Highway 1 is one of the most iconic drives in the US – and while many of its “top attractions” like Monterey and Big Sur are south of San Francisco, a drive north is worth every mile, too. One destination that’s the perfect weekend getaway from the Bay Area is Mendocino – approximately a 3.5-hour drive north.
That is, it’s a 3.5-hour drive if you fill up your tank with gas. We wanted to take a different route there than the route we’d drive home along the coast, so we looked at the map and decided to drive through Sonoma and then out toward the ocean on a country road called Skaggs Spring Road. It was a beautiful drive through the mountains that we might have enjoyed more had our tank not been on empty for more than half of it. You see, we didn’t realize that this road was so remote that there would be no gas stations or civilization for more than an hour before it was too late to turn around. There was a sign that said “next gas station: 50 miles.” The car said we had 60 miles to go. So we should be good – right?!
Or so we thought, but when you’re driving up and down steep hills, the gas tends to go quicker. And once we hit empty, the number telling us how many miles we had left disappeared and we just had to hope. Coasting down hills and with the AC turned off, we finally made it to the “gas station” that the previous sign had advertised. One small problem: this gas station looked like it had been out of commission since the 50s. Always an adventure!
Fortunately, the non-gas station was attached to a restaurant called Stewart’s Point so we called AAA and went inside for a drink and some lunch. Over an hour later, AAA showed up – only to inform us that our used Jeep Grand Cherokee was missing a critical funnel tool that would allow them to fill us up and it would be two more hours until someone could tow us.
We decided to take a risk and drive 10 miles to the next gas station with the AAA driver behind us, prepared to stop traffic if we ran out of gas (Highway 1 has limited pulloffs, so doing this alone would have been dangerous). And what do you know? WE MADE IT!
Lessons learned: Don’t road trip with less than half a tank of gas. Don’t trust signs advertising the next gas station in very rural areas. Your car can apparently drive on empty for much longer than you think. But you should check your car right now to make sure you have the funnel you’ll need in case you forget to follow the first two points of advice. I’ve since ordered one for $5 on Amazon!
Back on the road after our detour, we made our way north on Highway 1 until we reached our campsite across the street from Jug Handle Beach. Popular public campsites in California can be really tough to secure, especially in high season – so we booked this weekend getaway in Mendocino through HipCamp which let’s you rent a campsite on private land). And um, hello! This place was stunning.
Here’s my guide on what to do during a weekend getaway in Mendocino:
Hike in Russian Gulch State Park
Just a couple minutes from our campsite at Jug Handle was Russian Gulch State Park, a coastal park that features several hiking trails suitable for all levels (vehicle access is $10). A trek to a 36-foot waterfall on the Fern Canyon Trail, while a bit crowded, is worth it if you have a couple hours.
And don’t forget to check out the mainly flat, 0.4-mile Headlands Trail for incredible views of the Pacific coast and a chance to see the sinkhole called Devil’s Punchbowl.
Canoe on Big River
The 8.3-mile Big River offers another beautiful outdoor adventure in Mendocino. Rent a canoe from Catch a Canoe for the best experience – we tried to hike along the river, but almost immediately, our view was obscured by thick trees for miles.
Canoeing along the river means that in addition to the stunning views, you might see harbor seals and otters!
Watch the Sunset over a Bonfire on Jug Handle Beach
A beach bonfire is definitely a California bucket list item, and Jug Handle Beach is possibly the most beautiful place to build one. We lugged firewood down from our campsite along with wine, s’mores materials and blankets to watch the sunset. It was such a beautiful night. Just don’t forget to pack out your trash!
Explore Downtown Mendocino
While outdoor activities were the main draw for me to spend a weekend getaway in Mendocino, the village of Mendocino itself is actually really cute with its picturesque Victorian-style houses, shops, bars and restaurants. It’s walkable, so park your car and take a stroll.
I recommend stopping at Patterson’s Pub – possibly the most adorable Irish pub I’ve been too. It’s crowded inside but the atmosphere is welcoming and the service was fast. The food also smelled great, although we only stopped in for a beer.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that Mendocino itself was not impacted by the massive Mendocino Complex Fire that was raging in Northern California during our trip. Several family and friends expressed concern when they heard I was heading there for the weekend – but while the fire and town shared a name, that was about it.
On our last day, we capped off a weekend getaway in Mendocino with a leisurely drive back to San Francisco on Highway 1, stopping at several beaches and overlooks for more amazing views.
Have you visited Mendocino or driven north of San Francisco on Highway 1?