Three World-Class Northern California Road Trips for When You’re Ready to Leave SF

From literal volcano hunting to a Michelin-Starred food tour that will actually require you to burn some rubber

April 16, 2021 3:14 pm
McCloud Waterfalls
McCloud Waterfalls
Unsplash/Dave B

There’s a happy medium between isolation and a mosh pit — and while we eagerly anticipate the return of the latter, we’re more about that middle point right now, especially as it relates to travel. We’re still going to be taking a pass on those middle seats for a bit. Meaning: road trips. 

Here, three of our favorite Bay Area road trips, with three themes: volcanoes, Sierras splendor and Michelin stars. You know where you belong.  

Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Ande Baldwin/Unsplash

Road Trip #1: Volcanoes

McCloud is the perfect starting-off point for our tour of Northern California’s volcanic terrain — though goodness knows that the best way to begin would be by extending your stay here by a weekend/lifetime. Fourteen-thousand-plus-foot Mount Shasta is around the corner, with a year’s worth of hiking trails in and around Shasta-Trinity National Forest

We, however, will be setting off on the 120-mile Modoc Volcanic Scenic Byway. Wait until June for this one, to ensure that the mountain passes are open. 

Stop 1: The three McCloud waterfalls along the McCloud River Trail — it’s only four miles, so hike fast. Bring your swimming stuff, but assume the water will be glacial, especially early in the season. 

Stop 2: The Medicine Lake shield volcano is actually bigger than Mt. Shasta — it’s the largest known volcano in all of California, and visitors can see lava beds, the Giant Crater lava tubes, spatter cones, and cinder cones, and likely lighter crowds than you’d see at Lassen (which isn’t exactly heaving to be begin with). 

Stop 3: More volcanoes! Lava Beds National Monument has even more volcanic-themed sites, but the real attraction here might be the sites connected to the Modoc War, in which several dozen Native Americans held up against 1,000 U.S. troops over six months — in what some experts consider the costliest conflict in American history. 

Stop 4: Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge is a paradise for bald eagles, waterfowl, western tanagers and birders alike (you know if you qualify). 

Finally: Head back to McCloud, or bunk near Tulelake at the Winema Historic Lodge

The Harbor House Inn
Abalone roasted inside kelp,shiitake rice, sauce of abalone offal and nori

Road Trip #2: Michelin Stars Edition

We’ll stay on the move for this trip, and we’ll do most of the driving on Day 1: straight north on Route 1 all the way up to Mendocino. Come hungry! 

Stop 1: Chef Matthew Kammerer’s kitchen (and inn) at Harbor House. Kammerer doesn’t just have his Michelin star; he was also a Food & Wine best new chef of 2019. Expect menu items that read like lines of poetry (“Blue hubbard squash, hemp, crème fraîche and eucalyptus / Goat, elk spice, fermented lettuce, light jus”). 

When you’re not busy eating, proceed to Mendocino Headlands State Park for a walk along the bluffs, sunset pictures and the like. 

Stop 2: From Harbor House, we continue to heaven, also known as SingleThread Farm. We’ve recommended it a half-dozen times already because it’s as close to Japanese-style hospitality perfection as you’ll find outside of Japan. Extra motivation: they’re now offering a special Hokkaido-themed menu featuring ingredients from that part of Japan, plus the best from Sonoma’s growers. 

To get here from Mendocino, head down Route 1 but cut east on Highway 128, which is the kind of highway to have its own website. Of the many possible pit stops, consider the general store in Navarro if you like your general stores with wide, wide varieties of local wines. 

Stop 3: We’ll wrap up in Sonoma at El Molino Central, a “Bib Gourmand” selection. Michelin recommends the halibut ceviche; we’ll be ordering the dungeness crab tostadas. If you must have the full Michelin star (and an overnight stay), consider Madrona Manor in nearby Healdsburg. 

Sierra Hot Springs
Sierra Hot Springs
Sierra Hot Springs Retreat

Road Trip #3: Lincoln Highway + the Sierras

If you want to make this trip longer, start in Times Square (Manhattan), the original starting-off point for the Lincoln Highway, “America’s first cross-country roadway.” Superseded in parts by Highway 30 and elsewhere (and definitively) by I-80, this scenic drive includes a portion of what’s now known as Historic Lincoln Highway. 

Stop 1: Nevada City. If Disney World had a Gold Rush attraction, it would definitely be inspired by Nevada City, with its historic buildings and actual gold panning.  

 Stop 2: The Cal-Ida campground, in Tahoe National Forest, is across the street from the North Yuba River — bring your tent and fry up your dinner (rainbow trout) before going to sleep beneath the stars. 

Stop 3: We’re following the Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway — but here we’ll take a job north up Gold Lake Forest Highway. This next stretch offers access to three historic cabins in the Lakes Basin — including the Elwell Lakes Lodge. Consider them the Platonic ideal of the Sierras cabin. 

Stop 4: We’ll assume you’re picking up the trail a week later, since the lodge only rents by the week through Labor Day. Here, head south back down to Highway 49 — once things are back to normal, we’ll make a stop at the Sierra Hot Springs Retreat, which is scheduled to reopen later this year after a winter closure. For the moment, we’ll continue on to our terminus, Truckee — before either heading on to Tahoe or back to Nevada City and then to S.F. … but maybe not before a few nights at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe (it’s actually at Northstar).

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