If you hear someone talking about visiting Northern California, what comes to mind? The many sights and sounds of the San Francisco Bay Area? Hot-air ballooning over vineyards in Napa? Driving windy roads through massive redwood groves, perhaps?
We have all that—and more. But if you’re looking for a destination a little more off the beaten path, a mere three hours can transport you from the bustling city of San Francisco to quiet, coastal country. From the town of Jenner in Sonoma County to the town of Elk in Mendocino County, California Highway 1 will lead you up cliffs that offer breathtaking ocean views, through pasture lands and state parks, and into some of the quaintest communities California has to offer.
The locals call it “Mendonoma”.
Mendonoma is a world of its own. The pace is relaxed. Even cell service takes vacations here. Have a little spending cash on hand, as some of the best-loved shops and attractions don’t accept credit cards. You’ll find all the extra preparation well worth the effort, though—your nerves will feel the downshift as soon as you see that Pacific Ocean.
Start your exploration at The Point Arena Lighthouse and get a feel for coastal living, past and present. You can tour the lighthouse and climb to the top; enjoy local gifts and souvenirs in the gift shop; and roam the many trails over the bluffs and through the pastures of the Stornetta Public Lands. Bring in food for a picnic overlooking sea lions basking on the rocks below. Watch migrating whales play in the distance. Make your way down to the water’s edge and feel the power of breaking surf under your feet and the salt spray on your skin.
When you’re ready to continue your adventure, get back on Highway 1 and head south to Bowling Ball Beach, which gets its name from spherical sandstone boulders that lie scattered along the beach. The best view is at low tide, when you can take off your shoes and brave a little cold water to walk among the boulders. It’s particularly stunning at sunset; photographers come from near and far to capture the beauty and the mystery of Bowling Ball Beach.
Whether there’s fog or sun, make sure to include Black Point Beach on your itinerary. Traveling south on Highway 1, you will find this beach at the southernmost end of Sea Ranch, with parking available right off the highway. The beach itself is a short hike from the parking area, and the ocean teasingly makes itself visible little by little as you approach. By the time you reach the staircase to access the beach, the shoreline opens up and shows its full splendor.
This beach is truly one of the most beautiful spots on this part of the coast. Under certain conditions, the sand appears black and provides a stunning contrast with the white-capped waves. No matter what color the sand is, though, you can enjoy a leisurely stroll (at low tide, you can walk over half a mile from end to end). During your stroll, you may see cormorants, pelicans, sea otters, surfers, and wedding parties, depending on the season. Stay for sunset, if at all possible—the horizon is wide, a perfect palette for sunset colors.
There are so many other beautiful places to see in Mendonoma, so rest assured: whether you’re looking to take photos, paint a sunset, observe sea lions, or meditate on life, you can find a place to do it here. Part of the adventure is finding that little spot that speaks to your heart, mind, and soul. These suggestions will just get you started; the rest of the journey is for you to discover.
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