Exploring the Northern California Pacific Coast...
When: Beach-combing is a year-round activity in Sonoma County. In January, February, and March most of the rainfall occurs, but even then there will be many sunny days, particularly at the coast where fog tends to prevail in the summer.
Where: The western Sonoma County coast is rugged, with high bluffs near Jenner descending to road level beaches at Bodega Bay.
There are 38 beaches along the Sonoma Coast. Most are part of the Sonoma Coast State Beach, comprised of wide, shining beaches and secluded coves, rugged headlands and natural rock arches, tidal pools and reefs, all creating one of the most scenic attractions in California. These beaches extend 17 miles from Bodega Head to Meyer's Gulch, south of Fort Ross, with more than a dozen access paths along Highway One. This coast is not for swimming and it can be dangerous. Lives are lost every year to sleeper waves, backwash, sudden drop-offs, rip currents, crumbly bluffs, and the cold water. Even playing in the surf or climbing on nearby rock outcroppings can be dangerous. Never, never turn your back to this ocean if you are anywhere close to the surf line.
Goat Rock, within Sonoma Coast State Park is located off Highway 1 at the mouth of the Russian River and is a must-see for every visitor to the Russian River area. The entrance to the park is about ¼ mile south and there is easy access to the beach from the parking lots; there are also picnic tables and fire rings, along with restrooms. Dozens of harbor seals with their pups can be observed on the sandy shores of the Russian River where it meets the ocean. March through August, people or dogs approaching too closely are serious threats to the pregnant females and newborn pups. Pups cannot swim and when left alone on land they are defenseless against predators---like the male elephant seal who has been hanging around and picking off pups for the past couple of years. Signs indicate how close visitors can get to the nursery and volunteers from the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods use bullhorns to chase back those who wander too close, but they also provide interpretative services for those interested in more information about the seals. Dogs are not allowed on this stretch of the beach.
Goat Rock itself is a prominent feature at the south end of the beach, inviting to the adventurous who think it would be fun to climb. DON"T. The shale rock is unstable, flaking off and hurling climbers into the ocean and rocks below. Sleeper waves come out of a calm sea to engulf climbers. Sleeper waves have also engulfed people walking on the surfside to the north of the rock. Keep your eye on the ocean if you are anywhere close to the surfline and keep children away from the surfline altogether. Heed the warning signs as every year people who don't do so die here.
For a safer beach experience, go to Blind Beach just south of the rock. There is a parking lot here and a 200' climb down to the beach, but the reward is a calmer ocean where boogie boards are common, dogs are allowed on leash, and sunsets over Goat Rock are spectacular.
Heading south, Shell Beach is another must-see beach because of its tide pools. Beachcombers and fishermen particularly favor this beach as well. The trail to the beach is steep and difficult. Hikers can pick up the Kortum Trail at the parking lot. There are toilets here. Dogs on leash are permitted.
Duncan's Landing was the loading point for lumber coming out of the Russian River Valley, headed for San Francisco where redwood was used to rebuild the city after the earthquake and fire of 1906. There is a beautiful view here from the parking lot, but do not attempt to go down to Wright's Beach below. The rocks are unsafe, the surf high and unpredictable, and the aptly named Death Rock creates sleeper waves. From the safety of the viewpoint, you can see these sleeper waves swallow up the rock from time to time. Enjoy the view and move on to Portuguese Beach.
Portuguese Beach and Schoolhouse Beach have wide sandy beaches surrounded by rocky headlands. Rock and surf fishing are popular here. The beaches are somewhat protected, so sleeper waves are less common here. The paths down to both beaches are steep; there are restrooms and large parking lots. Dogs are permitted on leash.
Salmon Creek Beach is a hugely popular beach, in part because of its sheer beauty and easy accessibility. Gentle Salmon Creek winds down to the ocean here and in summer the sands close the entrance, so the creek forms a lagoon. With two miles of sandy beach and dunes, Salmon Creek has good surf making this the most popular beach along the coast for surfers, as well as fishermen, beachcombers, and those who just want to stroll the beach or picnic. Take care here; the riptides are dangerous. No dogs are permitted.
Bodega Head and Campbell Cove are in the town of Bodega, at the end of Westside Road. Bodega Head juts into the sea and from the dramatic vista points this is an excellent place to watch the seabirds who inhabit the rocks and look for whales. Campbell Cove is on the bay side of Bodega Head, another great place to birdwatch and, with the calm waters and sandy beaches, an excellent place for children to play. There are picnic tables and restrooms. Near the parking lot you'll see the 15-story deep hole, known locally as "The Hole in the Head." This is the site of a nuclear reactor Pacific Gas & Electric started building here many years ago. Huge local protests and the fact that the site was on the San Andreas fault led to the cessation of the plans and the hole became a pond enjoyed by the birds.
Doran Beach Regional Park is on the south side of Bodega Bay and is a must-see, especially for those who want to see a large variety of birds. A beautiful sandy beach, it has clam flats and a salt marsh on the bay side and an ocean side where the waves are usually small, making for a safe beach. Generally windy, the picnic tables have windbreaks. There are trails through the park and dogs are permitted on leash. Because of the wind, this beach is a favorite for power kiting and watching people engage in this extreme sport is a lot of fun.
Heading north on Highway One from where the Russian River meets the ocean, the Jenner Grade is spectacular and hair-raising; take it slow and, as difficult as it may be, keep your eyes on the road. There are vista points where you can pull off to enjoy the amazing views. Eleven miles from Jenner is Fort Ross Park, a beautifully reconstructed fortified village memorializing the settlement by Russian and native Alaskan fur traders which existed here from 1812-1839 when the decline in the otter population, along with the difficulties of farming on the foggy coast and maurading of livestock by graizzly bears, made the settlement unprofitable. Although Fort Ross is fascinating, a mesmerizing peek into an interesting and obscure part of American history, there is also a over 3000 acres of headlands, creeks, forest, and hidden beaches. An easily accessible beach is in a cove behind the fort and a long path leads from the headlands down to the beach.
The crown jewel of the Sonoma Coast is Salt Point Park, 19 miles north of Jenner. Uniquely beautiful, this 6,000-acre park features rocky promontories such as Salt Point which jut out into the Pacific Ocean, amazing sandstone formations, tide pools, coves such as Gerstle Cove and Fisk Mill Cove, and one of the first underwater parks in California. Fishing is allowed everywhere except Gerstle Cove Marine Reserve, where marine life is completely protected. Skin and SCUBA diving are popular here, as well as hiking and horseback riding on miles of trails. Salt Point has a small visitor's center, campgrounds, restrooms, and parking areas. Dogs are not permitted on the trails.
The Gerstle Cove beach is a favorite destination here. It can be reached by a highly recommended hike along the headlands from the main parking lot or from a parking lot directly above the cove. This is a fascinating beach, with driftwood, often made in fantastical structures by creative visitors, seaweed, sea creatures swept up on to the sand, sea birds, all in a protected cove. The path down from the parking lot is steep, but well-constructed and not too long. Stump Beach has one of the few sandy beaches north of Jenner. There are a few picnic tables near the parking lot and a primitive toilet with no running water. A ¼ mile trail leads down to the beach.
Dog Friendly Beaches:
- Marshall Gulch*
- Carmet Beach*
- Schoolhouse Beach (part of Sonoma Coast State Beach)*
- Portuguese Beach (part of Sonoma Coast State Beach)*
- Duncan's Cove (part of Sonoma Coast State Beach)*
- Wright's Beach (part of Sonoma Coast State Beach)*
- Furlong Gulch*
- Shell Beach (part of Sonoma Coast State Beach)*
- Blind Beach*
- Russian Gulch*
- Doran Beach
*These beaches are all located between Jenner and Bodega on Highway 1. There are maps that show the locations in this pdf brochure - scroll to pages 5-8.
Surfing takes place primarily at the Bodega Bay area beaches and is a year round activity. Popular locations are Salmon Creek, Doran Beach, Dillon Beach, and then north near Jenner at Goat Rock Beach. The Bodega Bay Surf Shack is the source of good advice, lessons for beginners, and equipment rentals. Popular Locations:
- Salmon Creek - Surfline Review
- Doran Beach - Surfline Review
- River's Mouth - Surfline Review
- Blackpoint Beach - Surfline Review
The best sites for diving are along Highway One, north of Jenner. Gerstle Cove Marine Reserve, at Salt Point State Park, is an underwater park where marine life is protected and divers can hand launch small boats in the sheltered water. Sites along the Sonoma coast include: Fort Ross Reef, Fort Ross and North Fort Ross Cove, Timber Cove, Stillwater Cove, Ocean Cove, South Gerstle Cove, Gerstle Cove.
The Sonoma Coast, along with the Mendocino coast, is the best place in the world for abalone diving. Each year thousands of divers converge on the coast and every year a few of them die. Big surf, rocky shorelines, strong undertow and currents, and great white sharks present a danger even to experienced divers. A license is required, which can be purchased at local country stores, and the daily limit is three red abalone, with an annual limit of 24. Only abalone seven inches or more in diameter can be taken. The season is April 1 through June 30 and again August 1 through November 30.
Bodega Bay is the birding hotspot in western Sonoma County (there are numerous sites in eastern Sonoma County as well).
In western Sonoma County, rock climbing is limited to the coastal areas, all off Highway One, primarily between Bodega Bay and Jenner. Here are the sites from south to north:
- Marshall Gulch, near the village of Carmet
- Sunset Boulders and Blind Beach at Goat Rock
- Twin Coves, three miles north of Jenner
- Dry Creek Sea Crag, five miles north of Jenner
- Secret Cove or Horseshoe Point, north end of Salt Point State Park
From late November through February, California gray whales, 40 - 60 feet long, migrate from the rich feeding fields of the Arctic region down the California coast. Pregnant whales generally are in the lead, with non-pregnant females and males following behind, courting and mating as they travel. After a four to seven week stay in the lagoons of coastal Baja, while the birthing takes place, the migration returns by the North Coast from late February through April. Mothers and their calves leave last, so they can be seen passing by as late as early May.
The longest migration undertaken by any mammal-12,000 miles roundtrip-- it is a spectacular sight, especially since the numbers of whales has greatly increased since they received protection. More than 20,000 whales pass by, spouting high into the air as they pass.
There are many good viewing sites in Sonoma County. The best places to see the whale migration are from Bodega Head in Bodega Bay, Fort Ross State Park, and Timber Cove. Bodega Head, located within Sonoma Coast State Beach, is an outcropping which juts into the ocean. The whales can be observed passing close to the head. Volunteers from Stewards of the Redwoods and the Coast provide interpretive services on weekends during the migration.
To see the whales at close range, travelers can take whale-watching cruises out of Bodega Bay. Local fishing boats offer whale-watching cruises throughout the season and the Oceanic Society also offers trips on Saturdays and Sundays in March and April. While on a cruise, you may see dolphins, humpback whales, harbor seals, seabirds, and possibly even a blue whale, the largest animal ever.
Fort Ross Reef
Fort Ross and North Fort Ross Cove
South Gerstle Cove
Salt Point diving hotline
Rocky Daniels dive descriptions
Bodega Bay Pro Dive
Just Add Water Sonoma
Bodega Bay Surf Shack
Northern Light Surf Shop
Sonoma County Abalone Network
Madrone Audobon Society
Climbing Sonoma County
Wil's Fishing Adventures
The Oceanic Society