Take a classic road trip through the best of the west coast, from Yosemite’s granite domes to the giant redwood trees, and acres of vineyards and dramatic landscapes in between.

Take a couple of weeks, hit the road and explore the best of America’s west, from nature’s biggest, tallest and most powerful features to beautiful wineries, before finishing by heading back to San Francisco or north to Seattle.

San Francisco: Best for unusual views
Fly into San Francisco and spend a couple of days soaking it up before hiring a car and setting off.

The San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen once wrote, ‘Take anything from us – our cable cars, our bridges, even our bay – but leave us our hills.’ If one feature defines this city, it’s the 50-plus hills ranging from 30m to 283m. They delineate neighbourhoods, create microclimates and provide drop-dead vistas.

San Francisco is just seven square miles at the tip of a peninsula surrounded by the Pacific and San Francisco Bay, which meet at the Golden Gate. To see the city means viewing it from a height. Rising 281m near the city’s geographic centre, Twin Peaks is the loftiest point: the 360-degree panoramic view is the city’s best, which is why many tour buses converge here. Local performing artist Monique Jenkinson chooses a different spot. ‘On a clear day, you can see the entire Mission District and the bay from Bernal Hill – a view tourists rarely get.’

The city has a long history of being at the leading edge of performance art and courts the unusual: Isadora Duncan danced in the courtyard outside the Legion of Honor Museum and Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Angels in America, debuted not in New York, but here.

Gender impressionism is one of the city’s contemporary forms; Monique is known on the street as Fauxnique, her female-to-male-to-female drag persona, which falls under the rubric of ‘faux queen’ in current San Francisco parlance.

Underground artists like Monique step into daylight at Dolores Park, colonising the grassy slopes near 20th and Church Streets, spreading out blankets and nursing hangovers on any sunny weekend. The park presents a mini cross section of San Francisco’s population, from club kids and gay sunbathers to Mexican grandmothers and teen footballers. The downtown skyline provides the backdrop. For a glimpse of the local scene, no place else provides an easier foray. ‘On a warm evening,’ says Monique, ‘I love to grab a bottle of wine and a friend, then head to Dolores Park around sunset – and maybe sneak in a ride on the swing set in the children’s playground.’

Just across the Golden Gate, it’s hard to conceive this is America’s sixth-largest metropolitan area when you’re standing atop the cliffs of the Marin Headlands, a grassland preserve that rises 213m, with hawks and eagles soaring overhead and waves crashing against rocks below. But there, right at eye level, stand the tops of the 80-storey bridge towers, with skyscrapers reflecting sunlight in the distance.

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Where to eat
Boulevard: Waiters in long, white aprons deliver ‘New American’ cuisine (read: French technique, with American ingredients, such as fried green tomatoes and soft-shell crabs) beneath vaulted brick ceilings and blown-glass light fixtures. Put yourself in the hands of the professional staff, who will expertly pair diners’ tastes with the frequently changing menu. Reservations are essential (mains from £20).

Where to stay
The 1950s-style Hotel Bohème has sheets of poetry and jazz music découpaged on hallway lampshades. Rooms have big armoires and mossie-nets-cumcrown- canopies above beds. Set in the heart of North Beach, the city’s little Italy, rooms on Columbus Ave overlook the action, so light sleepers should book in the back (from £121).

Yosemite National Park: Best for the outdoors
Out on a spur from your coastal journey, Yosemite is 190 miles east of San Francisco, four hours by car.

Understanding California requires an appreciation for the vastness of its landscapes: Yosemite is your crash course. Two-mile-high peaks surround Yosemite Valley, a river meadow sprawling between granite walls rising 900m – over twice the height of the Empire State Building.

You need a day or so to take in the scale. And then there’s the waterfalls. Come April, when snowmelt is at its peak, the thunder of Yosemite Falls resonates through the valley in a constant, crashing hum. But, for all its hugeness, the seven-by-one-mile valley constitutes a mere five per cent of the park’s total size. To grasp just how big Yosemite really is, hit the trail.

The most ambitious ascend Half Dome before dawn, but this demands peak fitness. Instead, head for the lower part of John Muir Trail, which meanders along the Merced River through oak and pine forests. Grandparents and kids usually turn back after the first mile, once they’ve glimpsed Vernal Fall from a rustic footbridge. The better target: the 2.7-mile hike to the top of Nevada Fall, where the cascade roars like a jet engine. ‘You’re assured a spectacular rainbow as you ascend the granite steps to Vernal Fall,’ says park ranger Scott Gediman. ‘As water cascades down the walls, it conjures the glaciers that cut through the Merced River Canyon 1.2 million years ago to form Yosemite Valley.’

If you had two months spare, you could continue 209 more miles to Mt Whitney (4,418m), the highest peak in the lower 48 states. To learn just how big California really is takes time – and a good pair of boots.

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Where to eat
The Dining Room at the 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel merits a look even if you don’t stop for a large meal. Granite pillars line the 10m-high dining room, its ceiling crisscrossed with timbers. The food costs twice as much as it should: you’re paying for the room. Go for a carbo-loaded breakfast before hiking, or midday for a lazy lunch, when you can take in the grassy meadow and soaring granite-wall views (lunch mains from £10).

Where to stay
Staying in Yosemite Valley proper saves time. Of the three valley lodgings, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is the mid-range choice, with simple chainhotel- style rooms, in two-storey buildings, all newly refurbished. Its best feature is its location: smack next to the falls, on the shuttle-bus route and within walking distance of major trailheads. The on-site restaurant serves steak, pasta and seafood, and there’s a food court, ideal for those on a budget (£144 summer, £85 winter).

Point Reyes: Best for wildlife spotting
Point Reyes is about 230 miles northwest of Yosemite National Park, under 5 hours by car.

When the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco and levelled the city, Point Reyes Peninsula moved a whopping 6m northwestward. To prove it there’s a broken fence along the Earthquake Trail near the Bear Valley Visitor Center. As the main road, Sir Francis Drake Blvd, crosses a short bridge connecting the mainland and the peninsula, it’s hard to imagine that the little creek beneath sits atop such a massive rift zone.

Point Reyes National Seashore’s western tip juts 10 miles out to sea and stands 183m high, with sea lions lazing on the rocks below. It’s an ideal perch from which to see the January-to-May migration of California grey whales. Just east at Chimney Rock is a large elephant seal breeding colony, complete with a dedicated lookout spot.

‘My favourite time of year is winter,’ says park ranger Doug Hee. ‘The migrating whales, the mating elephant seals, the profusion of wildflowers – everything comes alive in colour from January to April.’

Wintertime bird-watching is sensational, especially from a kayak on Tomales Bay. The Pacific Flyway, the route migrating flocks follow between the tropics and the Arctic, sits just overhead. ‘Forty-five per cent of all North American bird species have been spotted at Point Reyes – there are great opportunities to see very rare birds,’ says Hee.

The most thrilling spectacle is the herds of tule elk, a native-California species of 500-pound reindeer-like beasts, roaming the peninsula’s northern finger, Tomales Point. Come rutting season, their bugling echoes across the valleys as the males spar and lock horns in a fight for dominance, wooing potential harem members. The footpath wends right through the 440-head herd, and on weekends from July through September, the parks service provides binoculars for a closer look. It’s a little disconcerting hiking so close to these giant animals, but Hee assures, ‘They’re very tolerant of people on the trail, but if you step off it, the whole group can scatter and the bulls can lose their harems.’

Not that you’d want to step off the trail when you see what’s ahead. Just beyond the elk, the wildflower-studded footpath tops out on high, windswept bluffs with superb vistas. On one side, the Pacific churns; on the other lies mellow Tomales Bay, whose stillness belies the staggering power of the San Andreas fault just beneath its surface.

Further information

Where to eat
A roadside bar perched over Tomales Bay, the Marshall Store is the place to sample oysters. The store is not licensed to serve the alcohol it sells on the premises, so take your wine to the bay-side car park, a sandy strip lined with barrel tables. The speciality is barbecued oysters, but there’s also a terrific clam chowder (mains from £8).

Where to stay
Nick’s Cove and Cottages are an assembly of 1930s cottages on the edge of Tomales Bay. Nick’s feels like a summer place that’s been in the family for years. Refurbished in 2007 when famed local restaurateur Pat Kuleto took over, the cottages have luxury extras including high-thread-count sheets and heated marble bathroom flooring, but the decor remains decidedly folksy. The best rooms are on stilts, jutting out over the bay – come midweek for lower rates. Otherwise, Point Reyes is an easy daytrip from San Francisco (from £192).

Sonoma County: Best for wine
Sonoma Valley is 40 miles northeast of Point Reyes, 80 minutes by car.

Napa put California on the world’s viticultural map but, nowadays, gone are the family farms that once defined its landscape. Not so in Sonoma, however, which remains truer to its agrarian roots. Countless you-pick-em orchards, goatcheese farms and vegetable stands dot the winding back roads.

‘Sonoma has a rich agricultural tradition that predates the emergence of the California wine industry,’ explains Scott Adams, founder of Bella Winery. ‘What makes Sonoma County unique is its rich diversity. The vast majority of the wineries in the Sonoma area are still making wine on a small scale.’

You feel just how small this scale is wending towards Adams’ winery up West Dry Creek Rd, an undulating trail – just one-lane wide in some spots – and the favoured route of winery-hoppers on bicycles. At the road’s end sit two contrasting wineries, Bella and Preston: new Sonoma, old Sonoma.

Although Bella Winery has a block of 95-year-old, gnarled zinfandel vines on its estate, the winery building itself is new and its magnificent, cool caves were bored into the hillside only in the late 1990s. Its wines break with local tradition. Most red Sonoma vintages are big and jammy – one local winemaker describes his syrah as ‘slutty’. But at Bella, the single-vineyard zinfandels are elegantly lean and structured, taking a cue from Europe, not its neighbours. The vibe is playful and young: with its late-harvest zinfandel tastings, Bella serves peanut-butter cups.

Across the road, the maturer Preston Winery occupies a century-old organic farmstead surrounded by a weathered picket fence, with large wicker rockers lining the big front porch. This is salt-ofthe- earth Sonoma, with a mishmash of different Rhône varietals and vegetables for sale. Each Sunday locals gather here, bringing their own jugs to fill and sit under the shade of walnut trees, drinking wine and playing bocce ball (Italian boules), munching on Mr Preston’s homemade bread and olive oil between turns.

‘It’s a great drive up West Dry Creek,’ says Adams. ‘You’ll feel like you’re completely lost, then discover someplace you hadn’t heard of, and suddenly it’s your new favourite winery.’

Further information

Where to eat
At Zazu, husband-and-wife team Duskie Estes and John Stewart use local ingredients. John raises heirloom pigs, which he transforms into salumi, and Duskie makes her own pasta using eggs from their own hens. With dishes inspired by rural-Italian cooking, this is one of Sonoma’s top tables for seasonal, local cooking (mains from £17).

Where to stay
Set on a late-19th-century farmstead in rural Sonoma Valley and surrounded by rolling hills and fields of horses, Beltane Ranch is the most atmospheric place to stay in Sonoma County. Wicker rockers sit on wide, wraparound porches and the decor, a mishmash of antiques, matches the house. Guests have their own entrances and complete privacy (except on the shared outdoor decks), and unlike at some b&bs, the owner will never demand you pet the cat. There is also a tennis court and walking trails to experience (from £104).

Sonoma -Mendocino coast: Best for sea escapes
The middle of the Sonoma-Mendocino coast is around 120 miles from Sonoma Valley, 2½ hours by car.

Forget the California you’ve seen on TV: the rugged north coast is nothing like the Baywatch beaches. Rocky headlands jut into the sea, studded with pines, not palms. The ubiquitous fog keeps the air cool, even in July; there’s a reason Tippi Hedren wore fur as she drove along this coastline, en route to the town of Bodega Bay, in Hitchcock’s classic The Birds.

The Sonoma-Mendocino coast is largely undeveloped, looking pretty much as it always has and, best of all, there’s not a single traffic light for over 150 miles.

‘Where else can you go in California and be the only person on the beach in the middle of summer?’ asks Renata Dorn, proprietor of Mar Vista Cottages in Anchor Bay. ‘It’s a place to focus on yourself, not on shops and other distractions. People come here to connect with nature.’

Like they do at Bowling Ball Beach, where rows of near-perfectly round boulders line seaweed-covered rock alleys, an other-worldly scene that only emerges at low tide. Or at Stornetta Public Lands, surrounding the Point Arena Lighthouse. From the top of the 35m-high tower, you can spot the San Andreas fault line slicing between the coastal hills. Dorn says, ‘The land here is full of Pacific drama – the crashing, curling surf, birds and bobcats busy with their prey, and even wild pintos on the hill above Point Arena.’

At Manchester State Beach, where the fault dives into the sea, a 3½-mile strand unfurls beside undulating dunes. Unlike most California beaches, Manchester faces northwest and gets pummelled by long, rolling breakers: the surf positively roars.

Hardly anyone stops here. For that matter, hardly anyone drives this stretch of coast, preferring the inland freeway, Route 101, towards Mendocino, a 19th-century village of salt-box cottages, built by homesick New England whalers. It’s like a Cape Cod town plunked on the California coast. Charming yes, but lately it’s become a parody of itself, with too many b&bs decorated with cabbage-rose wallpaper. After a day of gallery-hopping and shopping, nothing beats heading back south to solitude, off the tourists’ radar, and napping in a hammock at Mar Vista with a book on your face.

Further information

Where to eat
Surf Supermarket: This well-stocked supermarket caters to finicky weekenders from San Francisco staying at second homes in nearby Sea Ranch. Assuming you’re staying at Mar Vista, you’ll need all the basics to fill your kitchen: coffee, local cheese and wines, grass-fed steaks and free-range chicken to complement the salads from the garden. If you don’t feel like cooking, or you’re just passing through, Surf makes tasty sandwiches to order and runs a car-park barbecue on weekends.

Where to stay
Mar Vista Cottages’ 1930s style defines seaside simplicity. The basics have all been mastered: bed linen line-dried over lavender; an organic vegetable garden from which guests feed themselves and cut flowers to decorate their cottages; and freshly laid eggs for omelettes every morning. You bring the rest. No phones and no TVs mean total escape (cottages from £108).

Redwood National Forest: Best for the world’s tallest trees
The Redwood National Park is around 3½ hours from the Sonoma-Mendocino coast.

‘A redwood is a mystic thing to our people,’ says local Yurok Indian tribe elder Lavina Bowers. Standing beneath the world’s tallest living things, you can see why. Salamanders scurry by, disappearing beneath roots as fat as your thigh. Massive trunks vanish overhead in fog, which twirls, evanescing like ghosts and provides the trees’ main water source, plip-plopping to the ground.

It’s compelling to hug one, to feel its rutted bark. It takes a dozen adults, arms outstretched, to encircle the largest. Wind whooshes through the canopy, carrying the scent of cedar and the ocean. Only a rare shaft of sunlight makes it to the forest floor. You can’t help but feel solemn gratitude before such overwhelming natural beauty.

Some animals spend their entire lives in the branches, never once setting foot on earth. The forest’s ecosystem is as complex as the tropical rainforest and equally at risk: of the original old-growth redwood forests, which once covered (and existed almost exclusively on) the northern California coast, only six per cent remain. The bulk stand here as both a World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve.

Many 20th-century American luminaries also saw the redwoods as sacred, people such as Lady Bird Johnson, for whom one of the most awe-inspiring groves is named. A gentle, one-mile trail takes you beneath the giant trees along the forest floor, carpeted with electric-green moss, pink rhododendrons and shoulder-high ferns.

Parts of the reserve look prehistoric. At Fern Canyon, feathery fronds cling to sheer rock walls. Steven Spielberg used the locale in his film The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Many don’t make it this far north, turning back after seeing the fantastic Avenue of the Giants, where the trees stand so tall that vehicles look like Matchbox cars.

Time seems to stand still at the north coast’s kitsch roadside attractions, like the Drive-Thru Tree Park, where a square-cut driveway lets an SUV pass through the trunk of a still-living, 96m-high tree.

Redwoods are durable. The tallest rise over 113m high and the oldest is 2,000 years old. The massive downed trunks decaying on the forest floor may predate Julius Caesar. Ms Bowers puts it simply: ‘They’re just one of those special things the Creator gave us.’

Further information

Where to eat
Redwood country is not renowned for good food. Stop en route to stock up on fresh, organic produce at Wildberries Marketplace. There are picnic grounds at many groves, as well as the seaside Thomas H Kuchel Visitor Center at Redwood National Park. Expect wind and fog, so dress warmly to picnic. On a more balmy day, head to the Klamath River Overlook picnic area, above the ocean at the end of Requa Road.

Where to stay
On a hill above the Klamath River where it meets the shoreline of Redwood National Park, the 1914 Requa Inn has a welcoming, rustic vibe. Its 10 b&b rooms have a fresh, country decor. Book a river-view room and spot eagles and osprey diving for salmon (from £74).

The article 'The perfect trip: California' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.