A local’s guide to Salt Point State Park
Many who come to California’s coast searching for inspiring Pacific vistas turn south, to Monterey Bay, Carmel or Big Sur. It’s nice down there. But if, like me, you occasionally long for uninhabited miles of panoramic coast, stone standing defiant against crashing blue-white surf and thrilling don’t-look-down coastal drives, turn north.
A bit off the beaten path in northwest Sonoma County, you’ll find Salt Point State Park. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. It lacks the usual coastal hotels and restaurants and golf — it’s an entirely rustic piece of oceanfront escape — but out of California’s entire coast, it’s in a class of its own.
What makes it different? There are pitifully few stretches of accessible coastline left now where we still can imagine what it must have been like before we came, before roads even; somewhere to stand and fully experience the awesome, wild planetary triple junction of land, sea and sky in a 360-degree view. That’s Salt Point.
The park’s 6,000 acres of wild California coast hold blue-green seawater coves, upland redwood and hardwood forests, terraced prairies, pocket beaches and monumental weathered stone cliffs. It seems at every turn, there’s eye-catching natural scenery to walk into. The air is charged with the scents of sea, pine and prairie.
There is electricity here, but don’t count on cell service. The activities are all outdoors.
You can dive, fish and kayak (with caution — the ocean here is unforgiving). You can wander 20 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, hunt for mushrooms or watch for wildlife or just take a long nap on a sunny wildflower-covered bluff while listening to the rolling shush of the sea. On clear evenings when the wind isn’t ferocious, campers drift down to Gerstle Cove, to the top of a stony outcrop to watch the sun set. Don’t forget the camera.
The practical way to reach Salt Point is to follow Highway 1 north from Jenner. At Russian Gulch, the road climbs into the coastal mountains and suddenly crests, hundreds of feet up, with a heart-stopping view of the Pacific far below and skyscraping ridges ahead, sloping into the sea.
For awhile, the stretch of road isn’t much more than a narrow, high ledge cut into the mountain wall. Watch out for road crews at work. On any other highway you’d barely notice them, but here you realize why they’re so busy. They’re trying to prevent the slopes that hold the road from pursuing their natural tendency — to drop into the ocean.
The Salt Point State Park entrance may be just 19 miles from Jenner, but plan on a 40-minute drive, with some hairpin turns and the inevitable slow RV. There are some fun stops on the way, too, like the unexpected Fort Ross, raised in 1812 by Russians. The wood fort is expansive, with stockades, cannon, chapel and barracks. It’s a careful preservation of life two centuries ago.
Salt Point was the ancient home of the Kashaya Pomo people, who thrived here on the rich landscape at least 10,000 years before Europeans took notice.
By the 1500s, Spanish galleons laden with treasure were gliding offshore, beating their way back from Japan and the Orient. Until the 1800s, sailors prudently continued to sail right on by; there are no harbors here, but plenty of hull-chewing rocks, treacherous currents, stiff winds and frequent blinding fogs.
The park’s name refers to the rock ledges along the shore, honeycombed with many shallow pockets where sea salt collects, deposited by surf and ocean spray and dried by the sun into a layer of sparkling-white crystal.
Dramatic sea and stone are the defining coastal features here. Both had prominent roles in settlement and trade. There were no roads over the coastal mountains at first. But from the sea it was easy to spot the giant, fine-grained ocher sandstone cliffs. They’re still here, minus untold tons of blocks that were cut out, manhandled with ingenious clifftop chutes onto schooners and used to rebuild San Francisco after fires and the 1906 earthquake. Redwoods, cut into lumber in John Colt Fisk’s mill, took the same trip.
Today the park and its features are protected, only open to those seeking an outdoor experience.
Things to do
The first people here all walked, and it’s possible to follow their likely paths.
From sheltered camps, single-track dirt trails trace the shoreline’s rocky edge around surf-charged coves out onto rocky points. Some trails pass through groves of bishop pine and emerge onto prairie bluffs that burst with rich carpets of blooms in spring and summer. Some of the best of these trails are the Salt Point Trail going north and south of Gerstle Cove and on the headlands near Stump Beach.