Jenner Headlands preserve takes hikers to breathtaking heights
If you drive out Highway 1 north of Bodega Bay along the winding coastline, and cross the bridge above the Russian River, about five minutes north of Jenner you'll spot a neatly engineered and spacious new paved parking lot cut into a grass-covered hillside, just above the road.
This is the trailhead for the newly opened Jenner Headlands Preserve, which stretches far above and right and left. It looks like empty land, but it's not.
The new stone-faced bathrooms aren't open yet but the trails are, and they lead uphill into the heart of coastal California. It's wildly scenic. But that's not why you should come, and it's not the reason the preserve should be on your short list of California wonders.
The reason it deserves to be treasured is because it's one of those rare places you can still go to measure yourself against the truly humbling scale of nature.
The best way to enjoy the view from the top of Pole Mountain, the highest point in the Preserve, is to turn slowly in a circle. That's because, except for the vintage wooden fire lookout, there are no obstacles in any direction you look. You're high above the blue Pacific, within sight of where the Russian River meets the sea. The summit here is 2,204 feet, twice as high as Salesforce Tower, the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, so from the mountain peak you can see a very, very long way. Nearly everything is lower than you. Soaring raptors circle below. The morning fog bank, snugged up along the coast mile after mile, looks like a vast white comforter.
Getting to the top of Pole Mountain is a challenge, and relatively few Californians are likely to make it. For one thing, you have to hike there. It's more than 7 uphill miles from the coast, and the relatively strenuous 15-mile round trip has to be completed before sundown, when rangers lock the gate. There's no water along the way, and the single track trail is rough and uneven many places, still settling in.
While that's a reasonable day's excursion for some - the first three days the trail was open 28 people did it - for many, including myself, it's too far.
I got to the top one morning in September not by walking, but by volunteering. On the first day the preserve was opened to public access, Sonoma Land Trust, which shares management responsibility with The Wildlands Conservancy, gave four of us a 25-minute truck ride up a narrow dirt fire road to spend the day on the summit, greeting and re-hydrating anyone intrepid enough to climb there the hard way. We stopped several times along the way at metal gates, to open and reset the combination locks. It was no-trespassing, private property, right up to the boundary of the Preserve.
At the summit we watched the changing vistas, and explored the mountain. The sun melted the fog and morning haze over the ocean far below. To the east, long lines of forested ridges stood like wave tops between low habited valleys. Mount Saint Helena looms on the far horizon, with the dim purple haze of the Sierras visible beyond. To the west, and north and south, the golden and green hillsides drop and rise steeply in roller-coaster fashion towards the ocean, which sparkled when it emerged from beneath the fog.
From these high hilltops, the ancestors of today's Kashia Band of Pomo Indians would have had a clear view of the sails of Spanish Galleons passing, beginning in 1565. Once or twice every year, the treasure galleons, loaded with oriental luxuries, porcelains, silks and spices, would run down the coastline here as they sailed south to Acapulco, after crossing 3,000 miles of open Pacific, and making first landfall along the Mendocino coast.
Around 2 in the afternoon, Gary Cannon, a lean San Diegan, retired from the Coastal Commission, appeared at the Sky end of the Sea to Sky trail, becoming the first member of the public to reach the Pole Mountain summit on opening day. After posing for photos, he turned and started back down, and we had the place all to ourselves.
From the car park blacktop, the trails in the preserve lead north and south. They join uphill in the middle after a couple miles, but with only moderate walks in either direction you can get high enough to begin to see the true scale of the land and sky and sea. The northerly trail climbs first to a perch called Sentinel Point. Here, if you face the ocean, you can turn your head and see the edge of the continent, the coastline, first over one shoulder and then the other, from horizon to horizon, receding into invisibility. There's no railing, nothing but the rocky knob, the salt air and the dry grass, which make a heady scent.