Five hidden secrets on Sonoma Coast's Kortum Trail

Visitors and locals looking for an easy but stunning coastal walk will find happiness on the Kortum Trail, a largely level, blufftop four-mile round trip, winding high above the Pacific surf between Wrights Beach and Blind Beach, roughly six miles north of Bodega Bay. With abundant wildlife, rugged coastline, big skies and long vistas, it’s a great outdoors experience year-round. Sea birds on the Pacific flyway, whales commuting just offshore, resident deer, raptors, rabbits, foxes and ample wildflowers offer abundant nature watching opportunities, and also make the Kortum Trail a great outing for families.

Hidden in plain sight along the trail are several amazing wonders, secrets to all but a few. Here’s five to spot.

1. Sonoma serengeti

Starting at the north end of the trail, in the saddle near Peaked Hill (the highest point on the Kortum Trail) you can look south and see a wide, level plain below. Those grasslands are the remnants of an ancient, ecologically unique coastal prairie that until 15,000 years ago was home to vast migrating herds, including giant mammoths, zebra-like horses, huge sloths and bison, as well as predators like saber-toothed tigers, dire wolves and ?California lion. During the Ice Ages, when sea levels were dramatically lower, this prairie stretched an additional 15 miles out to sea and was a vast, rich habitat that rivaled the African Serengeti Plain in abundant wildlife.

2. Mammoth rubbing rocks

As you walk downhill from the saddle, you’ll see several giant stone sentinels rising from the plain. These monoliths were carved by the ocean surf when sea levels were higher and the plain was beneath the Pacific Ocean. They’re actually ancient sea stacks, just like the ones standing out in the ocean today. As you pass them, look for large smooth patches along the rough vertical sides, down low and up high. Those patches are believed to have been worn smooth by generations of passing ancient mammoths rubbing their backs and sides against them - a grooming behavior still seen in African elephants today.

3. Standing on the San Andreas Fault

The San Andreas, nearly 800 miles long, runs beneath Bodega Bay (which was formed by the fault) and along the coastline, where it passes under the Kortum Trail, and then follows it just offshore. The fault is a breach in the crust caused by the ongoing titanic collision between the Pacific Plate on the west, and the North American Plate you’re standing on. In a few minutes of violent shaking during the 1906 earthquake, the ocean side of the fault here, and everything on it, lurched north 15 feet.

4. Deadliest beach

There’s a sign at Wright’s Beach, at the southern terminus of the Kortum Trail, warning that this is one of California’s deadliest beaches. All of Sonoma County’s beaches are dangerous, but since the 1930s, ?126 drownings have occurred at Wright’s Beach alone. It’s not obvious but the beach drops off steeply here, like a driveway. Heavy waves break suddenly and close to shore, pulling the unwary down. State Parks lifeguards who patrol here liken it to standing at the top of a waterfall you can’t see. Sleeper waves are common, and combined with riptides, make this a dangerous place, best appreciated from a spot well above the surf line.

5. Room with a view

We are not the first people to walk here. For proof, after hiking the Kortum Trail stop at the pullout for Duncan’s Point on Highway 1 just south of Wright’s Beach, which holds one of the oldest coastal lodgings in all of California. On the point is a Paleolithic rock shelter, a seaside cave that was occupied for at least ?8,500 years by native Pomo and Coast Miwok peoples, whose living descendants are still residents of Sonoma County. Known as Hipu-lana, or Coyote Hole, and today largely filled with sand, the rock shelter also marked the traditional southern boundary of the Pomo people. Unfortunately, the site has been targeted by looters hunting illegally for artifacts. Enjoy the ancient history of the first Californians, and please respect the site and California law; do not disturb or remove anything.

The Kortum Trail can be accessed at several points along the trail as well as from the parking areas near Wright’s Beach on the south and Blind Beach at the north end, so it’s easy to make a short or long outing. The trail is named for the late Bill Kortum, a Petaluma veterinarian and environmentalist who fought to keep coastline access open to the public, championing the creation of a California Coastal Trail running the length of the state. The trail and its secrets are now a protected part of the Sonoma Coast State Park.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at

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