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.
IF YOU GO
Gualala Country Inn, 47955 Center St., Gualala, 707-884-4343. Sprawling yellow country inn featuring rooms with views of river and ocean. Some rooms have gas fireplaces. Robust continental breakfast served in the sitting room.
The Breakers Inn, 39300 Highway 1, Gualala, 707-884-3200. Condo-like hotel featuring 28 themed rooms with balconies that overlook the Pacific. Most have fireplaces and spas.
The Surf Motel, 39170 Highway 1, Gualala, 707-884-3571. Comfortable, basic lodge-style rooms on the ocean side of the highway. An overnight stay comes with full breakfast.
Gualala Point Regional Park campground, 42401 Highway 1, Gualala. 707-785-2377. Ask your bus driver to drop you at the campground. For those camping without a car, it’s $5/per person per/night, and several sites are left open for first-come-first-served. Campsites 1-5 are next to the river. All sites are shaded by massive old-growth redwoods. There are also several walk-in sites with more privacy.
Trinks,Café, 39140 Highway 1, Gualala 707-884-1713. Family-owned fixture of local diners and visitors alike, offering fresh, tasty breakfast, lunch and gourmet dinners, and featuring mouth-watering desserts. Reservations advised during summer.
Cove Azul Bar & Grill, 39102 Ocean Drive, Gualala, 707-884-1835. Dinner entrees feature pasta, seafood, steaks and salads. Beer on tap.
Upper Crust Pizzeria, 39331 Highway 1, Gualala, 707 884-1324. Local pizza lovers’ favorite place. Small and comfortable with a friendly atmosphere and reputation for great pizza and calzones. Build your own or order one of the specialty pizzas. Beer, wine and soft drinks.
MTA Bus Schedules and Routes
This trip used two bus routes: The MTA 95 and 75. In Gualala, both buses drop and pick you up at the Sundstrom Mall across Center Street from the Gualala Country Inn. Total round-trip cost for Route 95 Santa Rosa to Gualala and back: $16.50/per person; $8.20/per peson for ages 62 and up. Total Route 75 round-trip cost from Gualala to Point Arena and back: $4.50/per person; $2.20/per person for ages 62 and up. Bikes ride free.