I have always believed that this stretch of Sonoma County coast is the nicest stretch of coast in the world (and trust me, I’ve seen a few.) Every beach you pass beckons you to pull over and gaze out at the sea, or scramble down the cliffside trails to the sands. My advice: do it all! North of Bodega Bay, they come one after another: Arched Rock Beach, Schoolhouse Beach, Portuguese Beach, Wright’s Beach, Shell Beach. We’re in the Sonoma Coast State Park, eighteen miles of beach after beach, adding beauty to beauty. At Goat’s Rock a curvy drive takes me past a turnoff for Blind Beach (itself worth a trip) and down to Goat’s Rock Beach itself, which is the point where the Russian River flows into the ocean. It’s a stunning spot, with a series of rocks offshore guarding the end of this beautiful river. When I come in springtime, there’s an added bonus: the “seal nursery” along the banks of the river is full, and for several hundred yards these gorgeous creatures lie placidly in the sun. Don’t get too close, as the signs inform you (that’s what zoom lenses are for,) but do stand atop a cliff and admire them. You’re unlikely to see anything more beautiful on the trip. I absolutely love this beach, which gives you river and ocean all in one. As you gaze back at the river, the tiny town of Jenner appears above you, and at one edge of town, perched above the river and sea, is River’s End Restaurant.
I need to tell you about this place, because it’s my favorite spot in the universe (yes, the universe.) The view is astounding, (go at sunset for the biggest thrill), the food is amazing, and the service impeccable. Here’s the best way to describe it: whenever I ask a Sonoma County resident their favorite restaurant in the county, they’ll say “Such and such is the best” or “I like so-and-so the best,” but then they’ll always add six words: “Except, of course, for River’s End.” Don’t take my word for it: visit. Once you’ve seen that view, you won’t want to leave, and I have good news on that score: you don’t have to. Their cabins arrayed along the hillside open onto that same vista, and it’s a perfect place to spend your first night. I mean, half the reason you’re doing this drive is to soak in the ocean views, right?
Before you leave in the morning, definitely stop in Café Aquatica, down the hill from River’s End in Jenner village, for great coffee, freshly-made baked goods, and a lovely deck where you can look out at the river heading into the Pacific. Have a second espresso (it’s organic, after all). We have a long drive ahead of us.
SONOMA COUNTY INTO MENDOCINO COUNTY
I leave Jenner for one of my most cherished stretches of drive. It’s morning, so fog is still hanging over hills and sea, giving an otherworldly quality to the scene. The road rises and falls through impossibly green hills, alternating between pincushions of emerald and the craggy sea. About ten miles from Jenner is Fort Ross State Historic Park, site of an early Russian settlement, where 34,000 acres present not only historic structures (official’s residence, cannons, windmill, old Russian cemetery) but a plethora of walking trails and some beautiful beachfront exploration. You can even see the line of the infamous San Andreas fault (the legendary 1906 earthquake was actually centered near Fort Ross). At nearby Salt Point State Park, I stand among low grasses on a bluff dotted with tiny yellow flowers, looking out at the rocky coast. Trails along the cliffs make for prime viewing, and at the top there’s a “pygmy forest” of miniature cypress, pine, and redwoods.