California Vacation: The Sea Ranch
When you’re feeling restless like the world is pushing in uninvited, it might be Mendonoma time — time to drive up the California coast, top down, in search of a chill escape. Destination: The Sea Ranch. Fresh air, dreamy views, calm climate.
The Sea Ranch Getaway
Mind on Mendonoma
The Sea Ranch Architecture
Things to do in Sea Ranch
Where to Eat
Where to Stay
Know Before you Go
The Sea Ranch Getaway
People often ask why so many of my vacation spots lie along the California coast, since my home is within walking distance to the beach. Not complaining. But real life will have its way wherever you live, and stress still slips in around the edges. If my town’s beach has taught me anything, its that each stretch of the California coast has it’s own ambiance, it’s own stories to tell.
Mind on Mendonoma
Mendonoma is a made-up word for a magical place in the middle between Sonoma and Mendocino counties, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. That’s where you’ll find The Sea Ranch, an unincorporated area of coastline perfect for seekers of Pacific peace and serenity.
The place, at the very top of California’s Sonoma coast, features plenty of big nature and low profile lodging meant to blend in with the landscape — often with ocean views. You won’t find many shops or restaurants in The Sea Ranch proper. For that, you’ll want to head just a few miles north to Gualala (pronounced wa-LA-la) in Mendocino. More about that in a bit.
First time visitors to The Sea Ranch often confuse the place with it’s namesake hotel called Sea Ranch Lodge, which is the first civilized thing you’ll see as you enter the area from the south after a long stretch of wild highway that winds around the cliffs. I stayed at the lodge this time, although friends with small children enjoyed a wide variety of vacation rentals. This is my story and review of my visit to The Sea Ranch and Sea Ranch Lodge, with savvy tips to help you plan your own savvy stay sometime soon.
The Nature of The Sea Ranch Architecture
My first impression of The Sea Ranch is that it has a bit of a split personality. Two dichotomies converge at The Sea Ranch: the wild and the controlled. I love the wildness, from the raptors that claim the craggy bluffs, to the hidden coves that appear only at low tide, the driftwood dotting black sandy beaches, whales breaching in the surf, and foxes hunting in open meadows.
The controlled part seems just as fierce, like an unyielding, town-wide gated community. Due to architectural guidelines drawn up in the 1960s, all houses feature low profiles and must be built from natural wood materials. The Sea Ranch community association sees that all private homes are situated and designed to honor the natural landscape. This minimalist approach for “living lightly on the land” gives the place a sense of calm and natural dignity, but may seem stifling to potential residents.
The neighborhoods are set amid the hills and meadows and a few 100-year-old cypress hedgerows planted in the early 1900s to break the northwest winds.
Walk or drive around town and you can view homes designed by renowned architects Charles W. Moore, Joseph Esherick, William Turnbull, Donlyn Lyndon and Richard Whitaker. Check out the building known as Condominium One, which was added to The National Register of Historic Places a little over a decade ago.
Things to do in Sea Ranch California
Savvy Tip: For this getaway, you will need a car. And getting there during the daytime is a good idea or you’ll miss the spectacular ocean views. Also, the windy roads to this Mendonoma destination look a lot scarier in the dark if you’re not used to them.
If you’re checking in to The Sea Ranch Lodge, walk from the back of the hotel past the wildflowers to the coastal trail and down the steep wooden stairway to Black Point Beach. This is the natural first thing to do, even if you’re staying in another nearby location. Whatever you do, the idea is to just breath deep, chill out, and get into The Sea Ranch state of mind.
Follow the trail from Sea Ranch Lodge out toward the ocean and go north (a right turn) along the bluffs. The bluff-top trail stretches for 10 miles.
Savvy Tip: The bluff-top trail is dog-friendly!
Depending on the time of year, you’ll see flowers growing wild, including Calla Lillies, Lupine, California Poppy, Ice Plants, and Buttercups. You’ll also see some homes on your right, tucked into the natural landscape. The trail leads to several beaches. Or continue on the bluff trail a couple of miles and you’ll see a seal preserve, in the cove below, where seals lounge around with their pups in the spring. People aren’t allowed on that beach. The “Do Not Disturb” sign along the trail is a tip off that you’re passing the preserve, or you may hear the seals distinctive bark.
Along with walking the bluffs and beaches, favorite activities in The Sea Ranch include whale watching, wine tasting, and bike riding. Guests renting vacation homes have access to the community swimming pool, tennis courts and golf course.
Day trippers can go to the public beaches along Highway 1, rent bicycles, go wine tasting (more on that below), along with other outdoor activities up and down the coast. The more adventurous may spend the day abalone diving. (Abalone season is April through November.) Families might enjoy tide pooling at Pebble Beach’s cove or launching a boat off Shell Beach.
While you’re walking the bluffs gazing out to sea at the waves and whales, don’t forget to look up. Along with the can’t miss squadrons of Pelicans, bird nerds have noted more than 100 species of birds, including raptors (Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Hawk, Osprey), Great Blue Heron, Oystercatcher, White-tailed Kite, Steller’s Jay, Kingfisher, Pine Siskin, Barn Swallow, American Goldfinch, and more.
A Place to Meditate
The quirky Sea Ranch Chapel is one building that stands out from the rest, Or is it just a variation on a theme? To me, it looks like a cockeyed witches hat, and a stark contrast to the simple exteriors that characterize the town. Others say it looks like a bird in flight, a shell, or a cresting wave. All in good fun, say the locals sitting on redwood benches beside me. Everyone looks amazing bathed in the golden light pouring through the chapel’s colorful stained glass.
Look up and you’ll see the sculpted floral ceiling embedded with sea shells. The floor is natural stone inlaid with a floral mosaic. A beloved local attraction, the chapel is a favorite stop for visitors looking for a quiet place to pray or meditate.
Go to Gualala
If you’re staying in The Sea Ranch, going to Gualala is a given. Gualala is an artists community just a few pleasant miles up the coast in Mendocino County. Go for breakfast or lunch, to pick up groceries, or to browse the shops and art galleries. You can also go kayaking on the Gualala River, which runs though The Sea Ranch.
If you have a day to kill, check out Gualala Point Regional Park. Tucked between The Sea Ranch in Sonoma County, and Gualala in Mendocino County, this 195 acre park boasts a campground, trail system, ocean views and beaches.
Drive to Annapolis Winery
If you’re up for an afternoon drive, take the twisty country road eight miles up the hill to Annapolis Winery for some free wine tasting with panoramic vineyard views. Owned and operated by the Scalabrini family, the winery produces small amounts of locally grown hand-crafted, award-winning ultra-premium wines.
Where to Eat on the Mendonoma Coast
Black Point Grill
My go-to spot for dinner is the Black Point Grill at Sea Ranch Lodge. The food is tasty, and the coastal views are even better. If you’re staying at the lodge, they’ll give you a voucher for a free breakfast. And in the evenings, the bar is a warm and friendly spot to relax after a day outdoors. Just outside the restaurant you can grab a seat in one of Sea Ranch Lodge’s Adirondack chairs to watch the sunset over the ocean.
Other Places to Grab a Bite
You won’t find many dining options in The Sea Ranch, other than the Black Point Grill, but it’s a short drive north to the town of Gualala where you’ll find the following recommended eateries.
- Trinks: A popular locals hangout with great food and coffee. This is my favorite spot for breakfast. Trinks features specialty sandwiches, bakery items, and good coffee.
- Gualala Pizza & Bakery: Pizza, Chinese, and Mexican baked goods.
- St. Orres: Locally sourced ingredients with specialties like wild game.
- Antonio’s Tacos: Authentic Local Mexican food. Nuff said?
- Stewarts Point Store: Local artisinal breads and pastries, with a small breakfast and lunch menu with popular items like the breakfast burrito, calzones, and the pilgrim turkey sandwich. On Friday’s they stay open late for Pizza Night, popular with the locals. The store is now owned by the former Two Fish Baking Company folks.
- Surf Market: Not really a restaurant but they feature a full-service deli with sandwiches and decent coffee.This is the go-to place to pick up groceries, local organic produce, meats, cheeses, wine, and beer.
Where to Stay in The Sea Ranch, California
For this stay in The Sea Ranch, I chose Sea Ranch Lodge, an upscale-rustic all-wood architectural resort that fits the architectural theme of the area. The images here are of the room where I stayed. Amazing view, right? All but one of the 20 rooms have ocean views.
The lobby features a cozy stone fireplace and comfortable leather couches. There’s a little gift shop to the left of the front desk area where you can purchase trinkets and maps of the area.
The lodge’s restaurant Black Point Grill is a place I would eat even if I wasn’t staying there. The complimentary gourmet breakfast — I loved the French toast with fresh blueberries and whipped cream — is all the better for the view of the ocean from every table. On the lawn outside the restaurant, a few Adirondack chairs face the same ocean view over the rugged cliffs.
Cons of Sea Ranch Lodge? First, the walls are far from soundproof since the place was built in the ’70s. You will hear your neighbors if they’re noisy (mine were).
Second, they charge you more if you book direct. To test things out for this blog post, I booked my room directly with the lodge on my own nickel. I didn’t tell them who I was or that I was blogging about my stay. I spoke to the front desk clerk about the price difference when I arrived and he just shrugged and told me they have to charge more than their booking partners. I asked if there were any perks for loyal guests who pay more to book directly with them. “Uh, no.” So …
The Sea Ranch: Know Before You Go
Here are a few savvy resources to help you plan your own escape to The Sea Ranch in the Mendonoma area on the Northern California Coast.
- Sea Ranch Lodge: Located at 60 Sea Walk Drive, The Sea Ranch CA; 707-785-2371.
- Vacation Rentals in The Sea Ranch CA: You’ll find both hotels and vacations homes listed on Booking.com’s Sea Ranch page. Or see The Sea Ranch rentals via Airbnb (my referral link gets you a $40 credit on your first stay).
- Annapolis Winery: located at 26055 Soda Springs Rd., Annapolis; 707-886-5460 (in The Sea Ranch area). Tasting room is open from noon to 5pm daily. Kid and dog-friendly.
- Sea Ranch Chapel: Located at 40033 Highway 1, The Sea Ranch, California (at the northern end of Sea Ranch, on the east side of Highway 1. Open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset.
- Beaches: You’ll find three nearby beaches to choose from. Using The Sea Ranch Lodge, as a starting point:
- Black Point Beach (0.8 mi)
- Galleons Point (1.7 mi)
- Pebble Beach (2.1 mi)
- Black Point Grill at Sea Ranch Lodge (707-785-2371)
- Antonio’s Tacos (707-884-1789)
- Gualala Pizza & Bakery (707- 884-4055)
- St. Orres 707-884-3335.
- Trinks (707-884-1713)
- Stewarts Point Store (707-785-2011)
- Surf Market (707-884-4184)
- Other Points of Interest:
- Pebble Beach
- Galleons Point
- Gerstle Cove
- Gualala Point Regional Park
- Gualala Arts Center
- Hauser Bridge
- Salt Point State Park
- Sea Ranch Golf Links
- Sentinel Rock