Insider tips for unplugging and making the most of Sonoma County’s famous coastal retreat.
By Ronnie Sharpe
Years before COVID-19 attacked and families scrambled for shelter, we needed a break. With school and work and extracurriculars, my husband, daughter and I needed a place to retreat from it all and to absorb the best of Northern California’s natural offerings.
Sea Ranch fit the bill.
After searching for months, we found an oceanfront spot just two hours from our home in Marin County. Settled on the rugged Sonoma County coast, we could unplug and play outside all day long. We fill days with hiking, biking, beachcombing, sketching, and more. I mean, yes, we have Internet access so we’re not completely off-the-grid and can work from home. But there are so many fun things to do that don’t require wifi, Sea Ranch is an easy place to seduce kids away from their electronics for long stretches of time.
In Sea Ranch, the air is always cool and fresh. The area is the perfect combo of ocean, forest, and mountains with magnificent sunsets and dark skies. And the homes blend into the natural environment in a truly extraordinary way: When the 10-mile-long planned community was developed from a 5,200-acre sheep ranch, one design historian called it “the California architectural monument of the 1960s.”
At first glance, Sea Ranch gives off a sleepy vibe but stay awhile like we have and you’ll find a lot to keep you and your kids busy. Here are our family’s favorite activities.
Up-close Encounters with Nature
Sea Ranch delivers all manner of critters to see. We’ve seen whales spouting offshore, barking seals, deer, turkeys, foxes and more.
In addition to wildlife, local the cows and sheep welcome us as they graze on bluffs overlooking the ocean. We try to find the “Sea Ranch Sheep” – yes, they’re a thing – at least once while we’re in the area.
Along the shoreline, tidepools reveal a vibrant habitat trapped along nooks. Peek inside and you will find a thriving habitat filled with sea stars, abalone, anemones, snails, crabs and other creatures. One of the best places to tidepool is near the Olson Rec Center; there’s a trailhead there that you can follow down to the ocean.
Here is a list of dates with good low tides in California, but check out NOAA’s tide table to find exact times for low tides. Download the iNaturalist app for iPhone or Android to look up the animals you spot.
Endless Hiking Trails
There are so many hiking trails through the coastal and forest areas around the Sea Ranch area that there’s something to please every hiker and walker. Labor Day weekend is normally a fun event called the Circumambulation which runs about 21 miles on Sea Ranch trails (not happening in 2020, though). On the meandering riverside is a local favorite, Hotspot, where locals gathered on Tuesdays for a BBQ and potluck in pre-pandemic times.
Sea Ranch proper has five interpretive trails with guides available in wooden boxes that describe historic and natural features along the way.
- San Andreas Fault Interpretive Trail
- Monarch Glen Interpretive Trail
- Reading Our Seascape
- Del Mar Landing Marine Reserve
- Sag Pond Interpretive Guide
Regional parks have many other great hikes. Gualala Point Park is home to some of my favorite trails. The beach is loaded with gorgeous driftwood; Each piece is already a sculpture! Salt Point State Park is another one of my favorite places with dramatic rock formations that looks like the moon’s surface. Adjacent to Salt Point State Park is the Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve and is one of the prettiest walks with brilliant blooms appearing from mid-April to mid-June.
More Must-See Sights
Sea Ranch Facilities – The community’s “One-Eyed Jack’s Picnic Area & Playground” is perfect for little kids. There are pools, saunas, and tennis courts, available by reservation only during the pandemic. While Sea Ranch has beaches, the waters are cold and rough and not for beginner swimmers. There are, however, miles of empty roads for bike riding.
Local Farms, Ranches & Vineyards – The entire area is dotted with farms, vineyards, and ranches to visit. Up along Annapolis Road is the Starcross Monastic Community that sells fresh-pressed olive oil with an honesty box. Annapolis Winery is a little further up the road. Continue along the route to Fort Ross Winery and down to Plantation for fresh eggs sold at Farm Camp. Check the Sonoma Farm Trails site or print edition for more local fresh farm produce.
Fort Ross State Park – This park is filled with historic and geological gems. The area was colonized by the Russians in the early 1800s and is known for its geological curiosities. The Fort Ross Festival is usually in July and Harvest Festival in October are well-worth a visit but are unfortunately canceled for 2020.
Sea Ranch Chapel – If Neptune were to design a place for a peaceful setting this would be it. The non-denominational Sea Ranch Chapel reflects a mix of native animals, including motifs reflecting birds taking flight, abalone coming out of it’s shell, butterfly stained glass windows, and a whale above the entrance. Local shells adorn the walls and native vegetation surrounds the building. Some of my friends have said its whimsical appearance looks like the Hogwarts Sorting Hat! Regardless of how you describe it, it’s sure to be a hit with all visitors.
Point Arena – Both the light station and Point Arena-Stornetta public lands on the Mendocino coast provide spectacular views and fun hiking trails on a working farm with grazing cows.
B. Bryan Preserve – This unique wildlife preserve provides a home for African hoofstock including endangered zebra, giraffe, and antelope. You can visit for a day and tour the preserve or even stay overnight.
Timber Cove – This classic hotel and restaurant in Jenner has been completely refurbished. The views are spectacular and the grounds are great to wander around. Bufano’s famous obelisk depicting the Madonna and Child is perched on an isolated cliff nearby and draws visitors from around the region.
Gualala Arts Center – Incredible talent of all types – visual, musical, theatrical, and more – appears at this regional center. Enjoy a walk around the grounds through hidden sculptures and sitting areas or the trail down to the Gualala River.
Stargazing – Sea Ranch delivers the darkest skies near the SF Bay Area. On a clear night you can see the Milky Way, planets, shooting stars, and even an occasional International Space Station flyover! And being in such a remote place means there are lots of animals to see right from your window: foxes – in fact, a fox family greeted us the last time we arrived! – raccoons, quail, owl, vultures, and lots of deer are around at all times of day and night.
Seasonal Beauty – Sea Ranch is wonderful in any season of the year, but springtime is perhaps my favorite, with its wildflowers and butterflies. The clear skies and flourishing bounty of the fall harvest season is also compelling.
If you’re an architecture aficionado, you already know that the planned community of Sea Ranch boasts cutting-edge, environmentally-aware architecture from the 1960s. Click here to learn more about the history and significance of the development.
Most visitors rent one of the many condominiums or homes available on VRBO or Airbnb. For families looking at rentals, I would look for amenities your family will appreciate, whether its board games, baking gear, reading material or a hot tub. Bring your bikes, yoga mats and whatever else helps you relax. Make sure your rental includes passes that allow you to use the community facilities such as the pools, spas, tennis courts, and golf links. During the pandemic, the pools are only open for lap swims by appointment but Sonoma County regulations are constantly changing so check in advance for what’s open.
Two Fish in Stewart’s Point – Hands-down, Two Fish in Stewarts Point is our favorite spot to eat. The pastries are the best in the area AND their bread is crazy good! Everything they serve, from calzones to pizzas to sandwiches, is top notch and very reasonably priced. Pre-pandemic, they would open the old saloon upstairs on Friday nights for locals pizza – a great way to meet neighbors. On Saturdays, they haul out the smoker and serve smoked meats. Be sure to order your bread in advance because they run out fast – same for pastries. And don’t miss their famous sticky buns (so decadent my friend called them “slutty” 😉 )
Gualala Eats – About 10 minutes up the road in the town of Gualala, there are various restaurants including a take-out pizza joint, a Mexican restaurant, and my favorite Surf Market with its a great deli. Fisherman selling their catch-of-the-day can be found on the bluff in Gualala for the freshest possible fish. Trinks Café is a wonderful eatery with locally sourced veggies and organic meats. Sea Ranch Cafe is another spot locals love.
Stops on the Way
The road to Sea Ranch is paved with deliciousness, as it winds through the ranchland, dairies, farms and fisheries of western Marin and Sonoma counties. Here are some of our favorite places to stop along the way to Sea Ranch.
- Bodega Bay Oyster Company – Make a quick stop in Valley Ford for BBQ oysters – they don’t always have the grill out but I love it when they do!
- Valley Ford Creamery – Don’t miss this rustic, family-run creamery serving house-made cheeses and cheese dishes. The food, atmosphere, and picnic supplies are awesome.
- Estero Cafe – Another Valley Ford foodie destination, the Estero Cafe bakes delicacies like daily fresh-fruit pies and biscuits for their “and-gravy” dishes, and serves incredible breakfasts and lunches – like their killer burger/fries.
- Fishatarian – Sit at the outdoor bench along the waterfront of this Bodega Bay eatery for the latest catch to hit the wharf.
- Spud Point – Head farther out on Bodega Head to this popular clam chowder, fish and crab stop.
- The Children’s Bell Tower – Just north of Bodega Bay, the international monument stands as a beautiful tribute to a special boy.
- Cafe Aquatica – A must-stop Jenner spot for coffee, baked goods and local music.
- Jenner Headlands Preserve – This newly-opened 5,630-acre stretch just past the town of Jenner boasts lush forests, coastal prairie, and miles of great hiking trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Ronnie Sharpe – August 2020
While keeping San Francisco Bay Area parents in-the-know with her popular Ronnie’s Awesome List website and newsletter, Ronnie splits her time between two gorgeous home bases: Marin County and Sea Ranch.
Photos used with permission and © Ronnie’s Awesome List – All rights reserved
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
Oh the places you'll go... from home!
Locals' favorite family-friendly lakefront destinations
Same coast. More value. Fewer crowds.
25 unique & classic must-drive vacations for families
Incredible golds, oranges and reds of the coast, high desert and mountains.
Gotta get away? Check these ideas for COVID-19 trips
Armchair trips for active families.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.
First-rate recreational activities to tackle in the Second City