Escape with a car-free Mendocino Coast getaway
The section of the Northern California coastline that stretches from Bodega Bay’s commercial fishing hub north to historic Point Arena is a masterpiece of serenity. North of the Russian River at Jenner, the tourists thin out, the fog rolls in and seagazing can be uninterrupted by anything but the sights and sounds of nature.
The United Nations declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development - a designation that emphasizes responsible, eco-friendly tourism as a passport to prosperity. What better way to celebrate the north coast’s untrammeled nature than by getting there without a car? It turns out to be remarkably easy to do, by bus and on foot - and you can make it as comfortable or adventurous as you like.
In fact, there’s a route and timetable perfectly suited to a weekend trip from Santa Rosa to Gualala and Point Arena. Best of all - with summer gas prices doing their thing -it’s worth noting that the total cost of public transportation for the 166-mile round-trip adds up to $20.80 per person ($10.20 for those over age 62).
Here’s the scenario.
Pack everything you need into a rucksack, wear your hiking boots, and start your adventure at the downtown Santa Rosa transit mall on First Street. Catch the 4:15 p.m. coach-size MTA Route 95 bus to Gualala), the southernmost town in Mendocino County and adjacent to Gualala Point Regional Park with its starburst of coastal trails. Bring a bike if you like.
Over the next 2.5 hours, the bus travels west on Route 12 through Sebastopol to Bodega Bay harbor, and from there turns and heads north up coastal Highway 1 to Gualala. The coast highway is a serpentine thread that connects the beaches, bluffs and hamlets strung along the edge of the sea. Driving it can be a white-knuckle affair, so it’s nice to be free to look out the window and watch the scenery roll by while someone experienced takes the wheel. This is the Hippie Highway that sparked songs filled with superlatives such as “California Dreamin’ and “Mendocino,” and several of the buildings in towns like Jenner, Anchor Bay and Point Arena retain a laid-back vibe of the ’60s and ’70s in tune with today’s ripped designer jeans.
After the first hour of travel, you will arrive in Jenner, and the bus will stop for a biffy break long enough for you to cross the street and visit Café Aquatica, a fragrant bakery and specialty coffee shop. From here on north over the next hour and a half, you’ll enjoy world-class coastal scenery and occasional stops to drop off and pick up passengers. You’ll also roll past the coast’s man-made attractions: restored Fort Ross; the commanding 93-foot-tall “Madonna of Peace” obelisk at bluff-top Timber Cove resort; and the Sea Ranch Chapel, a free-flowing architectural masterpiece designed by James Hubbell and built in 1985 of locally sourced materials.
You’ll pass Gualala Point Regional Park just before you cross the bridge over the Gualala River into Mendocino County and arrive at the Gualala Country Inn, your destination, at 6:45 p.m.
Your driver will drop you off at your hotel if asked. I chose the Country Inn because it is just across the bridge from the park and trails. However, all three hotels in Gualala are within two blocks of one another and are in the same summer price range of $115 to $145 per night. The room at Country Inn was clean and cozy with a gas fireplace and view over the river. Owners Mike and Linda Bradbrook are helpful and have trail lists and maps.
There’s just enough time to check in for a two-night stay, drop your bags in your room and head to dinner at Trinks Cafe, an upscale restaurant tucked into a small shopping mall two blocks up the street and brimming with a mix of locals and tourists.
Like most restaurants in town, Trinks stops taking orders at 8 p.m., so don’t delay. Choose from a half-dozen well-prepared entrees including burgers, fresh seafood and salads with a fine selection of wines and superb service to top it off. Trinks’ fridge is stocked with yummy food and desserts to go, which you might consider for your picnic lunch tomorrow.
Gualala is a bustling town of 2,000, where Sea Ranch and coast residents to the north stock up on groceries and catch up with one another. A historic lumber and railroad town, it is now known more for its broad sand beach, its park and campground, and fine art featured in galleries and the Gualala Art Center. “Downtown” is three blocks long, and everything is within an easy stroll of your hotel.
You can spend the entire weekend exploring the trails at Gualala Point Regional Park or do what I did: Save the park for Sunday and spend Saturday in Point Arena. You hop the 7:45 a.m. MTA Route 75 bus on Saturday morning, and Point Arena is 20 minutes up the road.