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2 Perfect Coastal Parks to Visit This Winter

Fort Ross State Historic Park is a perfect escape during winter. 

Each season on the Sonoma County coast has its own particular beauty, but — for me, at least — nothing beats late fall. That’s when the iconic coastal Highway 1 is uncrowded and often empty. Fog rarely makes an appearance, and days are sunny, with a crisp, invigorating tang to the air. In other words: everything’s lined up to take a perfect trip along the coast.

When I head north, two of my favorite places to visit are Fort Ross State Historic Park and Gualala Regional Park. Here’s why:

Fort Ross State Historic Park

One of the most historic and visually stunning parks in California, Fort Ross State Historic Park was founded by Russian fur traders in 1812 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Part of the magic of visiting this 3,400-acre park is the one-of-a-kind journey involved with getting there. Once you head north past the tiny cliffside community of Jenner —at the junction of Highway 1 and the Russian River — you’ll immediately leave the everyday world behind and find yourself surrounded by nothing but the sea, the sky, rolling hills, and steep, knife-edge cliffs. Each time you top a rise and encounter a fresh far-ranging view, you’ll swear you’ve never seen anything so beautiful … until the next rise comes along.

Eventually, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, the weathered Russian-architecture buildings and wooden stockade of Fort Ross appear, perched on the edge of a bluff and backdropped by the Pacific Ocean.

From 1812 to 1841, Fort Ross was tsarist Russia’s southernmost outpost in North America. It was an ambitious community, home to California’s first windmills and birthplace of its shipbuilding. According to the historical record, there were at least three windmills on the site (the few mills that existed elsewhere in California at that time were powered by water or animals). Shipbuilding was accomplished in the cove below Fort Ross, where boats were constructed from redwood and fir.

Only one of the buildings — the 1836 Rotchev House — is original. The others burned down during fires or earthquakes in the 20th century, but have been restored in an authentic fashion. The old Russian cemetery, on a bluff east of the fort, is relatively intact, and the historic orchard still contains fruit trees from the Russian era.

On a visit here, stop first at the visitor center so you can learn about the fort’s amazing history. Then tour the buildings, visit the beach and comb tidal pools, and get in some unforgettable seaside hiking. No food is available, so plan ahead and bring a picnic lunch.

From Nov. 1 until spring Fort Ross is open four days a week (Friday-Monday), from 10 a.m.-4:30. The visitor center, restrooms, upper picnic areas and trail to the compound and buildings are all handicap-accessible. Entry is free, but parking fees apply ($8/per car, $7/seniors). Download the park’s brochure.
Fort Ross State Historic Park, 19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, 707-847-3437.

Gualala Point Regional Park

gualala point regional park Beautifully situated on the far northern coast, where the Gualala River meets the Pacific Ocean, Gualala Point Regional Park’s long and pristine stretch of white sand dunes affords countless observation points for sea gazing, whale watching, and other beach activities. Gualala Point has a small but wonderful campground nestled beneath redwood trees beside the river and within walking distance of the crashing surf.

Visitors here never run out of fun activities, which include tidepooling, hunting for sea glass, plenty of hiking (with wonderful ocean views), sea shell hunting, building driftwood castles, fishing, and more. The visitors center contains displays of early California history, as well as information about Native Americans, the Gualala watershed, and local wildlife.

Gualala Point is recognized as one of the best places along the coast for whale watching. Since the southern Grey Whale migration begins in November, you stand a very good chance right now of catching sight of these beautiful animals as they cruise by on their way down to Baja to spend the winter.

For a change of pace, you might also enjoy walking up the Gualala River to the freshwater marsh, or hike beyond the marsh to a redwood grove populated by bristling sword ferns and rhododendrons. 

The charming town of Gualala, just a few minutes away from the park by car, is a vibrant arts center and is home to many art galleries. You’ll also find seafood and other restaurants, groceries, and a variety of shops. And a real plus if you’re here in late November: the town’s annual Holiday Festival of Trees, a major celebratory bash that ushers in the season, takes place the weekend of Nov. 24-25, 2017, at the Gualala Arts Center.

Gualala Point Regional Park is open year-round. Admission is free, but parking fees apply ($7/per car or free with regional park membership). The visitors center has paved, wheelchair-accessible trails, and there’s an area for accessible family camping. A day use area offers picnic tables, barbecues, and restrooms. Download a park map.

Gualala Point Regional Park, 42401 Highway 1, The Sea Ranch, CA 95497, 707-785-2377

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