A Road Trip Exploring California’s Sonoma Coast Area
There’s no question that northern California leaves you spoiled for choice with its stunning stretches of coastline. And it’s not like the Sonoma Coast is “under the radar” or anything, but somehow I don’t hear it talked about as often.
But it’s so close to San Francisco and pairs perfectly with wine country, and also feels kind of…quieter. There’s a simpler, almost bucolic, feel here, and so let’s talk about exploring the Sonoma Coast.
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This particular post is focused right along the coast itself, but it’s not exhaustive and I didn’t do this as a standalone…instead I was staying in Guerneville on this particular trip (Santa Rosa on a different one) and so I explored the larger Sonoma Coast and Valley area.
My coastal roadtrip here also connected inland into the Sonoma Valley and Russian River Valley areas (known for wine among other things), redwood hiking, delightful towns like Sebastapol and Healdsburg, great food, breweries, wineries, and more.
Other Sonoma-area adventures for your trip:
Transportation details for the Sonoma Coast
One of the huge selling points for the Sonoma Coast is that it’s such an easy drive from San Francisco, so whether you’re a Bay area local wanting to get away, or a tourist flying into SFO (or tiny Santa Rosa), it’s really convenient. You basically leave the San Francisco airport and head right up the coast.
I’m going to throw back to some of the tips from my epic Oregon coast roadtrip, because the same things apply here…
Yes, you absolutely need a car. This is not the type of trip where public transportation is a valid option or solely relying on Uber or Lyft will work. Renting a car for a few days or even a week is generally affordable (especially if you have a good credit card that offers car rental insurance), but I’d recommend not waiting til the last minute.
Don’t rush. This is one of those “the journey IS the destination” experiences. The roads are narrow, it’s a fairly rural-feeling area, and it’s not uncommon to get stuck behind slow-moving vehicles (including tractors). You’ll be exhausted and irritated if you schedule your itinerary too tight, and so much of the pleasure is in stopping constantly for photos, impulse pastries, or little hikes.
There is very little cell service!!! There are many spots around the area that are total dead signal, or you might get one bar but you can’t actually do anything with it. Plan ahead and download offline maps, take snapshots of directions, and just realize that you might be rollin’ 90s-style. (Note, I’ve visited both with Verizon and AT&T and it was the same on both, and for all the people I was with, including locals.)
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Where to stay on the Sonoma Coast
I actually stayed inland on both trips, as I was there on winery business. So I can’t recommend something directly on the coast but there are some good options (I looked there for a while).
I’ve stayed both in Santa Rosa at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country and in Guerneville at the unique Sonoma Orchid Inn (now called Mine and Farm, The Inn at Guerneville), and can recommend both. The former is a nice hotel, very “upscale chain hotel with a local flair”, and the latter is a unique B&B.
If you’re *only* going to be on the coast, then staying there makes sense. Otherwise I’d consider all the places you want to visit and find a pretty central location as driving times can add up (two-lane highways, getting stuck behind slow moving vehicles, etc.). Somewhere more inland can make your life easier (and give you better access to food options).
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What to see and do along the coast
I don’t have a super long list of things to do on the Sonoma Coast, because a lot of it is simply driving along Highway 1 and experiencing the stunning coastal views. A lot of the charm is in being able to do all that, stop whenever you want, and also then pair it with activities…whether adventure-y ones like river rafting or indulgent ones like sipping wine.
So I’m starting with a number of the beaches and views, then a hike recommendation, and lastly an amazing dinner option. There are several well-known beaches along the coast, but also lots of unlabeled ones.
I’ve tried to label the pics below as accurately as possible, but I also did a lot of stopping just along the highway at pullouts, so a few of these pics may not be labeled as clearly.
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Goat Rock Beach
Because I drove over from Guerneville to the coast, I started toward the top and drove down. I briefly stopped here on my drive down the coast, but it was overcast and I was in a hurry, so I didn’t linger. But a couple days later we were driving to dinner as a group and we stopped here for some beautiful late afternoon views of the waves.
We watched the waves crash and roll, and the seals bobbing in the water (I couldn’t get a good pic from this far away!). We also watched that guy there lose a flipflop and almost lose HIMSELF by not paying attention to the waves…fair warning, the ocean along this whole stretch can be dangerous and the waves can grab ya.
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Duncan’s Cove or Duncan’s Landing
A bit further down the coast I stopped at Duncan’s Cove and loved the cliffs and crashing waves…and had it all to myself.
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I’m pretty sure this was just a random pullout, and there are so many of these along the road…don’t only go to the beaches that have signs, but just stop whenever your heart pulls at you!
Do some coastal hiking (I did Bodega Head)
Located in the 17-mile-long Sonoma Coast State Park, the Bodega Head Trail is one of the most well-known trails in the area and offers stunning views up the Pacific coast as well as beautiful vistas of inland Bodega Bay. It’s an easy 1.7-mile loop, basically level, and good for people of all fitness levels.
It had been overcast all day, and then just as I parked, the clouds cleared and I got this glorious, vivid view!
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Part of the hike is a little more inland, with views back over the bay on the other side. But once you get to the ocean side, you’re greeted with soaring cliffs, crashing waves, gorgeous turquoise water, and occasionally a pop of color from the wildflowers.
As you can see, there aren’t any railings or safeguards, which to me adds to the beauty…but people with little kids should be VERY careful.
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Enjoy sunset with a view…and amazing food
And what’s a coastal drive without dinner and a view?! There are a number of good options here, but I highly recommend getting a reservation at River’s End in Jenner, right around sunset.
I hadn’t been able to get a reservation due to having no cell service, but took my chances on snagging a seat at the bar and got lucky. I sipped delicious cocktails and slipped out every so often to capture the sunset as it developed. You just can’t beat these views! (Side note, they also have cabins to rent here.)
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For dinner I had a beet and goat cheese tower, a whitefish in tomato broth with corn and zucchini (it was fine but not my favorite), and an amazing peach and nectarine trifle. Food, drinks, and service were all great, and a wonderful example of the food culture here in Sonoma.
We also had dinner at Bayview Restaurant at Inn at the Tides one night, also a great dinner option, with a nice patio. The views aren’t as good though, as you’d have to cross the highway to really see the sunset.
So there are some ideas for things to do on the Sonoma Coast…beautiful sea views, hiking, and delicious food. Make sure to explore the rest of the Sonoma Valley and surrounding area as well for an amazing trip!
Other amazing coastal roadtrips to inspire you:
- Epic Road Trip Itinerary: A Guide To The Oregon Coast
- Exploring England’s Jurassic Coast
- Waves and Off-Roading on Maui’s Road to Hana
- Scotland’s Elgin Cathedral & Driving The North East 250 Route
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