Having moved to Davis from Sonoma County over 13 years ago, the drudge of Highway 80 became unbearable, especially when fighting SUVs in peak Lake Tahoe tourist seasons. There had to be a more scenic, motorcycle friendly route to visit family in Healdsburg and to the beaches of the Pacific Coast where I spent many a weekend as a kiddo. It didn’t take long to discover that Highway 128 was going to be the two-lane adventure that would to save me from the four-lane monster. After 10 years of happy exploration, I’ve found the perfect path to the ocean with only 12 miles of freeway to land you in the quaint seaside town of Elk, transforming a freeway grind into a day of twisties through wine country and redwood forest to experience all that makes Northern California so very special.
SMALL TOWNS AND VINEYARD VIEWS
Highway 128 begins in the town of Winters, about 12 miles west of Davis. I begin my journey out of Davis, taking E. Covell Road, which turns into 128 once I hit Winters. What started as a small, sleepy town is quickly becoming a local hit with its Putah Creek Cafe and The Buckhorn Steakhouse. The cafe is a good place to meet for a cup of Joe and a homemade muffin before losing yourself in the Napa foothills. You’re going to need a little sustenance to wake you up as there are often rocks in the road from the many rockslides that happen year-round, and watch those blind turns and keep your head on a swivel.
Once you push through town, you’ll begin a ride that is guaranteed to become a personal favorite. One of the first sites on your right will be Lake Berryessa and the Monticello Dam, providing water and hydroelectricity to the Sacramento valley. Before this valley was dammed, it was a thriving agricultural area boasting some of the best soil in California. When the area experiences a drought, or when the spillway drains the water from the lake, you can see the actual Monticello town buildings rising up from the lakebed. Freaky and cool at the same time.
About 10 minutes from the dam you’ll come to the Highway 121 split. Watch for the right turn toward St. Helena, staying on 128. It can sneak up on you. This winds you through some narrow, sweeping turns that skirt along the backside of Berryessa and introducing you to the vineyards of the Napa Valley. Nichelini Winery is nestled along this twisting delight. There’s minimal parking but enough room for a motorcycle. A couple of miles later you’ll ride by another body of water, Lake Hennessey, a no-swim, fish-only lake.
When the road ends, you’ll find yourself deep in the heart of wine country. Take a right onto Silverado Trail and lose yourself in the beauty of the valley. But, please keep in mind, tourists in rental cars will spontaneously slam on the brakes at the mere sight of a winery. It’s a strange phenomenon and one you need to be aware of. Keep your distance from the car in front of you and don’t pass them as they’re likely to swerve left or right without warning. Silverado Trail parallels 128, and is known to motorcyclists and bicyclists as the less crowded and more beautiful road along the valley floor. Take a left onto Pope Street and then turn right to get back onto 128 if you want to explore the wonderful little town of St. Helena (locals pronounce it ‘Sain-el-eena’). It has several options for every meal and every palate. It’s usually heavy with tourist traffic, but worth the stop to check it out if you have the time to walk through the local clothing and food shops.
Vineyards and wineries are abundant on either side of the road and the scents change with each season. If you find yourself riding through here in the fall and just can’t put your finger on that oddly sweet smell, you’ve just experienced the aroma of crush and grape harvest season. As the grapes are hauled in and squeezed for their precious juice, the valley air fills with its scent, welcoming you into autumn. Turn left onto Deer Park and then turn right to get back onto Highway 128. You’ll soon find yourself in the town of Calistoga. There’s a Union 76 station on the corner for fuel and a local favorite BBQ joint right across the street called Buster’s Southern BBQ. I recommend the pork tenderloin sandwich. But, watch out for the hot sauce! It’s been known to take out a stomach lining or two.
After passing through the three-way stop in Calistoga, just keep on going straight. You’re exiting Napa Valley and entering into an area very dear to me, Knights Valley and Alexander Valley. I’ve written about them in the past as they hold so much family history and stories from many years ago. (See An Historic Spring Tour of Sonoma Wine Country’s Hidden Treasures.) Once through the valleys, you’ll come to a three-way stop in Jimtown. Take the right toward Geyserville, continuing on 128. This is a stretch that really shows off the vineyards and the heart of Sonoma County. You’ll cross over the Russian River, a local playground for kayak enthusiasts and those looking to escape the summer heat.
A LITTLE FREEWAY, A LOT OF BEAUTY
Unfortunately, you’ve now arrived at the 12 miles of freeway. Follow the signs to Highway 101. Now, if you had to choose a stretch of freeway, this would be it. It still boasts the beauty of the county, but you have pick up the pace. Fortunately, it goes by quickly. Taking the Highway 128/Boonville exit after Cloverdale will be the last major leg of the journey. A left under the freeway and a right onto 128 once again, you’ve come to one of my all-time most beloved rides. Note To Self: After about 5 miles, you will begin a very steep climb with 15 MPH switchbacks. Make sure you are confident with your clutch and brake skills. Take your time and do not go too fast in the turns. I want to make sure and get that out there for anyone who might be a new rider. But WOW! it’s so much fun! You will gain a significant amount of altitude in little time, surrounded by oak trees and golden hillsides. It’s a narrow winding road of motorcycle goodness.
SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST
You’ll roll through a small town or two before coming into the slightly larger town of Boonville. Boonville used to be just the place you stopped for gas before heading to the coast. In the past decade, it has experienced an amazing rebirth of restaurants, lodging and shops. There are several local wineries and, my personal fave, Anderson Valley Brewing Company. If you get the chance, try a pint of their Boont Amber Ale. Yummmm. Across from the Boonville Hotel is a tasty little breakfast and lunch stop, The Boonville General Store. There’s seating out front so you can enjoy your meal while watching the world roll by. There’s one gas station in town on your left, just after the general store. It may have the most expensive pricing out there, but it’s gas!
Keep rolling west but PLEASE don’t forget to pick up some local fruit and veggies at Gowan’s Oak Tree in Philo, just past Boonville. This fruit stand has been around for generations and the variety of pears and apples is unmatched. They will even put your items in a larger bag so you can secure them to your bike with a bungee. It’s just that easy and worth the stop to experience the local flavor.
You’re almost there! Back on 128, you now have two options on getting to Elk. You can continue on 128 through the redwoods (see the redwoods interactive map), eventually coming to the turnoff for Highway 1. Or you can take the road less travelled and much more challenging. I tend to choose the latter. Both are quite stunning, both take you deep within the redwoods, but the 128 to 1 route has heavier traffic and the locals would rather you step on the gas than enjoy the scenery. If you take my route, you will soon find yourself rolling through the tiny town of Elk, one of my favorite places to end up after a long day on the road. The people are outstanding and The Elk Cove Inn and Spa provides a very soft landing. But more on that later. So… interested in the second route?
SSSSHHHH…AN ALTERNATE LOCAL ROUTE
After you roll through Philo, you will see a sign to turn left onto Greenwood Road towards Hendy Woods State Park and Elk. Get ready for some amazing views and little to no traffic flow. You’re immediately placed in the center of a majestic redwood forest. The smells are unlike any other and the cool shade of these giants is most welcome on those warm days. You can take your time twisting through the hillside or, for you more experienced riders, take on the road full speed. It is a challenge trying to keep from rolling back on the throttle and going all in. It does become very shady in spots, so keep an eye out for wildlife. If this is your first time, take it easy and enjoy the ride. After gaining more altitude, stop and look to your right through the wall of redwoods. You’re staring into Mendocino and the rolling hillsides that will lead you to the Pacific. Climb higher until you reach the apple orchards and horses. You can stop to enjoy their company as they’re quite friendly and enjoy a good scratch. Continue twisting your way west until you’re on top of the ridgeline near the stretch where it opens up on your left. Stop and savor the miles and miles of redwoods. If you’re rolling in later in the afternoon, there’s a good chance you’ll see the fog making its way inland. Getting a little chilly now, isn’t it? Not too much longer.
You’ll suddenly be met with a cluster of little homes and then there it is, the Pacific Ocean. At the stop sign at Highway 1, it’s okay to sit for a spell and take it in. If you’ve never experienced this ocean, I welcome you. There’s absolutely nothing like it. And with Highway 1 right there, there’s no end to fabulous two-wheeled adventures. Looking for The Elk Cove Inn and Spa? Turn you head to the left and there it is right across the street, nestled atop a ridge and overlooking the ocean. That, my friend, is the ultimate place to land after such an absolutely amazing day. If you plan on staying there during the weekend, you’ll need to make reservations ahead of time. Every once in a while, they’ll put a sign out front in case of a cancellation. Almost all of their quaint rooms have an ocean view and they prepare one of the most fabulous homemade breakfasts out there. Chat with the proprietor, Elaine. Let her know I sent you.
You’re now deep in motorcycle riding ecstasy! North on Highway 1 takes you to Mendocino, Fort Bragg and beyond, and south takes you to Bodega Bay, Tomales Bay and eventually, San Francisco. Grab a map and plan your next couple of days. Don’t have the time? Not to worry. Something tells me you’ll be coming back very soon.
- The Boonville General Store, Highway 128 in Boonville 707-895-9477
- Queenies Roadhouse Cafe, Highway 1 in Elk 707-877-3285
- Bridget Dolan’s Pub, Highway 1 in Elk 707-877-3422
PLACES TO STAY
Editor’s note: Just for the record, Sandy’s photos are completely un-retouched, so what you see is what you get when you visit this area in late summer. It’s not so shabby in the other seasons, either.
You can see from the map that a journey to Winters from San Francisco or Wine Country can be an enjoyable ride. Combine this trip with others from MotoSFO like this one from Healdsburg or this one from Lakeport, and this trip to Mendocino and the secret road to the three tallest trees in the world.