11 top spots for ocean storm-watching getaways in Sonoma, Mendocino counties
From Jenner north to Fort Bragg, the wintertime drama along the Sonoma-Mendocino coastline can make for romantic weekends to remember. November through March, low-pressure systems roll in off the Pacific, one after another, and the tumultuous surf is thrilling to watch. Because this is the West Coast, it’s also common for blue skies to break through between tempests. That is a magical time, when the sun glints on dripping evergreen branches and the beaches are treasure chests of driftwood, shells and discoveries washed up by the pounding waves.
Some travelers toast their tootsies and sip hot toddies by roaring fireplaces in snug bed-and-breakfast inns, while stalwart souls trod the windy beaches, breathing in the invigorating ozone from the raucous breakers.
All along the North Coast, clifftops and easy-access parking areas afford views of the smashing surf, and many restaurants and bars have ocean views.
A good way to start a coastal jaunt up Highway 1 is with breakfast at Coast Kitchen at Timber Cove Resort, a newly refurbished hotel and restaurant in a towering circa-1960, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, redwood and stone building.
From the restaurant, the outdoor fire pit and nearly every one of the 46 guest rooms, you can see miles down the craggy coastline - sunsets are legendary.
Guests watch the waves from their soaking tubs and beside their fireplaces, while listening to vintage LPs on in-room record players (really). Libations are taken by a massive stone fireplace in the soaring lobby, and when there’s a break in the weather, you’ll see people heading for the deck on the east side of the hotel, where the half-mile-across cove turns into a vast, foamy, photogenic expanse of stormy surf.
Up the road, the shelter at Salt Point State Park’s blufftop visitors’ center is another good spot from which to watch walls of churning waves; walking trails from here connect the four roiling coves below.
On the way south in early winter and back north around March, gray whales are easily sighted from the restaurant at Sea Ranch, which comprises a casual bar and eatery, a few guest rooms and rental homes. A short path leads to a bench above an extravaganza of sea stacks and roiling water.
Point Arena Pier
One of the most exciting places to be during a storm is on the 322-foot-long, wheelchair-accessible pier at Point Arena. Rising in force a quarter mile out, waves rush onto the little black-pebble beach and blast up over the boulders shielding the parking lot. Fisherman huddle at the end of the pier, tossing their long lines out for rockfish and lingcod.
When it’s too rough to fish, they retreat to an old-fashioned bar in the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room at the end of the pier, along with tourists and locals, for steaming bowls of clams and mugs of Eel River Brewing Company’s IPA. The restaurant is lined with windows and photos of storms past, when trawlers went aground and the pier was smashed to pieces in 1983.
Point Arena Lighthouse
Even in the worst weather, you can park at the foot of the 115-foot-tall Point Arena Lighthouse Station, the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast, and climb the tower on a tour to see a 360-degree view of raging seas.
A separate gift shop has a wonderful museum of shipping artifacts and photos of early days of sailing and logging, and a spectacular 666-prism Fresnel lens. Families love the handful of rental homes here, each complete with wood-burning fireplace, three bedrooms and full kitchen.
At the village of Elk, once a rip-roaring loggers’ town, Greenwood State Beach Park is a favorite driftwood-hunters destination. Herons stalk around in the reedy stream that runs into the sea, whales cruise along right offshore, and above it all, the Elk Cove Inn claims the hillside with Craftsman-era, oceanfront lodges.
Lounge chairs and a wood stove warm guests in the Bavarian Cottage, where windows frame the stream, the beach, the monumental Gunderson Rock surrounded by stormy seas.
Loathe to leave their fireplaces and poufy down comforters, guests from the 16 rooms and suites wander down for champagne breakfasts in the glass-enclosed dining room. Three nights a week, “Chez Marie” also offers French-style dinners here, which come in handy, as only one other eatery is found in town - Bridget Dolan’s Pub.
Below the Albion River Bridge - the only wooden bridge still standing on Highway 1 - is the once thriving loggers’ “doghole” that bustled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At low tide, you can see remnants of the 1,200-foot-long rails that carried old-growth redwood logs to waiting schooners. Impressive from sea level, the bridge is 1,000 feet long and 170 feet high, constructed of Douglas fir in 1944. Protected by high, surrounding cliffs, a large campground and a narrow beach are nice spots from which to watch the explosive breakers.