Exploring the Northern California Coast

North Salmon Creek Beach

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 of 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 with a soundtrack of crashing ocean waves.

Just note that weather can turn windy or foggy any time of year, so always bring along a windbreaker, scarf, and hat.

Together, we can protect and preserve the beauty and natural resources of Sonoma County for generations to come. Check out our page on Sustainable Travel, and look over the Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

Simply driving along the stunning Highway 1 is a thrill, over skinny winding roads that sometimes curve right along soaring cliffs above the ocean. But plan to explore outside your car, too, at the many state and regional parks dotting the coastline.

Hiking Along the Coastline

People hike along the bluff at Bodega Head in Sonoma County
Bodega Head

Hiking 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 three miles around the headlands, or takes a straighter one-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 thousands of birds throughout the year, as well as other wildlife. The walk is easy, looping one mile through Doran 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.

Unbeaten Path Tours & Yoga offers private guided hikes on many of the top hiking trails along the coastline. Among their most popular hiking tours is a two-hour architecture, landscape and nature tour of Sea Ranch.

Walk Through History

Fort Ross State Historic park in Sonoma County has a cannon and a wooden fence surrounding the park
Fort Ross State Historic Park

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 cannon and water tower.

The visitor center features ongoing interpretive presentations about Sonoma County’s historical Russian buildings, neighborhoods, trades, agriculture, and intercultural relations.

Take a Water Tour

If water tours are more your thing, fishing and boating are fun options. The Bodega Bay Sport Fishing Center occupies the Porto Bodega RV Park, 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 Charters for salt or freshwater excursions or North Bay Charters for both saltwater and freshwater trips. Or, take a three-hour sailing tour with Bodega Bay Sailing. To learn more about all these options, read Bodega Bay: Boat Charters & Tours.

Kayak, Canoe, Surf

Kayakers paddle in the calm waters on Bodega Bay
Doran Regional Park

Explore the beauty of Bodega Bay, catching sight of cruising seals and flocks of seabirds while paddling around on a stand-up paddle board or in a kayak (on your own or with a customized guided tour).

Visit Bodega Bay Kayak to get started paddling through Bodega Bay, the lower Russian River, the Estero Americano, or Salmon Creek. Beginner kayakers are welcomed and encouraged. Customized guided tours are available. Rentals include all equipment, wetsuit, life vest, and instruction before heading out.

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

A person rides a horse along the coastal hills
Chanslor Stables

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 60-minute or 90-minute beach rides that include panoramic views of sand dunes, Bodega Bay’s harbor, and the Sonoma coastline; and trail rides at the Hagemann Ranch Trout Farm, a gorgeous family-owned property with spectacular views of the rolling coastal hills.

The beaches at Salmon Creek and Goat Rock are part of 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

The aqua colored water hugs the pacific coastline
North Salmon Creek Beach

Salmon Creek is slightly inland in a lagoon, providing relatively warm, calm swimming conditions for humans and a safe haven for the western snowy plover, a bird listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The north and south beaches here sprawl along nearly two miles of sand ideal for beachcombing and picnicking, while strong waves attract the area’s best surfers.

Goat Rock Beach

The sky has streaks of pink in the clouds along the Sonoma Coast
Goat Rock Beach

Beachgoers 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.

Doran Regional Park

Peopple walk down the sandy beach in Sonoma County
Doran Regional Park

Scrunching sand between your toes is just one of the joys of a beach day. Doran Regional 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.

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 at the wharf in Sonoma County
Tides Wharf Restaurant & Bar

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. This popular oceanfront eatery also 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 CafĂ©, 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

man cooking crab at spud point in Sonoma County
Spud Point Crab Company

One of the best-known destinations in Bodega Bay, Spud Point Crab Company is part bait shop, part restaurant. Owners Tony and Carol Anello own a sturdy fishing boat named Annabelle, and when Dungeness crab is in season (early November through late June) its crew brings a daily catch right to the boiler outside the store. You can buy fresh or boiled crabs to take home, or take a seat at an outdoor table and dig right 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, but 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.

Coastal Wine Tasting

A bottle of Pinot Noir and a corkscrew
Sonoma Coast Vineyards

If you’d like to go wine tasting while you’re by the coast, 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 Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and RosĂ© of Pinot Noir.

While in Bodega Bay, be sure to visit 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. They’re known for producing top-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.

Other great locations for 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.

Hotels & Luxury Lodging

Rivers End room in Sonoma County
River’s End Restaurant & Inn

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 blue cheese.

The pool is surrounded by lounge chairs
Sonoma Coast Villa

Set on 60 rolling-hill acres in Bodega, Sonoma Coast Villa pampers with massages, 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.

​RVs & Camping

RVs line the coast in Sonoma County as seen from above
Doran Regional Park

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.

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