Author’s Note: This article “California’s North Coast: Marin to Mendocino” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
Starting just across the Golden Gate and stretching north to Fort Bragg is one of California’s loveliest and most diverse coastlines. Muir Woods, immediately north of San Francisco, can introduce you to the stately redwood, tallest tree on the earth, and a symbol of California superlatives. It could be argued that the grandeur of the Big Sur coast surpasses this coast, but the range of subjects of interest to the traveler here, from oysters at Bodega Bay to the old Russian Fort at Fort Ross, exceed Big Sur. For kayaking, hiking, biking, and viewing nature, from wildflowers to whales, the coastal areas, such as Point Reyes and Muir Woods/Mt. Tamalpais, are outstanding.
GETTING TO MARIN-NORTH COAST
Simply hug the coastal Highway 1 from San Francisco north to Fort Bragg. At Fort Bragg you have the option of continuing on to Rockport and Leggett, staying on Highway 1. Alternatively, you can take the shorter route by cutting across to Willits via Highway 20, returning to San Francisco on the swift Highway 101.
MARIN-NORTH COAST HISTORY
Two of the major destinations in this region are clothed in international intrigue from earlier eras.
At Point Reyes, pause for a stop at Drake’s Bay. Historians continue to write their PhD dissertations to pinpoint the exact landing spot, but there is little doubt that somewhere near what is now Drake’s Bay the English swashbuckler, Sir Francis Drake, put in his ship, the GOLDEN HINDE, for repairs in 1579. Drake was the first English explorer to land on the North American continent. Though he claimed the land for England, of course, the English never invested the manpower necessary to hold it, as the Spanish did.
The Russians were the dominant force here in the early 1800s. Stop at Fort Ross to see their well-developed fur and trading outpost along this coast. With the help of skillful Aleut Indians in two-man kayaks, they harvested the sea otters here, almost to the point of extinction. Today Fort Ross has been rebuilt to its 1800s splendor.
Lumbering has been the steadiest income provider along the northern stretches of this coast since 1850. Bodega Bay is a major center for commercial fishing, an occupation that OSHA ranks as the most dangerous in the country, with three times the accidental death rate of coal miners.
MARIN-NORTH COAST MAIN ATTRACTIONS
Immediately north of the Golden Gate, it is worth turning momentarily off the highway onto Vista Point to witness some unsurpassed views of the City and the Bridge. The rambling Marin Headlands area can be hiked and enjoyed on the west side of the Bridge.
Back on Highway 101 and then west on Highway 1, pause first at Muir Woods National Monument (415/388-2595) to look at the redwoods. The drive to Muir Woods is an easy 17 miles, but allow plenty of time because the road twists and turns along Mount Tamalpais State Park. Muir Woods is clearly marked at the Panoramic Highway turnoff 2.5 miles later. Parking can be tight at the site because of its popularity, so choose an off day if possible or prepare to walk a short distance to get to the entrance.
This impressive grove is named after John Muir, the patron saint of the environmental movement, who did so much around the turn of the century to popularize the cause of saving forests as national parklands. Muir Woods satisfies partly because it honors this great conservationist, who wrote so eloquently about the California outdoors, helping to create the constituency needed to protect it. For the preservation of Muir Woods we have Marin resident William Kent to thank. Theodore Roosevelt suggested at the 1908 dedication that the woods be named after this patron, but Kent declined and indicated that Muir’s name would be a more appropriate title.
The redwood grove at Muir Woods has a hushed, sacral aura, with the choicest section appropriately called Cathedral Grove. The trees extend down a narrow valley with a stream, a typical redwood terrain with an undergrowth of sorrel and ferns. Deep within the grove the light diminishes and few other plants can compete. In late autumn you can see coho salmon and steelhead rainbow trout migrating up this stream, Redwood Creek. In summer the coastal fog drips off the redwood branches, providing a substantial amount of moisture.
The farther you walk from the parking lot, the fewer people you will see. If equipped with walking shoes, a knapsack lunch, and bottle of wine, you can find pleasing picnic spots on the edge of Muir Woods where the trails meet Tamalpais Park (picnicking is discouraged within Muir Woods). Hillside, Fern Creek, and Ben Johnson are three trails that lead away from the central grove. For the ambitious hiker, Ben Johnson Trail can be followed four miles down to Stinson Beach.
As you drive further on Highway 1, you encounter Bolinas Lagoon, one of the richest estuaries along the coast, supporting an abundant fish and bird life. Stop at the Audubon Canyon Ranch (415/868-9244), three miles north of Stinson Beach, to see white egrets nesting in the tops of redwood trees. Trails at Audubon Ranch are an exciting introduction to nature in the area, aided by literature from the excellent naturalist’s book shop.
The next stop, proceeding north, is the Point Reyes National Seashore (415/663-1092). If you have ever wondered what the April 17, 1906 Great Quake was like, the place to go is Point Reyes. Behind the large barn that serves as Park Headquarters you can take the Earthquake Walk. The spectacular display along that walk is an actual fence that split apart 16 feet as the earth’s tectonic plates lurched past each other in the Great Quake. The walk circles for a mile through meadows and bay laurel trees along the San Andreas Fault, with markers alerting you to the Pacific and American plates grinding past each other at roughly two inches per year. Along the Earthquake Walk, you begin to imagine that Point Reyes is truly an island in time, destined to join the Aleutian chain off Alaska.
The Earthquake Walk is only the first of many discoveries at Point Reyes. Orient yourself at the large barn-like headquarters, built in 1984. Elaborate displays describe both natural history and the human story of Point Reyes, from the days of the Indians to the century of dairy ranching. An annual two-million visitors rank Point Reyes as one of the most-used units in the National Park system.
Walking and hiking are the major activities here. The Bear Valley Trail is a 4.4-mile walk from park headquarters to the sea. This is a pleasant half-day walk with time for a picnic at the coastside. The slope of the wide trail is gentle and the terrain varies from oak forest to streambank.
Visit also the recreated Miwok Indian village, which explains what Indian life was like here. In January, you can drive out to the Point Reyes lighthouse to see migrating grey whales, easily visible from high bluffs that place you above the water. Bring your binoculars by all means during any excursion along this coast. My favorite beach at Point Reyes is Limantour, which has easy access from your car. The driftwood that collects here from the lumber industry to the north is impressive.
Wandering north, Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay are famous for their shellfish farming and their deep sea fishing. Stop in at the small restaurants, such as Jensen’s, that serve home-raised oysters. At the small marinas you may find celebrating sport fishermen. On my last visit at Nick’s Cove marina, one such fisherman proudly displayed a 30-pound halibut.
From Bodega to Gualala along the Sonoma Coast you’ll encounter several attractive beach parks. Drive out to Bodega Head to see dramatic coastal views from high over the ocean. Camping is possible at Bodega Dunes and at Salt Point Parks. The latter also boasts a rich tidal life and rewarding abalone hunting. Kruse Park is a rhododendron sanctuary, celebrating the native redwood-environment shrub that flowers here May-June.
The Russian Fort at Fort Ross Historic Park (707/847-3286) has been superbly restored. Fort Ross is on Highway 1, 11 miles north of Jenner. Be sure to allow time to see the restored Russian fort, a gem of historic reconstruction and interpretation. A re-created hunting kayak is one of the interesting displays. Self-guide yourself through the Fort with a “wand” giving voiced interpretation at 10 stations on the grounds.
Fort Ross Cove, immediately below the Fort, is the original sandy beach where the fur-trading Russians landed and constructed ships. Lumber traders later in the 19th century loaded their boats here with redwood for the San Francisco market, using long chutes. For you, this sandy beach, complete with a meandering stream, is a seldom-appreciated aspect of the impressive Fort Ross restoration on the uplands above the beach. As you explore this historic beach, it’s intriguing to think of the Russians landing their supplies or the nimble Aleut Indians in the Russians’ employ casting off in small kayaks in search of sea otters. The Russians actually built four ships on this sandy beach between 1816-1824, using redwood and Douglas fir from the forests in the hills. The Russians’ failure at growing a surplus of wheat and vegetables here, plus the decline in the otter population, caused the retreat from here to Sitka, Alaska, in 1841, and eventually a return to the Russian mainland.
For lodging, as you continue north, try Gualala’s Old Milano Hotel (707/884-3256), which boasts a view of the coast overlooking Castle Rock. This superbly-sited bed and breakfast allows you to soak in the hot tub with a view of the ocean. At their restaurant, try the grilled lamb or braised prawns.
The interpretive center at Gualala Park is unusual because it was one of the first park structures to be powered by a wind generator. Winds are vigorous and fairly constant in this region.
The Point Arena Lighthouse is worth a walk to the top, all 146 steps, to see the ingenious Fresnel lens that could focus and amplify a small kerosene flame to shine some 20 miles out to sea. On weekends the spirited citizens of the region act as docents at this lighthouse-museum.
Manchester Beach has an extensive sand-dune habitat with diverse wildflower showings in spring. All along the hillsides of this coast, such as the steep hills above Jenner, there are many wildflowers, but especially a small yellow flower called goldfields (Baeria chrysostoma). Goldfields appears to thrive in spite of sheep grazing.
The rugged beauty of the Mendocino Coast and its relative seclusion give a faraway feel to this northern California destination. The town of Mendocino is the focus of the region. Attractively sited on bluffs, this former logging town is now the quintessential tourist town, with art studios, boutiques, and a blossoming performing arts program. Focal point for art shows and instruction is the Mendocino Art Center. Preserved architecture adds much to Mendocino’s charm. The Mendocino Hotel, with an inviting “garden” bar and restaurant, typifies early structures converted to tourist use.
North from Mendocino is Fort Bragg, a working logging and fishing town, the other major urban destination. Fort Bragg, the blue collar balance to Mendocino’s artsiness, is known for its California Western Railroad (the “Skunk” Train, named for the smell of its diesel smoke, now a mere memory) and the museum adjacent to the train depot. The steam train makes a daily run inland along the Noyo River to Willits. (Call 707/964-6371 for the train schedule or write ahead to California Western Railroad, PO Box 907, Fort Bragg, CA 95437.) The 40-mile round trip to Willits takes 7-1/2 hours and passes extensive redwood and Douglas fir forests, crisscrossing the Noyo River.
Fort Bragg was once a military outpost, but gradually developed into a lumbering site. One attraction, the Mendocino Coast Botanic Gardens (707/964-4352) draws many visitors to its displays of rhododendrons and fuchsias.
The entire Mendocino coast from Point Arena to Rockport is a joy to drive. Two special state parks (707/937-5804), flanking the town of Mendocino, are Van Damme and Russian Gulch. Van Damme’s main features are its lush Fern Canyon, where an extraordinary number of ferns flourish, and its Pygmy Forest, where acidic and impervious soils bonsai the trees to a fraction of their normal height. The beach at Van Damme attracts divers after abalone and rockfish. Russian Gulch boasts a hospitable sunning and swimming beach, though the water is chilly. The promontory on the north side of the park provides one of the most pleasing coastal views, looking south toward the Mendocino headlands. Russian Gulch’s moist, elevated headlands support lavish displays of coastal wildflowers, including seaside daisy, Indian paintbrush, and pink mallow.
The Mendocino coast emphasizes quaint bed and breakfast lodging. One popular inn with a good restaurant is the MacCallum House (45020 Albion St., Mendocino, 707/937-0289). Try the poached king salmon at this Victorian mansion. Another good option is the Little River Inn, a home built by lumber baron Silas Coombs in 1853. Little River Inn (707/937-5942) specializes in seafood and steak at its restaurant. The inn is south of Van Damme Park. If looking for a place to dine at Fort Bragg, try seafood at the Wharf (707/964-4283) along the busy but compact Noyo River harbor, where you can observe fishing boats going and returning from sea.
North of Fort Bragg, at Rockport, the coast highway turns inland to Highway 101.
NEARBY TRIPS FROM MARIN-NORTH COAST
For an intriguing side trip, travel 30 miles inland along State Highway 128 to the town of Boonville. Highway 128 skirts the Navarro River, a favorite winter steelhead fishing stream. One pleasant stop here for a picnic or camping is the Hendy Woods Redwood Park. Canoeing fans rate the stretch of Navarro River from Hendy Park to Dimmick as one of the loveliest in California, perhaps equaled only in the autumn by the Trinity River. The season on the Navarro is November through April. Boonville is a proud little town with its own colloquial language. It is also a festive site with an art show in March, wildflower celebration in April, Buck-a-roo rodeo in June, and sheep raiser’s barbecue in July. The invisible marijuana-growing industry provides a major stimulus for the local economy.
MARIN-NORTH COAST: IF YOU GO
For general info on the region, contact the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, PO Box 1141, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, 707/961-6300, 800/726-2980, www.mendocinocoast.com/.
For the area immediately north of San Francisco, contact the Marin County Visitor Bureau, Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael, CA 94903, 415/472-7470.
To learn more about the coastal state parks, contact Department of Parks and Recreation, Mendocino Area State Parks, PO Box 440, Mendocino, Calif 95460. Camping reservations are generally on a reservation system (800/444-7275). Salt Point and Manchester are first choices as campgrounds.
This article is one section in my book on Northern California, titled Northern California Travel: The Best Options.