By Tina Luster
Head out to the Sonoma Coast for some fresh, salty ocean air and the sound of the waves hitting the shore.
Take some time to meander up the coast, on Highway 1 north of Jenner. And meander you will. The 36-mile drive from Jenner to Gualala will take more than an hour. Redwoods and oaks line the twisty road, standing tall over the rugged coastline. The views are awe-inspiring, and there are many places to explore.
This trip, though, we’re focusing on Sonoma County’s far north coast (from north to south): Gualala Point Regional Park, Stengel Beach, and Stillwater Cove.
Gualala Point Regional Park is close to the Mendocino County town of Gualala, which is the perfect first stop after your drive. Grab some lunch or picnic supplies in town and head back to the park to explore.
The park straddles Highway 1, with a forested campground on the east side, along the Gualala River. To the west are grassy bluffs, a long ocean beach, and an estuary where the river meets the sea.
There are short trails to explore on both sides of the highway. Park at the visitor center on the west side. From here, head south to an unpaved path that bends along the river and takes you under the highway and into the campground.
Or, head north from the visitor center and follow a paved trail to the beach and estuary. Enjoy walking alternately along the calm river and the pounding surf and seeing swooping birds along this migratory path. You will also likely find seals and sea lions sunning themselves at the river mouth.
Return from the beach by hiking along the unpaved Bluff Top Trail. Spend some time at the aptly named Whale Watch Point, and you may spot migrating gray whales making their journeys from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back.
Whichever path you choose, take some time to listen to the waves. Just breathe in the clear, crisp ocean air and relax.
Stengel Beach Coastal Access Trail is exactly as it sounds – it’s a trail, one of six along this stretch of highway, that allows free public access to beaches through The Sea Ranch, the private community just south of Gualala. At less than a mile, .12 to be exact, Stengel is the shortest of all the coastal access trails.
The beach is accessed by a staircase, which deposits you onto a sandy stretch. Gulls and hawks ride the air currents that change along with the tide. Visit in the winter and spring to see a seasonal waterfall that careens off the bluff onto the sand below.
Stillwater Cove Regional Park is the perfect blend of land and sea between Fort Ross and Salt Point. The rugged coastline levels out to an accessible cove, complete with beach launch suitable for kayaks. It’s also a popular spot for divers. For hikers, the Stillwater Bluff Trail curves above the rocky coastline and offers beautiful views of the Pacific.
Across the highway, enjoy walking through a forest of towering redwoods that share the space with ferns and rhododendrons. Follow Stockhoff Creek on the looped Canyon and Stockhoff trails. The quiet is immense, and the rich green pervades your senses.
Let’s be real – one day just isn’t enough to absorb all that the far northern reaches of coastal Sonoma County has to offer. So, why don’t you stay?
Both Gualala and Stillwater feature year-round camping, and you can reserve sites a year in advance. If you become a Sonoma County Regional Parks member, you get a free night of camping you can use at either park. (You also get a year of free parking at the county’s 50-plus regional parks.)
If roughing it is a little too, well – rough, there are small inns and lodges in Gualala and Jenner. However, any time is a great time to try camping and be lulled to sleep by the breeze in the trees.
It’s time to discover the majesty of the northern Sonoma Coast.
Good to know
Leashed dogs are welcome on these trails.
For the foreseeable future, please be careful of our friends in orange – a few sections of scenic Highway 1 are undergoing maintenance by Caltrans.
Tina Luster is a marketing specialist at Sonoma County Regional Parks.
Published/Updated: February 2020