Northern California’s big highways traverse hills and valleys, run along beachy blue coastline and bisect mountains glistening with snow. Through the car windows, cities and suburbs flash repetition: Starbucks, Chevron, In-N-Out, Carl’s Jr., Shell, McDonald’s, Arco, Taco Bell . . . On smaller roads, you get more variety: big wineries, renowned restaurants, shopping districts with pricey boutiques and the requisite kitchen store. But take a few more turns, to the thinner paths, into the regions where perhaps your phone has no bars, and the real gems appear. Here are three to explore.
CARMEL VALLEY ROAD, MONTEREY COUNTY—Turn away from the traffic chokepoint on Highway 1 by Carmel and head inland on Carmel Valley Road. Within a mile or so, the scene will have changed completely. It starts around the time the Quail Lodge golf course spreads out into a green-green valley, and the sign for Earthbound Farm invites people in to tour the gardens, snip herbs, shop the farm stand and picnic on the grass. Past some more plant nurseries, the Carmel Valley Ranch resort blooms across the landscape: lush golf courses (three of them), wetlands and tree stands and vineyards, and condo-style buildings that blend in and provide a variety of staying options. Take a treetop studio with a fireplace and soaking tub on the high deck and settle in for a weekend. You’ll find plenty to do right there: golf, tennis, horseback riding, hiking, even beekeeping and geocaching—along with plenty of food, wine and downtime at the spa.
Equestrian life rules much of the land in Carmel Valley. Barns and ranches populate the meadows, with paddocks backing up to the hillsides. Horses nose at fences. It’s easy to imagine a nuzzle and a nicker, a hair-fanning gallop under bright blue sky. Garland Ranch Regional Park is a great place for a casual ride; trails hustle with horses and hikers. The paths run alongside the Carmel River and up to ridges that allow views all the way to the coast.
Little inns pop up here and there in the valley, and just before Carmel Valley Village, a larger property, Bernardus Lodge, sits near Laureles Grade Road. With an award-winning restaurant (Lucia), vineyards, spa, bocce courts and croquet lawn, the resort has 57 guest rooms, all with fireplaces, soaking tubs and access to a wine bar stocked with Bernardus wines. Sit outside at Lucia for an early-evening dinner and inhale the scent of lavender as the sun goes down, knowing that chef Cal Stamenov may have picked the ingredients for your salad straight from the on-site organic garden that very afternoon.
Carmel Valley is winemaking country—one of seven appellations in Monterey County—and a number of wineries invite visitors in to taste. Some 20 tasting rooms proliferate in Carmel Valley Village, a little burg about 11 miles deep into the valley. A couple of standouts: Cowgirl (in an old redwood barn, with cowgirl boots galore), Georis (in the former Carmel Valley Art Center) and a whole string of tasting rooms on one block. Really, you could start at one end of town on foot and hit them all within about a mile, along with a couple of shops and restaurants: Kathy’s Little Kitchen (big, yummy chorizo burritos in a teeny-tiny place) or Cafe Rustica for snails or rigatoni; name your pleasure. For small plates (including wild boar belly or frog legs), try Roux. For pizza and bread, among other delights straight from the wood-fire oven, go to Corkscrew Cafe.
Beyond town, keep going on Carmel Valley Road (it eventually becomes Arroyo Seco Road) and you’ll wind past oaks draped with Spanish moss, head deeper into the Santa Lucia Mountains and, some 35 carsick miles from where you started in Carmel, you’ll hit Greenfield and Highway 101.
BOHEMIAN HIGHWAY, SONOMA COUNTY—Stretching for about 10 miles from the Bodega Highway to Highway 116, Bohemian Highway in western Sonoma County winds past meadows of waving grass and wildflowers and ducks into deep forests flanking hillsides that rise into ridges. Start at the community of Freestone, where the Joseph Phelps winery serves samples of chardonnay and pinot noir. Next door, the beautifully rustic Wild Flour Bread keeps a stockpile of sourdough, whole grain, scones and sticky buns, fresh from the wood-fired oven that dominates the space. These are cycling roads back here, and if a peloton is moving through, it’ll stop for a carbo load, so be prepared to wait behind Lycra and clacking shoes. Owner/baker Jed Wallach mans the oven and often the counter—expect a warm reception. Outside, wander through the on-site garden, which by summertime will explode in a riot of sunflowers, berries and lavender. Down the street, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary spins a different take on the mud bath, burying guests neck deep in enzyme-loaded cedar shavings—evergreens and rice bran, actually. It’s warm and powdery and feels healthy and clean. The experience starts with Zen garden teatime and ends with an electrolyte drink.
Follow the road through the woods to Occidental, a collection of businesses and a few houses against the ridge. The Inn at Occidental, a pretty B&B a block up from town, has 17 rooms, all with feather beds and fireplaces, most with whirlpool tubs for two. The country breakfast, created from ingredients plucked from the garden and sourced locally, includes fruit, pastries, house-made granola and something hot and yummy, like eggs Benedict or stuffed French toast. Walk down to town for a Chianti-bottle candlelit dinner at Union Hotel—huge Italian family-style meal—or across the street at Negri’s. (Let’s say it again: huge Italian family-style meal.) If minestrone, pasta and bread with thick, cold butter aren’t your thing, try Hazel, where husband and wife Jim and Michele Wimborough work with what’s local and seasonal to turn out dishes such as butternut squash pizza, seafood stew, braised short ribs and Piedmontese rib-eye, which comes with salsa verde, savoy spinach (that’s the crinkly stuff) and jo jo potatoes. Grab a brew at Barley and Hops Tavern, an artsy gift at Hand Goods, a pipe or a candle or nails by bulk at Occidental Hardware, and a cookie for your dog at Howard Station Cafe (while you indulge in a heart-shaped biscuit).
Deeper into bucolic bohemia, you’ll cruise beneath deep-shade-making redwoods to pass Camp Meeker and Dutch Bill Creek and reach the Russian River. Near Monte Rio, where a vintage 1950s sign stretches over the road to welcome you to town, one of the largest public beaches along the river draws locals to launch kayaks and other floatables. The nearby Rio Theater shows movies inside a World War II Quonset hut—the mural decorating the parking lot depicts a wild ocean scene. If you can catch a live performance beneath the redwoods at the outdoor Monte Rio Amphitheater, by all means do.
HIGHWAY 49 NORTH OF NEVADA CITY, SIERRA COUNTY—Just past Nevada City, Highway 49 gets skinny and curvy, skirting the North Yuba River as it cuts through the mountainous forest. Day use and camping areas front the water—Oregon Creek, Willow Creek, Indian Valley and lots more—and hiking and mountain bike trails snake through shady thickets. The river tumbles over boulders, whitewater in spots, pooled swirly smooth in others. A covered bridge at Oregon Creek crosses over, a popular spot for sightseers.
The little historic town of Downieville sits right where the North Yuba and Downie rivers converge. Two bridges overlook the clear, cold water, and it’s no mystery why Gold Rushers settled here. With its first gold discovery in 1849, Downieville quickly swelled in population—some 5,000 men are rumored to have spent the winter of 1849–’50 on these riverbanks. Today the population is far fewer—less than 300—but the old vibe remains in the clapboard buildings and brick. For the full effect, check out Downieville Museum, a building of stone dating back to 1852, with original iron doors. Grab a bite at Two Rivers Cafe, Highway 49 Eatery or La Cocina De Oro.
A couple of inns sit riverside here, including Carriage House Inn and Downieville River Inn, or you can head up the road to The Lure Resort or Sierra Shangri-La; both properties rent riverfront cabins daily or weekly.
In Sierra City, about 12 miles beyond Downieville, Red Moose Cafe serves a basket overflowing with fish and chips: white fish fried crispy and moist, accompanied by a dish of house-made tartar sauce that’s more like relish. Ask for a double order of the tartar sauce; it’s so good you’ll be dipping your “chips,” too. A couple of art galleries in town, including one in the old Sierra City Schoolhouse and another in the Wells Fargo Express space (aka the Busch & Heringlake building), include works from Sierra Nevada artists.
Beyond Sierra City, the Lakes Basin area is off-limits in wintertime (and often into spring except by snowmobile or cross-country skis). But come summer, the snow melts and the icy lakes glisten in the high-country sunshine, begging to be fished and floated upon. The majestic Sierra Buttes tower over Gold, Packer and Sardine lakes, where cabins are available. Take the hike up to the fire lookout past Sardine Lake: The trail climbs 1,800 feet in less than three miles and culminates in a vertigo-inducing flight of 180 stairs. The view, 360 degrees and stretching all the way to Mount Lassen, will leave you gasping at its splendor.
These mountain roads feel deliciously remote in the springtime, when the waters run ice-cold and the sun hasn’t yet come on strong. But come summer, cabins and campgrounds fill up with hikers, rafters, fisherfolk and adventurers, especially as mountain bikers head for the famous and steep Downieville Downhill, a single track that drops some 5,500 feet. (Local mountain-bike shop Yuba Expeditions shuttles riders to the top.) Yuba Expeditions also puts on the popular Downieville Classic mountain-bike race in August.