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23 Best Highway 101 attractions in Northern California

Highway 101 attractions aren’t few and far between. Honestly, checking off this list of the best Northern California roadside attractions was a highlight of our West Coast Road trip as we worked our way up the coast from Big Sur through California, Oregon, and Washington to Vancouver BC.

One of the best things about a road trip across the USA is that there is a lot of weird stuff to see alongside the road. Not only are there a tonne of historical markers pretty much where ever you seem to drive, but there are weird things like drive-thru trees too. One of the sections of our road trip where we noticed the weirdest roadside attractions were in Northern California.

There seemed to be another weird roadside attraction in Northern California with every turn. This was especially true as we came closer to Redwood National Park. Whilst we didn’t stop at all of them we enjoyed spotting them and laughing at the weirdness of it all as we drove.

If you’re planning a road trip in California and have the time then make sure you stop at some of these weird roadside attractions on Northern California’s Hwy 101. This road trip itinerary for Highway 101 Oregon to California goes from Big Sur, through San Francisco and up to the state boundary.

From drive thru trees to glass beaches and some more normal places to stop on highway 101 such as towns and beaches, you’ll find plenty to keep you entertained on Hwy 101 California.

hwy 101 california roadside attractioins

The best California roadside attractions on Highway 101

Map of the best highway 101 Northern California attractions

Belo you’ll find a link to the interacive map of where to stop on California’s hwy 101 as you road trip the West Coast. Click to open it up in Google maps and see all the places I mention below.

highway 101 attractions california
Chandelier Big Tree Drive-Thru california

1. Big Tree Drive Thrus

The tall trees along Highway 101 make some of the top Highway 101 tourist attractions. And, when it comes to places to visit in northern California, you can’t miss the giant redwood trees.

Back before people understood chopping down trees wasn’t the best thing to do, people would create holes in tree trunks big enough to drive through. You can still see some of these along California’s northern coastline if you so wish. Most of them are in the ‘Avenue of Giant’s section of the road which is well signposted.

There are at least three Big Tree Drive-Thrus near Hwy 101. There’s Chandelier Big Tree Drive-Thru, Tour-Thru Tree near Klamath, and Shrine Drive-Thru Tree in Myers Flat.

The last also has a Step-Thru Stump and a Drive-on Tree where a fallen giant has been given a partially paved ramp-up, so you can photograph your car off-roading.

Van Damme Pygmy Forest

2. Van Damme Pygmy Forest

Take a short hike in the Pygmy Forest. The roundtrip hike on the Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail will take you into the weird, and famous, Van Damme Pygmy Forest. This forest is so called because the adult pine and cypress trees stand stunted at 8 ft 6 tall.

That’s tiny for these types of trees! The trail takes you along a raised walkway which makes the forest seem even smaller. It’s well worth a stop on your 101 Highway road trip.

glass beach california

3. Glass Beach

Don’t worry, you’re not walking on super sharp glass! Glass Beach was originally used as a dumping ground for local residents. They’d put all their rubbish here including glass bottles and containers.

Decades of surf have turned the broken shards of glass into smooth stones without any sharp edges. This means you can walk barefoot on a Glass Beach!

  • Note: Don’t take away the glass otherwise it ruins Glass Beach for future visitors!
westport whale california 101

4. Westport Whale

A huge whale sculpture sits in an undersized pool outside a rental home. The whale was purposely created to be a roadside attraction and it’s definitely a bit of a weird roadside attraction! Apparently, the whale spouts water every hour from 10 am -3 pm.

immortal tree california roadside attractions

5. The Immortal Tree

Along the Avenue of Giants scenic highway is a sign for the Immortal Tree. This redwood tree is believed to be almost 1,000 years old and has survived lightning, fire, floods and a couple of axes.

A sign next to the tree recounts its near-death experiences. There was the lightning that removed the top, the logger’s axe in 1908, forest fires and the notorious “Flood of 1964.”

Whilst immortal, that’s not to say the tree hasn’t suffered somewhat. It was once 298ft tall and is now 258ft.

eternal tree house california

6. The Eternal Tree House

This is another of those strange things to see on Highway 101 northern California road trips.

The Eternal Tree House is a free attraction where you can see a 20ft room inside of a “living tree”. If you stop you’ll see a room carved into the bottom of a redwood stump. The room comes complete with a log chandelier which lights up a guest book.

grandfather tree weird roadside attractions northern california

7. Grandfather Tree

The biggest trees in Northern California have been given fancy names. There’s Immortal Tree, Eternal Tree, and the World Famous Grandfather Tree all along the Avenue of Giants. 

Signs say that the tree is 1,800 years old, with a diameter of 24ft, and 265ft high. That’s old!

confusion hill california

8. Confusion Hill

Confusion Hill is a combination of mystery spots + big tree roadside attractions. There used to be a miniature train ride through a big tree but the tree fell in a storm.

However, you can still take a train ride around the Redwoods. Confusion Hill itself has gravity-defying illusions and more signs than other roadside attractions (which is really saying something!).

legend of bigfoot california

9. Legend of Bigfoot

Surprisingly “The Legend of Bigfoot” is not about Bigfoot. It is, in fact, an open-air chainsaw carvings gift shop selling plants and tourist items.

Alongside the wind chimes and burls stands a carved statue of a Bigfoot, next to a gold panning prospector holding a nugget. These are then surrounded by cartoon bears and painted gnomes.

It’s a weird one for sure but there are plenty of photo opportunities. You could snap a photo of you an a carved Indian Head, you in front of a fairy tale house or you could crawl into a log beneath an elf. It’s one of the top roadside attractions highway 101 has to offer and worth a look.

chimney tree highway 101 attractions northern california

10. Chimney Tree

The Chimney Tree roadside attraction is a tree 12.5ft wide which has been carved from the centre. You can step inside and gaze up ‘the chimney’ where the tree stops 78ft up.

11. Skinny Old Man Carving

This tall and skinny redwood carving of a man stands next to an old deserted shop. He probably had something to do with the shop once upon a time but who knows?!

giant ear of corn california

12. Big Corn Monument

If you’ve been to Australia you’ve probably come across a few ‘Big things’ statues. There’s a big Gum Boot and a Big Peach to name but a few.

Well, in Northern California you can get a look at the Big Corn Monument!

The Big Corn Monument is on the northern edge of Avenue of the Giants and is huge. Be sure to check out one of the oddest Highway 101 roadside attractions.

giant hammer sign california

14. Giant Hammer Sign

Another ‘big thing’ to add to your list of weird Hwy 101 attractions in Northern California.

This truly giant hammer (about 30ft tall) is in Eureka and advertises Pierson’s Building Center.

Ingomar Club haunted house california

14. Carson Mansion the Quintessential Haunted House

Do you love a haunted house? Then you’ll love Carson Mansion (Ingomar Club). This house is basically the image that springs to mind when you think of a haunted house. Just look at it!

This gothic mansion was built in 1855 and it’s believed to have been the inspiration for many a scary story.

world's largest totem pole california

15. World’s largest totem pole

Living in Vancouver I’ve seen my fair share of totem poles but perhaps none quite so big as this one.

This so-called world’s largest totem pole in McKinleyville is a whopping 160ft high and was built (would you believe it) to commemorate the opening of a nearby shopping center!

forest cafe underwater dining

16. Forest Cafe, Underwater Dining

Sorry to ruin it but you won’t actually be dining underwater. Instead, you’ll be dining in a room with duck feet stuck to the ceiling which may make you feel like you’re at the bottom of a pond at this restaurant in Klamath.

It doesn’t get the best reviews so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating here, but you could grab adrink if you want to feel likem dining underneath the water!

trees of mystery

17. Trees of Mystery

Also in Klamath are the Trees of Mystery. The park is said to have some especially freaky trees, a gondola sky ride, an Indian museum, and the above-mentioned underwater restaurant.

Oh and a gift shop with over 15,000 items!

18. Big Scissors

You’ll have never seen scissors as big as these! They sit above Kim’s Hair Studio in Crescent City.

Apparently, these huge scissors used to be motorized but not anymore.

ship ashore california

19. Ship Ashore

This is the last weird roadside attraction in Northern California before you pass over the state border into Oregon.

This huge ship looks like it’s been washed ashore. It sits in a car park and it used to be open to the public with a gift shop and museum.

It was closed when we visited in May 2017 and apparently hasn’t shown signs of life for a couple of years. Either way, it’s still worth stopping off at as you go past.

skunk train and rail bikes

20. Skunk Train

About 10 miles north of the pretty Mendocino town, you’ll find Fort Bragg. It might feel a bit rougher around the edges than its southern neighbor, but it’s a fantastic detour packed with fun stuff to do and worthy of being on this list of Northern California attractions.

Riding the Skunk Train is one of the best things to do here. This historic railway has been running since 1885 and travels along the beautiful Mendocino Coast. During the ride, you can stop for a picnic or take a stroll in the Glen Blair Junction woods.

You can also ride rail bikes, bikes attached to the railway line, which is a super fun activity for things to do in Northern California.

21. Mendocino

Sitting on the California coast Mendocino is a beautiful small town that is one of the best places to stop on a Highway 101 road trip.

You’ll find plenty of cafes, restaurants, and boutique shops here. The pastel-colored wooden fronts of the buildings set against the aqua-blue coastline create a picture-perfect scene and stretching your legs here for a few hours is well worth it!

china beach san francisco california

22. San Francisco

San Francisco is one of the best places to see on a Highway 101 road trip!

Entering the city with views of Golden Gate Bridge in the early morning is magical, especially when the fog hides part of the bridge, adding a touch of mystery.

San Francisco is filled with outdoor activities from beaches to parks, and a city pass might be worth it if you’re staying a while. It includes tour bus rides, bike tours, rentals, and entry to most of the sites.

There are lots of other cheap and fun things to do in San Francisco for free too. This includes Pier 39 and its sea lions (mind the smell!), and exploring the boutique stores, quirky neighborhoods, and landmarks in San Francisco like the Painted Ladies.

big sur road trip

23. Big Sur + Monterey

The Big Sur drive is one of the best parts of the Highway 101 drive in California. Why? Well, imagine a road that winds along cliffs with the blue ocean on one side and tall, green mountains on the other.

It’s not just about driving; it’s about exploring too. You can visit famous sights like the Bixby Creek Bridge, walk in forests of giant trees, and relax on peaceful beaches. You might even see cute sea otters or big whales!

Big Sur has also inspired many artists and writers, so there’s a special feeling to the place.

Even though it’s a popular spot, it’s big enough for you to find quiet moments to yourself.

drive thru trees california

Highway 101 Travel Tips

  • Plan Your Route: Northern California’s Highway 101 is full of hidden gems, so take some time before your trip to plan out your route. Do some research on the places you’d like to visit along the way and mark them on a map. This will help you estimate driving times between stops and help ensure you don’t miss any must-see spots.
  • Check the Weather: Northern California’s weather can change quickly, especially along the coast. Check the weather forecast before you start each day’s drive, and be prepared for various conditions. Bring rain gear and warm clothing just in case.
  • Pack Food and Water: There are stretches of Highway 101 where services are sparse. It’s a good idea to always have snacks, water, and a cooler with some meals in your vehicle as you discover these roadside attractions in California.
  • Fuel Up Frequently: Gas stations can be far apart in some areas, so make sure to fill up your tank whenever you have the chance. It’s better to have too much gas than not enough.
  • Respect Speed Limits: The highway winds through various terrains, including coastal roads, mountain passes, and small towns. Speed limits can change frequently, so keep an eye out for signs and respect the posted limits.
  • Enjoy the Scenery: Northern California’s Highway 101 is known for its breathtaking scenery. From towering redwoods to rugged coastal views, there’s always something beautiful to see. Take your time, stop often, and soak in the views.
  • Respect Wildlife: You may encounter wildlife on your journey. Always keep a safe distance and never feed wild animals while finding these highway 101 attractions California.
  • Stay Overnight: Consider staying overnight in some of the towns along the route to fully experience what they have to offer. From camping in state parks to cozy B&Bs, there are plenty of lodging options.
  • Follow Leave No Trace Principles: Protect the environment by following Leave No Trace principles. This includes disposing of waste properly, leaving what you find, and respecting wildlife and other visitors.
  • Have Emergency Contacts: Lastly, have a list of emergency contacts, including local police, hospitals, and roadside assistance. It’s better to be prepared in case something unexpected happens.

FAQs about the best Highway 101 California attractions

Where does Highway 101 start and end?

Highway 101 starts in Los Angeles, California, and ends in Tumwater, Washington, passing through iconic locations along the West Coast.

What is Highway 101 famous for?

Hwy 101 Northern California is famous for its stunning coastline, towering redwoods, iconic cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and unique attractions such as Hearst Castle and the Golden Gate Bridge.

What should I not miss on the California Coast?

Stop in Santa Barbara for Spanish architecture, Solvang for Danish charm, San Luis Obispo for a vibrant downtown, and Monterey for marine life.

Where can we stop on 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco?

Don’t miss Big Sur for its incredible cliffs and sea views, the historic Hearst Castle, the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, and the unique charm of seaside towns like Carmel and Monterey.

Is Highway 101 Scenic?

Yes, Highway 101 is highly scenic. It offers breathtaking ocean views, rolling hills, redwood forests, and notable landmarks throughout its path.

Is Highway 101 worth it?

Absolutely, Highway 101 is worth it. The diverse landscapes, beautiful views, and unique sights make it a memorable journey.

Final thoughts on the best places to stop on Highway 101 California

A journey along Highway 101 is more than just a road trip; it’s an unforgettable adventure through some of California’s most stunning landscapes and iconic cities. When it comes to what to see on Highway 101 in California you’re truly spoiled for choice.

From the breathtaking cliffs of Big Sur to the urban charm of San Francisco, there’s no shortage of sights to entertain any driver on their American road trip. Plus, these roadside attractions California has to offer add a fun dimension to the drive.

If you have more time for exploring, I highly recommend visiting these places in Yosemite National Park, or heading further to the Mammoth Hot Springs. If you’re going North be sure to check out the Samuel H Boardman State Scenic Corridor which was one of my favorite parts of this whole coastline! The whole Oregon Coast road is stunning and worth adding to your road trip itinerary on the West Coast USA.

Last Updated on July 27, 2023 by Hannah

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