Exploring the Northern California Coast
The California Coast is one of the most iconic and scenic coasts in the country. The coastal stretch north of San Francisco in Sonoma County is home to the picturesque sea villages Bodega, Bodega Bay, Jenner, Timber Cove, The Sea Ranch, and Gualala.
Remember that you can enjoy the coast year-round.
In the spring, the area is blanketed in explosions of wildflowers, and in the summer, the cool ocean breezes temper the sun.
In fall, the coast is warm with a Mediterranean climate, and temperatures continue to be mild even through winter. Winter itself is marvelous, for snuggling in front of fireplaces at cozy inns, hotels, and rental homes, savoring some Sonoma County wines to the backdrop of crashing ocean waves outside.
Just note that weather can turn windy or foggy any time of year, so always bring along a windbreaker and cap.
Simply driving along the stunning Highway 1 is a thrill, over skinny winding roads that sometimes curve right along soaring cliffs above the ocean. Plan to explore on foot, too, at the many state and regional parks dotting the coastline, for hiking, fishing, water sports and horseback riding.
Hiking Along the Coastline
Walk Through History
For a taste of history, meanwhile, the Fort Ross State Historic Park offers a rich adventure, as a former Russian colony established in 1812. Some of the ancient wood structures still remain on the 3,200 acre cliff-top site, as does an antique canon and water tower.
The visitor center features ongoing interpretive presentations about Russian-era buildings, neighborhoods, intercultural relations, agriculture and trade.
Take a Water Tour
Kayak, Canoe, Surf
Or, get even closer to the water. WaterTreks EcoTours owner Suki Waters is a local Native American descendant, guide and kayak and stand up paddle board instructor, specializing in wildlife, Sonoma history and ecology tours. From beginner boaters to skilled sports enthusiasts, there's an adventure for all, staged along the amazing coast and offered year-round. Tours take place in a Marine Sanctuary, so as you explore the quiet estuary or tackle the dancing sea, keep your eyes peeled for area residents like sea lions, harbor seals, otters, birds and maybe even a whale.
You can even get right in the water. Bodega Bay Surf Shack rents a variety of styles of surfboards, wetsuits, skim boards, body boards, and booties. They offer private lessons for beginners, as well, and rent bicycles, kayaks, and stand up paddleboards.
Go Horseback Riding
The Pacific Ocean is framed by hillsides and redwood forests, too, for views made even finer on horseback. Chanslor Stables, a working western horse ranch, offers guided horseback or pony trail rides with breathtaking ocean overlooks. Follow miles of trails that take you to lofty mountaintops, grassy meadows, through wetlands and coastal dunes, or along the beach. Private rides are available, including the very popular journey that includes a picnic.
Horse N Around Trail Rides is another equestrian delight, featuring a 60-minute sand dunes ride with panoramic views of Bodega Bay harbor and Sonoma Coastline, or a 90 minute beach ride that includes the dunes and harbor views, plus riding along a long stretch of beach; and trail rides on the Hagemann Ranch Trout Farm, a gorgeous family-owned ranch with spectacular views of the rolling coastal hills.
The Salmon Creek and Goat Rock beaches are all part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, which stretches for 17 miles along the coast, from Bodega Bay in the south to about four miles north of the town of Jenner. To learn more, read Discover Sonoma Coast State Park.
Salmon Creek Beach
Nearly two miles of sand make this an excellent place for surf fishing, beachcombing, and picnicking, while waves attract swimmers and surfers. The area is also home to the western snowy plover, a bird listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
Goat Rock Beach
Doran Regional Park
Through your adventures, plan some down time. Excellent dining and hotel destinations invite you to linger and savor the coast some more.
Alfred Hitchcock-Inspired Dining
The Tides Wharf Restaurant, located at the Inn at the Tides, is known as the backdrop for scary scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's horror classic, 'The Birds.' And yes, this oceanfront eatery specializes in local seafood, like breakfasts of grilled snapper, eggs and hash browns; a cioppino lunch stocked with Dungeness crab, prawns, scallops, clams and mussels; or a dinner of Pacific red snapper.
Another Hitchcock theme eatery comes in the form of The Birds Café, set on a bluff overlooking the water. The large deck brims with picnic tables that you'll soon load up with excellent fish 'n' chips, shrimp tacos, briny fresh oysters, crunchy crusted artichoke fritters, and creamy New England clam chowder studded with bacon.
Fresh Crab, Fish n' Chips + More
One of the best-known destinations is a tiny café that is more bait shop than restaurant, called Spud Point Crab Company, on Westshore Road in Bodega Bay. It makes sense, because Tony and Carol Anello catch the seafood themselves on a sturdy boat named Annabelle. You can see crab cooked whole in the boiler right outside the store, then buy it by the pound to take home. Or, if you're feeling picnic-y, take a seat at an outdoor table and dig into crab cakes, crab cocktail, or crab sandwiches.
Meanwhile, there's a great lunch to be had at The Boat House right on Highway 1, where owner Captain Rick Powers' schooner hauls in seafood straight from the water. Right at the curve around the northern Bodega bend, you'll see bustles of people year-round, converging on a tiny little shack on the side of the road to get their fill of Dungeness crab cake sandwiches, briny oysters, and legendary rock cod fish-n-chips. It's so popular that getting a table can be difficult, in fact. Here's the trick. Place your order at the counter, get it to-go, then clamber back in your car and head to the beach for an al fresco feast. Just beware the seagulls - they're not shy about dive-bombing to steal those delicious chips.
Dining North of Bodega Bay
Head further north, to Timber Cove, for the gem that is the recently renovated Timber Cove Resort and its Coast Kitchen restaurant. It's an ocean charmer, with the dining room flanked by a wall of windows overlooking the water and the fire pit patio. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus offer seasonal, locally sourced wine country coastal cuisine and dynamic wines from the region.
Coastal Wine Tasting
If you would like to go wine tasting, read about the Sonoma Coast and Fort Ross-Seaview wine regions. One top suggestion: Fort Ross Vineyard & Tasting Room, hidden away in a hillside forest in Jenner, and offering rare sips like Pinotage alongside "True Sonoma Coast" Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Rosé of Pinot Noir.
Other great locations to sit back and enjoy coastal views with a glass in hand include Gourmet Au Bay, a wine and gift shop with a tasting room and eatery featuring small production, award-winning wines and delicious coastal wood oven cuisine in Bodega Bay, and Tasting by the Sea Wine Bar in Jenner, where you can sip wine on a large outdoor deck.
And don't miss the other opportunity for wine tasting in Bodega Bay: the Sonoma Coast Vineyards tasting room. This luxury brand handcrafts exceptional wines from a unique cold-climate growing area west of the Russian River Valley and a mere five miles from the Pacific Ocean. Utilizing the wealth and expertise of master wine maker Anthony Austin, they best known for producing top-quality coastal wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.
Hotels & Luxury Lodging
The rooms at River's End Restaurant & Inn showcase Jenner's amazing beauty, particularly at sunset, with sliding glass doors opening onto balconies. Trimmed in wood, the rooms are rustic romantic, too, fancied up with cozy leather armchairs. Tip: ask for one of the rooms with the glass window shower, that makes you feel like you're bathing outside. And what a delicious combination: breathtaking views and mouthwatering Cal-cuisine at this locals favorite restaurant perched on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Russian River where it enters the Pacific Ocean. It's a hidden favorite, and during the migrating season, people in the know flock here for watching seals and whales on their annual journey. The menu is enticingly eclectic, ranging from wasabi tobiko-topped oysters to Petaluma duck confit egg rolls, sea bass with pomegranates and beets, and applewood smoked filet mignon slathered in Pt. Reyes bleu cheese.
Set on 60 rolling hill acres in Bodega, Sonoma Coast Villa Resort & Spa includes a private restaurant, full-service spa, a pool, and a horse stable for a ride along the coast. With just 18 rooms, the Mediterranean style property pampers with wood burning fireplaces, radiant heated Italian slate floors, and double-sized hot tubs, plus terraced gardens outside. Several rooms are pet-friendly. Larger families, meanwhile, will love the Grand Residence a 3,600 square foot house boasting four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two private patios, and luxury accommodations for up to 12 people. And the onsite produce garden and orchard supplies the villa's restaurant, Litchfield's, which offers fine dining from Wednesday to Sunday evenings, featuring a farm-to-table, California-inspired menu with French, Italian, and local influences.
RVs & Camping
Camping is available at Doran Regional Park, with more than 120 year-round campsites for tents, trailers, and RVs (no hook-ups) that look out over the beautiful bay. Many are located near the park's long sandy beach. Doran is a particularly lovely spot to watch sunsets.
The Bodega Dunes Campground is popular, and reservations are strongly recommended. Sure, you're roughing it some, but fire pits await firewood purchased from the park rangers, and your portable cook stove is perfect for warming coffee (or hot toddies). On-site hot showers and multiple restrooms with electrical outlets are available, and you can park your car right near your tents. It's sure hard to beat the beautiful ocean and dune views, either, enhanced by shady canopies of trees, and the well-spaced sites that offer seclusion.
For more RV and tent camping possibilities, check out our listings of Sonoma County Campgrounds & RV Parks (click on “Coasts & Sea Villages” for coastal options).
For more lodging ideas, read Where to Stay on the Pacific Coast with Stunning Ocean Views, and check out our listings of Sonoma County Hotels and Lodging.