THE CALIFORNIA COAST’S mythic allure permeates all 655 miles of Highway 1, but the stretch along the sister coasts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties feels like another era’s California: wild, uncrowded, offbeat. If you’re prone to vertigo, best to drive this oceanside thread south to north, keeping a lane between you and the steep, often barrier-free drop into the brutally beautiful Pacific. The road itself isn’t dangerous, but the landscape is dramatic to the point of distraction. At nearly every bend—and there are many—spectacles await: rocky outcroppings of sculptural grandeur, sand dunes and rare pygmy forests, salt spray lending a misty aura to bluffs, beaches and secret coves.
The northern reaches of the Pacific Coast Highway are little developed for a reason: They’re hard to access. The 100-mile drive between Bodega Bay and Mendocino can take more than three hours, without stops. Along the way, you pass through small towns like Jenner, where the Russian River spills into the Pacific, and parklands like Salt Point State Park, where boulders scatter like giants’ marbles across coastal prairies.
Remote as it is, this coastline is storied, a place of creative and spiritual pilgrimage. In the 1960s and ’70s, it lured not only artists, musicians and back-to-the-landers but also architects inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright to integrate their structures into the natural surroundings. Among them was Richard Clements Jr., who designed Timber Cove Resort, a stone-and-redwood A-frame overlooking a onetime doghole lumber port near Fort Ross. Clements enlisted a friend, the great Western photographer Ansel Adams, to shoot the site before its development. The resulting images of waves upon rocks are among Adams’ most evocative.
Bodega Bay’s FISHERMAN’S COVE is the spot for two-hander fish tacos with a marina view.
A mosaic-tile Madonna adorns Beniamino Bufano’s 1970 PEACE OBELISK, a 93-foot missile-shaped monument to modernism at Timber Cove.
At low tide, BOWLING BALL BEACH, south of Point Arena, is strewn with huge dumplings of eroded sandstone.
A classic Mendocino dive, DICK’S PLACE opened as a logger bar just months after Prohibition’s repeal.
Farther up the coast—south of the fishing village turned surf town of Point Arena—is Sea Ranch, where a band of midcentury design visionaries built a utopian village of slanted shed roofs and wooden facades. Though today the village is mostly vacation homes, it’s still known for its mod, nature-centered structures—particularly its swoopy, shingled wizard’s hat of a chapel—and the bold “supergraphic” signage created by renowned designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.
You won’t reach a traffic light until Mendocino, still rural and rockbound enough to have stood in for Maine on Murder She Wrote. Mostly, the route is an invitation to pull over (and over and over) at every sandy nook tucked into the headlands, every rhododendron forest and tidepool bluff, every roadhouse, art studio and small-town pub that tempts you. And that’s more than enough.