Friend of Well + Away and inspiring outdoor adventurer Veronica Baas recently visited California for a long weekend of healthy road tripping to explore her favorite outdoor destinations along the 101 and Route 1. Below, she shares her trip notes, from the most stunning national parks and vegan eateries along the way, to the tourist attractions that really are worth a pit-stop.
by Guest Contributor Veronica Baas
As a native Coloradan and newly branded Arizonan, I love getting out of the desert to visit the west coast. And as a technical marketer and burgeoning engineer I need to trade screens outdoor green to feel balanced. And when I say outdoors, I mean outside in the woods running, hiking or swimming. Basically, what meditation does for some of my friends, a hike does for me. A non-rushed, multi-day drive down the 101 freeway, stopping to explore national and state parks along the way, is one of my favorite self-care, slow-living rituals.
Driving from the top of California, like, say, in Redwood country, to the tip, say in San Diego for margaritas, takes roughly 14 hours. To give myself enough time to enjoy it and soak in as much nature as I can, I give myself a period of three or four nights for the drive, depending on how much PTO I have to spare. I’ll pick one or two major cities I want to hit along the way, as well as stops for hot springs and can’t miss trailheads. All of this gets mapped along a paper map to ensure I don’t get overexcited by any far-flung trails and stray too far from my route.
Read on for one of my favorite routes down the 101, with stops along the way to get out and explore some of the most beautiful Northern California outdoors.
1. Redwood National and State Parks
If you’re flying in, the adventure begins at the small California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport, just 30 minutes from the national forest visitor center. There’s something magical about seeing the country’s tallest trees tower over a horizon of full-on ocean..
The redwood protected area is made up of four state parks: Redwood national park, Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods state parks. The entire territory lies within two counties, Del Norte and Humboldt. One of my favorite places to explore within the state parks is Fern Canyon. Or, if you’re strapped for time, the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail is a solid option for shorter hikes. It’s not too steep, and the trees are gorgeous. You’ll see tons of full-grown redwoods as well as old, hollowed-out trees.
2. Russian Gulch State Park
After nearly four hours of driving, stop off at Corners of the Mouth organic grocery store in Mendocino to grab healthy picnic items for a hike up to the Russian Gulch State Park waterfall. Skip the heavily trafficked loop and find a shorter hike only one mile or so each way off of Road 409. Park where the pavement ends and go behind the horse camp gates to find this trailhead. The hiking itself should only take you 30 or so minutes round trip but the majestic atmosphere is a nice place to stop and take a few deep breaths. You can also camp, bike, hike, kayak, or dive elsewhere in the park. Anyone who has plenty of time should stop and stay for a few days, but at the very least the falls are a must-see.
If you do take the Google-recommended route, remember to bring cash for an $8 admission fee that goes to maintain the park. This area was easy for me to fall in love with, so I ended up sticking nearby and heading to the Mendocino Headlands state park next, conveniently located in the same county. The headlands trail is a fun 4-mile hike with cliffside ocean views and gorgeous wildflowers to marvel at. Dogs are welcome here, too.
3. Lands End Labyrinth
Hop back in the car and head south for three more hours to San Francisco. I like to stop by one major city on these drives, to treat myself to a great meal and just a touch of hustle bustle (though I still try to keep myself from looking at my inbox). Here, I’ll often find myself headed to dinner at healthy restaurants such as vegan sushi spot Shizen or raw-friendly but not totally raw Nourish Cafe. And for an afternoon of slow-paced exploring, I love visiting the deYoung, San Francisco’s contemporary museum that’s surrounded by Golden Gate Park. Or Lands End Labyrinth, a locals’ favorite hike that sits on the northern tip of town.
If you do make it out to Land’s End, you’ll find one of my favorite San Francisco secrets: an oceanside labyrinth, at the literal land’s end. In the mornings and at sunset you might catch a few visitors meditating or practicing yoga here, I’ve yet to find a time of day where it’s not completely stunning. Though of course sunrise and sunset are peak prettiness. While in town, don’t forget to check out Well + Away’s favorite vegan meals in San Francisco, as well as some of my own favorite tasty vegan restaurants.
4. The Mystery Spot
The next morning, time to hit the road again, this time for a two hour drive south of San Francisco to the Mystery Spot, a mysterious site riddled with gravity phenomenon just north of Santa Cruz. The museum is hidden in the mountains though each time I visit it seems more and more people are discovering this little natural wonder. Fun fact: a few years back California native Lorin Ashton, aka Bassnectar, made a track called The Mystery Spot.
Within the gravitational anomaly you can lean fully forward without falling over or watch lighter objects hang in mid-air.
5. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Head south for another two and a half hours until you hit Big Sur State Park. This stop might be a household name around the world, and for good reason. It’s too beautiful to skip if you’re passing by. Visiting this luxe, coastal town is a nice way to slow down and relax after a busy visit to SF. The town is home to less than 1,000 people, but the plant-based bites at the Big Sur Bakery compete with vegan hot spots in the city. I recommend the veggie saute with baby zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, and fennel confit or the creamy vegan risotto.
After an energizing meal it’s time to hit the trail again. This park boasts six popular trails ranging in length from a half mile to the most advanced, eight-mile Mt. Manuel Trail. For a good middle point in difficulty and a local favorite try the Valley View and Pfeiffer Falls trail. It’s an intermediate hike, three miles long that brings you to a 60-foot waterfall.
The state park itself is famous for its misty views, steep cliffs, and rocky shorelines. It is also formally known as the longest undeveloped coastline in the U.S, which should not come as a surprise with such endless vistas on hiking trails and from campgrounds. Before packing up, be sure to spend an hour or two sunbathing and swimming at Pfeiffer Beach.
6. Hearst Castle
Worth a slight detour off of the 101, and three hours south of Big Sur, is Hearst Castle, one of my favorite architectural landmarks in the state. If time allows, be sure to take a scenic detour via CA-1 and stop at Slates Hot Springs while en route. The mansion itself is notable for its extravagant decor, both ocean and mountain views, and its iconic indoor and outdoor pools. Both pools are gorgeous but the indoor pool reminds me of something you’d find in a European castle. The Hearst Castle attract millions of visitors every year, so brave the crowds and you’ll be rewarded with a pretty mind-blowing architectural experience.
If you’re feeling peckish after your visit, pop down to Centrally Grown in downtown San Simeon for a wide variety of organic and vegan options. If you do choose to splurge on a meal onsite at the castle, know that most ingredients used are organic and locally-sourced. Plant-based options include a sweet and sour tofu, roasted artichoke, roasted butternut organic squash, and more.
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Please let me know what you think about my favorite road trip here. Taking time to get out and explore the outdoors and breathe in non-city air has such a big impact on my stress levels and happiness, and I hope you find it helps you, too.. For more details on route and drive time, check out the map!