The Lone Cypress (credit: Randy Yagi)
With the busy tourist season over and gas prices heading back down towards winter levels, now might be a great opportunity to head out for a leisurely road trip. Whether you're planning a day trip, a weekend getaway or an extended vacation, there are many fascinating destinations you can consider, all within a four-hour drive of the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are just five of the best scenic drives worth exploring, including a few that are a little off the beaten track.
With magnificent ocean views along practically every stretch along the way, 17-Mile Drive is one of the world's most famous scenic drives. Located just south of Monterey, the picturesque road actually has a Bay Area connection, having been built for horse carriages by the 19th-century railroad barons known as the Big Four, who owned palatial mansions in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood. One of the most famous natural landmarks along 17-Mile Drive is the Lone Cypress, considered one of the most photographed trees in North America, and certainly one of the most recognizable. 17-Mile Drive is also well known as the location for some of the world's finest golf courses, such as Cypress Point and Pebble Beach, along with world-famous luxury hotels like the Lodge at Pebble Beach and the Inn at Spanish Bay. A road trip from the Peninsula takes about two hours one way. There are two primary entrances to 17-Mile Drive, via the Pacific Grove gate or the Carmel gate.
Heading south from 17-Mile Drive is another spectacular drive along Highway 1 to Big Sur. The trip typically averages one hour one-way, but there are exceptional spots for photo opportunities along the rugged Pacific Coast. Recommended stops include Point Lobos, Garrapata State Park and the world-famous Bixby Bridge. Once in Big Sur, plan on making a stop at Ripplewood Resort for some snacks, or dine at places like Sierra Mar at the incomparable Post Ranch Inn, the Restaurant at Ventana or the must-see Nepenthe Restaurant four miles further south. Also in Big Sur is Pfeiffer State Park, best known for its towering coastal redwood groves and diverse collection of plant and wildlife.
While a road trip through Mendocino County will be at least two hours one-way, there's a wealth of hidden gems that makes a visit worthwhile. The most scenic trip begins in Ukiah with a stop at Nelson Family Vineyards before heading north to Willis on Highway 101, then heading west on Highway 20 on a road less traveled than its other Wine Country counterparts. This stretch of backcountry road passes through a large portion of Jackson State Forest before filtering onto the spectacular Mendocino Coast, between the picturesque communities of Fort Bragg and Mendocino. For wine lovers, a recommended return trip from the Mendocino Coast is via Highway 128, through the communities of Navarro, Philo, Boonville and Yorkville, where are large cluster of the county's best wineries can be found, such as Roederer Estate and Navarro Vineyards. Just recently, Mendocino County was selected as one of this year's top 10 wine destinations in the world by Wine Enthusiast.
October is a perfect time year to visit the enchanting Napa Valley. Although the harvest season in one of the world's most important wine regions began quite early this year, it's expected to continue into October. The fall season also signals the appearance of endless flows of colorful grapevines with dazzling shades of red and yellow. It's also a time of year when traffic along Highway 29 is far more manageable than it is during the peak tourist season. With a wealth of attractions to enjoy along the way, some of the best are Oxbow Public Market, Bouchon Bakery and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. There's also world-renowned restaurants like The French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood, along with more than 400 outstanding wineries, including Castello di Amorosa, Beaulieu Vineyard, Domaine Chandon and Chateau Montelana. A nice alternative to the more touristy Highway 29 is along the historic Silverado Trail, connecting Napa to Calistoga.
The Napa Valley is often regarded as the premier destination in the North Bay. However, a scenic drive through neighboring Sonoma Valley must not be overlooked, especially for those looking for a trip with less traffic but comparable amounts of charm and natural beauty. Moreover, what may surprise some Peninsula travelers is that the Sonoma Valley actually has more wineries than Napa Valley, offers more wine varietals, and is the birthplace of the California wine industry. Recommendations for a scenic drive from the Peninsula include a trip from the Barlow in Sebastopol to Bodega Bay via Highway 12, Sebastopol to Jenner via Highway 116 and Highway 12 from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. Among great locations to consider as a rest spot through the Sonoma Valley are the historic Sonoma Plaza, Jack London State Historic Park, Luther Burbank Home and Gardens and the Charles M. Shulz Museum. Lastly, here are a few recommendations for wineries to visit in the Sonoma Valley — Buena Vista Winery, Benzinger Family Winery, Korbel Champagne Cellars, Francis Ford Coppola Winery and St. Francis Winery.
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com
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