127 mi / 204 km
Sonoma County (STS)
Fresh from the luxury vineyards of California's wine country, travelers head through the Sonoma Mountains to reconnect with the wave-lashed Coast Highway on this epic shoreline drive.
It's about blowing away the cobwebs on wind-buffeted bluffs above the Pacific Ocean, spotting whales and rare sealions, and honoring the mighty redwoods that claim the coast further north.
The initial section of the drive wiggles alongside the Russian River through areas of mountain woodland that were ravaged by wildfires not all that long ago. The East Ridge and Pool Ridge hiking loops there offer a glimpse of some of the last remaining old-growth sequoia groves close to San Francisco.
But it's not long before you hit the coast. And you hit it in grand style when you do. Cue the Sonoma Coast State Park, a series of rugged rock spurs and coves that's been whittled and forged by the movements of the oceans over the millennia. It's so wild that you can even spot Pacific gray whales from Bodega Head from January to March, while huge colonies of sealions can be observed on Jenner Beach.
With each passing mile, the rugged beauty of the Sonoma Coast reveals itself. Majestic cliffs, crashing waves, and secluded coves create a dramatic backdrop that beckons exploration.
Then it's onto arguably the strangest historic site in the territory: Fort Ross. Built back in the 1810s by Russian colonists trying to establish outposts further south than Alaska, it's a place that would fit right in on the Central Asian steppes. You can still see the Slavic-style windmills and the towers built like Orthodox churches!
After that, the Coast Highway continues north through one of the remotest sections of Golden State shoreline. Watch as the cliffs begin to fragment into jagged boulders; as the headlands are carved out into knife-edge ridges. The zenith of the views probably comes with the Point Arena Lighthouse, where you can clamber up 146 steps to look for whales between the swells.
The jewel in the crown is the finishing point of Fort Bragg. That salt-washed resort has entire beaches made of sea glass. It's also the gateway to the feral Mendocino Coast, which runs further north again in a patchwork of dunes and redwood forests.
For several decades, the shoreline near Fort Bragg served as a dumping ground for the local community. Discarded glass bottles, ceramics, and other household waste found their way into the ocean, creating a colorful mixture of broken shards that littered the beach.
Over time, the relentless power of the ocean transformed the discarded glass into smooth, polished pieces of sea glass, giving 'Glass beach' a unique and mesmerizing appearance. The pounding waves acted as nature's tumbler, smoothing the rough edges and turning the broken fragments into an array of jewel-like colors, creating a breathtaking mosaic that sparkles under the sun.
The drive up the California coast from the Russian River to Fort Bragg is a testament to the timeless allure of the Pacific, a celebration of nature's artistry, and an invitation to connect with the profound beauty that lies along this mesmerizing stretch of coastline.
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