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The wilder side of California

The route between LA and San Francisco is the stuff of legend, but continue north and you'll find an alternative Highway 1

You're in San Francisco on a fly-drive holiday. You drive north over the Golden Gate Bridge – a Californian rite of passage – park up, take a few pictures, then head back south following the equally iconic Highway 1 coast road to Los Angeles along Big Sur. Big mistake.

You're better off heading north along the "other" Highway 1. This is the northward continuation of State Route 1, as the Californian thoroughfare is officially known. It begins just south of Los Angeles and continues for a couple of hundred miles beyond the Golden Gate into gutsy Northern California, where the grass is greener (quite literally), the trees are taller and the towns still have a woodsy whiff of frontier authenticity.

This may not apply to Mill Valley, my first stop. It's where affluent San Franciscans hang out in hot-tub heaven, with chi-chi shops and ex-lumber workers' homes that come with Manhattan price tags. But I quite liked it, not least for its forested setting at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, a shrine worshipped as the birthplace of mountain biking and the Gary Fisher bike.

The corkscrew road took me over the mountain to Stinson Beach – massive and eerily empty, given the proximity to teeming San Francisco – and on to Bolinas.

You'll have to trust the map (or satnav) to find this place. It is a ramshackle, reclusive settlement that wants to be left alone. Locals have repeatedly torn down the sign off Highway 1 since the Sixties counterculture, when Bolinas was a commune of poets, rock stars, writers and artists. The vibe still hangs on in there, unlike gone-to-seed, slightly sad Haight-Ashbury back in San Francisco.

Then came the cruisin'. To paraphrase Top Gear: some say that Northern California is a mix of Ireland, Scotland and Portugal. It's a bit like that, with rugged, windy headlands, virgin beaches and misty mountains. But there's no heather or Celtic whimsy, and precious little sun. I drove through cowboy-style coastal prairie with wispy grass and picket fences on roads perfumed by pulped eucalyptus leaves, past peeling, wobbly wharves and lobster shacks, through dots on the map populated by one man and his dog, and along some of the loveliest coastal scenery I've ever encountered, which went on and on and on, a loop in some surreal American pastoral movie.

Like the American pioneers, this is a tough, elemental, no-nonsense landscape, a long way from the balm and fairy dust of Southern California. It's alive and invigorating, a place where you wear a parka, not a T-shirt. On the beach, you light driftwood fires rather than go surfing.

I washed up in Jenner on the mouth of Russian River. The waterway is named after the Siberian fur-trappers who explored the area in the 19th century and founded the stockade of Fort Ross, now a State Historic Park, 10 miles to the north.

Jenner, like most places in these parts, is no more than a village, humbled by an imperious coastline – in this case the Goat Rock State Park, accessible by a white-knuckle switchback road, thankfully paved, that at one stage seems on the point of plunging into the steely, chilly Pacific.

Onwards and upwards. Highway 1 took me through more sparsely settled countryside to the thriving metropolis of Timber Cove (population 164), then on to Anchor Bay, described in one guidebook as Northern California's "best-kept secret for its secluded beach", an accolade with added weight on a coastline studded with obscure, hidden gems at almost every turn.

Earlier in my travels I'd seen a life-sized horse made entirely from driftwood. The sculptor Matt Torrens probably spends half his life on Manchester State Beach, a treasure trove of tangled driftwood, polished smooth by the Pacific. Driftwood is scattered across the beach at Mendocino, too. This is the artsy, craftsy town of grey, yellow and red clapboard houses – New England transplanted to the West Coast – that's the nearest thing Northern California has to anything vaguely touristy. Mendocino's annual film festival takes place on the first three days of June this year: low key, earnest and unashamedly grassroots, it's the perfect antidote to Oscar overload and Hollywood hype.

If pushed, I have to admit that I much prefer Fort Bragg just up the coast. It's a proper town with a logging pedigree that gives it a few rough edges. I detect, though, that the blow-ins from San Francisco and other cities are bringing a metropolitan sophistication to its blue-collar blocks, notwithstanding the crazy hippy in Safeways who was beaming – dangerously for him – at the good ol' boys in pick-up trucks.

There's the funky Headlands café where the Allen Ginsberg and Captain Beefheart lookalikes sip lattes, play chess and listen to the music; a rusty harbour with seals and cheap seafood shacks; and a microbrewery where you can sample six big thimbles of beer with your fish and chips at The Taproom & Grill. Better yet, the fantastic Union Lumber Company Store lives on as a restaurant, cycle shop, cookie emporium and gourmet kitchen.

Best of all, there's Glass Beach, the former town dump reclaimed by the sea. Among the sand you'll find tiny jewels of blue, green and white glass, the remnants of bottles scoured by the all-powerful, untamed Pacific. The ocean is still boss up here.


Travel Essentials

Getting there

The main gateway for Northern California is San Francisco, served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and its code-share partner American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk), along with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) and United Airlines (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk).


Seeing there

Headlands café, 120 Laurel Street, Fort Bragg (001 707 964 1987; headlandscoffeehouse.com).

The Taproom & Grill, North Main Street, Fort Bragg (001 707 964 3400; northcoastbrewing.com).

The Mendocino film festival takes place this year in Mendocino village between 1-3 June (001 707 937 0171; mendocinofilmfestival.org).