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Late Summer Jaunt on the Sonoma County Coast

The beauty of the Sonoma County coast can surprise and stun even the frequent visitor. I have been on oh-so-many seaside day trips with a specific purpose: tidepooling, hiking a sea bluff, paddling a canoe down the Russian River to the ocean, going out on a salmon-fishing boat, photographing shorebirds. I’ve slept in tents pitched in beach campgrounds, and experienced many two- and three-night getaways in lodgings overlooking or sitting right on a beach. There was even one unforgettable summer when I lived in Jenner, just a short walk from Goat Rock Beach.

No matter how many times I’ve been on the coast, though, I never get used to the beauty. Sights I’ve encountered hundreds of times—the Russian River meeting the ocean, for example, or the view from Bodega Head—stun me into silence today just as they did on those long-ago first encounters.

I thought about all this late last month during my most recent jaunt along the coast. A friend from Montana, who used to live in the area, was visiting on an August weekend. That Saturday he said: “I’d love to go up the coast tomorrow—I’ve really missed it.”

So at about 6:30 a.m. on Sunday we hopped in the car, taking back roads from Sonoma Valley until emerging onto Highway 101 at Petaluma. A few miles north we turned west onto River Road, which took us along the Russian River through Guerneville to the coast.

We paused there momentarily, debating whether to turn south or north. To the south we’d have a relaxing day on the beaches of Sonoma Coast State Park, maybe hiking out of Goat Rock along the Kortum Trail. We could hang out watching the daredevil surfers at Salmon Creek, lunch on fresh crab at Bodega Bay, fly a kite at Doran Beach….

But we felt like a road trip, and the road north beckoned with promise and adventure.

The sun was out, the morning was crisp, the ocean-skimming road hung on the continent’s edge, climbing higher and higher and presenting us with jaw-dropping views. At that time on a Sunday morning, even in August, there are few cars; before we knew it we’d arrived at Fort Ross State Historic Park. It was just about 8 a.m., and the park wouldn’t open for another couple of hours. “We’ll hit it on the return trip,” we said, and kept going.

A short while later we stopped at the isolated, cliff-edge Timber Cove Inn for Café au Lait (him) and a Chai Latte (me). We sipped our caffeine on the outdoor terrace with its views of sea stacks, rocky coves, and the ocean—light blue in the morning sun—extending onward forever. Close by, securely placed atop a rise, was “The Expanding Universe,” a soaring, 93-foot sculpture by Bene Bufano. Although the Bufano has rested on Timbercove property since 1970 (and certainly adds to the Inn’s already-considerable magic), a 60-foot-diameter plot of land surrounding the sculpture was acquired at one point by the state and now constitutes the second-smallest California State Park. 

We journeyed on, past Stillwater Cove Regional Park and Salt Point State Park, both very popular with campers in summer. We thought about taking a hike at Gerstle Cove, or Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve or the adjacent pygmy forest, but saved them all for future days when we weren’t mad with the joy of simply car-cruising the coast. We passed by Stump Beach Cove and Fisk Mill Cove, Horseshoe Cove and Stewarts Point (which now offers glamping—glamorous luxury tent cottages).

At Sea Ranch Lodge we stopped for a while, taking photos and browsing the Spindrift Art Gallery. Sea Ranch, a privately-owned community extending for ten miles along the coast, has been celebrated since the 1960s, when it was created, for its architectural significance, ecological approach toward land planning, and sheer beauty. 

After a short stop to admire the long stretch of sand dunes at Gualala Point Regional Park, we continued on up the coast (by now we were in Mendocino County). We stopped at the remarkably unspoiled fishing harbor in Anchor Bay, and then got off the highway for an hour or so to drive along Lighthouse Road, which overlooks part of the Point Arena-Stornetta California Coastal Monument, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. 

Then, back on the highway, we kept on the move until finally stopping in Elk. At Queenie’s Roadhouse Café—just about the only place in town right now, while renovations are taking place at the tiny hamlet’s other two eateries—we feasted on exceptionally great Reuben sandwiches and then browsed an adjacent art gallery.

Finally it was time for the return trip. Along the way we stopped at one of my favorite destinations on the north coast: the Sea Ranch Chapel, a tiny non-denominational work of art. For art- or architecture-lovers—or if you just want to sit quietly and think big thoughts—it’s a must.

By the time we got to Fort Ross, it was 45 minutes away from closing. That’s not nearly enough time to delve into the wonders of this significant historic site—a thriving Russian settlement from 1812-1841. So we decided to save Fort Ross for another day, another coastal jaunt.

Our final stop along the coast: Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery,  part of the Fort Ross-Seaview wine region and appellation awarded AVA status in 2011. Located high up Meyers Grade Road in Jenner, from which you get eagle-like views of the cliffs and ocean far below. it’s open daily for tasting Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage.

We sat on the winery’s beautiful terrace, each enjoying a glass of wine while talking about all the things we’d seen and done that day. Then we continued on down the coast, returning home with the kind of memories that last.

To plan your jaunt along the Sonoma County Coast, get started here.

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