covered rocks leading to the lighthouse, we decided to just look at it from the shoreline. We then headed over to our favorite business in Crescent City, the SeaQuake Brewery. We loved the beer the last time we visited so we decided to give it another go. We each ordered a beer and a small appetizer and enjoyed it just as much the 2nd time around. It really is the best place in town to relax after a long day’s drive. After we finished our beer and appetizer we headed to the Crescent City/Redwoods KOA for the night.
To rewind for a moment for people if they are not aware, the Redwoods are not like most national parks. While there is one actual Redwoods National Park, there are ten + California Redwood State Parks. The trees and the look of the state parks are just the same as the one national park. Most of the state parks are located on or near major roadways so they are free to go to and explore. Just one of the awesome perks of the California State Parks system!
Driving 101 South – Cruising the Redwood Parks
The next day we woke up excited. Today we would be following our footsteps from two years prior driving south on highway 101 all day. To us after traveling for over 2 years this is one of our favorite drives. 101 in this part of California for the most part is a 2-lane road that curves and twists through groves of redwoods, around mountains and past beautiful beaches on the Pacific Ocean. For the first part of the day we stopped at a few small groves of redwoods in the Del Norte Coast State Park, walking around and enjoying the sounds of nature. We also stopped at a few beaches, some big and small, watching the waves of the ocean crash in front of us and smelling the sweet, salty sea air.
Our first short detour for Redwoods that we would be taking today is to go to the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. We got off the 101 and less than half a mile later we entered the park road, Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway which ran parallel to highway 101. The parkway runs for 9 miles through what seems like one long continuous grove of Redwoods. We slowly drove the parkway, for much of it the only vehicle on the road. You can really get a sense of how big these trees are when we park Bubbles next to a fallen Redwood. Bubbles stands at 9 ½ feet tall. When parked next to a fallen Redwood, the Redwood, even on its side is still taller than our RV. After taking a few short hikes we drove on to the visitor’s center located near the small field or “prairie”. Two years prior there was a herd of elk grazing here and two years later they were still here when we pulled in. As we had learned in Alaska that they don’t like people getting too close so we stayed our distance but enjoyed watching them. After getting a few souvenirs we moved on.
Next up we stopped at the Thomas Kutchel Visitors Center. Unlike the last park that we had stopped at just a few miles earlier this one was located almost directly on the beach. We watched a short video here about the Redwood Parks in northern California before venturing outside and taking a walk down the beach. It was an awesome sunny day and we were really enjoying ourselves.
Avenue of the Giants – Humboldt Redwoods State Park
We had one more park to visit on our drive south for the day, its perhaps the most famous of the state parks, The Avenue of the Giants in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Much like the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway the Avenue of the Giants is a two-lane road that runs parallel to highway 101 and just goes through a seemingly huge grove of Redwoods for most of its length. The differences being that the Avenue is much longer at 31 miles and it does go through a few small towns on its route. It does have multiple points to rejoin highway 101 if you wish. As it was getting a bit later in the day, we drove the Avenue for about 15 miles before jumping off back on to the 101 and headed to the town of Benbow and the Benbow KOA.
Sonoma County Wine – Dry Creek Valley
The next day driving south from Benbow we headed into Northern California’s famous wine region. Two years ago, we had spent 5 days in this area, even going as far to rent a car so that we could get into a few wineries that Bubbles was too big for. This time around we were only here for the day and we were on a mission. Julie’s brother and sister in law had lived in San Francisco for many years and were big fans of the wine area. They had requested olive oil from a specific winery that they could not get online, so we agreed to buy a few bottles for them and give it to them when we saw them a few months later.
First though we needed some lunch and as we were in In-N-Out Burger territory in the town of Ukiah, we stopped in for a quick bite. (In-N-Out is a west coast, mainly Southern California; delicious burger chain). After lunch we were off again. Our destination for the day was the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County.
Our first stop in the valley was for the requested olive oil from Trattore Farms. The entrance to this farm/vineyard proved a bit challenging for us as it was located on the top of a steep hill. The driveway zig-zagged up the hill to the tasting room & restaurant. We waited until it looked like no one was coming down before we started to head up. If a car came down while we were going up, we would have been in trouble. We would be able to stop going up this steep driveway but if we did have to stop there is no way that I would be able to get the van to keep going up. I would need to reverse all the way to the bottom before trying again. Luckily no one came down as we were going up and we made it to the top.
Walking into the tasting building was pretty awesome. The views were just out of this world. It almost felt like we were in some sort of California wine movie. We could see valleys and hills in every direction with almost every single one covered in grape vines. We were only planning on buying a bottle of olive oil and leaving but after seeing how good the views were, we ended up staying for a wine tasting as well. Here we loved their Blanc de Blanc & Rose bubbles (Julie generally loves sparkling wine/champagne of all varieties). After the tasting we hung out on their patio for a while taking in the views before heading back to the van.
As we were in the world-famous wine region, we wanted to try one more winery for the day. We had asked Julie’s brother Patrick which was one of his favorites and we were told to check out Porter Creek Winery. The short drive was absolutely beautiful. If you have ever seen shows or movies set in Napa/Sonoma counties you should know that the real-life version is just as beautiful. Porter Creek Winery turned out to be a lot of fun. The tasting room building was very old and constructed of Red Wood logs (illegal to do today but legal when the building was constructed). We had a great tasting with the rose and pinot noir being our favorite. This winery was very small compared to Trattore Farms. As the room was full, we started chatting with the people around us; all turned out to be from outside of California. After leaving the tasting room we walked around the vineyards for a while enjoying walking down the rows of grape vines and feeling the sun on our faces.
From Porter Creek we drove south to Petaluma and to the Petaluma KOA, our campground for the night. It had been a great two days in Northern California. This area of the state is really amazing. Dramatic Coastline, some of the largest trees in the world, mountains, desert, rivers, valleys and some of the best wine in the world; California really might have it all!
Next up….We head to Monterey to visit an old friend and check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium!