This Stretch of California Coast Is Pure Underrated Paradise
Sonoma County has a shoreline, and it's 55 miles of pure, wild magic.
This is what 20 minutes of driving the Sonoma Coast is like: You're in a dense stand of coast redwoods, your road a twisty black ribbon, and it's pouring rain. Then suddenly it's not. A mist lifts off the asphalt and lights up with the filtered sun, spotlighting a fox strolling out of the ferns. The forest gives way to a wind-scoured headland and the ocean beyond. You roll past a turkey vulture perched atop a telephone pole, holding its damp wings wide to catch the post-storm sun. And then, believe it or not, a rainbow shimmers into being at the slate-blue horizon of the Pacific. Beneath it, two white plumes pop up from the sea—a pair of whales rising to exhale.
While this feels like a world record of natural wonders in the shortest time possible, that's not even the best thing about it. The best thing is that there is no way to post any of it to Instagram: When you enter this wild kingdom, you hand over your cell signal at the border.
It's a telling reality for the 55 miles of corrugated coast that buck from the fishing village of Bodega Bay through the tiny outposts of Jenner, Timber Cove, and The Sea Ranch to the sandbars of the Gualala River. This isolated—and isolating—topography of ridge, gulch, and cliff has kept things near-virginal when it comes to cell service—a potent symbol of a place that has kept out all but the hardiest pioneers, entrepreneurs, and travelers for several hundred years. Just two hours north of San Francisco, the Sonoma Coast remains a pocket of spectacular remove.
They say that biology is destiny; in this case, geology is destiny. The signature of the Sonoma Coast—what makes it every breathtaking thing it is—is the lancing of the landmass by the San Andreas Fault. "It shoots like an arrow right at us," says Margaret Lindgren, a transplanted New Englander who leads natural history and architecture tours in the region. She explains that the famous earthquake-producing fault flirts dangerously with the California coastline and rams ashore here. The result is a violent upheaval of escarpments that rises as high as 1,600 feet above sea level. In some places, the oak- and pine-lined ridges drop steeply to terraces so flat they look man-made. In other places, it's practically a straight plummet from ridge-top to churning surf, hundreds and hundreds of feet below.
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Down at the water level, that disruption has created a scene as dramatic as what rises above. Some broad and tawny-sanded, some tightly cupped and rocky, the beaches of the Sonoma Coast are fraught with geological drama, marked especially by a long string of offshore rock formations hunched like sentinels against the pounding waves. Beneath the water's surface, Lindgren says, the nutrient-dense upwelling called the California current is pushed to the surface by winds, resulting in a bloom that she calls "the Whole Foods of the Pacific Ocean." That bloom lures a broad array of marine and bird species, from whales to great blue herons. Further, the offshore blending of frigid Arctic and warmer surface water creates a salt-rich fog that nourishes an equally wide array of land-based flora, including the region's iconic coast redwoods.
Lindgren makes her point standing on a finger of land jutting west at Timber Cove, the home of a circa-1960s lodge that has recently emerged from a luxe refurbishing and has injected the region with a subtle jolt of sophistication. While she describes the waves of settlers—Russians who hunted otters and built a fortress in the early 1800s, post–Gold Rush loggers after them, and ranchers into the 20th century—awestruck guests of the lodge traipse gently around her, minding the steep drop on all sides and pointing this way and that like explorers themselves.
It's easy to feel like you're the first to discover the beauty of overnighting on the Sonoma Coast. In fact, though, ever since a vertiginous auto road was completed in 1926 to link south end to north, members of the leisure class have ventured here to hunt, fish, and dine on the views. While pursuits now skew toward hiking and wine tasting, those visuals remain the lure. And the road is still a doozy. "We know how rough that drive can be, and the ginger helps," Timber Cove Resort's bartender says about the welcome drink that's a combination of ginger beer, Angostura bitters, and mint. "We want you to feel good that you made it."
It's an apt tonic. The tight parabolas that California Highway 1 traces to skirt, straddle, and surmount these rowdy land masses are so legendary that one of the hairpin climbs out of nearby Russian Gulch is nicknamed "Dramamine Gulch." And they can be intimidating, with their blind curves and say-your-prayers drop-offs. But every vista is worth savoring coming and going, the coves are worth pulling over to explore, and the surprises of these tiny enclaves are plentiful.
Poking around the fishing village of Bodega Bay, for example, reveals not only a thriving crab shack just steps from the owners' fishing boats, but also the discovery of a Michelin-starred restaurant around the bend. Atop the 275-foot-high bluffs of Bodega Head, a clutch of volunteers sporting bright emerald vests with "WHALE WATCH" screened on them will point out migrating gray whales to every new visitor, each time with a genuine and unflagging exuberance.
And at Stewart's Point, there are those sticky buns. "That's how I pay my mortgage," Hilla Ahvenainen says, handing over one in all its caramel- and walnut-topped glory. Up the coast from Timber Cove, Ahvenainen and her partner, Margaret Smith, run Two Fish Baking Company at the 150- year-old Stewart's Point Store. The couple also oversees a mercantile operation that includes essentials like canned goods and aluminum foil, an antique wagon filled with penny candy, a rack of $5 vintage paperback books, and top-flight local wines.
The place thrums with a genial blend of locals and tourists—remarkable, considering that there's no store on either side for about 10 miles. "You have to really want to get here," Ahvenainen says. But the loyalty Stewart's Point enjoys is emblematic of the connection among these communities that remain staunchly unincorporated and self-sufficient. Spend any time on the Sonoma Coast and you feel that obligation—and comfort—of being in it together.
"The only two things to do here," cracks Lester Schwartz, "are watch the sea-gulls and go back to your hotel room to make love." The winemaker has neglected to mention tasting his product. Schwartz's joke could well have been a tourism tagline when he and his wife, Linda, eyed an estate of 53 mountainous acres in the 1980s and dreamed of taming it to grow grapes. The result was Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, now a renowned producer of premium Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinotage wines, and home to a ridge-top tasting room with an ocean view. "It's become a bit of an oasis," Lester says.
The Schwartzes were not the Sonoma Coast's first wine pioneers (the earliest vines in the region were planted by Russian settlers in 1817) but they represent growers taking advantage of one of the area's wildest gifts—its weather. It turns out that dense fog Margaret Lindgren described rolls up and over steep, terraced rows of vines at night like a blanket, and withdraws with the morning sun. This rhythm urges a slow and even ripening of grapes made into wines that are lively, complex, and deeply flavorful.
Sonoma Coast wines are not only fantastic; they're also a bit hard to get at. Although numerous winemakers grow here, Fort Ross Vineyards has the only on-site public tasting room, which means part of the fun is scouting the local restaurants to figure out who's pouring what and grabbing takeaways at local stores. The buzz-hungry crowds of Napa and Sonoma valleys to the east could someday spill over to the coast—the wines are every bit as good—but for now, to the intrepid traveler go the spoils.
You know it's a good beach when there are more seals on it than people. Scooted out from the Pacific and warming themselves in the midday sun, upward of a hundred harbor seals line the sands of Goat Rock Beach while a handful of humans peer, point, and photograph. This is the quiet dance of beachgoing here; with two-thirds of the Sonoma Coast set aside as parkland, these are beaches saved for us to marvel at, to walk along, and to share with the true locals.
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There have been struggles along the way. The 5,000-acre Ohlson ranch, a sprawling plateau just south of the Gualala River with 10 miles of shoreline, was bought up in 1963 with plans to build 5,000 homes on it. The sudden threat provoked a clamor among locals that forced the California Coastal Commission into being, imposing stringent restraints on development and requiring public access to its beaches.
What emerged from that conflict was The Sea Ranch, a community of some 1,800 homes marked by low-angled rooflines and redwood planking and shingles. The rustic design not only honored the historic architecture, but aimed to do it one better. Parking areas are shielded from view by low walls, keeping vistas nearly car-free. The community has no streetlights. And all along Highway 1's carving path, signs mark access to pristine beaches a short, picturesque hike away.
As hard as it is to get to the Sonoma Coast, it is harder to leave. The combination of no cell service, big ocean views, and really good wine summons a gravity that pulls on the soul. This makes Café Aquatica, a turquoise bungalow just up the Russian River from those lounging seals, the perfect place to postpone your goodbyes.
It's rained again this morning, a downpour that has left the Adirondack chairs on the café's riverside deck a bit slick, but the locals are mopping up and settling in. A pair of otters are known to hang out at this bend in the river, which is enough to keep everyone chatting quietly with eyes trained on the water.
And as if Sonoma knew we were in need, or knew it had been about 20 minutes, there's a splash. One head, tawny brown, surfaces and plunges below. A flash of the slick curve of fur follows, and then another. The otters arc their way past us, heading upriver. And best of all, no one reaches for a phone.
Timber Cove Resort is a California dream lodge. There's a top-shelf bar in the Great Room, the in-house Coast Kitchen restaurant is one of the best in the region, and the grounds include fire pits, bocce courts, and hiking trails. Rates start at $249.
Eat + Drink Here
It's worth standing in line for the massive crab cakes at Spud Point Crab Company. For happy hour, order the "Wine Surfing" flight of three local wines at Gourmet Au Bay. Terrapin Creek Café is a Michelin one-star restaurant with a menu that brings together seafood and a stellar roster of wines from Sonoma and beyond.
Don't miss the organic coffee at dreamy Café Aquatica, right on the banks of the Russian River. River's End Restaurant is a beloved sunset perch to order a classic cocktail, dig in to local seafood, and fall in love with the warmth of the staff. The sunlit tasting room and expansive deck at Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery overlook the ocean, and the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinotage wines are superb.
Breakfast and lunch are a divine no-brainer at Two Fish Baking Company at Stewart's Point Store, whether it's the famed sticky buns, breakfast burritos, or sandwiches built from artisan breads.
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Unbeaten Path Tours offers a terrific menu of tours in the Mendonoma (Mendocino and Sonoma) region, including a Seascapes and Wildflowers Tour, The Sea Ranch Architectural Tour, and Redwood Tree Bathing and Tide Pool tours. Unbeaten Path also offers custom tours as well as corporate and personal wellness/yoga workshops.