Jenner, California: a Pearl on the Sonoma Coast

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Spring is here, flowers are blooming, and it’s a great time to take a day trip along the California coast. Expect to unplug. You won’t find much cell coverage in many of these places.

One of our favorite spots is along the Sonoma coast where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean: Jenner. There are these giant cliffs covered in ice plants that have bright pink, yellow, and purple flowers. There are tons of beaches you can stop at for a picnic, and one even has seals and their babies you can go see while they are sleeping. It’s almost like a mini Big Sur- except without the traffic and the crowds. And the drive through Point Reyes to get there is beautiful too – lots of great places to hike and local cheese and oysters you can try.

You can always go the fast way through Petaluma, which is also pretty. But we like to take the scenic route along Lucas Valley Road. Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas (no relation to the road’s namesake), has a huge ranch out here called Skywalker Ranch. You can’t see it from the road, just the gate, but it’s in a pretty beautiful remote spot. The road goes through all these super pretty hills, which have happy free-range cows grazing on them, many of which are used to make Strauss Family Creamery milk. Then you go through some redwood forests where I like to roll the windows down and breathe in all the woodsy air.

Eventually, you come out around Point Reyes Station. If you want to stop, this is a super cute one horse town where you can find a public bathroom and one of the biggest grocery stores for miles (which is actually not much bigger than a convenience store). I’d say they have a gas station too but you won’t need it with our Priuses. The best place to check out here is Cowgirl Creamery where you can taste some of the dairy made locally. We really love their Red Hawk triple-crème cheese made with native wild Marin bacteria. There’s a cute little park outside where you can get a baguette and eat it right away if you really can’t wait.

Just a little further up a super windy road that goes right along Tomales Bay and right below a ton of grassy hills is an even tinier town called Marshall. It has homes from the 1800s – practically ancient by California standards – sitting right above Tomales Bay. You can rent a kayak here (check out Blue Waters), paddle across to one of the beaches and camp out overnight. You can even see bioluminescence where plankton in the sea turn bright blue green colors as you paddle like ocean fireworks!

But the highlight of Marshall if you like seafood is the Hog Island Oyster Company. If you walk past the take out counter and the giant tubs full of oysters, they have about 20 picnic tables right by Tomales Bay. You can choose to shuck oysters yourself and they provide all the tools and a grill – just be careful! Or you can be lazy and let them do it for you. It’s almost impossible to get a table here though. Some people book up to 4 months ahead! We like to just get a dozen oysters to take away and then shuck them ourselves on a beach. They have lemons, shucking knife, and even a protective glove (we just bring a hand towel and fold it in half) that you can buy if you don’t bring your own stuff.

Keep driving along Tomales Bay through fields of tall purple and yellow flowers and it will eventually spit you out onto a bluff right above the Sonoma coast. The bluffs are all covered in small flowers and there are lots of beaches and bluffs where you can pull off to see the ocean. They are all beautiful, but our favorite spot is about a 45 minute drive north of Marshall called Goat Rock Beach. It’s the last one after a long string of beaches and bluffs so it’s hard to hold out, but it’s totally worth it. It looks like it’s straight out of a movie set. You can take a short walk to the top of the hill as you enter the park and get an amazing view of the coast both north and south. If you are feeling ambitious, you can also walk south from the peak along the bluffs right above the ocean which is amazing.

If you want to go to the beach, follow the road to the end and there are two parking lots. The one to the left down a short dirt road is right below Goat Rock and gives you access to an amazing beach below the bluffs, which gives you a great view to an arched rock off in the distance. This is a fantastic beach where you could easily spend the whole afternoon.

If you want to see seals sunning themselves, take the road to the right and park at the very end. You’ll have to walk upwards of a mile and a half depending on where they are out a soft sandy spit along the Russian River. Please note, because of the seals, they don’t allow dogs on this beach though you can bring Fido onto almost any other beach nearby. If you want to see them without all the effort, you can also see them from a turnout above Jenner. It’s further away, but a lot easier! Bring binoculars if you have them.

After you have had your fill of the beach (and your oysters and cheese!), drive just another 5 minutes down the road across the Russian River to the outpost of Jenner. This town is basically just a dip in the road with little more than a post office, gas station, and a few stores and hotels. You can rent a kayak and go out into the Russian River if you like (see WaterTreks). What we love to do is go to Cafe Aquatica, have a coffee (or an affogato!) and lounge in their Adirondack chairs looking out at the Russian River as it rolls out to meet the ocean. You can also get a pretty good sandwich or pastry here if you like and their coffee and most of their food is organic. Note that they close at 4pm in the winter and 5pm in the summer.

If you don’t mind camping and don’t like planning, there is a walkup campground right along the Russian River called Willow Creek Environmental Campground (note: they don’t allow dogs). For $25, don’t expect much for amenities- just pit toilets, a grill, a picnic table, and the one luxury – a cabinet to keep your food and bags away from animals. But the location along the river is hard to beat. Since no one else can reserve a site either, you can actually get something last minute especially if you are able to camp outside of Friday or Saturday night or get there early in the morning. If you are looking to unplug with a bit more rustic glamping luxury, we suggest the River’s End cabins. They advertise no TVs, no wifi, no telephones, no cell coverage, no New York Times, just the sound of the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River outside your door.

You can easily spend a whole weekend in this area or even continue along the coast as part of a multi-day adventure- the Northern Coast continues to amaze all the way! Or you can take the “fast” way home through Guerneville and Santa Rosa or Petaluma. If you go through Santa Rosa and you like beer, you can fill a growler or grab bottles of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder or Henhouse’s Oyster Stout – brewed with Hog Island Oyster Company oysters and sea salt! – to take away. Russian River brewery also has good pizza but a table can be hard to come by on a weekend night.

Jenner is one of our favorite spots along the California coast and it’s still not too crowded even on a busy weekend. So don’t tell anyone! Let’s keep it our little secret…