As we crossed over the Gualala River, beautiful Sonoma County greeted us with breathtaking views, best described by our favorite coast adventurer, J Smeaton Chase in 1911.
The view was almost impossibly perfect…To the west I caught glimpses of dazzling sea; and southward I looked down upon the coast I had travelled during that and the previous day, brilliant with blue of deep and green of shoal water, or flashing to sudden blaze of surf on headland, cape, and bay. Before I was ready to move on, the sun had set in an effulgence of noble color, rosying the golden hills, reddening the great shafts of the trees, and for a few wonderful moments deepening the plain of the sea to an imperial splendor of purple. High over all, masses of flaming crimson, like banners of archangels, floated across the western sky.
Hiking into the northern part of Sonoma, we quickly came upon Sea Ranch. The Sea Ranch development is a classic case of the coastal access battle between environmentalists and developers.This is where coastal activists took on the developers of a planned housing tract in the 1960s, who wanted to build an exclusive community with private beaches open only to homeowners for 10 miles of the Sonoma County coastline (the Sonoma County coastline is around 60 miles long in total). The development was still built, but after a hard-fought battle and years of toil, sweat, and tears, a negotiation was reached that allows public access in short pathways darting from the highway to the coast through Sea Ranch.
Today, you can walk through the full length of Sea Ranch if you are staying in the community, and we were lucky enough to have an amazing couple host us, Sophia and Bob. Bob is a long distance thru-hiker and we had so much fun getting to know these two Trail Angels and their wonderful rescued greyhound Gracie, queen of all the land.
The views along Sea Ranch are incredible. We walked through big blufftop patches of yellow lupine and inhaled their sweet, intoxicating scent. The bright blooms looked so cheerful against the teal Pacific. As we were filming some of the seals of Sea Ranch, a mother and pup started canoodling on the sandy shore below us. We sat on the bluff and gave thanks to the unwavering dedication of coastal access rights advocates, who fought so hard to ensure that these views were not just reserved for the wealthy few.
Down the coast a few miles, we picked up the CCT at the northern boundary of Salt Point State Park. As soon as we started walking through the park, we were in love. We actually exclaimed, “This landscape is so diverse!” fully recognizing how nerdy we sounded, but it was true! In this amazing California State Park, so many species are all found in the same place. As we gazed across the coastal prairie, we saw clusters of sturdy gray boulders separated by fields of wildflowers in every color of the rainbow- purples, magentas, pinks, yellows, reds, whites, lavenders. There were mini habitats of windswept trees in dark forest green hues, and shrubs of dusty gray greens. The blues and teals and seafoam greens of the ocean popped against the bright little whitecaps being stirred up by the offshore breeze. Upon closer examination of the boulders patches, we saw plants from so many different communities all together—succulents right alongside ferns, sprouting up from the rocky soil with lichens, moss, and wildflowers all in one place!
Salt Point State Park is known for the crazy geologic formations found here. Sandstone has been worn and weathered by the elements into honeycomb caverns which give them their name, tafoni (“cavern” in Italian). The tiny caves are patched together in a complicated network of ridges and valleys, creating lacelike patterns where water and wind have carved away the sandstone over time.
We cruised down the coastline of Sonoma to a section of coast that some locals call Sonoma’s Lost Coast. This is a stretch of CCT that is functionally inaccessible from the highway winding along a thousand feet above, so the only way to access these beaches is by thru-hiking the segment. We carefully planned our hike for the day to coincide with the low tide, since we knew there were several pinch points that we had to pass before the water levels rose to block our forward progress.
Sonoma’s Lost Coast is gorgeous. Seemingly endless rocky headlands and crashing waves constantly reminded us of the remoteness and ruggedness of this wilderness. We walked over cobble and scrambled over boulders and rocky points, and the hiking was slow going. Before we knew it, low tide had passed and the tide was coming in. We were trying to follow the directions in our CCT guidebook, but the directions kept describing rocky point after rocky point! We didn’t know exactly where we were until we reached the 75 foot chute we had to scramble up and over. We crawled up on our hands and knees, bracing ourselves against the narrow boulder passage, and grasping at the rocky scree which crumbled and spilled down nearly seven stories below us. The guidebook warned us that this part is scary if you’re afraid of heights. After a tense time, we safely reached the bottom of the chute, and Mo said “Hmmm, I think I might be afraid of heights!”
We had come several miles, but still had more to go, and it was late afternoon. The sun was starting to cast a golden glow on the mountainsides to the east. The next rocky point before us had waves crashing up on it, and we nervously asked each other if the point looked passable. We decided to continue down the cove to get a better look at the rock. We walked as quickly as we could over the cobble, skirting in and away from the rising tide and foamy waves where we could. We sprinted around a point, just before the waves came crashing up to trap us. Getting wet was guaranteed and the tide was still rising, so we had to turn back and bushwhack our way up the steep cliffs through poison oak thicket and thistle patches before reaching Highway 1. It was a rough ending to the gorgeous day.
We continued down the coast to Bodega Head on the headlands of Bodega Bay. We were very excited to hike with Richard Nichols, former Executive Director of Coastwalk California and one of the 1996 CCT thru-hikers! Richard and his wife Brenda shared their favorite memories of Coastwalk in its heyday and told us about the founder of Coastwalk, Bill Kortum, who was a coastal access activist and environmentalist. Before reaching Bodega Bay we had walked the breathtaking blufftop Kortum Trail, named in his honor, just south of the Russian River.
Bill Kortum was a key mover and shaker in the coastal protection movement, who chaired a coalition of 100+ organizations that fought to get Proposition 20 on the 1972 ballot. Proposition 20, the Coastal Protection Initiative, affirmed the public’s right to coastal access and established the California Coastal Commission, a state agency with the mission of “protecting and enhancing the coast for present and future generations.” Proposition 20 also included language establishing the California Coastal Trail!!!
Kortum and his brother were also instrumental in stopping a nuclear power plant from being built at Bodega Head, where an active fault sits along the coast. Thank goodness for this heroic effort—nuclear power and earthquakes don’t jive! After learning about the area’s tectonic activity and its importance as a battleground for coastal activism in Sonoma County, we joked with Richard that Bodega Head’s new tagline should be, “Bodega Head–the epicenter of the coastal movement.” Get it? Heehee!
We loved Bodega Head and savored our time walking with the Old Guard Coastwalkers, soaking up as much history and soul from the OGs as we could. We will be carrying these good vibes down the coast and spreading the word about Coastwalking as we continue south along this beautiful coastline we call home.