A Motorcyclist's Guide to Northern California's Shoreline Highway

A local's guide to the north coast

The Northern Coast of California has to be one of the most underrated destinations in the world. You hear about the Pacific Coast Highway all the time, but what that name has come to define is the 135-mile section of California Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo to Monterey—a gorgeous, winding ribbon that edges some truly glorious cliffscapes. Unfortunately, it can also be described as an RV-choked two-lane with no alternative routes. As nice as it is, once you’re on that portion of Highway 1, formally called the Cabrillo Highway, you’re pretty much trapped.

The Highway 1 in Northern California is a completely different animal. It doesn’t even share the moniker. Officially called the Shoreline Highway, it winds its way humbly, clinging to the high cliffs, then dips and twists slightly inland to jump the coast’s many river inlets before it soars back out over the sea. The scenery is better than that of the lower PCH, and crowds are much, much smaller. Towns are quainter, and best of all, there are thousands of miles of side roads that blanket the forested mountains like a giant fisherman’s net. You could spend your whole life riding there.

Sadly, we don’t get to spend ours there either, but we can come to play every now and then. Our latest excuse for the long romp from Los Angeles up to the north coast was the Big Twins bonanza. Such immense subject matter required a grand destination, and we can’t think of many rides better than this, at least not any that begin a day’s ride from LA.

Old Coast Highway, Shoreline Highway, Motorcycle Tour
The underrated Old Coast Highway has its fair share of cliffs, dips, and twists.Photography by Jamie Elvidge and Evans Brasfield

The Wind Up
We all met in Mill Valley, the southern terminus of the Shoreline Highway, to begin our ride. Tech Editor Mark Zimmerman had flown all the way from Connecticut to satisfy his jones for a Nor Cal Coast ride. The usual characters: Friedman, Cherney and our once-editor-now-photog Evans Brasfield, made the hump up inland I-5 from LA, suitably starving their senses of any scenic beauty before the grand unveiling. Since I live in Northern California, I just joined the guys there, right in my backyard.

The launch from Mill Valley is extremely exhilarating. Highway 1 seems to coil as it snakes up around the flank of Mount Tamalpais, finally springing you out on lofty straights at the coast that make you feel as if you’re viewing the sea from an aircraft instead of a motorcycle. The straights are painfully short, though, so sightseeing is prohibitive. Just ask Zimmerman, who’d never seen this part of the California coast before. “Your roads are different here,” he said. “We have lots of corners in New England, but they’re not as relentless.” We stopped often for photos that morning, and just to take a deep breath of cold ocean air.

There are two ways to breech the coastline from Mill Valley: You can make a forward assault by staying on Highway 1, as we did, or you can draw out your approach and tour through Muir Woods State Park on the Panoramic Highway. I say “tour” because the speed limits are low and well-enforced to allow people to study the views without piling up. If you have loads of time, you can ride straight up Highway 1, then take the Panoramic from its end point on the ocean and do a rollercoaster-style loop on your quest north.

Since we had to stop often to bag the photos we needed for the test, we didn’t have time to do all the back roads I grew up exploring, and passing each turn was like miniature heartbreak. First we sped by the turn for Bolinas, which is never marked because the eccentric folks who live in this town take the road signs down every time the state puts one up. It’s fun to ride in for a coffee and walk around the famously reclusive town, which dissolves into sandy Duxbury Point, where you can sit and watch long-boarders threading their way through the sharks that thrive in the encompassing marine reserve. Then, instead of continuing up Highway 1, you’d ideally cross it and ride Fairfax-Bolinas Road (also vacant of road signs). This is a hairball road but a hoot if you have the energy. It’s a single lane on the west side and as tangled as a Boy Scout knot gone wrong. Although it feels like 30 it’s less than 10 miles to the top, where it becomes Bolinas Road. If you’re pinched for time, ride back down to enjoy the views head-on to pick up the Shoreline again. If you’ve got time on your side, continue down passed Alpine Lake on the road that’s just as twisty but offers two full lanes. You’ll hit the little town of Fairfax, then head west on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard back to the ocean.

Shoreline Highway, Northern California Tour
The Shoreline Highway features beautiful stretches of road that are lined with overhanging trees.Photography by Jamie Elvidge and Evans Brasfield

Drake's Digs
Seems Sir Francis Drake did a little time here on the filigreed coastal peninsula known as the Point Reyes National Seashore. It's purported that in 1549 he needed to beach his ship, the Golden Hinde, right in the Estero off later-named Drake's Bay. It was genius. He waited and watched tides, then drove the boat just far enough into the bay so that the receding tide would leave the boat sand-docked. A ride all the way out to the Point Reyes lighthouse on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard will almost make you seasick with all its turns, whoops and patches. Side roads will lead you to Drake's Bay and Estero, where the famous portage took place, as well as to Point Reyes Beach, which goes on as far as the eye can see. Adventuring around the fabulous National Seashore will take at least four hours from your day, so it's a side trip you'll have to sketch into the big picture.

We soldiered straight into Bodega Bay, where we stopped for gas and a hearty seafood lunch at the famous, bayside Tide’s. It’s also famously expensive, but that didn’t stop your Cruiser gang from ordering desserts from the establishment’s long list of freshly baked pastries. (What is it about motorcycle touring that causes this complete desertion of dietary restraint?)

If you’ve been wowed by the views and challenging corners so far, they just get better north of Bodega. Although there are small side roads that shoot off this section and head across the coastal range to Highway 101, none are worthy of missing an inch of asphalt on this portion of the Shoreline route. If you have time for a long workout of a loop to add to your itinerary, try taking Coleman Valley Road east to the Bohemian Highway. You can head south and take Bodega Highway to rejoin 1 or opt to ride farther north and rejoin Highway 1 via Highway 116. Either direction will add a half-day to your itinerary.

Whatever your timeline, don’t miss the Meyers Grade Road cutoff. This is a little detour that won’t cost much time, offers dramatic views, a nice forested distraction and even an extra stretch of fun corners. There’s no fanfare, though, so the cutoff is easy to miss. You’ll find it after you’ve left the town of Jenner headed north. There will be a particularly curvy section that leads you across Russian Gulch. As the road straightens, you’ll find that Meyers Grade Road shoots straight off the highway. You’ll actually turn left to stay on the main road, but motor straight up the grade to take Meyers. It’s not on many maps, so keep your eyes peeled. You have the choice of dropping back down to the Shoreline on Fort Ross Road, or farther north on Timber Cove Road. Better yet, you can ride Meyers to its terminus on Shoreline (beyond Timber Cove it will be called Seaview).

Back on Highway 1 and you’re headed toward Sea Ranch, a posh settlement of eco-aesthetic vacation homes. There are numerous loops that lead up on the ridge and back in this area. In fact, you can choose almost any westerly turnoff and find a way back down to the coast again. All offer generous twisties plus forest and ocean views, but most are in ill repair and need to be ridden with some caution. Two I’ve ridden and enjoyed are Kruse Ranch Road to Hauser Bridge Road to Tin Barn Road to Stewarts Point Road or the shorter Stewarts Point Road to Annapolis Road.

We hit rain right after Sea Ranch, which dampened our pace but not our spirits. The endless corners made the two-hour ride to Mendocino demanding, but it was never painful. The California coast is rarely cold, though it is often wet, and even a thick fog can soak you to your skivvies. Therefore, it’s always wise—even in mid-summer—to bring a real rainsuit and a couple extra sets of gloves. In fact, summer is the foggiest time of year on the north coast. The shoulder seasons of March–April and October–November offer the best chance for sun and warm temperatures, plus you’ll find fewer tourists to clog the infrastructure.

Desserts-a-Plenty
I've never had a dessert course after breakfast, but Zimmerman showed us how the next morning in Mendocino. This glamorous once-ghost town was all but abandoned in the 1930s after its prominent sawmill was silenced. For almost 40 years prior, the prosperous little town had been the dominant supplier of the redwood used to build San Francisco, support a gold rush and stabilize a railroad. Mendocino's rebirth didn't begin until the 1960s, when it was reincarnated as a cure-all for the creatively blocked. Today, it's a premier artists' haven that renders breathtaking sienna sunsets. It's also the perfect staging area for some great riding.

Our quest for the day was to put more miles on our test bikes (which we swapped every half-hour or so), capture magnificent photography and unravel the great side roads I’d promised my out-of-town brethren. Some days, it’s easy to go to work.

First we set up a few shots around town, then rode across the inlet, where the town served as backdrop for a stellar cover shot. We found a perfect place to stage all four bikes, but were thwarted by a fence and pedestrian-size gate, flanked by signs that clearly indicated motor vehicles weren’t permitted. Friedman, playing the old grumpster, didn’t want to participate in any illegality, so we abandoned the scene and set off to find another, more suitable cover setup.

My first choice for a side trip off the coastal route was a selfish one. For years, I’d been looking for a tiny squiggle I’d seen on detailed topographical maps yet never located. It didn’t have a name on the maps, but it clearly connected to Albion-Little River road, which was a great ride. Just outside Little River (just south of Mendocino), I spied the little street, nearly piling everyone up to make the turn. Alas, it ended up being only an OK stretch, not better than traveling on to Albion-Little River Road (cleaner, less residential), which becomes Comptche-Ukiah Road. For the loop, you turn south on Flynn Creek Road, then west on Highway 128 to return to the coast.

Shoreline Highway, Northern California Tour
The peaceful vibe down some of the thin forest roads is rejuvenating and less crowded than the more popular southern portion of the highway.Photography by Jamie Elvidge and Evans Brasfield

In our case, we wanted to shoot photos in the deep, dark, forested stretch of 128 closer to the shore. It’s one of the best stretches of riding in California, with its smooth, wide, sweeping turns lined with delicate green ferns and shaded by ancient redwoods. You can imagine the peaceful, quiet vibe. Just as we finished one setup, a white, 1-ton construction truck buzzed our parked bikes unnecessarily—literally came a half-foot from us as we stood there putting on our helmets and gloves. It was the kind of travesty that seemed worthy of a likewise gesture...at least at the time.

As many of you know, my infamous quick-draw finger has gotten me in trouble before. And as the truck came to a screeching halt and the driver began to scream obscenities, I did flash back to all the good advice you readers have given me about keeping my fingers in a row, but it was a little too late. The guy had a traffic jam behind him before he finally stopped screaming threats and squealed on his unhappy way. I’m not sure if it was Evans’ retort of “You have such a nice command of the English language,” or Zimmerman’s innate “Don’t f— with me” vibe that sent him on his way.

Feeling a little sheepish now, I led the guys up Highway 128, eyes peeled for the lunatic driver. And, indeed, we did see his truck a little farther up the road, parked in front of plank-board saloon. It was 10 a.m.!

The rest of our day was divine—non-stop twisties and sweepers, mind-blowing scenics and, of course, dessert with every meal. I’d decided on a big X—Highway 128 into the mountains to Boonville, northeast on 253 to South Ukiah, south on 101 for an express delivery to Highway 128, where we’d head back into the mountains to Boonville, where we’d catch Mountain View Road back down to the Shoreline.

Shoreline Highway, Northern California Tour
Just some dedicated journalists looking for that perfect photo.Photography by Jamie Elvidge and Evans Brasfield

"Harpin' Boontling"
Boonville is a kick—a one-in-a-million small town. It even has its own language, "Boontling," which was created in the 1880s and spoken extensively through the 1920s. It's composed of over 1300 unique words and phrases, plus 3000 or more specialized names for people and places. We noticed the language when we were knocking back some good 'ol burgers and fries at a roadside diner. There were words on the mural map we didn't recognize. It was uncanny when an oldster showed up tableside to harp a wee slib, er, give us a firsthand example of Boontling, which started as secret-speak between a few locals and was later adopted by the whole town and even taught in the schools.

The old man, er, codgy kimmie, said the lingo, an officially recognized folk language, has remained handy, especially when the locals want to talk about tourists. He said we were riding moshe and having some chiggrul, but when he was young, it was the oses of the bollness he and his friends enjoyed commenting on. The rolling of his wife’s eyes was enough of a translation.

The descent offered by Mountain View Road is something one never forgets, and we hadn’t ridden it since our Reader’s Ride in 2001. It’s steep, narrow, poorly laid, extremely rutted and dangerously lined with trees and cliffs. We laughed the whole way. Of course, it is the worst kind of road for the MegaTwins, but the moto-journalists moniker, “Once a kid, always a kid,” does not yield to such logic.

That night we fell into plates of pasta, our last meal as a group—and thankfully, our last dessert.

Parting is Such Sweet...
Since we all had different destinations for that night, we were feeling a little rushed to shoot the cover for this issue. The day before had given us lots of opportunity for feature shots, but not a perfect vertical setup that would show all the bikes and leave room for necessary headlines. We decided to throw caution—and Art's morals—to the wind and go back to the pedestrian-only vista to pinch the golden shot at 6 a.m. Art flat-out refused to join us as we sneaked the giant bikes down the little dirt path, opting to stand out on the road with his beacon of an orange helmet. We convinced him to at least hide in the bushes a little farther from the scene. "Someone has to be able to bail you out of jail," was his parting comment.

As you can tell, the shoot went beautifully—and it even turned out to be legal. While we were arranging the bikes, a local walked out on the bluff and explained that he’d once owned the land and donated it to a private land trust, which allows all kinds of traditionally illegal or fee-intensive uses like weddings, private parties and, yes, even photo shoots. Of course, he was probably some crazy transient, but we ate it up.

As we all sat down for the last time together over delicious coffee and so-so pastries at Moody’s Coffee Bar on Lansing in Mendocino, we discussed our exit strategies. Friedman and Zimmerman would take Highway 20 from Fort Bragg, another glorious redwood-lined wonder, with sweeping turns and near-perfect pavement to Highway 101 and home. Cherney was headed up to the Lost Coast to do some exploring for the next issue of our incestuous sister publication Motorcycle Escape, while Brasfield planned to meander all day on Highway 1 headed south.

I wasn’t sure which way I was going. The long way, for sure. There are so many great roads that splinter off the Shoreline Highway, it would take a lifetime to discover them all. I was planning to unearth a few more on my way home, hopefully while skirting desserts and white pickup trucks.

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