Winter Hikes on the Northern Sonoma Coast
One of the things I love doing in winter is hiking in the far northern reaches of Sonoma County's coast. Just getting there is a memorable experience, what with cruising along cliffs poised high above the Pacific Ocean, encountering views so huge they can never be captured with a camera — let alone your memory.
Once I'm there, I hike for hours each day, always within sight of the sea (and often right beside it). A chilly breeze, the sound of gulls and crashing waves, the salty tang of sea air, an occasional glimpse of a passing marine mammal … It's a rejuvenating experience.
Here are my four favorite destinations on the far north coast for hiking and communing with nature. One destination alone will do the rejuvenation trick, but if you've a couple of days to spare, try them all — and let me know which is your favorite.
Dunes and Bluffs
You'll feel far from the everyday world at Gualala Point Regional Park, the northernmost park on the Sonoma County coast. It's a magical place where the Gualala River merges with the Pacific Ocean, and extensive sand dunes offer observation points for whale watching, picnics and sea gazing. And the magic increases when you ascend to the park's Bluff Trail: it meanders along a cliff edge, affording wonderful views. That trail connects to trails at Sea Ranch (see 'Isolated Beaches,' below), allowing for a much longer hike. BTW, Gualala Point is considered one of the county's best whale watching sites. Gualala Point Regional Park, 42401 Highway 1, The Sea Ranch, 707-785-2377
Use one of six public access trails in The Sea Ranch, a private community south of Gualala Point, to enjoy panoramic views of sea, sky, and rocky ocean outcrops. Trails start at Highway 1 parking areas, cross bluff-top meadows and forests, and wind down cliffside staircases, ending at secluded beaches with sandy coves, tide pools, and rock formations. To learn more, visit the web page for each access trail: Bluff Top Trail, Walk on Beach Trail, Shell Beach Trail, Stengel Beach Trail, Pebble Beach Trail, and Black Point Trail.
Amazing Sandstone Sculpture
Just a few miles south is the magnificent beauty of 6,000-acre Salt Point State Park, with more than 20 miles of trails. An amazing geologic feature at Salt Point, seen in very few places, is Tafoni sandstone; it's riddled with honeycomb-type erosion that produces ribs, ridges, holes and other patterns. Other activities here include surf fishing, abalone diving, one of California's first underwater parks, and a lively visitor's center. Adjacent to Salt Point and well worth a visit is Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve, a wonderland of redwood and fir trees, ferns, and — as you'd expect — a great many rhododendrons (which begin to bloom in May). Salt Point State Park, 25050 Highway 1, Jenner, 707-847-3221
History & Beauty
With its weathered Russian-architecture buildings set on a high bluff and backdropped by the Pacific Ocean, Fort Ross State Historic Park is visually stunning. It's also historic; founded in 1812 by Russian fur traders, it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On a trip here, stop at the Visitor Center so you can learn about the fort's amazing history. After touring the buildings, explore the surroundings. You can walk down to the beach and tidal pools, check out the old Russian cemetery and historic orchard, or get in some unforgettable seaside hiking.
Fort Ross State Historic Park, 19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, 707-847-3437.