It’s no secret that northern California is home to some of the most stunning coastline in the world. Nearly every bend in Highway One traverses towering cliffs, pristine beaches, or coastal meadows scattered with wildflowers. What remains under wraps, however, is the quiet allure of the Sea Ranch, a 5,200-acre refuge of private homes, trails, forests, and some of California’s most ruggedly beautiful scenery.
Situated on the northwestern edge of Sonoma County, Sea Ranch was the brainchild of architect Al Boeke, who surveyed the land in 1962 and conceptualized a community existing in harmony with its environment. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin then conceived a plan to blend each Sea Ranch home into its natural setting, minimizing visual and physical impacts and drawing upon the Pomo Indian philosophy to “live lightly on the land.” The result? A collection of understated, unpainted wood homes, each with unforgettable ocean, meadow, or forest views.
And it is here that your long weekend begins, at a (surprisingly inexpensive) oceanfront rental home. No cell phone reception? No problem. There’s nowhere else you need to be for the next three days.
The Prince Of Tides
Although Sea Ranch claims some of the loveliest coastline in northern California, this isn’t your typical beach-goers’ getaway. With rough, icy water full of kelp, seals, and sharks, you’ll get more use out of your bathing suit back at home in the hot tub. But don’t let those factors deter you from exploring the many beaches in the area—just grab a sweatshirt and a pair of binoculars, and you’ll be set for the day.
Stop for a morning bun or two at Twofish Baking (32000 Shoreline Highway, inside the Stewarts Point Store) and set out on the oceanfront Bluff Top Trail, a private path that spans more than seven miles between Black Point in the south and Gualala Point Regional Park in the north. Your destination is Shell Beach, a small cove that protects a series of fascinating tide pools and the occasional curious harbor seal. Just be sure (and I mean sure) that the tide is out before you search for starfish, urchins, and anemones—these unpredictable waves wait for no one.
By afternoon, you’ll be ready for some new scenery at Walk On Beach, another peaceful stretch of sand located just over one mile north. Curl up with a novel you picked up at Four-Eyed Frog Books in town (39138 Ocean Drive) and keep an eye open for whales passing through.
A weekend at Sea Ranch is all about solitude and relaxation, so fretting about dinner reservations is rather out of place. Instead, get to know the tiny nearby community of Gualala, a former redwood logging town that serves as Sea Ranch’s commercial center. The charming Surf Market is the go-to place for groceries, picnic fixins, and (on occasion) chicken, ribs, and tri-tip served by local grillmasters. But whatever you decide to do for dinner, just make sure you’ve secured a prime ocean view by sunset (39250 Shoreline Highway).
If it’s a fog-free morning, hop in the car for one of the more extraordinary drives the California coast has to offer. Fifty miles north of Gualala is the unincorporated community of Mendocino, a picturesque colony of artists and vacationers that also happened to be the stand-in for Cabot Cove on Murder She Wrote. And as one of California’s original counties when it gained statehood in 1850, Mendocino has enjoyed a long history of wine production, craft brewing, and liberal marijuana policies.
Spend the morning and early afternoon strolling Mendocino’s quaint streets, perusing the local art galleries and sampling the beverages at Moody’s Organic Coffee Bar (10450 Lansing Street). Just save room for lunch at Café Beaujolais, Chef Julian Lopez’s charming outpost of Californian-French cuisine (961 Ukiah Street).
As you return south along Highway One, make a late afternoon detour in Point Arena, a small coastal city 15 miles north of Gualala. Your objective? A visit to the century-old Point Arena Light, which is especially beautiful in the late afternoon sunshine (45500 Lighthouse Road, Point Arena).
Call My Bluff
Lament the final day of your long weekend by experiencing the full grandeur of the Sea Ranch coastline. Dress in layers, pack a picnic lunch, and set off to explore the entire Bluff Top Trail to Gualala Point Regional Park. As you walk, you’ll see pelicans diving in the waves, harbor seals napping on the rocks, and herds of deer moving quietly through the meadows. By afternoon’s end, you’ll be ready for a delicious pie to go from Upper Crust Pizzeria in downtown Gualala (39331 Shoreline Highway) and one last luxurious soak in your oceanfront hot tub.
And as the sun begins to set, make your way to Stengel Beach just one mile south of Shell Beach for a spectacular evening view. With a small seasonal waterfall as your only companion, you can bring the weekend to a close with an enduring appreciation of the quiet, the calm, and the overwhelming beauty of the landscape.
A Few Notes
Beach Rentals is a great resource for renting homes in Sea Ranch, and offers non-peak season booking specials, such as three nights for the price of two (39200 Shoreline Highway, Gualala).
One of the greatest attractions of a weekend in Sea Ranch is the lovely drive north from San Francisco. From 101 North, take the River Road exit just north of Santa Rosa. The road will take you through the edge of wine country, along the banks of the Russian River, and through one of the most white-knuckled stretches of Highway One near Fort Ross. For those with more time to spare, you can also take Highway One north all the way from San Francisco, passing through Point Reyes Station and Bodega Bay. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
TITLE: The Sea Ranch coastline | SATURDAY: The view from the Bluff Top Trail; Shell Beach; cypress trees on the Bluff Top Trail; sunset over the cliffs; sunset over the cliffs | SUNDAY: The coast north of Gualala; the route to Mendocino; the route to Mendocino; the Point Arena Light | MONDAY: Sunset on the trail; a Stengel Beach sunset.