On Sonoma County’s far northern coast, Fort Ross is rich in California history; it’s particularly known for the Russian fur trappers who inhabited the area from 1812-41. The Fort Ross State Historical Park, established in 1906, preserves the Russian settlement with buildings, both original and restored.
The Pacific Coast hereabouts is wild and jaw-droppingly beautiful, with clifftop vistas that seem to extend forever. You’ll find isolated coves to nestle into with a picnic, enjoy tidepooling, catch sight of whales cruising by in the distance — and you’ll completely mellow out.
Here are five fun things to do in and around Fort Ross:
Take a Beach Hike
Use one of six public-access trails in The Sea Ranch, a private community north of Fort Ross, to enjoy panoramic views of sea, sky, and rocky ocean outcrops.
Trails start at Highway 1 parking areas, cross bluff-top meadows and forests, and wind down cliffside staircases, ending at secluded beaches with sandy coves, tide pools, and rock formations.
Explore the Adventurous Past
At Fort Ross State Historic Park, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2012, you’ll glimpse unique and historic Russian and Native American influences.
From 1812 to 1841, Fort Ross was the hub of the southernmost Russian settlements along the west coast of North America — a commercial hunting and trading operation charted by the tsarist government.
Reconstructed buildings recall the once-thriving colony, including the stockade, a Russian chapel, a barracks, and two blockhouses. The only surviving original structure is Rotchev House, renovated in 1836 for the last manager of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev.
The park museum offers details about the three main eras of Fort Ross — Kashaya Indian, Russian, and Spanish rancho. Today, Fort Ross is a California Historical Landmark, a National Historic Landmark, and on the National Register of Historic Places.
Go Wine Tasting
Fort Ross lies in the 27,500-acre Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area (AVA), which produces sensational Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and other varietals. While the weather at Fort Ross can be foggy, cold, and windy, the AVA’s vineyards are planted between from 900 to 1,800 feet in elevation, where temperatures are warmer and periods of sunlight longer than in the foggy coastal bluffs below.
This AVA contains five wineries. The tasting room at Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery is open daily and offers jaw-dropping views of the coast; Hirsch Winery & Vineyards welcomes visitors by advance appointments only. The three other vineyards — Peay Vineyards, Flowers Vineyards & Winery, and Wild Hog Vineyard — will be happy to sell you a bottle online.
Look Out for Whales
The region’s coastal bluffs are ideal whale watching spots, especially during the two yearly Grey Whale migrations. Between November and January, the whales leave Alaska and head south to give birth in the warm waters of Baja; from February into April, mother whales return north with their new calves. You might be able to spot the characteristic water spout through a whale’s blowhole with the naked eye, but binoculars definitely help.
Aside from Fort Ross itself, other good whale-spotting locations nearby include Gualala Point Regional Park, the public access trails at Sea Ranch, Stillwater Cove Regional Park, Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve, and Salt Point State Park.
Spend the Day at Salt Point State Park
About four miles north of Fort Ross, the 6,000-acre Salt Point State Park is a gorgeous place with lots to offer. It includes one of California's first underwater parks, allows dramatic up-close views of crashing surf, and holds a lively visitors center with many activities.
There’s some fascinating Tafoni sandstone at Salt Point — sandstone riddled with honeycomb-type erosion that produces ribs, ridges, holes, and other patterns. The park has more than 20 miles of hiking and equestrian trails; surf fishing is extremely good; and the rocky waters are popular with abalone divers. Download a park brochure.
Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodgriguez.