The Rugged Sonoma Coast   8 comments

The rugged beauty of Sonoma Coast State Park in northern California.

The rugged beauty of Sonoma Coast State Park in northern California.

On this last trip, returning home to Oregon, I almost missed this place.  Sure I’ve been through there before.  But I never really appreciated it fully.  I even got back on Interstate 5, the main (boring) freeway traveling north-south through California, Oregon and Washington.  Something made me swing back over to the coast north of the Bay Area.  I did it at night, as if it was somehow wrong.

I hit the coast at Bodega Bay.  This is the perfect place to stroll the quintessential California seaside town.  (If you’re heading north of the Sonoma Coast Mendocino is even better!)  Wander the quaint streets, sample salt-water taffy and shop for souvenirs ’till you’re heart’s content.  Then, for more adventurous doings, head north.  But before you do, stock up on things like picnic fixings, drinks, and even gas.  There aren’t any big towns for quite a ways.

Rocks and surf as far as the eye can see.  Cape Mendocino is in the distance.

Rocks and surf as far as the eye can see. Cape Mendocino is in the distance.

The wonderful Sonoma Coast State Park stretches north from Bodega Bay for miles and miles.  It includes marvelous sea-stack-filled vistas that even a veteran of the Oregon Coast will have trouble getting through in a day.  I must have stopped a dozen times, walking out over a headland or stumbling down to a rugged beach.  I had camped at a quiet spot just east of Hwy. 1, where the county is in the process of turning an old dairy ranch into a park.  Very peaceful and quiet, beautiful weather, the perfect setting for a detour!

I did a longer hike near Goat Rock, just south of the Russian River mouth.  What a spectacular place for a walk!  The trail, which parallels the coastline not far from the road, is easy and flat.  It’s accessible at several points, allowing a shuttle if you want to do the whole stretch (about 5 miles).  I did an out and back hike.  An aside:  since I became a more serious photographer, I have forgotten my former insistence on doing loop hikes.  Now I don’t mind out and backs so much.  I think it’s because you get a completely different view going the opposite direction.  It’s something I knew before, of course; yet didn’t appreciate as much before now.

Highway 1 in northern California passes through eucalyptus groves.

Highway 1 in northern California passes through eucalyptus groves.

For the Russian River mouth, you can simply view it from pull-outs to the north along Hwy. 1, where surfers park to go try the rough surf created by the sea-dominated delta.  Or you can, a mile or so south of the bridge over the Russian, take Goat Rock road down to the spit of flat land that projects north between river and sea.  This is a nice place for a beach walk.

North of the river, the highway climbs up and over a spectacular series of headlands.  You can easily park at one of several small pull-outs and walk the short distance out to the edge.  The views are stunning.  There are also steep trails leading down to pocket beaches which you’ll likely have to yourself.  Highway 1 climbs steeply over the main headland, where you have an incredible, eagle’s eye view down to the rugged coastline.

Traveling north, you would be wise to make time for Fort Ross.  I already posted on this beautifully-situated place last year, so I’ll just say that it’s a fascinating piece of American (and Russian) history.  Check out that post for photos and more info.  For photographers, a huge eucalyptus grows there that Ansel Adams famously photographed.  North of Fort Ross, Stillwater Cove is a lovely place to hunt abalone shells and take pictures.  You’ll need a permit to collect the shells.


You can certainly visit this coast for the day while staying at one of the inland towns (Healdsburg is a great choice).  If you are doing the Sonoma wine-tour thing, this could be the best way to get a first-pass overview of the Sonoma Coast.  But plan to get started early and spend all day; otherwise it will feel like you just drove all day.

Better is to stay the night, in one of the lodges in Bodega Bay or Mendocino, or at one of the many campgrounds.  There are campgrounds in the state park just inland as well as along the coast.  Anchor Bay is a tiny town positioned more centrally on the coast.  It has both lodging and camping options.  And there are a number of B&Bs and other lodging options dotted along the coast, that is if you don’t need town amenities.

If you’re coming down from the north, Fort Bragg is the last big town for groceries, gas and the like, whereas if you’re coming from the south, Bodega Bay is your best option for stocking up.

There are more wonders to the north, in Mendocino County.  And the wonderful Point Reyes is a short jaunt to the south.  The really nice thing about this stretch of coast is that you often find nice weather even in winter.  It can get wild in stormy weather, but when placid it’s downright mild!  Thanks for reading.

The light at dusk is subdued by fog and spray from the Pacific in this view south along the Sonoma Coast, California.

The light at dusk is subdued by fog and spray from the Pacific in this view south along the Sonoma Coast, California.

The sun sinks into the Pacific.

The sun sinks into the Pacific.


8 responses to “The Rugged Sonoma Coast

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  1. Wow, you took me back to my old stomping grounds growing up. We spent many summer days over in all of those areas you shot and spoke about. Russian River was the home base, and still look forward to any time we can get there. It looks like you had a beautiful visit there. Thank You so much for sharing.

  2. Beautiful country. I love the eucalyptus trees.

  3. Really like the canopy over highway 1 and your captures of vistas.

  4. I grew up in Sonoma County not too far from the coast. There is an abundance of hidden gems throughout the area that are more than worth the stop and in some cases, even better than the stuff that are usually touted as highlights. One of my favorites is the trail that climbs Red Hill. Not well known, it has one of the absolute finest coastal views around, including Bodega Head, Point Reyes and the Farallons to the south, the Russian River estuary to the north and the high peaks of the wine country including Mt. St. Helena. Bonuses include great seasonal wildflowers, a couple of redwood groves and one trailhead beginning at a seldom used campground surrounded by redwoods. If you head back to the Sonoma Coast, don’t miss this one! (images aren’t great but you will get the idea!)

    • I will! Sounds like you’d be a great guide for anyone visiting there. I actually worked in the area for a year, and rode my bike a lot through wine country. But never got over to the coast much before now. Thanks for the link!

  5. Oh yes Michael, beautiful country indeed – and your images do justice to it. thanks for the memories – been there many times.

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