From Bodega Bay to the Village of Elk

Northern California’s Sonoma and Mendocino Coast

By —— Bio and Archives--April 25, 2010

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imageIf California ever breaks off and falls into the Pacific we’re going to lose some outstanding oceanfront property, especially along that hidden gem of a coastline that stretches 120 miles north of San Francisco along curvy Highway 1.

While not remote, it’s off the beaten path and laid back in that unique California way. And compared to any stretch of jagged cliffs, hidden coves, deep green pastures and pristine sand beaches in North America, the Sonoma and Mendocino coastal region is sublime; it is highly romantic. It is stunning.

My first recollection of the wind-battered hills took place on a cloudless day in July a few years ago. The fog had lifted, the sun was bright and shining and the sky was deep blue, though not as blue as the white-speckled ocean that sprawled to the distant horizon.


I stood high on a bluff that was covered with lush green grass and clusters of wild purple irises.

The ground plunged to the rocky shore, and rose to great heights behind me where cattle grazed the steep terrain.

To the south I could see the convoluted coastline extending to Point Reyes National Seashore, far, far away.


Below me a few hundred feet a long line of traffic was backed up in either direction, brought to a halt by a distracted driver who rounded one of many sharp curves and plowed his sports car into a big truck. There wasn’t much for us late-comers to do but wait for the helicopter which eventually appeared out of the sky as a tiny growing speck. With much fanfare and noise it landed nearby and waited as medical technicians stabilized and loaded the still figure on a stretcher, then onto the flying machine, and with blades twirling and dust flying lifted off and vanished over the steep rolling hills and ridges and undulating folds, a speck no more.

Jim Morrison’s lyrics came to mind as I stood there watching the traffic disperse. When driving through this sumptuous visual feast, remember to “keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.”



Just north of 116-square-mile Point Reyes National Seashore, a very large peninsula graced with miles of empty beaches, lies the tiny fishing village of Bodega Bay. Pomo and Miwok Indians resided in the area for generations, and then representatives of private Russian enterprise and the expanding Tsarist empire established a thriving colony a short distance up the coast at Fort Ross from 1812 to 1842 .

A mere 90 minutes from San Francisco, Bodega Bay today is a favorite escape for those seeking a respite from urban madness. Activities are plentiful. Visitors and locals alike explore the many tide pools and wander empty, log-strewn beaches up and down the rugged coast, or traverse craggy cliffs and meander along numerous hiking trails for low-cost, low-keyed entertainment. Between December and April, migrating gray whales are often spotted out at sea. I’ve seen them. There’s also horseback riding, golf, surfing, sea kayaking, and of course sport fishing.

Many associate Bodega Bay, and the tiny town of Bodega a few miles inland, with Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “The Birds” (1963), much of which was shot here. Hitchcock chose a perfect location for panicked villagers and screaming children attacked by rabid, blood-thirsty sparrows. Due to the dreary gray fog that rolls in thick blankets over treeless low hills, it casts a delightful, spooky spell. Some of the buildings used in the production still stand; the old Potter School; the Catholic Church which was also immortalized by the great black and white photographer, Ansel Adams; and the rebuilt Tides Wharf and Restaurant located across from the visitors center where you can pick up a guidebook for more information on local film history.

imageOn a somber and more realistic note, drive north 1 ½ miles to the Nicholas Green memorial. Nicholas was a 7-year-old boy from Bodega Bay who was gunned down in Italy by robbers during a 1994 family vacation. His parents, Maggie and Reg, donated Nicholas’ organs which benefited seven Italians. Their gesture captured the world’s attention, including Pope John Paul II, who blessed one of 140 donated bells that hang at the memorial and symbolize the continuity of life. It’s a very touching story.

A short distance north is Jenner (pop. 160) which is located near the estuary at the mouth of the Russian River that flows into the sea. Here you can experience ocean and river-view dining, and lodge at one of the inns, cottages or vacation rentals of your choosing. If you’re near Jenner during the spring and summer, search out the colony of harbor seals just north of town overlooking the mouth of the river where seal pups are born between March and August.

Not meaning to rain on your vacation (and my sincere apology to the local chamber of commerce), but Jenner is also a stark reminder of what is sick and vile in the world. In 2004, Lindsay Cutshall and Jason Allen, Christian camp counselors who were planning to get married, parked their car above Fish Head Beach, grabbed their sleeping bags and wound their way down the narrow trail to the beach where they spent the night. On August 18, they were found shot to death. The mystery was never solved, but the authorities have not given up their search for the killer. Some speculate demonic forces were at work based on the discovery of two devilish images carved on nearby driftwood, but who knows. Just be careful traipsing through paradise, and if the thought of camping at Fish Head Beach creeps you out, like it does me, snap some photos and keep on driving up to Fort Ross 11 miles north of Jenner. And steer clear of anyone lugging a 45-caliber Marlin rifle.



By the early 1800s the Russians, who established a significant presence in Southeast Alaska, expanded into California because the lucrative Alaskan sea otter catch was waning and settlers were increasingly, and desperately, in need of food provisions. In March of 1812, 25 Russians (including many craftsmen) and 80 Alaskan Aleuts began constructing a settlement on the bluff at present-day Fort Ross State Historic Park with hopes of being able, among other things, to replenish the Alaska settlements on a regular basis.

This was no simple undertaking. With the assistance of local Native Americans, and the benefit of timber, soil, water and pasturage, they built a large redwood stockade, block houses, and log buildings two-stories tall. And though they protected themselves with cannon and flintlock, all-in-all it appears to have been a peaceful, hardworking existence living in relative harmony with local natives who were engaged more as workers, not brutalized as slaves.

It was an industrious operation. Fruit orchards were planted which exist to this day. They had a windmill, ran a cattle yard, operated a bakery, threshing floor, and buried their dead in a cemetery. They even built ships at a shipyard below the stockade, worked a forge, made significant use of the tannery, and constructed a boathouse. They also had a storage shed for baidarkas and baidaras (skin-covered kayaks and boats) which were used by the Native Alaskans to hunt for otter, seal and sea lion pelts. They gathered skins and sinew and blubber from as far away as the Farallon islands 30 miles west of San Francisco. A visit to the state park, with its realistic replication and wealth of information, is worth the time if you’re interested in more than eye-popping scenery and fine dining at upscale B&Bs. It will bring the Sonoma Coast alive in history.



A tasteful but large planned community, the Sea Ranch went through frustrating labor pains and a lot of bad publicity as it progressed from concept to reality. The development process from the 1970s to the 1980s became ground zero for one of the most contentious environmental land use battles in California.

As originally planned, the Sea Ranch would have severely restricted public access to the beach, overdeveloped open spaces and left an ugly footprint on this incredibly scenic swath of coastland. The war pitted private property rights against the public’s right to access public lands and their ability to keep this place and others like it from being trashed beyond recognition - according to the anti-development forces. If you’ve ever driven down the West Coast from San Francisco to the Mexican border, you’d appreciate their concern because the western fringe of California is beginning to look a lot like New Jersey.

After nine years of negotiation, litigation and a protracted legislative process, a compromise of sorts was devised permitting further development of this popular vacation spot. As things turned out it doesn’t look all that bad to me. The architecture is distinct; unpainted wood siding or shingles cover timber-framed structures; there’s a dearth of overhanging eaves and the glare of exterior night-lighting is reduced with baffles. Perimeter fences are evidently forbidden, and non-indigenous plants are limited to screened courtyards. For lawn mowers, I’ve read they use sheep to trim the grass.

imageThis gorgeous stretch is so peaceful and clean you would never realize that extensive industrial redwood logging was its mainstay for generations, receiving a significant boost from the rebuilding efforts of San Francisco after that city was leveled by the 1906 earthquake. Logging has been replaced by tourism in a big way, and though it seems a bit remote, it really isn’t that isolated as the local service sector has accommodated essential needs.

Nearby Gualala and the Sea Ranch don’t merely cater to tourists. True, there are ample eateries, hotels, B&Bs, quaint inns and cottages and vacation rentals, but many people actually live here on a full-time basis. So if you need something you will most likely find it in Gualala. It’s wired for high speed Internet access, comes with a grocery store, medical and dental facilities, sporting goods and hardware shops, legal, automotive and laundry services. There’s a pharmacy, banks - it’s a regular town with a strong emphasis on the arts and photography. Make sure to check out the festival scene and the Gualala Arts Center with its rotating gallery exhibitions.



Before you think of this neck of the woods as pretentious and artsy, drive to Point Arena for a reality check through spacious farm country and roll down your window and take a deep breath as you pass the dairy ranches. Eh-gads, I can’t think of a worse smell than the rank odor of dairy cattle on a wet, humid day. But there it is, like mustard gas wafting across the trenches, it’ll strike you blind if you’re not careful. However, by the time you reach beautiful Point Arena Lighthouse, the stench of cow gas will have been replaced by the delicious aroma of fresh ocean air flowing gently onshore over cliffs and coves along rocky headlands. If you’ve seen the movie “Forever Young” (1992) you’ve seen the Point Arena Lighthouse where Mel Gibson zooms in on a B-25 Bomber in search of his long-lost gal.

imageDon’t let the cows stop you from visiting here. Whether the lighthouse, funky Point Arena or the small fishing pier at Arena Cove which has become a favorite hangout for the surfing crowd, it’s all good country.

Finally, there is the tiny hamlet of Elk north of Point Arena. Perched way up high on the edge of sheer cliffs overlooking enormous waves eternally battering crumbling walls and towering sea stacks, … well … what can I say? If you wish to get married or renew your wedding vows or take your senses to an entirely new level, this might be the place. Just don’t step too close to the edge because it’s a long way down.



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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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