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Sonoma Coast

For a grand and tranquil getaway, a road trip north from California's Bodega Bay is a shore thing.

Tony Anello hawks Dungeness crab in Bodega Bay, Calif.
Photo caption
Tony Anello hawks Dungeness crab at the Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay, Calif.


In 1961, while scouting locations for his movie The Birds, director Alfred Hitchcock came on the village of Bodega Bay in Sonoma County an hour north of San Francisco. Hitchcock loved the quiet and the misty atmosphere–but not the cheery weather on the day he started shooting. Leave it to the Master of Suspense to find the dark side of sunny skies.

Forecasting the weather remains a winter guessing game on the Sonoma coast. More predictable is the wild drama of the earth. On unhurried outings up Highway 1 from Bodega Bay to the border with Mendocino County, travelers pass rough terrain that feels like the threshold to another world. It's a landscape laced with quiet trails to wild, windswept beaches where rock formations rise like medieval ruins. Restaurants, inns, and shops crop up unexpectedly along the 50-mile drive, but commerce takes a backseat here: While slurping oysters on a deck, diners pause as the sun slips into the Pacific; strollers stop along a path to peer at a pod of migrating gray whales.

A fine stop on the way to this compelling shore is the tiny hamlet of Valley Ford, on Highway 1 just south of Bodega Bay. At the pioneer-era Valley Ford Hotel, Brandon Guenther and Shona Campbell run Rocker Oysterfeller's Kitchen and Saloon. Their Southern-inflected menu—molasses-braised pork shoulder, fried organic chicken— is well attuned to contemporary currents, but the pair also pays homage to the past. Antique seltzer bottles line the walls, and Campbell playfully labels herself a "bar wench" as she mixes highbrow drinks.

"We know we're not that far from the city," Guenther says, "but sometimes it can feel like the frontier."

Seven miles west in Bodega Bay, the coast pops into view. Although taffy houses and a winetasting spot dot the roadside, this town remains at heart a working port. Battered fishing boats bob beside salty-dog restaurants. Spud Point Crab Company serves chunky clam chowder rich with garlic and cream, as well as sweet Dungeness crab in tangy sandwiches or simply cracked. A tip for gourmands: Local crab season opens in mid-November.

The road north from the harbor curls alongside Sonoma Coast State Beach, a 17-mile expanse that is not one beach but a string of them, only some visible from Highway 1. Several can be reached by the Sonoma Coast Trail, which cuts over the bluffs to craggy outcrops and hidden coves. Goat Rock Beach, near Jenner, where the Russian River ends its journey to the sea, offers a wide swath of sand sweet for strolling.

Winter skies here are dramatic, if often rainy, just as they were in the early 1800s when Russian traders founded Fort Ross. A stockade, chapel, and barracks today grace a state park with ample exhibits on the settlers' early struggles.

Up the highway, a 72-foot-tall metal column erected in 1969 by sculptor Beniamino Bufano announces Timber Cove Inn, a stone-and-redwood lodge that recently underwent a $2.5 million remodel. Rooms, most with ocean views, fireplaces, and spa tubs, promise comfort and seclusion, while paths along the bluffs are ideal for sunset rambles.

In the hour-plus it takes to reach the county's north shore, the main draw is the splendid isolation. Pine-shrouded Salt Point State Park–where visitors are free to hunt wild mushrooms in the rainy season—merges into the Sea Ranch, a strand of carefully spaced shingled homes interrupted by lanes leading to rocky overlooks and five public beaches. Just north, Gualala Point affords a view of the town of Gualala. For many travelers, hitting the county line is a cue to put the ocean on their right and head back south.

Bodega Bay's Tides Wharf Restaurant, which enjoyed a cameo in The Birds, showcases photographs of actress Tippi Hedren under assault by murderous flocks. At Bodega Head, a nearby promontory and great whale-watching spot, their feathered relatives wheel and cry. But the birds are only bit players in this show—the coast itself is the star.

Photography by Melissa Barnes


This article was first published in November 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.