At a Glance: John’s Favorites
- Lodging: Mar Visa Cottages, St Orres Hotel & Cottages, Harbor House Inn, Sea Ranch house rental
- Vacation Rentals: Coast Getaways in Mendocino
- Restaurants: Franny’s Cup & Saucer, Pangaea, Two Fish Baking Co
- See & Do: Point Arena Lighthouse, Bowling Ball Beach, Sea Ranch Chapel, Salt Point State Park
- Slideshow: Watch the video overview.
The beach in the rainy season? It may seem counter-intuitive, but there’s no place like the shore in fall and winter. The water churns and roils. Skies turn gunmetal grey. Waves thunder against the sand. And there’s practically nobody around—especially between Bodega Bay and Mendocino, that forgotten stretch of coastline where you can disappear off the grid. Best of all, it’s just two hours from the city.
Most of the land here is preserved in a series of state parks, ranging from windswept prairies to forested hillsides. It’s got the solitude of Big Sur, but without the big drive—or big costs. The pounding surf, craggy headlands, and endless skies remind you that you’re at the very edge of the continent. You won’t spot a single fast-food joint; instead the night sky blazes with a zillion stars.
Note: This guide covers the coastal regions south of the village of Mendocino. For details on the village, check out our separate destination guide covering the town of Mendocino.
- Explore rocky coves and tide pools brimming with marine life.
- Play house at a retro-cozy hideaway cottage.
- Scout the San Andreas Fault as it rips out to sea.
- Climb to the top of a ten-story lighthouse.
- 90 to 120 minutes north of the Golden Gate.
- Contending with car-sickness on twisting Hwy 1.
See & Do on the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast
A series of misty coves, rocky headlands, and wide-open sandy beaches, Sonoma Coast State Beach stretches 17 miles between Bodega Bay to four miles north of Jenner. Two-mile-long Salmon Creek Beach, just north of Bodega Bay, is an obvious choice, but for more visual drama, head north to Goat Rock Beach, at the mouth of the Russian River, where you can spot an oh-so-cute harbor-seal colony. (Keep your distance. Harbor seals haul out on the rocks to rest; otherwise they drown. Humans scare them into jumping back in the water too soon. You don’t want a dead baby seal on your conscience, do you?) The best tide-pooling is at Shell Beach, but only at low tide. A word of caution: Never turn your back on the ocean here, especially at Duncan’s Landing, which has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous beach on the Sonoma Coast—but man, oh man, the waves are fantastic!
North of Jenner, low-lying coastal terraces yield to towering cliffs, hundreds of feet above the ocean: Keep your eyes on the road, lest you pull a Princess Grace. Highway 1 twists and turns high above the water, and though it can be nerve-wracking to drive, and passengers may get carsick, this is one of the most spectacular stretches of asphalt in all California. Stop at pullouts and get vertigo looking down at the water. Eat a fistful of crystallized ginger, if you’re worried about getting carsick.
History buffs and ethnographers love Fort Ross State Historic Park, a Davie Crocket-era fort perched on bluffs above the water. In 1812, Russian and Alaskan fur traders constructed the fort as a trading post and place to grow crops for Alaskan hunters. Thirty year later in 1842, most of the otters had been killed off, and the Russians abandoned the fort. Today the entire thing has been reconstructed to look just as it did 200 years ago. Every time I come, I’m impressed by the architecture and the bookstore’s fantastic selection of titles on early California history, but after 20 minutes I’m ready to leave and resent having had to pay a $6 parking fee for what amounted to a bathroom break.
At Salt Point State Park, Sonoma’s most dramatic coastal park, wave-cut terraces rise from the surf. Spot the park’s magnificent tafonis—honeycombed sandstone formations that swoop toward the sky—at Gerstle Cove; come at low tide to explore the cove’s fabulous tidepools (leave the critters where they lay; sunlight will kill some of them). Off the coast, divers come to explore Salt Point’s underwater park, one of California’s first marine reserves.
You don’t have to be a scuba diver or geology freak to appreciate Salt Point, but it helps: bisected by the San Andreas fault, it’s the ideal place to trip out on how the earth fits together—the rock on the park’s east side is completely different from that on the west side. Short on time? Head directly to the Sentinel Rock overlook for stellar views of the craggy coast. For a picture-postcard photo-op, stop at the pullout at mileage-marker 45 on Hwy 1, and snap images of grazing goats and dilapidated redwood shacks on grasslands jutting into the sea.
It’s early to talk about this, but put it on your radar. Every May, brilliant pink flowers burst into bloom in the sun-dappled shade of Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve. If you’re coming in spring, even if you’re just passing through, plan a 30-minute detour to trek through forested canyons, along seasonal streams lined with spiky ferns and giant rhododendrons. The interplay of color is visually thrilling on a sunny day, but even when it’s foggy out, there’s something magical about fuchsia-colored flowers glowing through the mist. Once the blooms fade in June, it’s just another coast-side forest. But in May, you could plan an entire trip around a visit here.
The seaside subdivision of Sea Ranch raises the hackles of coastal preservationists, but whatever your politics there’s no denying the architectural charm of the iconic Sea Ranch Chapel, which looks like a giant wizard’s hat; it’s on the inland side of Hwy 1, at mileage-marker 55.66, and it’s totally worth a look.
One of the North Coast’s trippiest natural sights, Bowling Ball Beach is named for the rows of giant round boulders that emerge from the water at low tide. But you must come when the tide is extremely low—less than +1.5 feet on the tide chart—otherwise it’s just another beach. Park on Hwy 1 at Mendocino County mileage marker 11.41; there are two signs reading ‘Park Facing South.’ Take the trail by the northernmost sign.
The only lighthouse in California that you can climb up, Point Arena Lighthouse stands ten stories high on a lonely windswept point. Climb 145 steps to the top to see the giant Fresnel lens and scout a hike in the surrounding Stornetta Public Lands, 1132 acres of coastal prairies jutting into the surf. Park by the lighthouse, but tell the lightkeepers you’re returning, lest they lock the gate. There’s also primo whale-watching here November to December and March through April. Bring binocs!
The ocean positively thunders at lonely Manchester State Park & Beach, a five-mile-long stretch of coastline that gets hammered with huge, rolling waves—especially in mid-winter, when the surf is at its angriest. Come summer the waves are (much) smaller, but the beach is every bit as beautiful—the ideal place to wiggle your toes in the sand on a warm day. Or explore the beach on horseback, possibly the most romantic way to experience it. The San Andreas fault makes landfall at the park’s northern end; there’s a little plaque at Alder Creek showing where.
In the blink-and-miss-it town of Elk, Greenwood State Beach has a wind-sheltered cove perfect for kayaking past giant rock formations and sea caves above remarkably blue water. Booking a trip in winter can be iffy and not for the faint of heart; call ahead.
Sonoma-Mendocino Coast Bakeries and Cafés
You’ll need a pick-me-up as you navigate winding Hwy 1. Lucky for you there are some unexpectedly good cafés with strong coffee and homemade goodies to take in the car; come early for the best selection. In Point Arena, it’s hard to miss Franny’s Cup & Saucer ($) and its bright-pink and chartreuse façade. The tiny tea room makes pastries on par with big-city confections: Franny’s mom once worked at Chez Panisse, and she’s taught Franny everything she knows. Alas, the bakery is only open Wednesday through Saturday.
In Gualala, Trinks ($) serves strong coffee in big bowls, just like in France. The inventive sandwiches are great for a picnic, but the baked goods are the real stars—scones with fresh berries, crumbly-sweet cakes, and flaky-crusted seasonal-fruit pies.
In Sea Ranch, it’s tricky to find Two Fish Baking Co ($), but it’s worth the effort for the tea pastries, unusual sandwich combos, crusty artisinal breads, and gooey-delicious sticky buns so popular, they often sell out by 8am. Two Fish has limited hours; get here before 1pm. Closed Monday through Wednesday.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Sonoma-Mendocino Coast Restaurants: Budget
In tiny Elk, everyone loves Queenie’s Roadhouse ($), a lunch-only café known for its homestyle cooking and bohemian vibe. The menu is nothing groundbreaking—pancakes, BLTs, homemade soups—but everything is well executed and delicious. And there’s lots for vegetarians, too. Closed Tuesday.
In Point Arena, Carlini’s Café ($) likewise makes fab breakfasts and tasty lunches, with crunchy salads and fat sandwiches. No dinner; closed Monday & Tuesday.
In Gualala, Bones Roadhouse ($–$$) smokes its own ribs for Texas-style barbecue and makes great brisket. The portions are gut-busting, which may explain why Harley-Davidson riders flock here in droves. On weekends, there’s often live blues, but call ahead in winter before you drive all the way here.
If you’re planning to fire up your own barbecue, the best groceries on the Sonoma-southern Mendo coast are at the Surf Supermarket in Gualala. The butcher shop is excellent, and the selection of wines terrific—and reasonably priced. Alas, the Anchor Bay Store isn’t what is used to be, now that Dick McCoy has died. Still, it’s a good backup for groceries if you’re staying nearby.
If you’re staying near Point Arena, shop at The Record, a combination grocery and café that carries Niman Ranch meats and good produce—ideal for food-savvy urbanites looking to stock their vacation house’s kitchen.
Sonoma-Mendocino Coast Restaurants: Splurge
Thank heaven for Pangaea ($$$–$$$$), Gualala’s boho-chic outpost of soulful cooking. The seasonally driven Euro-Cal menu features hearty dishes like pork chops and hangar steak, seasoned with dynamic Far Eastern and Latin spices. This is some of the North Coast’s best cooking; make Pangaea your first choice. Reservations essential.
Ever since the Post Ranch Inn took over the Sea Ranch Lodge ($$$$), the food has been on the upswing. I’ve not eaten here since the changeover, but I’ve heard good things about the French-California cooking. Prices match the million-dollar views.
Everyone should eat once at fancy-schmancy St. Orres ($$$$), Gualala’s fabled inn, if only to taste candy Red Hots in salad and swoon in the candlelit, raftered redwood dining room, but the menu never changes. Ever.
If you’re staying in Elk, head to ‘Zebo ($$$–$$$$), the tiny dining room at the Elk Cove Inn & Spa. The pasta-steak-and-seafood menu is short, but there are some imaginative combinations and the ocean views are stellar, if you snag a window table. Personally I don’t think it’s worth a long drive, but if you’re staying in Elk, you won’t find better. Closed Sunday through Thursday till March.
Sonoma-Mendocino Coast Hotels and Motels: Budget
There aren’t a lot of cheap places to stay in summer, but in winter you can score good deals near Gualala (say wah-LA-la), the region’s commercial center. Ten minutes north of town, the magical St Orres Hotel ($–$$) is famous for its way-cool Russian-style architecture. A carpenter’s fantasy come to life, it was built entirely by hand of rough-hewn redwood, with copper-topped onion domes, inset stained glass, and exposed raw timbers. One catch: the budget rooms have shared bathrooms—but fear not, they’re spotless. You can also opt for a cottage rental (scroll down for details).
Most of Gualala’s motels are overpriced and kind of tacky. The best of the lot is the Surf Motel, if only because it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is: a simple seaside motel. There are cute touches like denim bedspreads, and some rooms even have ocean views, worth the extra fifty bucks if you’re looking for a place to fall asleep with the surf crashing just beneath your window.
Twenty miles south, the Salt Point Lodge ($–$$) has basic motel rooms and a restaurant, but it’s in the middle of nowhere, and if you don’t like the food in the restaurant here (which is entirely possible), you’ll have to drive 30 minutes north to Gualala for dinner—a major drag in a rainstorm.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up
Sonoma-Mendocino Coast Inns, Cottages, and B&Bs: Splurge
My favorite escape on the entire California Coast, Mar Vista Cottages ($$–$$$) has retro-cozy hideaway cottages, built in the 1940s on ten acres of land on a hill on the inland side of Hwy 1. You’ll find only the things you need and nothing you don’t. Beds have top-of-the-line mattresses and feather-light duvets with high-thread-count sheets; bathrooms have thick cotton towels and handmade oatmeal soap, but no little bottles of shampoo cluttering the vanity (b.y.o.). There’s an old-fashioned kitchen, a couple of overstuffed chairs with homemade slipcovers, a collapsible painted-wood dining table, and a fireplace. That’s it. No phones, no TVs. In the morning, the owners deliver freshly laid eggs to your room; take your morning coffee to the organic grazing garden and snip fresh herbs for your omelet. I can’t say enough about this little Shangri-La, and I hate to give away the secret, but it’s just too good not to share. Leave your high heels at home.
Next door to Mar Vista, the North Coast Country Inn ($$$) has cozy rooms with wood-beamed ceilings, wood-burning fireplaces, and overstuffed featherbeds. Built into a hillside, the inn’s terraced gardens are perfect for a lover’s tryst, and there’s a fab private hot tub in the shadow of towering trees.
Ten minutes south, the Cottages at St Orres ($$–$$$$) range from rustic to luxe. Tucked at the edge of a forest and surrounded by grassy meadows, most of them have fireplaces; some have cool architectural details like giant exposed timbers, odd-shaped skylights, and copper domes.
The Sea Ranch Lodge ($$$) has recently been acquired by the owners of the famous Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, who promise to make major upgrades to this marvelously austere vintage-1960s weathered-wooden lodge. Look for a complete rebuild starting in spring 2008. As they stand now, some rooms have fireplaces and drop-dead vistas across grassy prairies to the sea; others are ho-hum and need better bathroom fixtures. The sound-insulation is so-so, but oh! that location. I’m eager to see the new changes take place. Stay tuned.
The unofficial B&B capital of the southern Mendocino coast, the tiny town of Elk has several noteworthy properties perched on a cliff above the ocean. The unpretentious Griffin House ($$–$$$) has cottages with low-pile carpeting and board games in crushed cardboard boxes, perfect for a kick-back weekend escape. Their top-of-the-line cottage sits smack on the edge of the cliff, with a deck overlooking giant rock formations rising from the water.
At the upper end of the spectrum, the Harbor House Inn ($$$–$$$$), a jaw-dropping 1915 Craftsman-style house, is Elk’s signature inn; rates are steep—over $300—but include a sumptuous four-course dinner for two and breakfast in the cozy ocean-view dining room. The cliff-top gardens are spectacular, and there’s even a private beach. Think honeymoon retreat.
The Jenner Inn ($$–$$$$) appears to own all the buildings in the town of Jenner and has a dizzying variety of accommodations, ranging from nothing-special cottages to expansive homes with giant decks overlooking the mouth of the Russian River. Fortunately the bed sheets have been upgraded (see the comment from the owner, below), but service remains erratic. I recommend heading further north, but if you wind up here, see the rooms before you pay.
Likewise at the love-it-or-hate-it Timber Cove Inn ($–$$$$), a once-stunning clifftop inn that’s now overrun by raccoons. Seriously. The shell of the place is still fabulous—giant timbers, walls of glass, decks perched on giant boulders above the surf—but it simply hasn’t been maintained. The rooms smell musty, and those damn raccoons scratching all night in the walls..gross.
Sonoma-Mendocino Coast House Rentals
Few people know that you can rent a house at the Point Arena Lighthouse ($$–$$$). They’re basically mid-century tract houses where the light keepers once lived. The units are remarkably big, but the decor is kind of blah—think Levitz circa 1985—and they feel strangely suburban. But what a locale, the ocean roaring just outside while a beam of light so intense that you can see it for 16 miles, sweeps overhead through the fog. Who cares if the sofa is ugly?
Renting a house at Sea Ranch ($$–$$$$) can be surprisingly affordable. Most were built in the 1960s and 70s, and all have the same discrete weathered cedar-shingle exterior. Amenities vary depending on the property and the realtor. Note: Security is incredibly nosy. The Sea Ranch design manual states: ‘This is not a place for the grand architectural statement; it’s a place to explore the subtle nuances of fitting in…’ Indeed. Don’t make too much noise or fill the driveway with too many cars, lest a guard come knocking on your door and threaten to expel you for not fitting in. (I’m not kidding.) Rams Head rents some of the nicest houses and has the largest selection of pet-friendly homes. Also check with Sea Ranch Rentals, Sea Ranch Vacation Rentals, or Sea Ranch Escape.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $150
- $$$ = $150 to $200
- $$$$ = $200 and up