If you’re thinking recent warm temperatures and triple digit highs are signs of the new normal for California, experts say you’re right. And when the heat heads for record territory this summer, many are taking a welcome break and heading for the coast, where it can be a dramatic 20 or 30 degrees cooler than inland.
To really immerse in the cool Pacific coastal experience, Sonoma County offers a choice of State, County and private campgrounds, where folks can watch ocean sunsets, sit around an evening campfire and drift to sleep with the timeless sound of the surf.
Here are five of the best oceanside public campgrounds along Highway 1 as it winds north along the coast.
Many of these spots have been popular for generations. Families in the Bay Area and Sacramento have been vacationing there in earnest since 1900, and for good reason.
It’s cool on the coast because of a natural atmospheric effect.
When the summer sun bakes California’s interior, the resulting hot air rises high into the atmosphere, pulling in surrounding air to replace it. Since the temperature of the Pacific Ocean hovers at around a chilly 57 degrees all summer long, when air that’s been cooled by contact with the ocean gets drawn inland, the coastline gets chilled. That’s why it’s often windy and foggy there during the summer months.
Incidentally, that unique summer cycle is also responsible for another California icon. Giant coast redwoods only grow in a narrow band within 30 miles of the ocean, because they depend on fogs to bring them the moisture they need to survive the long dry summer.
The same conditions create a unique coastal ecology tied to the ocean, including grass covered hills, cool forest groves, and bluffs carpeted with wildflowers. Dozens of species of wild birds wheel and sing along the coast, and small animals like rabbits, foxes and racoons make homes in brush and creekside canyons.
Spending a few days by the wild Pacific is not only cool relief, but the coast offers plenty of outdoor activities, and ocean breezes and blue water vistas have a way of lowering stress.
The five coastal campgrounds selected here are all within earshot of heavy Pacific surf. Wrights Beach and Doran campgrounds are actually on the beach. All the campsites come with fire rings, table, and clean modern restrooms, camp hosts on site, and cost between $35 and $45 a night. Since campgrounds fill up fast in the summer, reservations are highly recommended. Some book weeks in advance, and weekends and holidays are most popular.
Gualala Point Park - Sonoma County Regional Parks
This gem of a campground is the farthest north, near the Mendocino County Border. Tucked beneath redwood and bay trees along the shore of the Gualala River, it has 23 mostly shady sites. Enjoy kayaking on the river, hike to the beach and the river mouth, or wander the short bluff trail for ocean vistas. Stop in for supplies and eateries in nearby Gualala, just five minutes away, or book tee time at nearby Sea Ranch Golf Course.
Salt Point State Park
Salt Point is situated on a rugged and dramatically scenic coastline, with wave washed coves, miles of trails, and two campgrounds. Gerstle Cove Campground is closest to the ocean, with 28 sites, some in meadow and about half beneath pine trees. When the wind blows, and it frequently does, Gerstle feels it, and folks wanting a bit more sheltered experience can stay in Woodside Campground, which is on the east side of Hwy 1. Depending on the season Woodside has up to 79 available sites among the pines. Trails in the park run for miles along the bluffs, and eastward up into the hilly terraces, which are studded with redwood groves, and even a pygmy forest of dwarfed trees. Popular with abalone divers in season, Salt Point’s rocky shoreline is also fantastic for tidepoolers and photographers, although the surf is treacherous and should be treated with caution. Blufftop walks are often carpeted with wildflowers in spring and early summer.
If You Go
Campsite availability and reservations can be made directly with Sonoma County Regional Parks for Doran and Gualala, and online through ReserveAmerica for the State Parks (until Aug 1, when the California State Parks will be launching its own reservation site.) Private campgrounds, glamping and other venues can be searched using the popular site HipCamp online.
• Highway 1 is winding and just two lanes, so plan for a leisurely drive with plenty of stunning vistas.
• Weather at the coast is variable in the summer, from sunny and high 70s to foggy, windy and low 50s, so it’s best to bring layers, and be prepared for evening chills and snuggling around the campfire.
• Bring your own entertainment. Phone and wifi may not be available, and in rural coastal communities, nightlife for the most part is s'mores and starlight. Just be sure and respect the folks enjoying the peace and quiet in the next campsite.
Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at email@example.com.