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This Northern California road trip takes you to gems beyond San Francisco

A GIF shows a moving dotted line and flashing colors on a coastal roadway.
A view of the Coast Highway along the Sonoma Coast near Jewell Gulch.
(Photo by Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. In the past, the nearly 500 miles between L.A. and Sea Ranch, a coastal hideaway between Santa Rosa and Mendocino, may have deterred Angelenos from making the trip. But these days, lots of L.A. travelers are unable to resist the dream destination.

“You might wonder why anyone would spend a whole day driving north, past Malibu, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Cambria, Big Sur and Carmel, past the Bay Area and out to Highway 1 to reach a private, unincorporated community,” Times contributor Julie Wolfson wrote in a story last week. “The answer is, there’s no other place like it.”

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll learn more about Sea Ranch and find additional stops for a Northern California road trip starting in the Bay Area and ending at Point Arena.

What are your favorite places to visit up north? Let me know, and I may feature them in a future edition of Escapes.

Take a ride at the birthplace of mountain biking

A bicyclist in a helmet rides on a grassy hill. In the distance is a stunning orange bridge, a bay and a city beyond.
A cyclist takes in the view of the Golden Gate Bridge at Mt. Tamalpais in the San Francisco Bay Area.
(Alex Roch / Shutterstock)

Heading north from San Francisco, your first stop is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge: Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds included the Marin County site on his list of the 40 best California outdoor experiences last year. “Whether you’re on foot or knobby tires,” he wrote, “Mt. Tamalpais State Park, cradle of mountain-biking innovation in the 1970s, is full of options, including fire roads and multi-use trails.”

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If you’re interested in mountain biking in one of the places where the Larkspur Canyon Gang teens rode their bikes — and spurred the sport’s growth — there are plenty of rental spots nearby. (For example, Split Rock Tap and Wheel charges $50 per day for a hardtail trail bike).

Reynolds recommends hiking or riding along the Dias Ridge Trail, especially if you fancy finding a slice of the United Kingdom in California. You’ll end at Muir Beach by the Pelican Inn, which has seven guest rooms and a facsimile of a 16th century English pub with a menu full of beers, ales and hearty British dishes.

Cap off the adventure with a trip to the Marin Museum of Bicycling, home of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

Search for wildlife amid the fog at Point Reyes National Seashore

Illustrations of a Tule elk, humpback whale and an elephant seal over an image of clear water.
A view of Tomales Bay from California’s Point Reyes National Seashore.
(Photo by Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times)

Don’t be disappointed if you encounter some mist on a trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, roughly a half-hour drive north of Mt. Tamalpais.

When Times contributor Rosemary McClure visited in 2016, she was hoping to see the Point Reyes Lighthouse at sunset. Instead, she encountered this sign: “99% chance of fog tonight,” it advised, followed by the postscript: “This is likely an underestimation.”

Makes sense, considering Point Reyes is one of the foggiest places in all of North America.

“I must admit it was pretty, though, in a fairy-tale sort of way,” McClure wrote. Plus, she had a stunning consolation prize: the opportunity to see spotted humpback whales, elephant seals and Tule elk as she explored the beaches and forest trails.

The United Nations designated Point Reyes — home to more than 50 threatened, rare or endangered species — as an International Biosphere Reserve due to its unique biological communities, McClure reported.

Now is an ideal time to visit for those hoping to see gray whales during their migration. Late April and early May, you may see mothers and calves close to shore, according to the National Park Service.

Fall in love with Sea Ranch, like so many travelers have before

Illustrations of pastel clouds are superimposed on a photo of a dramatic seashore with a blocky brown building.
Condominium One at Sea Ranch is built on a bluff on the Sonoma Coast in Northern California.
(Photo by Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times)

“No palm trees, no flower beds, no prettiness.” That’s what Sea Ranch co-founder and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin wrote in the 2004 book “The Sea Ranch,” explaining the original vision for the private coastal community less than two hours north of Santa Rosa.

The cluster of Modernist houses, sandstone cliffs and redwood forests “often feels otherworldly,” writes Wolfson. At the very least, it seems a world away from the manicured lawns of Southern California.

That’s why so many Angelenos are happy to drive north nearly 500 miles to visit.

“For some, the Sea Ranch is an idealized architecture park. For others, a marvel of sustainable living with an ecological ethos,” Wolfson writes. “For me, it’s a sanctuary.”

Interested in making the trip yourself? Wolfson recommends renting a home there for a few days. Rentals start at around $275 a night, with a two- or three-night minimum.

In addition to reveling amid the pristine nature surrounding the rentals, Wolfson mentions horseback riding at Ross Ranch, picking up breads and pastries at Twofish Baking and renting kayaks from Adventure Rents to explore the Gualala River.

In case you needed further enticement, spring is lamb season at Sea Ranch; visitors have the chance to see lambs and their mothers “grazing to reduce fire hazards in the cutest way possible.”

Another recommendation from Wolfson? Point Arena Lighthouse, 20 miles up the coast.

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Soak in the view at Point Arena, or book a stay near the lighthouse

A rocky coastline with bluffs and white-capped waves.
The Stornetta Public Lands are along the Mendocino County coastline just north of the town of Point Arena.
(Tai Power Seeff / Getty Images)

Built in 1870, the Point Arena Lighthouse offers a look at the California coast’s maritime history, as well as a front-row seat for whale watchers year round.

In addition to the lighthouse’s sprawling 23 acres, the adjacent Point Arena-Stornetta section of the California Coastal National Monument has plenty of hiking trails for anyone trying to break a sweat.

The indoor and outdoor museums are open daily (site visits cost $5 for people 12 and older), and visitors who love the idea of lighthouse living might consider booking an overnight stay.

The historic “keeper’s quarters are available for guests, with a fireplace or wood-burning stove included in most of the cottages. Local wine and chocolates (as well as kindling for the rooms with stoves) are complimentary.

Accommodations at the lighthouse begin at $180 per night.

If you love your stay at Point Arena, keep in mind that it’s one of several lighthouse stays available in California. (You could make it your goal to stay at them all!)

Once you reach Point Arena, you might feel ready to venture back to Southern California. Or maybe you’ll feel hooked by the magic of “Mendonoma” (a.k.a. the Sonoma Mendocino coast).

If it’s the latter, here are 22 Northern California gems compiled by Reynolds, beginning in Mendocino County.

An illustration of a butterfly sitting atop the letters "Q&A".
(Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles TImes)

Wandering and wondering

This question was posted on the #AskLosAngeles subreddit last month: “Where is the best place to camp on the way up to Mammoth from L.A.?”

With the natural arches and rock climbing opportunities, Alabama Hills (right outside Lone Pine) seems like a a great place to pitch a tent for the night — especially for those who love Joshua Tree’s desert charm. Plus, campers wake to views of the Sierra Nevada’s eastern slope towering above.

The Bureau of Land Management recommends staying at sites such as the BLM Tuttle Creek Campground and the Inyo National Forest Lone Pine Campground.

Do you have any travel-related questions? Send them my way!

🎸 Road song

"Superstar,” by Beach House. Play it as you drive through Salt Point State Park on your way to Sea Ranch.


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