Hiking the myriad varied terrains of the Russian River Valley...
When: Hiking 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 green and golden hills, the redwood forests, and the dramatic coastal bluffs of Sonoma County offer an incredible variety of hiking experiences. Trails tend to concentrate in the forest and grasslands between Highway One and 101 and along the coastal beaches and headlands of Highway One.
Some of our favorite Russian River area trails:
Forest & Grassland
Armstrong Woods and Austin Creek State Recreation Area:
The most unique forest and grasslands hikes are within Armstrong Woods State Park and the adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area, located in Guerneville, just two miles north of downtown. Easy, flat trails provide an introduction to the serene, magical beauty of old growth redwood forest, including the Parson Jones Tree, 310 feet tall, and the Colonel Armstrong Tree, more than 1,400 years old, and over 14' in diameter. A ridge loop of five miles provides a more strenuous hike, along with a stunning view of the redwood forests from the ridge.
For more vigorous hikes, the graceful, yet remote and rugged canyons and deep forests of Austin Creek State Recreation Area offer a wide variety of trails. With over twenty miles of trails covering 6200 acres of wilderness, hikers can experience grasslands, chaparral, conifer forests, oak woodland, and riparian habitats, home to a wide range of birds and animals. Terrain tends to be steep here, with an 1100 foot climb; trails range from 5.6 to 10 miles.
The Visitor Center at the entrance of Armstrong Woods provides detailed maps of the hiking trails in this area. Unfortunately, dogs are not permitted on the trails. They are permitted on the paved roads.
Sonoma County's largest recreational area, Lake Sonoma offers 1800 acres of pristine, steep rolling hills with 40 miles of trails, surrounding the 2700 acre lake. Redwood, fir, and oak forests alternate with grasslands, which are covered with an abundance of wildflowers in the spring.
Woodland Ridge Loop: Families and those looking for a short introduction to the area might start with the Woodland Ridge Loop. A pleasant 1.25 mile trail goes through redwood forest, oak forest with beautiful views of the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, and then through madrone, manzanita, and oak woodlands. In the spring, the hills are alive with California poppy, Indian warrior, Indian pink, blue dicks, and grass nut wildflowers. Four kinds of oak trees grow here, all producing acorns which provided the staple for the Pomo Indian diet. This trail starts from the gravel parking lot south of the Visitor Center and takes about an hour.
Half-a-Canoe Loop: This five mile loop is accessed by taking Rock Pile Road from the Visitor Center to the trail head parking lot, 2.4 miles past the Steward Point Road intersection. Described as a roller coaster trail, mountain bikers favor this run, so be on the lookout for them as they travel fast. Wild turkey, grouse, and quail frequent this area and wildflowers are abundant on the steep grassland hills. In spring, the trail crosses several creeks and there are views of Lake Sonoma at several points along the way.
A wheelchair accessible walk leads through the Visitor Center, about ¼ mile round trip, to the Fish Hatchery. A map of the hiking trails is available at the Visitor Center at the base of the lake.
Ragle Ranch Regional Park:
Once you get past the manicured lawns of the urban park, there is a lovely wilderness hike. Take Hwy 116 east from Guerneville, turn right on Mill Station Road and left on Ragle Ranch Road. The park entrance is on the right. There is a day use fee. Park in the northwest corner of the parking lot where the trail begins with a paved path. This 1 5/8 mile trek will take about an hour and will take you through oak woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands along the Atascadero Creek.
Joe Rodota/West Country Trail:
This five mile paved and level trail explores the Laguna de Santa Rosa and farmlands, following an old railway track. Pick up the trail on Petaluma Avenue, between Fannan and Abbott Avenues in Sebastopol.
The wild 62 miles of Sonoma coastline remains mostly undeveloped, rugged, and protected as part of the Sonoma County park system. South of the Russian River, the coast is relatively gentle, with grasslands and numerous accessible beaches. North of the Russian River, the coast is marked by steep, rugged cliffs high above the ocean---surely one of the most spectacularly beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world. There are so many hiking trails along the Sonoma Coast, it's difficult to single out just a few, but here we go:
...From Salt Point south to Jenner
~ Salt Point State Park
Salt Point State Park is the crown jewel in the parks of Sonoma County. If you have only one day to hike, here is where to go. With 20 miles of hiking trails covering 10 biotic zones, six miles of wonderfully unusual and dramatic coast, including convoluted sandstone formations, a pygmy forest, redwood forest, grasslands, prairie, beaches, sag ponds and valleys along the San Andreas Fault, and the adjacent Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve with three miles of trails, Salt Point is a prime destination for hiking.
Reached by Highway One, Salt Point is in the northern part of Cazadero, 18 miles north of Jenner; it can also be reached by following Ft. Ross Road from Cazadero Highway. Start with the trail along the bluffs from the parking area at Salt Point to Stump Beach, which winds along the cliffs and descends to a sheltered cove with fine sandy beach. From here you can continue to the pygmy forest or return along the headlands. Further north there are spectacular hikes from Fisk Mill Cove, either south to Stump Beach or north to Horseshoe Cove. The latter hike is a four to six mile round trip, taking two to four hours. Start at Fisk Mill parking area; small parking fee. From April to June, do not miss the easy hikes through the Kruse Rhododendron Reserve.
~ Sonoma's Lost Coast
A rugged beach hike with rock outcrop climb at the foot of towering cliffs, this 5 3/8 mile one way to Russian Gulch, 9 ¾ mile roundtrip, hike will take all day. The entrance is at Fort Ross Reef Campground, just north of Jenner. There is a small parking fee. Be very careful, watch for killer waves, and check your tide tables - tide must be 3' or below. Do not attempt this hike in winter or alone. You will be rewarded with wild grandeur comparable to Big Sur, tidepools, and land otherwise seen only from the air, as you walk through the San Andreas fault.
~ Ft. Ross Creek and Ft. Ross Headlands
A fascinating peek into the fur trading past of this settlement, worth a day's exploration on its own, Ft. Ross State Historic Park is just north of Jenner on Highway One. With over 3000 acres of rugged terrains, there are no official hikes, just fire roads and paths that provide 15 miles of exploration in this very wild coastal area.The Ft. Ross Creek hike takes you from the parking lot down to the cove behind Ft. Ross, the site of California's first shipyard (see the interesting reconstruction in the Visitor Center). From Ft. Ross Creek at the head of the cove, follow the trail to the Ft. Ross Cemetery. From there you can cross busy Highway One, continuing onto a road that says "Authorized Vehicles Only." After a mile or so, you'll hear the sounds of Ft. Ross Creek and you'll pass a pump house and water tanks, then a cluster of cabins now serving as housing for archaeologists researching the area. The road ends here, but if you go between the last two cabins you'll find a hole in the fence and the intersection of the San Andreas Fault and Ft. Ross Creek. If you want to leave trails behind, you can descend to the creek and enjoy a remarkably beautiful hike along the creek itself, back to Ft. Ross. There are large logjams that are difficult, but possible to cross with strenuous, careful climbing.Also, from the Ft. Ross parking lot (southwest corner), there is a splendid hike along the headlands, descending to Northwest Cape, then further along the headlands to an overview of Kolmer Gulch, with its cove and beach. Stay clear of the bluffs; they can crumble without warning.
~ Kolmer Gulch
For a fascinating journey along the rift line of the San Andreas Fault, the Kolmer Gulch trail will show you just what a major earthquake does to the land, including the snapping of giant redwood trees and the offset of 7 ½ feet between the road and gate in 1906. Just to the east of the entrance to Ft. Ross, turn onto Ft. Ross Road and find the fire road trailhead for this hike about half a mile down the road, just past the settlers' old orchard. The trail takes you past slough trenches and sag ponds, with many wildflowers in the spring. The trail to the heavily wooded Kolmer Gulch Camp is 1 ¾ miles round trip; the full round trip is 5 ½ miles.
...From Goat Rock to Bodega Bay
There are several short trails between Ft. Ross and Goat Rock, one at Stillwater Cove, several others in the Jenner area. The Vista Trail is at milepost 26.3; the Russian Gulch Trail at 24.55, North Jenner Headlands at 23.83, and you can descend to the mouth of the Russian River at 23.21. The Vista Trail is a paved, wheelchair-accessible loop, ¾ mile long. South of Jenner, Goat Rock State Park marks the beginning of several spectacular hikes.
~ The Kortum Trail
One of the most popular local hikes, this is an easy, flat headlands trail, 3 ¾ mile round trip for a two hour walk. Just south of the mouth of the Russian River on Hwy One, turn right onto the Goat Rock State Park road. Park at the Blind Beach parking lot, no fee. Enjoy spectacular scenery along the bluffs, followed by a descent to Shell Beach.
~ Pomo Canyon to Shell Beach
Another popular hike in this area. From Highway One near the mouth of the Russian River, you turn onto Willow Creek Road, heading east for 2.6 miles; the trail begins at the Pomo Campground. Alternatively, you can start at the western trailhead at milepost 18.22 on Highway One. This five mile roundtrip takes three to four hours and passes through redwood forest to an overlook of the Russian River and then to an overlook of the entire southern Sonoma Coast.
~ Red Hill Trail
From Shell Beach, which can be reached by either of the two hikes above or by car (located on Highway One with its own parking lot), take the Pomo Canyon Trail on the east side of the highway. The Red Hill Trail branches off the Pomo Canyon Trail and climbs through an old ranch to amazing vistas of Willow Creek and Russian River canyons, along with distant mountains and the coast.
~ Shell Beach to Wright's Beach
Also from Shell Beach, you can hike south 2 ½ miles to Wright's Beach. You'll cross five creeks along the way; the round trip will take two to three hours. There is a campground at Wright's Beach, with a wheelchair-accessible path to the beach.
In the Bodega Bay area, there are three main hikes: the Bodega Dunes Loop, the Bodega Head, and the Shortail Gulch trail.
~ Bodega Dunes Loop
Starting at the Bodega Dunes Campground picnic area, this 3 ½ mile loop takes you along the beach, through the dunes, up a steep ridge, and back to the campground. Although not an easy hike because of the soft sand, the hiker may be rewarded with the sight of harbor seals, gray whales, sandpipers and sanderlings, driftwood forts and art projects, and 160' dunes. You can extend this hike to the Bodega Head by taking the path at the two mile point. Crossing a stile and passing a number of the highest dunes, through the U.C. Reserve, you'll climb above the Bodega Bay Harbor to the Horseshoe Cove Overlook. This hike adds 4 ¼ miles round trip to the Loop trail, or an additional two to three hours.
~ Bodega Head Loop
In the town of Bodega Bay, turn onto East Shore Road at milepost 11.05. Turn right at the stop sign onto Bay Flat Road, go three miles, and stay left to the east parking lot. This 1 ½ mile loop (1/4 mile roundtrip more to the top of the Head) circles the headlands of Bodega Bay - not to be missed - and provides the best vantage in Sonoma County for whale-watching, as well as a view of the granite-like rock of Bodega Head.
~ Shorttail Gulch
A two mile, one hour hike down a steep coastal canyon brings you to a remote beach at Pinnacle Gulch. Pick up the trailhead south of Bodega Bay at milepost 8.76, west onto South Harbor Highway, left on Heron Drive, left onto Mockingbird to the trailhead parking area. There is a day use fee. Try to go at low tide.
CAUTION REGARDING ALL SONOMA COAST HIKING
Every year brings news of deaths as the result of sleeper waves along the Sonoma Coast. The unfortunate victims are never local people; they are always tourists. And, despite the numerous warning signs along the Sonoma Coast State Beach system, people disregard what seem like unreasonable restrictions. If you do not want to be one of these victims, take these signs seriously. Here are the rules:
- Never turn your back to the ocean on the ocean front rocks or anywhere close to the surf line.
- Do not climb rock outcroppings, especially if they are posted as dangerous.
- Do not allow dogs off-leash or children to play in the surf.
- In general, stay 50' above the surf line, especially in winter.
- When hiking on the bluffs, stay away from the edge of the bluff and do not attempt to climb down the bluffs.
The reason for these rules is simple. The Sonoma Coast has sleeper waves, also called rogue or sneaker waves, especially in the winter, but possible any time of year. These waves arise out of a seemingly calm ocean without warning, they pull anyone standing too close to the surf line, or climbing rock outcroppings, into the undertow and then out to sea. Few people survive and sometimes others die in attempted rescues. In early 2008, within five weeks, a newcomer to the area and a visitor from Berkeley both died trying to save their dogs who were swept out to sea by these waves. There were ten deaths along the Sonoma Coast beaches in 2007, some abalone divers (most from out of the area), a few in boating accidents, and the others people walking on the beaches or climbing outcroppings where they were swept away. The bluffs are also dangerous. They are highly unstable and will crumble. 2008 has already seen the death of a tourist who fell to his death from a bluff. These rules are simple, common sense, and no reason to avoid the beaches or the bluffs.
Dogs are permitted on the Shorttail Gulch, Half-a-Canoe, and Ragle Ranch, and Joe Radota/West County trails, but are otherwise prohibited on the trails described on these pages.
Armstrong Woods and Austin Creek State Recreation Area
Ft. Ross Creek and Ft. Ross Headlands
Joe Rodota/West County Trail
Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve
Ragle Ranch Regional Park
Salt Point State Park
Sonoma Coast Guide
Sonoma Coast State Park
The Hiker's Hip Pocket Guide to Sonoma County
DeAnza College article on sleeper waves
The Hiker's Hip Pocket Guide to Sonoma County
DeAnza College article on sleeper waves