The Greatest Driving Road in California Not Named Highway 1 (& What Makes for a Great Driving Road?)
I have not yet driven the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. To be honest, I didn’t know that road existed before I watched the EveryDay Driver Season 8 episode featuring that breathtaking stretch (with its paucity of guardrails), immediately after which I (1) added driving the Million Dollar Highway to my bucket list and (2) concluded that Colorado road is undoubtedly among the very greatest routes in North America.
As someone who seeks out great driving roads, I am fortunate to live in California, a state with no shortage of them. Within twenty minutes of my San Francisco house, I can (and often do) reach several spectacular routes, including Lucas Valley Road, just north of the Golden Gate, and, in the other direction, Skyline, La Honda, and Highway 9. Of course, I can take the incomparable oceanside Highway 1 all the way down to Southern California and drive the amazing roads surrounding Los Angeles. Recently, I had the privilege and pleasure of navigating along (ahem, carving) Highway 150 from the coast through Ojai in the delightful 2021 Mercedes S-Class.
Among the very best driving roads in California, however--or anywhere, I’d wager--is the relatively unheralded Highway 128--in particular, a stretch twisting a route from Cloverdale (a small town about 80 miles north of San Francisco) all the way to Highway 1 and the dramatic Northern California coastline. My son and I discovered this road a couple of years ago, when we decided to venture further than usual for one of our weekend drives in the FR-S. We made it as far as a place called Boonville, a tiny frontier-like hamlet stitched into the surrounding grape vines known for excellent local wines, the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, and the fact some residents of this little town actually speak a language called Boontling--before turning around and heading home. I’ve since returned to Highway 128 a few times, both in the FR-S and in my girlfriend’s comfortable and capable 2021 Acura TLX (on our way to the breathtaking coast and a getaway in beautiful Mendocino).
What makes a road great for driving?
My day job these days is as a culinologist at an innovative food company, working alongside some of the brightest and most disciplined scientists around. I work, in other words, in a rigorously data-driven environment whose employees eschew subjectivity, so I’m aware and acknowledge that it doesn’t get more subjective than “this is the greatest driving road in California.” Really, what makes a road great for driving is a personal thing.
As driving enthusiasts, though, I’m assuming we share an appreciation for roads which allow us to enjoy our cars’ driving dynamics, whether that manifests in straight-line speed or poise around corners, so on that as a criterion we can probably all agree. For what it’s worth, here are other characteristics of “great” roads, by my definition, along with my assessment of 128 against these less-than-objective criteria:
Scenic: One of the reasons I love convertibles is because they allow me to marvel at my surroundings rather than just peer through a cramped windshield, and I seek out roads where I can simply take in the views.
By this standard, 128 emphatically checks the "is pretty" box. At Cloverdale, drivers encounter the blend of grape vines, oak trees, and conifers characteristic of that Mendocino County region. Every mile thereafter, all the way to the coast (which is, of course, awe-inspiringly beautiful), presents Instagram-worthy views. 128 doesn't offer many sweeping, million-dollar vistas from high elevation, but it's just as aesthetically pleasing to follow a course immersed among the vines, the redwoods, the small valleys along the way to Highway 1.
Enjoyable at different speeds: Without a doubt, I savor the moments when I can safely push a capable car to seven- or eight-tenths around corners (ten-tenths on public roads would amount to reckless driving). Unfortunately for me, though, other drivers exist, some (most) of whom drive lumbering SUVs and tend to drive in a less, ah, spirited manner than I do. With a great, scenic road, though, that’s okay; I’m quite happy to cruise along for stretches and enjoy the beautiful views, the fresh air, the welcome company of my fellow traveler(s).
Here, 128 delivers. The views alone are worth the trip.
Not overrun with traffic all the time: There is a limit to my patience with slower drivers and everyday traffic, however, which is why I often avoid driving the legendary Highway 1 for long stretches. One of the joys of a backroad is its relative isolation from crowded freeways, city streets, and "tourist routes" like Highway 1 anywhere south of San Francisco and Highway 12 through Sonoma County. Skyline can clog with traffic on the weekends, but even on the busiest hiking days, it’s possible to beat the crowds early in the mornings and wind out my FR-S or MX-5 without having to slow to a crawl every other corner.
Especially on weekdays, 128 isn't overrun with RVs and tourists, and if slower drivers actually use them, there are plenty of safe turnouts throughout.
Interesting destinations and places to stop along the journey: For a quick, impromptu jaunt from my house to the coast and back (as my son & I took in the Miata last night), the journey, as they say, can be the destination; however, having a landmark to look forward to--be it a vista point, a taqueria, or a place to stay for a vacation--can imbue a ride with some purpose and give travelers something to which to look forward.
C'mon--how much more interesting does it get than a small, isolated town whose residents speak a unique language? Also, 128 twists among some of the best small wineries in California and leads to charming coastal towns and oceanside trailheads
Topographic and other natural variety: On any given California road exceeding ten miles, one is almost guaranteed to encounter variety--in elevation, climate, eco systems, sizes and types of towns and cities.
Much of 128 winds through wine country, first across hills and tiny valleys corduroyed with vines, and later through the more expansive Anderson Valley. Past Boonville and Philo (another small town), the landscape shifts to redwood forest, leading drivers between the massive, majestic trees and along a path dappled with conifer-needled sunlight. At the junction with 1, a bridge across the Navarro river welcomes drivers to the coast. It's epic.
If you're a fellow driving road enthusiast and have an opportunity to drive 128, please do so; you will not be disappointed.
Dear readers, what are your favorite driving roads, according to the criteria I've shared here? What criteria am I missing? As always, I welcome your input and comments below. In the meantime, may you find your own million dollar highways out there.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.