Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Fall Coasting from Bodega Bay to Sea Ranch

Alfred Hitchcock considered the quaint coastal fishing village of Bodega Bay and associated inland town just perfect for filming The Birds, with its rather ominous suggestion that nature will avenge itself one day. But people come to Bodega Bay and vicinity to avoid thinking about such things. They come to explore the headlands, to whalewatch, to kayak, to beachcomb and tidepool, to catch and eat seafood (including local Dungeness crab), to peek into the increasing numbers of galleries and gift shops, and to relax. Events here are fun. Come the last weekend in March for the Hitchcock Film Festival, with screenings at the local Grange hall. Bodega Bay’s Fisherman’s Festival and Blessing of the Fleet in April attracts upward of 25,000 people for a Mardi Gras-style boat parade, kite-flying championships, bathtub and foot races, art shows, and a barbecue. Ochlophobes, steer clear.

Just wandering through town and along the harbor is enjoyable. While keeping an eye on the sky for any sign of feathered avengers, watch the chartered “party boats” and fishing fleet at the harbor; at six each evening, the daily catch arrives at the Tides Wharf, which at one time was recognizable as the cafe setting from The Birds. Bodega, just inland, is where most folks go to reimagine scenes from Hitchcock’s movie, most particularly St. Teresa of Avila Church and Potter Schoolhouse.

Most people don’t know that Hitchcock’s story was based on actual events of August 18, 1961, though they occurred in Capitola, Rio Del Mar, and other towns on Monterey Bay, farther south. That night, tens of thousands of crazed shearwaters slammed into doors, windows, and hapless people; the next morning these birds, both dead and dying, stank of anchovies. In 1995, researchers at the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz suggested that a lethal “bloom” of a natural toxin produced by algae—domoic acid—present in Monterey Bay anchovies was probably responsible for the birds’ bizarre behavior. Toxic amounts of domoic acid cause amnesia, brain damage, and dementia.

West Coast Sunset, near Goat Rock and Jenner Photo by Joel Scott, used courtesy of Creative Commons

West Coast Sunset, near Goat Rock and Jenner Photo by Joel Scott, used courtesy of Creative Commons

Near Bodega Bay and stretching north to Jenner are the slivers of collectively managed beaches of Sonoma Coast State Park, also including Bodega Head and Bodega Dunes near the bay itself. Inland are a variety of small spots-in-the-road, some little more than a restaurant or boarded-up gas station at a crossroads, all connected to Bodega Bay by scenic roller-coaster roads. Most of the spectacular 13 miles of coastline between Bodega Bay and Jenner is owned by the state. The collective Sonoma Coast State Beaches are composed of pointy-headed offshore rock formations or “sea stacks,” natural arches, and a series of secluded beaches and small coves with terrific tidepools. Rangers offer weekend whale-watching programs from mid-December through mid-April.

It’s a spectacularly snaky road from Hwy. 1 down to dramatic Goat Rock, popular Goat Rock Beach just north, and the dunes to the east. The craggy goat itself is an impressive promontory but illegal to climb around on: the surging surf here may sweep you out to sea.

On Goat Rock’s beach near Jenner, at the mouth of the Russian River, a large population of harbor seals has established itself, attracting considerable human attention. (No dogs are allowed on Goat Rock Beach, because of the seals and other wildlife, but at last report Fido was still permitted on Blind Beach south of Goat Rock.) Unlike sea lions, which amble along on flippers, harbor seals wriggle like inchworms until in the water, where their mobility instantly improves. On weekends, volunteer naturalists (members of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, once known as Stewards of Slavianka) are here to answer questions, lend binoculars for a close-up look, and protect the seals from unleashed dogs and too-curious tourists. When panicked, harbor seals will protect themselves by biting. Some carry diseases difficult to treat in humans—which is why sailors of old used to cut off a limb if it was seal-bitten.

Four miles north of Jenner is the Vista Trail, which allows people in wheelchairs to come very close to the edge of a dramatic cliff for some fabulous views.

Stellar sea lions at Fort Ross Photo by Jirka Matousek, used courtesy of Creative Commons

Lounging around near Fort Ross Photo by Jirka Matousek, used courtesy of Creative Commons

Fort Ross (see companion article) is well worth some time before Hwy. 1 snakes north toward the Mendocino coast. Hard to miss even in the fog is the landmark eight-story Benjamin Bufano Peace sculpture looming over Timber Cove. Once a “doghole port” for lumber schooners, like most craggy north coast indentations, Timber Cove is now a haven for the reasonably affluent. But ordinary people can stop for a look at Bufano’s last, unfinished work. From the hotel parking lot, walk seaward and look up into the the face of Peace, reigning over land and sea.

Next north, 6,000-acre Salt Point State Park is most often compared to Point Lobos on the Monterey Peninsula, thanks to its dramatic outcroppings, tidepools and coves (this is one of the state’s first official underwater preserves), wave-sculpted sandstone, lonely wind-whipped headlands, and highlands including a pygmy forest of stunted cypress, pines, and redwoods.

Though most people visit only the seaward side of the park—to dive or to examine the park’s honeycombed tafoni rock (sculpted sandstone)—the best real hiking is across the road within the park’s inland extension (pick up a map to the park when you enter). Among Salt Point’s other attractions are the dunes and several old Pomo village sites. In season, berrying, fishing, and mushrooming are favorite activities. Park rangers lead hikes and sponsor other occasional programs on weekends, and are also available to answer questions during the seasonal migration of the gray whales. The platform at Sentinal Rock is a great perch for whale-watching.

Among its other superlatives, Salt Point is also prime for camping, especially the ocean-view campsites at Gerstle Cove, though inland Woodside Campground offers more shelter from offshore winds. Make reservations, at least during the summer high season, through ReserveAmerica, 800-444-7275. Salt Point also has hike-in/bike-in and environmental campsites as well as a group camp. Pleasant picnicking too.

Adjoining Salt Point State Park is the seasonally astounding Kruse Rhododendron Reserve, an almost-natural wonder. Nowhere else on earth does Rhododendron californicum grow to such heights and in such profusion, in such perfect harmony—all under a canopy of redwoods. Here at the 317-acre preserve, unplanted and uncultivated native rhododendrons up to 30 feet tall thrive in well-lit yet cool second-growth groves of coast redwood, Douglas fir, tan oak, and madrone. (Lumbermen downed the virgin forest, unintentionally benefitting the rhododendrons, which need cool, moist conditions but more sunshine than denser stands of redwoods offer.) The dominant shrub is the Rhododendron macrophyllum, or California rosebay, common throughout the Pacific Northwest. Also here is the Rhododendron occidentale, or western azalea, with its cream-colored flowers. Most people say the best time to cruise into Kruse is in April or May, when the rhododendrons’ spectacular pink bloom is at its finest. But peak blooming time varies from year to year, so call ahead for current guestimates.

Beyond Stewarts Point and its spiffed-up store is Sea Ranch, 5,200-acre sheep ranch-cum-exclusive vacation home subdivision. From the start Sea Ranch architects got rave reviews for their simple, boxlike, high-priced condominiums and homes, which emulate weatherbeaten local barns. The much-applauded cluster development design allowed “open space” for the aesthetic well-being of residents and passersby alike, but provided no way to get to the 10 miles of state-owned coastline without trespassing. Which is why Sea Ranch become the frontline for California’s battles over guaranteed public access to the coast. The passage in 1972 of Proposition 20 theoretically opened up beach access, but the reality of beach access through Sea Ranch was achieved only in late 1985, when four of the six public trails across the property were ceremoniously, officially dedicated. But here, the public-access victory is only partial; Sea Ranch charges a day-use fee.

Sonoma Coast Photo by Joe Parks, used courtesy of Creative Commons

Sonoma Coast Photo by Joe Parks, used courtesy of Creative Commons

There are other attractions. On the northern edge of the spread is the gnomish stone and stained-glass Sea Ranch Chapel designed by noted architect James Hubbell. Inside it’s serene as a redwood forest. From the outside, the cedar-roofed chapel looks like an abstract artist’s interpretation of a mushroom, perhaps a wave, maybe even a UFO from the Ice Age. What is it? Nice for meditation or prayer, if the door’s unlocked.

Next time: Mendocino, Fort Bragg, and Vicinity

Kim Weir wrote seven California guidebooks for Moon Publications, including most of the original California guides, such as the best-selling Northern California Handbook. She has been a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) since 1991.

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