The waters of the Pacific Ocean along the North Coast are fine for seals but not for people. When it comes to spectacular cliffs and seascapes, though, the North Coast beaches are second to none. You can explore tidal pools, watch seabirds and sea lions, or dive for abalone—and you’ll often have the beach all to yourself. South to north, Point Reyes National Seashore, the beaches in Manchester and Van Damme state parks, and the 10-mi strand in MacKerricher State Park are among the most notable. From any number of excellent observation points along the coast, you can watch gray whales during their annual winter migration season (mid-December to early April). In summer and fall you can see blue or humpback whales. Point Reyes Lighthouse, Gualala Point Regional Park, Point Arena Lighthouse, and Patrick’s Point State Park are just a few of the places where you stand a good chance of spotting one of the giant sea creatures. Whale-watching cruises operate out of several towns, including Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg.
POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
One of the Bay Area’s most spectacular treasures and the only national seashore on the West Coast, the 66,500-acre Point Reyes National Seashore encompasses secluded beaches, rugged chaparral, and grasslands. At Drakes Beach the water is somewhat calm (often even swimmable), and there’s a visitor center. Be sure to stop at the famous lighthouse.
This former lumber port on the Gualala River is the busiest town between Bodega Bay and Mendocino and has all the basic services plus a number of galleries and gift shops. Gualala Point Regional Park, 1 mi south of town, has a long, sandy beach, picnic areas and is an excellent whale-watching spot December through April.
Occupied by an odd mixture of longtime locals and long-haired surfers, this former timber town is partly New Age, partly rowdy—and always sleepy. For an outstanding view of the ocean and, in winter, migrating whales, take the marked road off Highway 1 north of town to the 115-foot Point Arena Lighthouse. The most notable beach is the one at Manchester State Park, 3 mi north of Point Arena, which has 5 mi of sandy, usually empty shoreline.
The town of Little River is not much more than a post office and a convenience store. Along its winding roads, though, you’ll find numerous quiet inns with breathtaking ocean views. Van Damme State Park is best known for its beach and for being a prime abalone diving spot. The visitor center has displays on ocean life and Native American history.
Three blocks west of Main Street in the commercial center of Mendocino County, a flat, dirt path leads to wild coastline where you can walk for miles in either direction along the bluffs. Glass Beach likely has more sea glass than you’ve ever seen in one place before. MacKerricher State Park, just north of Fort Bragg, includes 9 mi of sandy beach and several square miles of dunes. The headland is a good place for whale-watching from December to mid-April.
Trinidad, once a mining and whaling center, is now a quiet and genuinely charming community with enough sights and activities to entertain low-key visitors. Together, Clam Beach County Park and Little River State Beach, 6 mi south of Trinidad, make a park that stretches from Trinidad to as far as one can see south. The sandy beach here is exceptionally wide and perfect for kids.