I’m always amazed at how few Californians have spent time exploring the Sonoma Coast, or even knew that Sonoma County has 76 miles of gorgeous, pristine coastline.
If you’re one of those people, then it’s high time you spent a long weekend exploring one of the prettiest regions of the state, brimming with golden beaches, wine tasting, romantic lodgings, hiking trails, horseback riding, and fantastic coastal cafes, crab shacks, and restaurants.
I’ve been writing about this region for more than 20 years, and if I took four days explore the best of Sonoma County’s coastline, this would be my dream itinerary…
DAY 1: Shopping, Seafood & Spa Treatments
Before you depart, book two nights at the Bodega Bay Lodge. Set on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific, it’s by far Bodega Bay’s best hotel. Schedule spa services for the afternoon, and dinner reservations at the lodge’s Duck Club Restaurant for the first night. If you arrive before your room is ready, check your bags at the front desk and drive a few minutes north to the Island Style Deli at Lucas Wharf for a quick lunch of some of the best fish-n-chips I’ve ever had, made from caught-that-day fish brought in straight from the wharf (don’t forget the vinegar).
After lunch, spend some time exploring the town of Bodega Bay. Two recommended stops are Candy & Kites (Bodega Bay’s flat beaches such as Doran and Salmon Creek are perfect for kite flying) and the Bodega Bay Surf Shack, which offers surfing lessons and rents surfboards, body boards, kayaks, and bicycles.
Next, drive around the bay to Bodega Head, the small peninsula that shelters Bodega Bay. From downtown Bodega Bay, turn west on Eastshore Road, then turn right at the stop sign onto Bay Flat Road and follow it a few miles to the very end. There are two easy hiking trails that follow high atop the ocean bluff, allowing you to combine both a seaside stroll and whale watching outing (in season). Also nearby is the Bodega Marine Laboratory, which offers docent-led tours of its marine aquarium displays on Fridays between 2 and 4 pm—call 707/875-2211 for tour info.
On the way back from Bodega Head, pull over at the Spud Point Crab Company, a tiny take-out shop at 1860 Westshore Road. I’m going to start an argument here and claim that they make the best clam chowder in California (and people, I’ve tasted a lot of clam chowder). Everything’s made on-premises here, including their smoked salmon and crab cakes.
By now it’s time to check into the Bodega Bay Lodge, get your spa treatments (so nice), relax on your ocean-view deck or patio with a glass of wine, then enjoy a leisurely dinner at the Duck Club.
See Also: Big Sur’s Best Secrets
DAY 2: A Day at the Beach
The problem is choosing one. Sonoma Coast State Beaches offers 16 miles of pristine beaches and one heck of a gorgeous drive along Highway 1. While all the beaches are pretty much the same—divine—the safest for kids and swimming is Doran Park Beach, located just south of Bodega Bay. But if all you want to do is get some sun on the sand, deciding which of the 14 beaches along Highway 1 looks the best will drive you nuts; just pick one and park. (Tip: You can stock up on sandwiches and drinks for your day at the beach at the Island Style Deli.)
Another option is driving up the coast to Gualala, renting a canoe or kayak, and paddling the gorgeous Gualala River. Spending the day silently gliding through thousands of acres of private forest filled with wildlife, including osprey, herons, egrets, and river otters is my kind of day. It’s a heavenly setting for safe, self-guided outdoor adventure. You can rent canoes and kayaks in the town of Gualala at Adventure Rents.
For dinner on Day 2 you’ll want to dine at River’s End in Jenner, a romantic seaside restaurant setting with big windows overlooking the coast and sunset views to swoon over. It’s owned and operated by Bert Rangel, whose passion for local Sonoma products—wild halibut, seared duck, Dungeness crab—is only equaled by his desire to make sure all of his guests are having a wonderful dining experience (you’ll love this guy).
After dinner, it’s back to the Bodega Bay Lodge for more fireside wine and romance.
See Also: Two Perfect Days in Pacifica
DAY 3: Banana Waffles & Horseback Riding
Instead of breakfast at the lodge, drive north on Highway 1 to the Cape Fear Café. One of my top dining secrets in California, Cape Fear Café is in a town you’ve never heard of—Duncans Mills, located a few miles inland from Highway 1 near Jenner. I discovered the Cape Fear Cafe about 10 years ago and having been making regular day-trips there just for breakfast—it’s that good (their Savannah Banana Waffle with toasted pecans, maple syrup, and molasses butter will slay you). The cafe is open for lunch, dinner, and brunch as well.
After breakfast, it’s time for some horseback riding. Have you always dreamed of riding naked on the back of a wild white stallion, crashing through waves burned orange by the glimmering sunset? Well, keep dreaming, because the guides at Horse N Around Trail Rides won’t let you. You can, however, amble your horsey at the 378-acre ocean-view Chanslor Ranch in Bodega Bay.
After your ride, it’s time to check into Timber Cove Inn, which offers views that rival Big Sur (the views here are so phenomenal that it was one of Ansel Adams’ favorite places to photograph). After unpacking, take a walk on the seaside bluff, then have a few glasses of wine on the patio before dinner. Then it’s back to your guestroom for a dip in the spa tub—and more wine. Be sure to make reservations far in advance.
DAY 4: Exploring and Fantastic Bread
Time to go home. But first, I highly recommend you spend a few hours exploring Salt Point State Park, located on the coast about 18 north of Jenner along Highway 1. This 3,500-acre expanse encompasses 14 miles of coastal trails, dozens of tide pools, and the 317-acre Kruse Rhododendron Preserve, a forested grove of wild pink and purple flowers that grow up to 18 feet tall. There’s all kinds of things to do at Salt Point, from hiking through coastal woodlands’ wildflower-filled meadows to poking around the park for wild berries. Simply pull the car over anywhere along the highway and start walking.
Another great hiking opportunity is at Armstrong Redwood State Reserve near Guerneville, a serene 805-acre grove of majestic redwoods—some more than 1400 years old—with numerous hiking trails (think Muir Woods without the crowds). You can even schedule a docent-led nature and wildlife hiking tour through the forest with Stewards of the Coast and Redwood.
On the way back home be sure to stop in at Wild Flour Bread in Freestone. It’s love at first smell when you enter this quirky little bakery that, despite its modest size, has been churning out beautiful loaves of hard crust breads from its burly brick oven for more than a dozen years (the double-chocolate scones are deadly). You can’t help but waddle back to your car with a big bag of warm baguettes.