The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
Between Bodega Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, Hwy-1 slices through one of the country’s most scenically and economically wealthy areas, Marin County. Though less than an hour from San Francisco, the northwestern reaches of the county are surprisingly rural, consisting of rolling dairylands and a few untouched small towns; Hwy-1 follows a slow and curving route along the usually uncrowded two-lane blacktop.
After looping inland south of Bodega Bay, Hwy-1 reaches the shore again at oyster-rich Tomales Bay, around which it winds for a dozen or so miles before reaching the earthy but erudite town of Point Reyes Station. Here the excellent Station House Cafe (11180 Hwy-1, 415/663-1515, closed Wed.) serves incredibly good breakfasts and delicious lunches that include great-tasting local oysters, on the half-shell or barbecued. The bar is lively and well stocked, and hosts free live music most Sunday afternoons.
Northwest from town along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, the 70,000-plus-acre Point Reyes National Seashore offers an entire guidebook’s worth of hiking and cycling trails, broad beaches, dense forests, and more; stop at the Bear Valley Visitor Center (415/464-5100, daily, free) for more information. The photogenic lighthouse at the tip of Point Reyes gives great views over the coast, and in winter and spring (Dec.-June) the steep headland makes an ideal spot for watching migrating gray whales.
Eight miles from the visitors center, the HI-Point Reyes Hostel (1390 Limantour Spit Rd., 415/663-8811) has dorm beds in an old farmhouse on the road to Drake’s Bay.
Dozens of delightful inns and restaurants operate in and around Point Reyes, but because they’re a mere 35 miles from San Francisco, they’re often booked solid weeks in advance. Everything from treetop rooms to waterfront cabins can be found through the local chamber of commerce (415/663-9232).