As is usually the way, plans for a free weekend are started on a Wednesday, which means that options are slim as more organised people have already made bookings and reservations for campsites several months in advance. It’s not to say that it’s impossible to be spontaneous and last minute – it’s just that you’re definitely limited to what is available.
Camping was off the table, but there were still many options for (affordable) accommodation far enough away from SF that makes it interesting, but close enough that it’s not a weekend spent driving. The happy medium between these landed in the Mendocino region.
I’ve been north of SF as far as Tomales Bay and Point Reyes several times now (hello, Hog Island Oyster Co and your smoky Jack Daniels BBQ’d oysters and impossible weekend picnic reservations), but never any further.
I rented a car through Getaround (a lovely mini), and blasted out of the city just after lunch, stopping for mandatory In-n-Out burger once outside the city limits – double double animal style, for those after my recommendation of off-menu-items. It amazes me how quickly after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge the area turns into wilderness. Suddenly (OK, not that sudden, but a short-ish drive) the roads are single lane, the houses give way to rolling hills covered in golden grass, and the skies clear up, free of Karl’s grip on San Francisco. The ocean dips in and out of view, as the road winds its way inland and back to the coast. The Mini was the perfect choice for these near constant twists and tight-yet-flowing turns.
I may have binged on fast food, but it’d be a crime to pass Tomales Bay without buying some oysters. As parking is easier (and had no plans to stop and picnic now), we stopped at the Tomales Bay Oyster Company and grabbed a dozen small oysters – and, small is a relative term here, as they are still most definitely a mouthful. They loaded the bag up with ice, and I continued the drive up north, into fresh territory.
The road once again joins the Pacific around Bodega Bay, and from here, the views are some of the best I’ve enjoyed in California. It’s as dramatic as any of the views in Big Sur (OK, but without the waterfalls) or Marin, but without the people. It seemed that there were endless rocky coves filled with dark sandy beaches. It was early October, and the skies were as perfect as you could ask, free of haze or cloud, and the bright sun actually providing some very welcome warmth.
The road continued to wend and wind, opening up fresh variations on the same theme, never feeling repetitive or monotonous. I’d almost go as far as saying this is a far more enjoyable drive than Big Sur.
The sun did its thing, which meant that as we continued to drive, it continued to reach towards the horizon. Wanting to enjoy the spectacle that is a California sunset over the sea, we stopped by a small beach, and I began shucking oysters.
With the hard (nerve wracking) work shucking out of the way, it was time to relax, eat, and enjoy the light show. I’ve gone from several minutes per oyster, to opening several per minute, which goes to show that and old dog can learn new tricks.
It might not have been the most photogenic of coves along this stretch of coastline, but it was more than adequate, as was more of an accompanying rhythm section to the melody of the skies. Thankfully the trail back to the car wasn’t too long or difficult, as I’d spent time staring at the thin red line of the western horizon, not paying attention to the darkness in the sky in all other directions.
As I mentioned earlier, all the good camping options were reserved long ago, by folks that are organised, so instead, I managed to find a cheap-ish hotel a little south of Mendocino. To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for camping anyway, with no tent, no air mattress, no cooking equipment, so the cost of renting for the weekend didn’t make any financial sense, either. Plus, as you can see by my down jacket, it’s not summer any more – though, in retrospect, I still frequently need this on summer evenings in SF.
The accommodation had information about a nearby private beach, so, we went to go have a look first thing. There was no signage or indication, other than the well-worn trail from people walking down to this quite cove. Much like most of the coves yesterday, it was rocky, with dark sand, and many smaller rocky islands off the coast. Unlike yesterday, I wasn’t just enjoy them blast past at 60kph while I drove north. This was definitely a ‘look don’t touch’ kind of beach – at least in the chilly temperatures this morning.
I was getting hungry, which meant we needed to drive on to Mendocino proper.
I have a bit of an obsession for old wooden barns, so when I saw these from the road, I slammed on the brakes and pulled over to go check them out. I can’t get enough of the texture, colour and shape of these old buildings, especially when situated somewhere as beautiful as this, with nothing but blue skies, grass, and far off ocean shores surrounding it.
The actual town of Mendocino had an interesting feel to it, with old wooden buildings and a real backwater vibe. Sure, there were cafes and a seemingly infinite number of art studios, but still it had a sleepy feel to it. I’d initially wanted to go hike in the redwoods, but the main area was too far north. Instead, I settled for a nice walk around the headlands here in Mendocino. You couldn’t ask for more pleasant weather, with cool gentle breezes, warm sunshine, and perfectly clear skies.
There is a small coastal trail that hugs the top of the cliff, with dozens of new and varied coves, with sandy beaches, weathered arches, and interesting kelp growths.
I’d kept the hunger pains at bay by gnawing on protein/muesli bars, but now that the walk around the peninsular was complete, it was time to eat real food (and coffee) at one of the small cafes in town and stare out at the beautiful wooden buildings in town.
But, as I was nearly 300km from home, and with it now being mid-afternoon, it was time to start the return journey home. Even though it was the same route, I was now facing the opposite direction, so it mostly felt fresh. Plus, it was so beautiful and vast, I didn’t care if it was repeating itself.
The driving was much slower than I’d thought (not helped by getting out to go for walks to explore some of the beaches) which meant sunset was also much earlier than I had expected. Thankfully there were no shortages of places to pull over and enjoy the views. This time it was near Bodega Bay, and by chance had stopped somewhere a little prettier than yesterday.
It was yet another gorgeous sunset over the sea, and even though now I’ve seen countless others (it was a real novelty coming from the east coast of Australia) I’m still as in awe as the first time. California doesn’t fail to impress, and there is still so much more to see and do – like finally make it up to the redwoods just north of here!
Oh, and one final treat. The only good thing about returning from a holiday north of SF is returning back across the Golden Gate Bridge. As with the sunsets over the sea, even though I’ve cycled across this bridge countless times, there is something amazing about driving underneath the towering golden arches.