Rivers, Bluegrass and Gold – A Northern California Roadtrip


Our family of four headed north from our home in Santa Monica in our loyal 2002 Volkswagen Van to visit San Francisco and explore the North California Coast up to the Redwoods of Mendocino and across the central valley of California to the historic gold country along Highway 49: Nevada City, Downieville and the Yuba River.

We spent two nights in San Francisco, a splurge at the Hyatt at Union Square. As we walked up Maiden Lane (the old red-light district) we stumbled upon a wonderful Frank Lloyd Wright building from 1948 (pictured right).

We strolled down Market St. to the Ferry Building just in time for the Saturday market where we stocked up on fresh fruit, bread and cheeses from the region and then continued our walking tour through Chinatown for noodles and tea.

My husband and I left our boys in the hotel and headed off with friends for a nightcap at an original ‘speakeasy’ from the Prohibition era, complete with hidden doors, wood floors and potent artisanal cocktails.

From there we headed north over the foggy Golden Gate Bridge, keeping to Highway 1 along the twisty-turny rugged coast of Marin County.  Soon we were driving along Tomales Bay, where the San Andreas Fault dives under the sea and splits Point Reyes off from the North American Plate, according to my plate-tectonic minded husband. We wound up at Hog Island Oyster, basically a dock along the road where one can buy fresh oysters straight from the bay.

We stocked up with bags of oysters and found a motel along Bodega Bay, a moody mysterious place where Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds.” We filled ourselves with oysters, Sonoma goat cheese, crackers and Chardonnay as dusk settled over the tide.

The next morning we continued up Highway 1 towards Mendocino.  We visited historic Fort Ross where the Russians tried to establish a farming community in 1812.  We were very impressed by the wood working skills of the Russian craftsmen; the structures, fortifications and chapel where constructed with tight joinery, without nails or bolts!

In Mendocino, we found an adorable cottage hotel named Alegria where we met a mom that was taking a break from the family and heading up to the Redwoods to study banjo at “Lark in the Woods,” one of the many music camps in this region.

Mendocino is an historic town with a fantastic setting on a headland overlooking the cold grey North Pacific, built by homesick New Englanders in the 1800’s.  With wooden shops, houses and hotels filled with artists and aging hippies, there are great coffee shops, bookstores and fresh local produce.

From Mendocino we headed east through the Redwoods forest along the Navarro River where we found a great camp site just out of the fog. The sites are “first come first serve”, which suited us since our motto on this trip is “take it as it comes.” We camped for two nights while the kids fished and explored the river. A short drive brought us to Philo, the local hamlet where we bought food for the grill.

They call this area the Anderson Valley; sparkling white wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the specialties of this region of Mendocino County. The culinary offerings throughout this region are spectacular! 

Then we packed up and continued along the road through the Anderson Valley, then to Highway 20 along Clear Lake and across the Sacramento Valley to Gold Country.

Next adventure was in Nevada City, an historic town which produced a staggering amount of California gold.  Wood-shuttered brick buildings with wrought iron balconies from the 1850’s line the narrow streets which are filled with great restaurants and cafes with live music. This is a base to explore the area, for wonderful hikes and swimming among the smooth granite and clean cool waters of the South Yuba River.

We stayed at a great little Lodge called the Outside Inn, with great vintage rooms, a pool, and picnic tables and BBQ’s for dining alfresco in the garden. We went to the Nevada City county fair which was a hoot with all the 4H kids and their beloved animals.

The highlight of the trip was camping for two nights along the North Yuba River near Downieville, situated along Historical Route 49 at 2,888 feet elevation and a population of 282. Our tent was situated next to the river where deer would wander through, they don’t seem to be afraid of humans because, according to the locals, the mountain lions are their predators.

Here the boys found the best fishing, our 10 year old caught a couple 14” rainbow trout that he cleaned and cooked in butter, excellent with an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir!

We listened to music along the way: the local bridge over the river is something out of “Ode to Billie Joe”, while “Everybody’s Talkin” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the Eagles “Desperado” provided an appropriate soundtrack for this rural region of California. Flyfishing, panning for gold …I loved it!

From the Yuba area we headed back toward the coast and visited Sonoma, where we stayed in the oldest building in Sonoma. 

Built of adobe and local timber in 1835 by Vallejo as his private residence, it has survived the revolutions and earthquakes and is now the Swiss Hotel.

With only five rooms and an atmospheric bar on the ground floor, it is a unique historic jewel. We had lovely wine and food, right at our hotel and really enjoyed the town.

On our way home, we dropped through Paso Robles located on the Salinas River north of San Luis Obispo, known for hot springs, an abundance of wineries and for the beautiful San Miguel Arcangel Mission, with its original Indian frescoes now being restored by our friend Aneta Zebala and her team of Painting Conservators.

This was a wonderful trip, and after living in Southern California for many years, I have discovered that a little driving can open up new worlds of historical significance and spectacular beauty.


By Lorrie Kline Ramirez. Visit her website at http://lorrikline.com/




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