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Exploring the Northern California Coast

A gorgeous winter day in Bodega Bay at Bodega Head.

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.

Outdoor Adventure/Things to Do

Simply driving along the stunning Hwy. 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

hiking bodega headHiking is always a great activity, with some 17 miles of bluff-top trails above wide sandy beaches below. For an easy jaunt in Bodega, explore the cliff-side path along Kortum Trail, stretching about 4-1/2 miles round-trip between Wright's Beach and Blind Beach, or the Bodega Head hiking trail that edges 3 miles around the headlands, or takes a straighter 1-mile path to-and-from the overlook.

During whale migration season (January through May, but still visible during much of the year), the Ocean Overlook at Bodega Head is prime for watching gray and blue whales traveling south from the Chukchi Sea near Alaska and down to Baja California for winter, then back north for the summer feeding season.

Enjoy a stroll along the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail, as well, a paved path running along the Bodega Bay salt marsh that’s home to wildlife thousands of birds throughout the year. The walk is easy, looping one mile through Doran Beach Regional Park and Bird Walk Coastal Access Park along Doran Park Marsh and tidal channels, over a 110' bridge that spans Cheney Creek, and connects to the Bird Walk Park up on the levees.

Walk Through History

fort ross state historic park sonoma countyFor 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

boating bodega bay fishingIf water tours are more your thing, fishing and boating are fun options. The Bodega Bay Sport Fishing Center occupies the Porto Bodega R.V. Park and Marina, where Captain Rick Powers charters hunts for crab, salmon, albacore tuna, cod and Humboldt giant squid from his New Sea Angler, a 12-person, 65-foot vessel running spring through early winter. Other great companies include Fish on Bait, Tackle & Charters for salt or freshwater excursions, or Miss Anita Fish Charters on a customized 340 Catamaran.

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 and kayaks, too. New this year: stand up paddle board rentals.

Go Horseback Riding

horse n around trail rides horback riding bodega bayThe 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 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. Be sure to check out the horses’ own personality page here.

Beaches and Parks

Doran Regional Park

Scrunching sand between your toes is just one of the joys of a beach day. Doran Beach Park at the north end of Bodega Bay is one of the area’s best places, welcoming people with picnics, kites and Frisbees.

Leashed dogs are welcome to come romp, too, and one section of the sand and water is open to horses and their riders. The two-mile stretch of sandy beach is quiet, secluded, and since it’s protected by the bay, the water is calm, perfect for dipping toes.

Salon Creek Beach

Salmon Creek is another great place to splash down, since the beach is slightly inland in a lagoon, making the water warmer and calmer.

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 he western snowy plover, a bird listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Goat Rock Beach

goat rock beach sonoma county

Beach goers also frequent Goat Rock, a highlight of spectacular Jenner just north of Bodega Bay.

This is one of the most easily accessible sandy beaches tucked amid the towering bluffs and crashing waves, and the partial cove is also a superb area for wildlife watching, where the Russian River meets the sea.

Hike the trails around the high surrounding cliffs to watch migrating gray whales, or claim a prime perch on the sand, within view of a colony of frolicking harbor seals

See more about Sonoma Coast State Park and all its beaches here.

Dining & Wining

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

tides restaurant bodega bayThe Tides Wharf Restaurant & Bar 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

boat house bodega bay

Meanwhile, there’s a great lunch to be had at The Boat House right on Hwy. 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.

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.

Dining North of Bodega Bay

coast kitchen timber cove sonoma countyHead further north, to Timber Cove, for the gem that is the recently renovated Timber Cove Resort and its new 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 elegant coastal comfort cuisine, such as steamed mussels with bacon, blistered tomatoes and crostini, or roasted local halibut with coriander infused carrots, roasted potatoes and grilled orange vinaigrette.

fort ross vineyard sonoma county

Coastal Wine Tasting

And if you would like to go wine tasting, read about the Sonoma Coast Wine Region. Just 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.

Another great location to sit back and enjoy the views of the Pacific with a glass in hand is Gourmet Au Bay tasting room. 

 

Where to Stay the Night

RVs & Camping

bodega dunes sonoma countyThe Bodega Dunes Campground is very popular, so reservations are strongly recommended at (800) 444-7275 or www.parks.ca.gov. 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.

Hotels & Luxury Lodging 

rivers end sonoma county jennerRiver's End Restaurant & Inn: The rooms 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.

sonoma coast villa spa Sonoma Coast Villa & Spa: Set on 60 rolling hill acres in Bodega, the resort 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 Jacuzzis, 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.

Want to see some more great places to stay along the coast (that include Ocean views)? Click here.

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