The Best Ice Cream in California: A Road Trip

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Aura Lewis)

A road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway is nearly as American as driving cross-country on Route 66. However, if your interests are culinarily minded (and let’s be specific here — we’re talking about folks who really, really love ice cream), we suggest you head north from San Francisco instead of south.

From the urban cool of the Bay Area to the northern California coast, with a detour into the wine-soaked wonderland of Sonoma County, this journey encompasses the very best frozen treats that the Golden State has to offer.

1. Start Here: Ice Cream Paradise in San Francisco

Think of San Francisco’s famous foods and you’ll probably think of sourdough (or Rice-A-Roni). But locals know the city by the Bay is actually an ice cream-lover’s paradise.

There’s the slightly off-kilter creativity of Humphry Slocombe, with flavors like Elvis (the Fat Years), McEvoy Olive Oil, and Secret Breakfast; the chef-driven Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous, helmed by Wolfgang Puck alums; and the local, seasonal goodness of Bi-Rite Creamery, where salted caramel inspires lines out the door).

If you want a taste of the old-school, pre-tech San Francisco natives know and love, go to Mitchell’s. Opened in the Mission District in 1953, it’s a beloved throwback in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing. Alongside a long list of classics like rocky road are the longstanding tropical-inspired flavors like ube and avocado that made founder Larry Mitchell ahead of his time.

The Best Ice Cream Shops in San Francisco

2. Frozen Custard on Treasure Island and Alameda

Frozen custard may still be a new concept out West, but the roving Frozen Kuhsterd truck is spreading the rich and creamy gospel with inventive flavors like white chocolate-miso and sweet corn. Check the truck’s online schedule to see where it’s headed next. If you’re timing’s right, you can drive a few minutes east to catch it at Treasure Island’s monthly flea market. Or keep going to the cute bayside town of Alameda, where FK pops up at the Off-the-Grid food truck fest each month.

The Best Bay Area Frozen Custard

3. Sandwiches & Soft Serve in Oakland

Alameda is just few miles from diverse, cosmopolitan (and wonderfully sunny) Oakland, where venerable Fentons has been scooping up massive sundaes for 122 years. But over in the Temescal neighborhood, Curbside Creamery‘s cones and ice cream sandwiches offer a taste of the city’s recent artistic and culinary renaissance.

Take a virtual stroll through Temescal: A Neighborhood Walk in Oakland

Nestled in a formerly derelict alley that’s now an enclave of artists and mini-boutiques, Curbside serves up gourmet takes on classic flavors (think: bourbon whiskey vanilla), including about half a dozen vegan options. But perhaps the best part is the soft serve, which rotates weekly through flavors like salted caramel and blackberry.

The Best Ice Cream Shops in Oakland

4. Locally Sourced Scoops in Sonoma

By now, you’re probably ready to get out of the city and hit the open road, so head north on Highway 101 for the world-renowned Sonoma County wine country. You could spend days visiting the acclaimed Pinot Noir-steeped wineries of the Russian River Valley near Santa Rosa, or just make a bee-line for the adorable town of Healdsburg.

A dozen tasting rooms, plus farm-to-fork hotspots like the gorgeous food hall Shed and upscale Dry Creek Kitchen, offer plenty of stellar local wines to taste. They’re both steps from the shady town square, lined with boutiques, galleries, a craft brewery and, best of all, Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar. Here you can get a pretzel cone filled with newfangled flavors like juniper honey or strawberry sage, made only with ingredients sourced in Sonoma County.

The Best Ice Cream Shop in Sonoma

5. Traditional Ice Cream in Fort Bragg

From Healdsburg it’s a gorgeous two-hour drive to the coastal town of Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast. Here you can comb for sea glass along the ruggedly beautiful beach and take a walk among giant redwoods — all in the same day. For a peek into the town’s past as a booming lumber town, try scoring a room at the Victorian-era Weller House Inn. It’s just blocks from the beach as well as the historic downtown, lined with shopping, galleries, restaurants, and Cowlick’s ice cream. This is traditional ice cream at its locavore best, where even the chunks of cookie dough come from a local bakery.

The Best Ice Cream Shop in Fort Bragg

Did your favorite scoop shop make the grade?