Who’s ready for a road trip?
Not the boring kind along endless highways. We’re talking about a road trip to the most amazing Northern California coastal towns.
Unlike the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean – which these coastal towns hug – the borderline between Southern California and Northern California is pretty muddy.
However, the one thing about the Northern California coast that everyone can agree on is the natural beauty. It’s unparalleled and prime for a summer road trip (a spring or fall road trip too).
Everyone knows Los Angeles. And we all love San Francisco. How could you not?
But when you want to explore a bit more off-the-beaten-path, you need to check out these 15 best beach towns in Northern California.
Best Northern California coastal towns
Our tour begins south and winds its way north.
California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway (also called Highway 1) actually begins just north of San Diego and winds all the way up the coast, a little beyond Mendocino. There, it merges with Highway 101 before crossing over into Oregon.
We start our road trip in Northern California in Morro Bay (3 hours north of Los Angeles) and end near the Oregon border, in a village you’ve probably never heard of.
1) Morro Bay
Morro Bay is a charming little coastal town of about 11,000. The bay is a protected harbor and marine sanctuary, so its wildlife spotting opportunities are endless.
Depending on when you visit, you can go on a whale watching expedition to spot humpbacks, gray whales, blue whales, orcas and, of course, dolphins.
If that’s not enough, saunter along the historic Embarcadero, and you’ll probably see otters and sea lions playing in the waves. If you want to get up close and personal to them, rent a kayak and before you know it, you’ll be watching them frolic around you.
For casual waterfront dining on the Embarcadero, try the clam chowder, fish tacos or sea scallops at Tognazzini’s Dockside. Or enjoy the heated patio at Galley Seafood Grill and Bar, with a picture-perfect view of the bay (go for the blackened halibut special if on the menu).
Also head over to the Morro Bay State Park for bird spotting in the brackish water marshes. Then, test your flying skills by windsurfing in the Morro Strand State Beach, or check out the Museum of Natural History.
Morro Bay is the perfect place to start your tour of beach towns in Northern California.
Just 9 minutes north of Morro Bay is Cayucos, a tiny town of about 2,600 people.
Now, it may be small, but this quaint coastal town is big on personality – and one of the cutest Northern California beach towns. It’s like stepping back in time.
One of the best things to do in Cayucos is stroll along the 950-foot wooden pier, lined by fisherman vying for the daily catch.
As a quintessential beach town, Cayucos is also an excellent place to get your surf on. Or, at the very least, take a lesson or two.
Try the Good Clean Fun surf shop; lessons include a wetsuit, which you’ll definitely need!
Antiques and murals:
Cayucos is Americana at its finest.
So it’s a great town for antique shopping. Twice a year, usually around May and October, there are antique fairs. Plan your trip accordingly if you’re a collector.
One unique thing about Cayucos is the collection of large murals peppering walls throughout the town. The town is only five square miles, so it’s ideal for a self-guided Cayucos mural tour.
Don’t leave Cayucos without buying some cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company.
They built their reputation on their original brown butter sea salt cookies. But truthfully, all are delish, whether you pick the chocolate shortbread, lemon or cinnamon – and they make great road trip snacks!
3) San Simeon
Next up on your tour of seaside towns in Northern California is San Simeon. It’s only 30 minutes north of Cayucos, but worlds apart.
Where Cayucos is small-town Americana, San Simeon is home to the iconic Hearst Castle, a symbol of fame and fortune.
Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst took three decades to create the castle, and when he left in 1947, it still wasn’t complete. With 123 acres of gardens and 165 rooms, it’s easy to spend a good part of a day there.
Egyptian sculptures adorn the courtyards. Bedrooms have Art Deco ceilings. Original 16th century tapestries hang on the walls, and the indoor pool is decorated with hand-cut Murano tiles from Italy.
Hearst Castle may be one of the most over-the-top things to see on the Pacific Coast Highway. But it’s well worth a visit. Just reserve your tickets in advance.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery:
There’s more to do too on this Pacific Coast stop.
You also have elephant seals to giggle at in the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, about 7 miles north of San Simeon.
These super awkward blubber-lumps hang around at Point Piedras Blancas Beach, sunning themselves. They’re called elephant seals because their noses look like a stubby elephant’s trunk.
Visit between January to March, and they’ll have their baby blubber-lumps with them too.
The colony has grown to about 25,000 elephant seals along an 8-mile-long stretch of coastline.
And, here’s a cool factoid: It’s the only elephant seal rookery in the world that’s free and easily accessible to the public.
Do note that these aren’t tame mammals. Adult males can grow as big as 16 feet and weigh a whopping 5,000 pounds – not a creature you want to mess with.
Don’t try to feed them or snap a selfie with one. Not only can you get in legal trouble, but they also have massive incisors that can crush bones in seconds.
Instead, stay on the boardwalk and snap your IG pics from a distance.
Monterey is one of the best Northern California beach towns to visit.
To reach Monterey, you drive about 95 miles north up the coast from San Simeon.
Theoretically, that should take about 2.5 hours. But we promise you, it will take a lot longer.
Big Sur Highway:
The extraordinary landscape and ocean views along the Pacific Coast Highway, especially near Big Sur, are breathtaking. You can’t help but stop for pictures.
The Bixby Creek Bridge, for example, is one of the most photographed bridges in California.
The Big Sur Coast Highway is ranked one of the prettiest highways in the world for a reason.
Monterey Bay Aquarium:
When you do reach Monterey, head straight to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s the aquarium to end all aquariums.
Not only is it a wildlife refuge returning rescued marine life to the ocean, its conservation efforts are front and center.
See sharks, rays, sea otters, local bay pipefishes (which look like green eelgrass), an amazing variety of jellies and more!
Besides the aquarium, Monterey is known for Cannery Row, the street made famous by John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel of the same name.
Today, it’s worthy of a stroll for all the restaurants, hotels and shops housed in former sardine cannery buildings.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf:
Then continue your stroll to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Built in 1846, it’s now also home to several seafood eateries and stores.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, don’t miss Carousel Candies.
They’ve been making salt water taffy for more than 47 years. Or indulge your inner child and buy a handmade caramel apple or bag of gummies to munch on while strolling.
Want to go whale watching on your Northern California coast road trip? Correct answer: Yes!
Monterey Bay is probably the premier spot in the U.S. to see whales. It’s also one of the only places in the world where you can see whales year-round.
Close to shore, the Monterey Canyon is a deep submarine canyon that attracts lots of marine life like dolphins, porpoises and, of course, whales.
You see mainly migrating humpback whales from spring to fall. Gray whales are spotted from December to mid-May. Orcas (killer whales) can be seen mid-April to mid-May and then again August to October. And the best time to see blue whales is July and August.
Here’s a top-rated whale watching tour (operated by Discovery Whale Watch) that leaves from the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Whale sightings are guaranteed.
5) Santa Cruz
Some 40 minutes north of Monterey is the quirky Northern California coastal town of Santa Cruz. It’s got an old-school beach town vibe, blended with a happening brewery scene populated by the university crowd.
The town is snuggled between the giant redwood forests that tower over everything in the area and the beach.
One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz is hang out on the boardwalk. Not only are there shops, there are roller coasters, arcades, restaurants, mini-golf, laser tag and a bowling alley. So, it’s kind of a big deal.
There’s a lot of nature to be had, so enjoy it.
6) Half Moon Bay
Drive north for an hour, and you’ll hit Half Moon Bay. It’s a must-see stop on your tour of Northern California coastal towns!
If you’re a surfer, you’re in luck. The waves at Mavericks Beach can reach up to 60 feet and are legendary.
The town used to hold a big-wave international surfing competition, but it’s been canceled in the last few years. The waves weren’t massive enough for the surfers.
That doesn’t mean newbies should try their luck on this beach. Monster waves have returned like crazy since the start of 2021. The waves are strong enough to knock you silly if you don’t know what you’re doing.
To keep it a little tamer, head to the JV Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and go tide pooling. But be sure to do it at low tide.
If you’re a landlubber, choose from one of the nine state parks in the area to get your hike on.
Or walk or jog the easy 3.5-mile partly-paved and partly-natural Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail for unparalleled ocean views. If you go in spring, you’ll find a sea of yellow wildflowers in bloom.
Half Moon Bay is all that – plus the town itself is adorable with loads of seafood restaurants right on the water. Don’t miss Sam’s Chowder House, known for their finger-licking-good lobster rolls.
About 20 minutes north of Half Moon Bay is a tiny hidden gem of a town called Pacifica (one of the cutest beach towns near San Francisco).
Pacifica is a charming and underrated surf town – with the tremendous honor of having the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. That’s right… in the world!
It’s right on the beach. So, if washing down your chalupa with a mountain dew margarita isn’t enough, you get to watch the surfers as you do it.
But after you fill up on tacos, take a hike through wetlands and up the infamous Bootlegger’s Steps in Mori Point. On second thought, maybe it’s better to hike first, then fill up later.
Joking aside, you don’t have to eat at the Taco Bell.
Pacifica has other restaurants too, like Breakers (for breakfast, brunch or lunch) and Nick’s Rockaway, a local institution. (But don’t miss at least seeing the Taco Bell – coz it really is beautiful in a boho Cali kind of way.)
As for hiking, there are actually quite a few hikes in the area, none of them too challenging. Most are just a few miles of rolling hills, oceanside bluffs and colorful wildflowers – not bad for a day trip in San Fran’s backyard.
8) Stinson Beach
Some 24 miles north of San Francisco is the booming metropolis of Stinson Beach – all 630 people of it! What it lacks in size, though, it makes up for in nature.
It’s one of the only swimming beaches in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Now, the water might be a tad cold (certainly not like the warm beaches in Kauai, Hawaii!).
But the beach is wide and flat with the softest sand. It stretches for 3.5 miles, so if you’re looking for a long romantic stroll on the beach, you’ve found it.
Otherwise, take a hike in the Point Reyes National Seashore, just a few minutes north of town.
Another option is this exclusive 5-hour, food-and-farm tour of the local farms, bakeries, organic cheeseries and other artisan food operations around Tomales Bay. The tour, which includes lunch, starts at Point Reyes Station.
Hey, beach babes! Check out our post on the most beautiful beaches in the world!
9) Bodega Bay
On your way to Bodega Bay, just outside the town of Inverness, make a pitstop at the Cypress Tree Tunnel (in the Point Reyes National Seashore).
Monterey cypress branches have grown over the road here, creating a tunnel effect. It’s a pretty popular spot for photographers, so try to get there early before the crowds if you want an Insta-perfect pic.
And then, back on Highway 1, pop into The Marshall Store.
It’s the place to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway if you’re craving oysters.
Down them barbecued, Rockefeller style or raw and on ice. Some people even drive miles out of their way to sit outside by the water, often in the fog, to get their Marshall’s oyster hit.
From The Marshall Store, you’re now only about 30 minutes away from the town of Bodega Bay.
Bodega Bay personifies a sleepy fishing village with only about 100 full-time residents.
Maybe the tiny population has something to do with The Birds. Not the lovely chirpy kind. We’re talking about the Alfred Hitchcock cult classic movie from 1963.
It was filmed in Bodega Bay, and the small white church and schoolhouse featured in the film are still there as a tribute.
The protected waters of the bay make for good bodyboarding, surfing, kayaking and sailing. Also, the cliffs along the coastline are good spots for whale watching.
And since you’re in Sonoma County, you might as well do some Sonoma wine tasting too.
The next stop is Gualala, a small town with an artsy vibe.
There must be something in the air (or maybe the water?) because Gualala has been attracting artists of all sorts for decades. Painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, photographers, you name it, it’s an absolute art mecca.
The city hosts five-yearly art festivals – try to time your trip around one of them.
- April/May – Whale and Jazz Festival
- May – Fine Arts Festival
- August – Art in the Redwoods
- September – Studio Discovery Tour
- November – Holiday Festival of Trees
Find out what art, music and theater events are going on by checking the non-profit Gualala Arts’ website.
However, it’s not all about the arts in Gualala.
The town is named after the river that flows through it and into the Pacific. So, if you’re there in the summer, rent a kayak and head upriver.
And about 30 minutes south of town is the Pygmy Forest in the Salt Point State Park.
The trees are mini – pines, redwoods and cypress. You’ll finally be a giant amongst the trees!
Despite some of the trees being more than a century old, the reasons for their stunted growth are the inhospitable soil and hardpan layer that prevents drainage.
Mendocino, one of the most popular coastal towns in Northern California, is a small village of about 1,000 people that oozes charm.
It’s a little over an hour north of Gualala and not to be missed – especially, if you’re a lover of wine and nature.
Some of the best Californian wines come from this area. It’s your civic duty to try them all! Ok, maybe not all, but for sure some.
Highway 128 is called the Wine Road, and that’s one of the best places to start.
- Roederer Estate – Go for the bubbles at Roederer Estate, owned by the French champagne maker, Louis Roederer (about a 40-minute drive from Mendocino on Highway 128).
- Navarro Vineyards – This winery is known for their Alsace varietal wines and beautiful grounds.
- Pennyroyal Farm and Winery – If you don’t mind driving an hour along Highway 128 from Mendocino, Pennyroyal Farm and Winery offers farm tours and cheese tastings, along with wine tastings (and their Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wines are excellent).
Other things to do in Mendocino:
The next day when your liver needs a rest, make your way to the water. There are natural sea caves that dot the coastline and are perfect for exploring by kayak.
Or head to the Russian Gulch State Park for a day-long hike that takes you to a 36-foot-tall waterfall.
If you’re a lighthouse lover, you’ll dig learning about the shipwrecks off the coast and local maritime history at the Point Arena Lighthouse museum, and you can see how lighthouse keepers and their families lived at the Point Cabrillo Light Station.
And of course, you can’t forget all the stunning beaches just waiting to be explored!
There are some notable fine dining spots in the Mendocino area too.
12) Fort Bragg
Fort Bragg is found 15 minutes north of Mendocino. Founded in 1857, the town is known for its garbage dump turned beach.
Glass Beach is one of the most unique places to visit in Northern California.
The name comes from… you guessed it – all the polished sea glass that covers the beach. Initially, the site was a garbage dump, and over the years, all the pounding waves turned the broken glass trash into treasure.
Unfortunately, it seems that people have been collecting the colorful glass and not leaving much for the next traveler. So, please do the right thing and leave the sea glass where it’s meant to be – on the shore.
And only go to Glass Beach at low tide, or you’ll miss all the good stuff!
Mendocino Botanical Garden:
Another not-to-be-missed site is the 47-acre Mendocino Botanical Garden.
Not only is it a fab spot for birders, but the rhododendron and carnivorous plant areas are also spectacular.
Do you go ga-ga over gardens? Then check out our epic list of the most beautiful gardens in the world!
13) Shelter Cove
Shelter Cove, another beautiful Northern California beach town, is quiet, a bit isolated and really off-the-beaten-path. It’s 2.5 hours north of Fort Bragg.
The drive alone is full of eye candy, and there are a few fabulous stops along the way.
Stop at the Richardson Grove State Park for a short but stunning walking loop in an old-growth redwood forest.
Shelter Cove is the gateway to the Lost Coast – California’s most natural and undeveloped area, with tons of hiking trails and black sand beaches. Head there at low tide and check out the tide pools.
An hour into the drive between Shelter Cove and Eureka is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Avenue of the Giants:
Veer off Highway 101 and drive down the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants. (It basically runs alongside Highway 101.)
The road winds through dense old-growth redwood trees that are centuries old and have never been logged. They’re tall as skyscrapers and some are almost as wide.
There’s even one tree you can drive your car through.
Eureka, you’re here!
In another hour, you’ll be in Eureka. Which you definitely need to say with excitement, every.damn.time. Is it even possible to say Eureka without getting excited and giggly? We don’t think so.
And you’re not supposed to. The town got its name from excited miners when they struck gold.
Today, Eureka (population 26,000) is known for the more than 100 Victorian buildings sprinkled throughout the old town.
The most unique home to see is the three-story Carson Mansion, considered one of the grandest Victorian homes in America.
It was built in 1884 in the Queen Anne Victorian architectural style by a lumber baron, William Carson – and it looks unlike anything else. Asymmetrical. Eclectic. A riot of turrets, cupolas, pillars and porches.
You can’t tour inside the mansion (as it’s privately owned), but feel free to gawk and take photos from the sidewalk.
No, not the Caribbean island. In California, Trinidad is a tiny picturesque hamlet with a population of about 370. It’s about 1.5 hours south of the Oregon border.
Because Trinidad is not on most people’s list of best California coastal towns, it’s a great place to get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature.
Admire the stars, go beachcombing at Moonstone Beach, hike the Trinidad Headland Trail and head to the Trinidad State Beach at low tide.
If you’re a birder, the town and its stunning rugged coastline area, Trinidad Rocks, has one of California’s most diverse colonies of seabirds.
And about 20 minutes north is Redwood National Park, where you can get your last taste of the giant beauties before leaving California.
The end of your trip exploring the best small Northern California coastal towns
Now, you could drive from Trinidad another 62 miles up to Crescent City, which is the northernmost place in California. But once you’ve got your fill of the redwood forests, it’s not necessary.
And for this road trip, we think Trinidad is the perfect place to end your tour of quaint towns in Northern California. Because, well, it really is one of the quaintest towns around!
Not to mention that it’s also quiet and calm – a true respite before your West Coast holiday comes to an end.
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Photo credits: 15 to 17 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 7 Visit Cayucos | 9 Friends of the Elephant Seal Organization | 25 The Marshall Store | 27 Gualala Arts