Did you know that the human eye can detect more shades of green than any other color? Test your vision: California is at its greenest in March and April. If you’re thinking about a road trip, there’s no time like the present to explore the verdant landscapes beyond the megalopolis.
The destination is unimportant. You could drive any road in the state, and it would be beautiful—even I-5 looks good. But for maximum aesthetics, find winding country roads and take your time. Surrender results and enjoy the journey. The following trips are laid out in order of length, with the shortest one first.
Road Trip #1: Coastal Overlooks
You can’t beat the San Mateo Coast for verdant springtime splendor—and you can do it in an afternoon. Rolling hills rise from the craggy coast, covered with different species of grass that create a patchwork of subtly different hues. Chase the margin of green along the old stagecoach route, Stage Rd, from San Gregorio to Pescadero. Then continue south along Cloverdale Rd, past picturesque horse farms lined with white split-rail fences. At Gazos Creek Rd, turn right to Hwy 1 north.
Travel time from SF: 60 minutes to San Gregorio, via I-280 south to Hwy 1 south in Pacifica.
What to See: The Pigeon Point Lighthouse, on your return trip north up Hwy 1.
Where to Eat: Duarte’s Tavern, a country-Americana roadhouse in Pescadero.
Where to Pack a Picnic: The San Gregorio Store, a frozen-in-time 19th-century general store.
Road Trip #2: Redwood Forests and Coastal Vistas
Like a plein-air painting come to life, the electric-green hills of West County Sonoma are dotted with goats and cows grazing the knee-high grass. Bring your watercolors. Wind your way northward, via Hwy 1 past Point Reyes and Tomales Bay, en route to Occidental, that tiny storybook village tucked off the main drag. After exploring the town, head west along Coleman Valley Rd to the Grove of the Old Trees, a 28-acre stand of towering old-growth redwoods. Wow at the mighty giants, then continue west atop thousand-foot-high ridgelines, with wide-open vistas of the glittering blue Pacific. End at Bodega Bay.
Travel time from SF: 1 hour, 45 minutes to Occidental, via Hwy 1 to Valley Ford-Freestone Rd.
What to see: Renga Arts, a super-cool gallery of reclaimed and recycled goods transformed into affordable art.
Where to eat: Seaweed Cafe, an outpost of the Slow Food movement, where every ingredient originates from within 30 miles of the restaurant.
Where to pack a picnic: In Point Reyes Station, stop at Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods to pick up succulent cheeses and unusual sandwiches. In Occidental, Howard’s Station Cafe makes a mean BLT; the nearby Bohemian Market has a good deli counter.
Road Trip #3: Wine and Wildflowers
It ain’t easy to reach the Anderson Valley—’the other wine country’— but it’s worth every twisting turn through oak-studded hills surrounding Hwy 128 to sample some of Northern California’s best pinots and Alsatian varietals. Rugged mountains surround the 25-mile-long valley, which stretches along the winding Navarro River toward Mendocino. The unpretentious wineries here are the polar opposite of foufou Napa’s, and feel like what they actually are: farms. Once you’ve purpled your teeth, picnic by the river at Navarro River Redwoods State Park. Then head back to bucolic Boonville and ascend the mountains, via Hwy 253, toward Ukiah and Hwy 101. As your elevation changes, so will the vegetation: orange California poppies dominate, but spikes of purple lupine should be rising through the grass any day now.
Travel time from SF: 2.5 hours to Boonville, via Hwys 101 and 128. You may want to stay overnight for this one.
What to see: The Philo Apple Farm, an old-fashioned organic farmstand that makes its own lip-smacking cider and homemade preserves and chutneys.
Where to eat or pack a picnic: The Boonville General Store uses all-organic ingredients in its fantastic sandwiches and pizzas.
Road Trip #4: Rock Spires and Rolling Hills
You’d never guess you were in Northern California while at Pinnacles National Monument. Craggy rock formations rise from a lunar-like landscape, the remnants of an ancient volcano, that looks uncannily like the Desert Southwest. You can access the monument from Hwy 101, but instead take gorgeous rural Hwy 25. Passing smack dab along the San Andreas rift zone, the road winds through lush valleys abutting the Gabilan Range and its 3000ft-high peaks. Because spring came two weeks early this year, the wildflowers are popping like mad.
Travel time from SF: 2.5 hours. Head to Hollister. Get an early start to avoid San Jose traffic.
What to see: The monument. Budget two hours to hike.
Where to Eat: El Grullense No 3, in Hollister, makes stellar tacos, just like you find in Mexico.
Where to Pack a Picnic: Main Street Bistro, also in Hollister, does good sandwiches.