Editor’s Note: Growing up near the ocean, I never thought of myself as a beach girl. That title is for the So Cal chicks, right? Well, as it turns out, I can’t stand living too far from the water and a great many of my childhood memories (birthday parties, pre-teen meltdowns, and even romances) happened at the coast. So yeah, I guess I’m a beach girl. I always go to the ocean to clear my head and lift my spirit. I love to climb rocks and run in the waves! Here’s a quick guide to our beautiful stretch of the coast. Enjoy!
There is something magical about the ocean. The rough, squishy feel of warm sand between your toes. The power of the crashing surf. The majesty of a seemingly endless body of water. The sweet smell of fresh air.
Sonoma County beaches offer all that, and so much more.
While it’s true that you should not swim at most of the beaches at the Sonoma Coast, there are a myriad of reasons to visit them. My favorite reason is a simple one: to recharge. I don’t know what it is about the beach, but when I leave, I feel as though my emotional/spiritual/mental batteries have been recharged by the Energizer Bunny. Perhaps it is the invigorating pulse of the surf, or perhaps it is the wind in my hair. Perhaps it is just a simple communion with the elemental power of the ocean. Whatever the reason, I always return from a trip to the ocean feeling better than I had before.
How might you spend a day away from home yet vacation in your own “back yard”? Well, one way is to spend a day at the beach. If you can, start out by stopping at a farmer’s market (or head to Oliver’s or Pacific Market, etc.) and pick up French bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, olives, apples, grapes (fruit), and some water. Then head west to Bodega Bay.
Mark Twain once famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” That clever observation about the weather can also apply to the Sonoma Coast. If you’re headed to the beach, dress in layers, grab your sunscreen, and bring a parka. You are just as likely to need a winter coat in July as you are to need a t-shirt in December. (I’ve done both.) It doesn’t matter how hot it is in Santa Rosa or Sonoma or how cool. The beach will have its own weather, sometimes the same as inland and sometimes completely different. And sometimes the best time to visit the coast is in the dead of winter, but usually the best way to beat the summer heat inland is to head for the coast.
The beaches along Highway 1 from Bodega Bay to Jenner are:
- Doran Park (a paid beach)
- Bodega Head
- Bodega Dunes
- South Salmon Creek
- North Salmon Creek
- Arched Rock
- Marshall Gulch
- Duncan’s Landing
- Furlong Gulch
- Goat Rock
As you can see, there are many beaches at the Sonoma Coast, each with its own flavor. Here are some of my favorites.
Bodega Head: As you head out to the coast going along Highway 1 and pass through the town of Bodega Bay, there are two options: head north along the shoreline, following Highway 1 up the coast and select from one of the many wonderful beaches there, or make an abrupt left and head out to Bodega Head. For me, what sets Bodega Head apart from the other beaches is the walk up and over the hill toward the Horseshoe Cove and the mysterious and elusive UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. You will likely find many flowers (lupine), birds, and a spectacular view of the ocean. One of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen was out the windshield of my car as we sat in the parking lot at Bodega Head. It’s often windy up there, and it’s also a great place to view the migrating gray whales.
Salmon Creek: The first beach you come to as you head north on Highway 1 from Bodega Bay is South Salmon Creek and North Salmon Creek. I simply call the whole stretch “Salmon Creek.” This is perhaps the best beach to visit if you want to catch a glimpse of a surfer. It’s also the best beach to visit if you want to dip your toes in the water. Just be careful; the beaches in Sonoma County are notorious for their sleeper waves, undertow, rip currents, sharks, rocks, and cold water. But at Salmon Creek, you can swim in the comparatively warm waters of the laguna, fly a kite at the beach, enjoy the dunes, or play a game on a huge sandy beach with your friends. As a side note, dogs are not allowed on state beaches. Leashed dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and parking areas.
As you drive further north up the coast along Highway 1, you will see several beaches on your left, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them. The trick to finding a good beach includes three elements: 1) check the weather out your window and see where the fog is, 2) what’s the traffic like? and 3) figure out what you are up for. (In other words, what are your needs: do you want sand, pebbles, rock climbing, do you have mobility concerns?) Doesn’t matter: there is a beach for you. Get out of the car, investigate, and decide if the beach is right for you. Also, few beaches have restroom facilities. It’s best to keep an eye out and plan ahead. The ones that I know have them are Bodega Head, South Salmon Creek, North Salmon Creek, Shell Beach, and Goat Rock.
Two of my favorite beaches are Carmet/Wright’s Beach and Duncan’s Landing, simply because they offer a little of everything that I like about the beaches at the Sonoma Coast: sand, neat pebbles, shells, good stacking rocks, tidepools, and beautiful beach flowers.
Going North: One of my favorite beaches for finding tantalizing beach rocks is Shell Beach. You can also hike the pretty Kortum trail that connects Shell Beach and the Goat Rock area. If you do, you may see a collection of large boulders which locals call “Mammoth Rock” because it looks like wooly mammoths may have rubbed up against these huge rocks in ancient times. It’s also a lot of fun to climb around on these rocks or sit back and watch the professionals climb straight up. Just keep an eye out for poison oak.
If you continue north on Highway 1, the road will curve around and wind up in the small coastal town of Jenner at the mouth of the Russian River. Jenner is a great place to go watch local sea lions as they lounge around the beaches near the river’s mouth. Just be sure not to disturb the sea lions by getting too close; I recommend taking a pair of binoculars. They smell like fish, anyway.
Whichever beach you visit, even if you just poke your head out your car window, visiting the Sonoma Coast will surely lift your spirits and bring a smile to your face.
For more information, please visit the official SonomaCoastState Park website.
by Peter Rogers