Calf-deep in the snappy waters of the Pacific, on a driftwood-tossed beach across the river from the town of Gualala, I gaze at the portrait of raw beauty around me. My weekend escape was to be work-free but a travel article is writing itself in my head. Some places are just too good to keep to oneself.
Once you reach the north coast on Highway 1, your actual destination ceases to be important. From Jenner to Mendocino, any salt-tanged village or roadside pullout offers a similar experience: an untouched coastline seemingly far removed from the Bay Area, a place devoid of loud noises and jarring distractions. Here the landscape is the main event and surprises await you at every turn.
Above Jenner, Highway 1 hugs the coast as it snakes north. As I followed hairpin curves I played hide and seek with the sun drifting in and out of the thick fog. On one side of the road the softly contoured hills held pale sere grasses of burnt gold with mauve tassels and bunches of wild sweet peas, cow parsnips and lupine in colors of blue, apricot and white. In contrast were sharp-edged rock formations tinged with orange and the sparkling aquamarine of the sea. Cows precariously grazed on the narrow verge, sea weathered farm buildings dotted the landscape and stands of pines and firs acted as windbreaks.
The road wound past Fort Ross Park, a historic Russian settlement, and its village with bluff-side cabins and general store, and Stillwater and Ocean Coves with their privately owned facilities for camping and coastal access. Salt Point State Park’s 6,000 acres of coastal forest and rocky coastline with hidden coves drew me in. I surveyed the two campgrounds for a future visit, noting the numbers of especially alluring sites. Kruse Rhododendron Reserve offered hiking trails amid a forest of redwood, tan oak, fir and a wealth of rhododendrons.
White plumes of crashing waves and weathered, lichen bedecked picket fences lined the road. Colors appeared softened, a palette of soft hues buffeted by the marine climate. Even oxidized red metal roofs were subdued. Cows, sheep and llamas shared the same field amid sheds completely overgrown by pink flowered vines. A landscape ruggedly shaped by the water and wind of the north coast.
If your trip ended at Steward Point General Store, it wouldn’t be in vain. Serving coastal residents since 1868, this historic clapboard building greeting customers with a wide front porch is a highlight in itself. Catering to ranchers and Sea Ranchers, groceries run the gamut from the basics to fine wines, gourmet brownie mix and Stonewall Kitchen jams. Fishing, camping and hardware supplies vie for space on wooden shelves, while the ceiling displays remnants from the past: old saddles and harnesses, fishing floats and even beautiful paper wasp nests. It was hard to pass up the Big Daddy skillet of rolled steel, especially when it cooks 8 fish fillets, one dozen eggs and 15 pancakes!
Gualala was my home base for the weekend. Small enough for comfort and big enough to provide the services a weekend away requires: good sleeps, good eats and interesting shops to peruse.
Gualala is the geographic heart of the Redwood Coast, located in a “banana belt.” While the rest of the coast drips with fog, Gualala is often sunny and mild. The Gualala River, at its southern end, historically served as an attracter to Pomo Indians, loggers and millers and gave the town its name—Gualala means where the waters meet. During summer, the landlocked river becomes a calm lagoon for sea birds, kayakers and swimmers.
Gualala Point Regional Park is the ideal spot to enjoy both the river and the coast. I began my visit in the Sea Ranch- style Visitor Center, where cement buttresses and steep roof make it my choice as the best place to wait out a fierce winter storm. Inside, interpretive panels describe Gualala’s past while posters and artifacts illustrate the plant and animal communities of the present.
Many trails lead through the 195-acres of this park. A 0.5-mile paved path leads to the beach, bluffs and picnic tables, crossing open meadows and breaks of pines. Side paths lead down to the river. At the beach, few people but hundreds of brown pelicans, gliding and plummeting to the sea, greeted me. Driftwood constructions glowed silver in the afternoon light. As I stood barefoot, the waves whispered as they traveled over my toes and the tiny pebbles on the beach.
There’s nothing like sea air to build up an appetite. Bones Roadhouse fits the bill for great food and great ambiance, combining Texas Style BBQ, brews and blues in an eclectic décor. This roadhouse was hopping on a Saturday night with a nice mix of locals, visitors and live music. Amid skulls and crossbones, Harley Davidson Club memorabilia, multi-state license plates and Marilyn Monroe—there’s something here for everyone.
The next day I stopped in Point Arena to tour the town and wharf. Storefronts sport bold paint jobs in bright orange, olive, navy and yellow-blue sunray stripes. Large enough for its own movie-theater, thriving commercial fishing and choices for good eats, Point Arena is definitely browse-worthy. At Carlini’s Cafe, I relished a classic north coast experience, a delicious Sidecar breakfast in a homey atmosphere. There’s nothing like eggs, sausage, pancakes and a side of home fries to provide fuel for further exploration.
The Point Arena Lighthouse combines history with a fantastic coastal photo-op. Erected in 1870 at the tip of a narrow peninsula, destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt in 1908, a tour of the light tower and the Fog Signal Building’s maritime museum just seems to fit perfectly with a coastal adventure. An aid to digestion is the 115-foot climb to the top, equivalent to six stories, where the two-ton Fresnel lens from France kept ships at bay. The views from the outside circumference walkway are amazing—postcard vistas at every turn. Illustrations at the tower’s base are a history lesson on the types of illumination, lenses, housing and rotating mechanisms used in lighthouses. If this remoteness appeals, the three original keeper’s homes are now vacation rentals.
Heading back on Lighthouse Road, I pulled over and stopped behind other parked cars. A telltale trail led out to rocky bluffs above the sea. Grazing black cows, yellow flowers carpeting the ground, cliffs highlighted with orange mineral deposits—a picture worth painting. Just a random spot being accessed by abalone divers, rock cod fishermen and others enjoying the waves crashing on the shale.
Northward, open ranch land and white farm buildings gave the landscape a pastoral air and the gnarled trunks of cypress lined the road. In Manchester I smiled at toadstool-like cypress topiary and a flamingo decorated fence. At Manchester Beach State Park, campsites were spacious and popular. Access to the beach is across undulant sand dunes festooned with narrow grasses in shades of pale yellow and green, violet lupine and the hidden nests of snowy plovers. The 18,000-feet of curved ocean frontage is a catch basin for driftwood and is one of the highlights of this spectacular coast.
My journey ended here. The rugged beauty I experienced continues north to Mendocino and beyond. Every stop I made, in village, headland or beach, could have been my final destination and I would not have been disappointed. For some, the open road calls. For others, like myself, a quiet beach with a flock of sea birds, the feel of the sand and the sea is the place to be.
Getting there: Take Hwy 101 north. You can access Hwy 1 via 116 west, at Cotati, or River Road, north of Santa Rosa, taking you though Guerneville and reaching the coast at Jenner. Mileage from Berkeley to Gualala is 115 miles.
Where to stay:
Surf Motel: West side of Hwy 1, Gualala, 1-888-451-SURF, www.gualala.com. Doubles from $95.
Where to eat:
Bones Roadhouse: 38920 S. Hwy One (Uptown Gualala), (707) 884-1188. Dine in or take out. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Twinks: Downtown Gualala, (707) 884-1713. Open daily. Brewed coffee, pastries, light breakfast, lunch.
Carlini’s Café: 206 Main St., Point Arena, (707) 882 2942. Open 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon., Tues., Thurs., Fri. Open 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
What to do:
Salt Point State Park: (707) 847-3222, day use $4/car, camping $25/night (reservations required)
Gualala Point Regional Park: (707) 785-2377, open sunrise to sunset, parking $4/car.
Point Arena Lighthouse: 45500 Lighthouse Road, Point Arena, (877) 725-4448, www.pointarenalighthouse.com. Open daily 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (winter), until 4:30 p.m. (summer). Adults $5, children $1.
Manchester Beach State Park: (707) 882-2463. Campsites on first come first served basis.
For more information:
Redwood Coast Chamber of Commerce: (800) 778-5252, or www.redwoodcoastchamber.com