California’s Sonoma-Mendocino Coast

Sonoma Coast from Whale Watch Inn, near Gualala, California

Author’s Note: This article “California’s Sonoma-Mendocino Coast” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebook/ebook  with parallel content is my newest book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

North from Point Reyes lies the spectacular Sonoma-Mendocino Coast, starting with Bodega Head, the most appealing promontory, and Fort Ross, the major historical entity. The artsy small town of Mendocino, with its cozy places to stay and dine, attracts many visitors.

The Russians were the dominant force here, 1812-1841. Stop at Fort Ross to see their well-developed fur gathering outpost along this coast. With the help of skillful Aleut Indians in small kayaks, they harvested the sea otters, almost to the point of extinction. Today Fort Ross has been rebuilt to approximate its appearance during the Russian era.

Lumbering has been the steadiest income provider along the northern stretches of this coast since 1850. In Fort Bragg, stop at the Georgia Pacific Museum to become acquainted with the lumbering story.

Bodega Bay is a major center for commercial fishing, an occupation that OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) ranks as the most dangerous in the country, with three times the accidental death rate of coal miners.

Getting to the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast

A private car is needed for traveling along the coast. The most leisurely route, pleasing if you have the time, is to drive on Highway 1 north of San Francisco and make the entire trip along the coast, from Point Reyes north to Fort Bragg.

Alternatively, you could proceed north on Highway 101 to Healdsburg and drive west to the coast along the Russian River Road, Highway 116, to Jenner, then turn north on Highway 1.

If Mendocino is the goal and the most direct route is the desired strategy, drive north on Highway 101 to Cloverdale and then west on Highway 128 through the bucolic world of Boonville and the Navarro River watershed to reach the coast at Albion, just south of Mendocino.

History of the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast

The Russian colonial incursion in California, now called Fort Ross State Historic Park, 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.

Below the fort is Fort Ross Cove, the original sandy beach where the fur-gathering Russians landed, built a trading outpost, and constructed ships. Lumber traders later in the 19th century loaded their boats here with redwood for the San Francisco market, using long chutes. 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 European fashion trend for sea otter furs, which are both beautiful and warm, provoked this colonization effort. Sea otter fur is thick and full, partly because of the otters have evolved to live in the 60 degree ocean waters while maintaining their 103 degree body temperatures. They need to eat constantly to fuel body temperature, so you may see them in the kelp beds, lying on their backs, enjoying an abalone or a clam which they broke open on their chests with a rock.

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 pull-back from here to Sitka, Alaska, in 1841. Eventually, the Russians retreated to their homeland.

Suggested Itinerary for the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast

This itinerary, proceeding south to north along the Sonoma and Mendocino coast, suggests a handful of stops you will not want to miss:

*Pause to enjoy the crashing surf at the Bodega Headlands or the Mendocino Headlands, two of the appealing, rugged promontories along the California coast.

*Enjoy the fresh fish catch at one of the coastal restaurants, such as The Tides in Bodega Bay, Little River Inn in Little River, or McCallum House in Mendocino.

*Visit the historic Russian Fort at Fort Ross along the Sonoma Coast and learn about the Russian sea-otter hunting era 1812-1841.

*Peruse the artsy small town of Mendocino, one of the popular stops along this coast for its art galleries, restaurants, and B&Bs.

*Linger over some of the Mendocino County coast state parks that have particularly lovely beach wildflower showings in spring and summer. Consider Manchester Beach, south of Mendocino, and Russian Gulch, north of Mendocino.

*Explore the working coastal town of Fort Bragg, home of lumber and fishing operations. Visit its Noyo harbor to see the fishing boats and sample the local fish catch at the Cliff House restaurant. Take a day trip on the excursion train, known as the “Skunk Train,” from Fort Bragg to Willits and back.

Main Attractions of the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast

The Sonoma and Mendocino coasts are extensions of a possible trip along the Marin County coast from San Francisco through Point Reyes. Sonoma and Mendocino present a more remote and rugged appearance than the cattle-grazing pastures of Marin.

The Sonoma Coast begins just south of Bodega, a 19th century town that once boasted seven sawmills, but which survives now on fishing and tourism. Bodega Bay presents a fairly protected harbor for fishing boats. This is a dangerous business, however, and the celebrative Fisherman’s Festival each April honors fishermen lost at sea, tragedies which persist. Bodega boasts one of the larger clusters of fishing boats to be found between San Francisco and Eureka.

West of the town, drive out to Bodega Head for one of the magnificent coastal views in California. This is a fine whale-watching promontory in January, when the California gray whales swim south, and again in March, when they proceed north to Alaska. Bodega Head is also a site at which to admire the crashing surf on a sunny summer afternoon.

Bodega Head starts some 10 miles of Sonoma Coast State Beach. Fishing, picnicking, and walking are favorite activities all along this kelp-strewn strand. At low tides, observe the exposed sea life, but don’t disturb it. Swimming is not advised along any of these beaches because of treacherous surf. At Bodega Head, small pocket beaches can be found below the jutting, west-facing bluffs. A trailhead sign alerts you to a three-mile hiking trail linking Bodega Head with the miles of shifting sand dunes. Walk north on this loose-sand trail for as long as you wish, allowing time for your walk back. The trail passes a University of California Biological Research Station, focused partly on tide pool animal population studies. Coastal dunes in Bodega Dunes State Park are some of the most impressive dunes in Northern California and amount to a sand wilderness. Seeded European beach grass prevents the dunes from migrating freely. The sandy beaches at Bodega Dunes extend for miles along the ocean.

For a direct route to the dunes, after you’ve perused the splendid rocky promontory at Bodega Head, return to Highway 1, drive north a half mile, and turn west into the Bodega Dunes Campground. Besides camping, a day-use area locates you right in the dunes. A boardwalk allows you to cross the dunes to the glorious, expansive beach. Eight miles of crisscrossing trails in the sand dunes behind the beach afford a multitude of hiking opportunities.

Proceeding north, the Russian River empties into the ocean midway up the Sonoma Coast at a beach called Goat Rock, one of the more appealing beaches of the region because of its diversity. Goat Rock Beaches extend out on a peninsula between the river and the ocean. Here you can watch waves crashing against the rock pedestals, called seastacks, slowly eroding the softer rock perimeters. Picnicking on grassy slopes and sunset viewing are superb from this west-facing beach. Driftwood collecting at the mouth of the Russian River also draws travelers here. The Parks Service encourages driftwood collecting because the wood debris becomes a potential fire hazard to roofs in the town of Jenner. Inveterate beach combers and firewood gatherers scrounge the area. Periodic burning by Park Service employees reduces the uncollected volume.

To get to Goat Rock Beaches, which are not visible from the road, watch for the clearly-marked sign and take State Park Road off Highway 1. You’ll find a string of parking lots with access to the beaches. The northern edge puts you closest to the mouth of the Russian River. The most southerly parking lot locates you near the most protected beaches, though all of these beaches are too dangerous for swimming, due to sleeper waves and rip tides.

Resident harbor seals here number about 300 and haul out at the mouth of the Russian River in the spring to give birth to their young. Fishing is popular for salmon and steelhead in winter near the mouth of the river. Rockfish are plentiful in the surf in summer. Smelt netters are also successful here.

Camping occurs on the beach at Wright’s Beach, south of Goat Rock Beaches. If this is too chilly or windy, try the Casini Ranch Family Campground a few miles inland, at Duncan’s Mill, along the Russian River.

On the north side of the Russian River the small town of Jenner offers lodging and restaurants, such as Jenner Inn and Cottages. A drive up the Russian River road reveals several small resort communities. One of those towns, Guerneville, boasts a major redwood park, Armstrong Redwood State Reserve, three miles to its north. Canoeing and kayaking is popular along the Russian River in spring and early summer. Kings Sport and Tackle in Guerneville can provide the aquatic gear.

Sonoma Coast from Whale Watch Inn, near Gualala, California
Sonoma Coast from Whale Watch Inn, near Gualala, California

Back along the coast, north from Jenner, the next major stop is Fort Ross State Historic Park. As mentioned, the Russians occupied Fort Ross 1812-1841 as a sea-otter hunting outpost and as a grain and vegetable production unit, part of the larger Russian vision being directed from Sitka, Alaska. Today the restored stockade, houses, barracks, storehouses, and Russian Orthodox chapel present an informed description of Russian life in early California. Fortunately, Fort Ross had sufficient artifacts and adequate state and private funding to become a first-rate historical interpretive center. Be sure to see the chapel, the manager’s residence, known as Kuskov House, and the many carpentry tool and daily life displays in the Officials House. A poignant graveyard on a bluff south of Fort Ross reminds a visitor that life at this lonesome Russian outpost was the final years of life for some of the Russian pioneers.

Pushing onward, several attractive parks occupy stretches of the Sonoma County coastal terrain.

Stillwater Cove Regional Park has a redwood trail to the beach.

Salt Point State Park is a large holding, 5,970 acres, with miles of wave-sculpted shoreline and rich intertidal life. Like several parks along the California coast, this park includes an underwater reserve offshore. Salt Point’s reserve is called the Gerstle Cove Underwater Reserve. However, only a diver in a wet suit can see the fecund sea life because of the extreme cold of the water.


The Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve, 10 miles north of Fort Ross, consists of 317 acres of wild rhododendrons. These tall shrubs bloom April-June. Call ahead to check the blooming time in a given year if you plan a trip to coincide with this festive natural display.

Gualala Point Regional Park, at the mouth of the Gualala River, offers another good hiking and nature study opportunity. Gualala is known for its hand-crafted Russian-inspired St. Orres lodging and fine dining restaurant. The ornate onion-domed building appears on the right as you drive north.

Between Salt Point and Gualala, you pass the elaborate Sea Ranch coastal home development. The beauty of the coast is such that any use of it for upscale and exclusive homes now requires substantial political clout. Sea Ranch is one of the last of the major coastal home developments. The project won awards for its skill in blending in with the environment. Private road designations in the developed area tend to exclude travelers, but the California Coastal Commission forced Sea Ranch to allow several beach access routes through the property.

Point Arena Lighthouse, immediately south of Manchester Beach, is worth a tour. Point Arena ranks as one of the more photogenic of the lighthouses along the California coast. The lighthouse was built in 1870, but destroyed in the 1906 quake, then reconstructed to its present 115-foot grandeur. Climb the 146 steps to the top of this lighthouse to observe the view. In an adjacent museum, see the Fresnel lens that focused a small kerosene flame visible some 20 miles out to sea. On weekends, the spirited citizens of the region act as docents at this lighthouse-museum. You can lodge overnight on the property in the houses that were formerly the lighthouse keeper cottages. For California coastal seafood, such as fried calamari or Dungeness crab cakes, try, in Point Arena, The Pier Chowder House and Tap Room.

Traveling north, Manchester State Beach is a classic beach with miles of sand, huge sand dunes topped with European beach grass, a stream cutting through the dunes to the water, and plenty of driftwood. The 650-acre size of Manchester Beach permits seclusion. Wildflowers show lavishly here, especially Douglas iris.

Manchester Beach is accessible by three roads north of Point Arena. Alder Creek, Kinney, and Stoneboro roads lead to parking lots behind the dunes. The beach stretches the full five miles from Alder Creek to just north of Point Arena. Hiking trails crisscross the area. Fishing is popular for snapper and sea trout. The Alder Creek entrance at the north end crosses a San Andreas fault line that jumped 16 feet in 1906. After passing a marsh with abundant bird life, you reach the beach. Kinney Road leads you through sand dunes to the state parks campground and the beach. Stoneboro Road leads to the major bird habitat at Hunter’s Lagoon. Rare and endangered whistling swans winter to the south along the Garcia River bottom.

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). This flower appears to thrive in spite of sheep and cattle grazing.


The Little River Inn, just south of Mendocino at Little River, is one of the loveliest lodgings along the coast. Their restaurant specializes in seafood and steak. This home was built by lumber baron Silas Coombs in 1853.

The town of Mendocino is one of the more picturesque places in California. Because many travelers favor it as a destination, an active arts colony has grown up here, selling to the tourists. This town is also a quintessential bed and breakfast destination, where you can stay in a quaint Victorian house in an individually decorated room. MacCallum House, 45020 Albion Street, is a choice B&B, and includes a fine-dining restaurant, with the rack of lamb a good chocie. The Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites, 45080 Main Street, is a parallel hostelry, with an excellent restaurant, known as the Victorian Dining Room, featuring locally farmed ducks. Joshua Grindle Inn, 44800 Little Lake Road, is a further lodging option.

Among places to explore in Mendocino is the Mendocino Art Center, 45200 Little Lake Road. There are also many other interesting art galleries and show spaces, such as the former Odd Fellows Hall, which is sometimes hosting a show. The Kelley House Museum, 45007 Albion Way, recounts the contributions of logging, ranching, and shipping to the town’s development. The Mendocino Headlands is a short drive or long walk from town, offering a rugged and rocky cliff landscape with abundant wildlife, from sea otters to black Brant ducks.

Travelers to Mendocino in summer should anticipate morning fog and winter visitors may confront many rainy days, but the afternoons of summer and the crisp winter days after storms make the trip exceptionally beautiful. Spring and autumn are ideal times to enjoy the Sonoma Mendocino Coast.

Two special state parks, flanking the town of Mendocino, are Van Damme and Russian Gulch. Van Damme’s main features are its lush Fern Canyon, where an extraordinary variety of ferns grow, and its Pygmy Forest, where acidic and impervious soil bonsais 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, although 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.

North from Mendocino is Fort Bragg, a working logging and fishing town, the major urban destination along this coast. Fort Bragg, the blue collar balance to Mendocino’s artsy atmosphere, is known for its California Western Railroad, the “Skunk Train,” named for the smell of its diesel smoke, now a mere memory. This steam train makes a daily run inland along the Noyo River to Willits through a redwood and Douglas fir forest. The Guest House Museum, housed in a structure adjacent to the excursion train depot, tells the area’s logging story.

Fort Bragg was once a military outpost, but gradually developed to become a lumbering center. The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, along the highway south of Fort Bragg, draw many visitors. Over the Labor Day weekend, the Paul Bunyan Days in Fort Bragg include contests involving many lumberjack skills. On July 4 there is a Salmon Barbecue at the Noyo Harbor. If you enjoy beautiful nature photos of the coast, stop in to see Ron LeValley’s fine art images at the Mendocino Coast Photographer Guild & Gallery, 344 North Main in Fort Bragg. For a viable alternative to B&B lodging in Fort Bragg, consider a lively place known as The Beachcomber Motel, especially good for families and located right on the beach. Patrons come back for annual celebrations, alerted by the establishment’s “Beachnuts” email list.

North of Fort Bragg, after Rockport, the coast highway turns inland to Freeway 101. This route proceeds to Redwood Country, another adventure to consider.


California’s Sonoma-Mendocino Coast: If You Go

For further information on the Sonoma territory, contact the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau at www.sonomacounty.com.

Mendocino’s information source is Visit Mendocino County at www.visitmendocinocounty.com.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page