By Bob Difley
Clinging like an asphalt snake to precipitous cliffs that drop hundreds of feet into the rocky surf, Northern California’s Route 1 is known throughout the world for its ruggedly beautiful coastal scenery. Here you will also find towering redwoods that snatch moisture from the inevitable morning fog, grassy upland meadows scattered with grazing cows (often mixed with a few deer), and seafood restaurants that offer the local catch that will make your mouth water.
Driving along the Sonoma County coast from Gualala south to Bodega Bay is no disappointment to Route 1’s reputation, with 15 mph hairpin turns, shoulders that drop off into nothingness, and views that cannot be rivaled.
This is not a road to hurry along. It is also a road often avoided by RVers, having heard of its reputation. Yet, some of the best sightseeing, birding and camping opportunities lie along this rugged coastline. And it is drivable by any but the longest tow combinations, providing that you take it easy, don’t try to rush, and pull over when you can (there are many pullouts) to let others by as well as to look at the spectacular ocean views.
Gualala, the main supply center for this stretch of coast, has two mechanics, two grocery stores, numerous small shops and a post office that serves the seaside bluff community of Sea Ranch. This is the straightest section of Route 1 but also the furthest from the shoreline, with natural redwood-sided homes spreading for miles to the south between the highway and the sea. A few trails lead from the highway to the bluffs but there is scant parking for RVs with tow vehicles.
Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve is a good place to pull off and take a hike in the woods, especially when the rhododendrons are in bloom. Big rigs not advised, as the road is dirt and the parking area somewhat restricted, but still doable in a moderate-sized rig.
Iconic Stewart’s Point Store has one of the few gas pumps on this stretch as well as fishing tackle, duct tape, hammers, kites, sunblock – just about anything you might want – crowded into this retro country store. Worth a stop to look around, and almost guaranteed you can’t leave without buying something.
The windswept, coastal bluff’s Salt Point State Park draws hikers and abalone divers to its rugged shoreline. You can camp closest to the ocean (and with great views) by choosing the overflow parking lot down the hill from the forested campground. You can usually spot harbor seals and sometimes sea lions lazily sunning on the rocks near shore. A great view trail runs along the bluff edge.
Russian fur traders established a sealing station and built a protective fort at what is now Fort Ross State Historic Park in 1812. You can walk around the old fort and see displays of what life was like for sealers in the early 1800s.
The Russian River enters the Pacific Ocean at Jenner. The pullouts just before entering Jenner offer good views of the river bucking the tidal flow at the outlet, seals napping on the sand spits, along with birds, driftwood and sunbathers.
Bodega Bay is known among birders as one of the premier birdwatching spots on the north coast. Doran County Park campground lies on the southern entrance to the harbor with views of the bay. Most of the campsites face the bay, but the Jetty Campground, adjacent to a sandy, wind-protected, south-facing beach, faces the ocean. Whale watching is popular from the headland on the north side of the bay entrance and a walk over the headland is good when the wildflowers are blooming, which is most of the summer.
Just south of Bodega Bay, Route 1 turns inland through bucolic farmland, passes through the town of Bodega – where much of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds was shot – and back to Route 101 civilization. Or you can stay on Route 1 south to Point Reyes National Seashore and return to 101 at Mill Valley just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Campgrounds and RV parks are scattered along the route but can be busy during the summer and fall months.
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