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Plan your visit

WHERE: The Jenner Headlands gateway is located 2 miles north of the town of Jenner on Highway 1. The gate will be open every day from 8 a.m. to sunset. Parking is limited.

DOGS: Dogs on leash are allowed on the headlands, though not on the final mile of Sea to Sky, which is on Pole Mountain land.

BIKES, HORSES: Neither mountain bikes nor horses are currently allowed on the headlands except during guided rides scheduled several times each year.

For more information and to subscribe to the preserve newsletter, visit their website.

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.

Plan your visit

WHERE: The Jenner Headlands gateway is located 2 miles north of the town of Jenner on Highway 1. The gate will be open every day from 8 a.m. to sunset. Parking is limited.

DOGS: Dogs on leash are allowed on the headlands, though not on the final mile of Sea to Sky, which is on Pole Mountain land.

BIKES, HORSES: Neither mountain bikes nor horses are currently allowed on the headlands except during guided rides scheduled several times each year.

For more information and to subscribe to the preserve newsletter, visit their website.

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.

Standing there at 500 feet, the cars below are tiny toys, and the sky is incredibly wide. Above the steep knoll, with the flat expanse of the Pacific stretched out in front, it’s possible to see nearly the entire blue bowl.

Early fall weather along the Sonoma coast is a fluid but tangible thing. Visitors talk about how changeable it is. Intense hot sun and open clear blue skies, damp drifting mist or cheek-chilling, clothes-flapping wind — all are possible, all on the same day. It’s a far more raw experience than the tourism sites let on, but it’s true to the character of the North Coast.

If you spend awhile on Sentinel Point, above the sea, you can watch it happening. Lines of clouds stretch and pass high above. The color of the ocean changes with the weather, from turquoise to gray blue, cobalt to bottle green. At certain times of the day or season, the winds will fleck the sea with white, biting and ferocious. But when the howling gusts subside and leave calm air, during the summer months, fog banks form offshore, as warm air makes contact with cold water pulled up from the deeps.

That dense fog is why redwoods once grew here in such numbers and enormous size. And why lumber companies owned this land for so many decades.

This stretch of Northern California has two distinct seasons, the green and the brown, and in October the hillsides and grasses are well into their tan and dusty dry wait for winter rains. The signs at the trailhead advise hikers to carry water – there is none to drink on the trail – and walking upslope in the hot direct sun soon brings one to appreciate just how dry the environment here actually is.

The smart plants who’ve adapted here, like the redwoods, have precise tricks and clever features to capture precious water drops from the fogs that waft over. Others rely on deep tap roots, reaching tens of feet to find subsurface water trapped in the rock, until that too is gone. Then the waiting begins. Along the trail, in the mid-day heat, even the multitudes of birds are hunkered down.

Up on Pole Mountain, where the fog doesn’t reach, the shrubs and trees look lush, despite the dry and heat of fall. The oaks here grow incredibly tall and stout, and still retain deep green leaves, unlike many of their cousins in Sonoma County’s lower, inland hills.

The reason has to do with the way the mountain affects the weather. Storms in winter sweep wet from Russia across the Pacific, and down from Alaska, and if the blocking high-pressure ridge does not form, they run aground here. When they do, the moisture-heavy clouds are pushed by winds up the steep face of the mountain, chilling as they rise, higher and higher. As they do, droplets form, and they release their rain. And as a result, in an average year, the mountaintop receives 30 inches more water than the coastal bluffs below.

Originally, the land along the ocean bluffs here were coastal prairie, grazed by herds of wildlife. Upslope they were backed by ancient forests, stands of redwoods and firs, hardwood oaks, madrone and bay. After Russian trappers, European and American migrants arrived, the wildlands were converted to ranches. The vast forests of redwood were heavily harvested, and clearcut as recently as the ’60s.

Human activities still deeply mark the land in the preserve. Much of the native tapestry of forests was replaced by pasture for grazing sheep and cattle that took a heavy toll. Many of the native California grasses and prairie and the wild streams were degraded or overtaken by foreign, imported species. The familiar blonde hillsides here, windblown wild oats that go emerald green in the spring, are foreigners, that arrived on the hooves of imported livestock. Feral pigs, originally introduced from Asia and Europe, root and ruin here ,too. Of the five major streams that drain the preserve, few stretches escaped heavy silting from lumber roads, cattle damage and the loss of steelhead and salmon.

But resilient remnants of the wild habitats remain. Once fenced off behind locked gates, for the first time in a century they can now be discovered and enjoyed by hikers. Towering redwood groves still offer deep shade and quiet. Higher up, in the thinner soils of the highlands, gray-barked giant oaks spread tremendous limbs. Creeks sustain trees and wildlife in their canyons. Wildflowers erupt in color on hillsides in the spring.

Under the protection of the new Preserve’s detailed management plan, the native plants and wildlife species — black bears and bats, mountain lions and badgers, and hundreds of species more — will be given a chance to revive and re-establish.

In September, the Monarch butterflies respond to some inner clock and flutter steadily south for hundreds of miles, and as they pass through the preserve, some pause in the trees there. We spotted a few on the wing, orange and black against the sky. They’ve been coming long before we arrived: the cycle of life on the Headlands stretches back millions of years. It’s a distinct and rich place, shaped by a unique confluence of sea, land and air.

If you visit — and you should — it’s worth remembering that the entire place, more than 6,000 acres of ocean and mountain vistas, forests and watersheds, grasslands and wildlife, would have been permanently off-limits to the public, were it not for a monumental, decadeslong effort. Thanks to years of dedicated effort and resources and a cadre of champions, it’s now protected and open to the public.

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

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