The Sea Ranch Vacation
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 in Sonoma County, California. Fresh air, dreamy views, calm climate.
On this page:
Mind on Mendonoma: magical place between Sonoma & Mendocino
The Sea Ranch Architecture: Nature + Nurture
Things to do in Sea Ranch: Play, Eat, Stay
“Know Before you Go”: The Sea Ranch trip planning resources
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.
Mind on Mendonoma
Mendonoma is a made-up term 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 its namesake hotel called Sea Ranch Lodge, which is the first building you’ll see as you enter the area from the south after a long stretch of wild highway that winds around the cliffs.
The Sea Ranch Lodge is currently closed. Fortunately I wanted to recommend staying at one of the many amazing vacation rentals instead of the old Sea Ranch Lodge, which is where I stayed last time. The buzz is that the lodge is up for sale. I’ll post updates here. (More about vacation rentals below.)
But you should know that some of the best coastal view are from walks you can take from just behind the lodge, so keep it on your radar for a starting point, wherever you stay.
Here’s what you need to know to plan your visit to the NorCal town called The Sea Ranch, with savvy tips to help you plan your own savvy stay sometime soon.
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. Or you could say it’s a little bit nature, a little bit nurture.
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 Sea Ranch Architecture
Due to architectural guidelines drawn up in the 1960s, all houses feature low profiles and must be built from natural wood materials.
The community association sees that all The Sea Ranch’s 1,800 or so rustic homes are situated and designed to honor the natural landscape. All private homes must have their parking areas hidden from view by low walls. And no streetlights are allowed.
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 in the hills and meadows. A few feature 100-year-old Cypress hedgerows planted in the early 1900s to break the northwest winds. You’ll see sheep happily munching on grasses amid the Cypress trees along the roads.
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. Condominium One, for example, was added to The National Register of Historic Places a little over a decade ago.
Things to do in The Sea Ranch California
For The Sea Ranch 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.
Whatever you do, the idea is to just breath deep, chill out, and get into The Sea Ranch state of mind.
Find The Sea Ranch Trails with Coastal Access
One of our favorite things to do in The Sea Ranch is walk the coastal trails. You’ll find six public trails worth walking, managed by Sonoma County Regional Parks. Bluff Top Trail, Walk on Beach, Shell Beach, Stengel Beach, Pebble Beach, and Black Point.
You can park at one of these access points, and hike from one beach to another.
All of the trails are up high on the bluffs, so you’ll need to walk dow staircases or steep paths. The easiest may be Shell Beach, which also features fun tide pools during low tide.
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 tucked into the natural landscape.
The trails lead to several beaches. Or continue along the bluffs and you’ll see a seal preserve, in the cove below, where seals lounge around with their pups in the spring.
Savvy Tip: The bluff-top trail is dog-friendly!
Watch for the “Do Not Disturb” sign along the trail, a tip off that you’re passing the seal preserve, or you may hear the seals distinctive bark.
Guests renting vacation homes have access to the community swimming pool, tennis courts, golf course, and the private neighborhood roads.
Day trippers can go to the public beaches along Highway 1, rent bicycles, go wine tasting, 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 whale watching, don’t forget to look up.
Bird watching opportunities include more than squadrons of Pelicans. Bird nerds have noted more than 100 species of birds. Keep an eye out for 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.
SAVVY TIP: November through December are the best months for seeing whales migrating south. But in March and April you’re likely to see whales returning north plus the wildflowers are in bloom.
See the Sea Ranch Chapel
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.
Things to do in nearby 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.
If you have a day to kill, check out Gualala Point Regional Park. On Gualala Point at the mouth of the Gualala River in Sonoma County (south of Gualala between The Sea Ranch and Gualala) this 195 acre park boasts a campground, trail system, ocean views and beaches worth visiting.
You can also go kayaking on the Gualala River, which also runs though The Sea Ranch. The Gualala River is a fun place to go kayaking or canoeing, no matter what your activity level.
Adventure Rents is the go to place to rent a top quality watercraft, single or tandem kayak or canoe. You can take a self-guided two-hour paddle. Or book for a half-day tour, which gives you time for time to picnic lunch. Or plan a full day river adventure tour. (See contact info at the bottom of this page.)
Gualala also has a vibrant little local art scene. Start at the 15,000 square foot Gualala Arts Center. Walk the sculpture garden, visit the gallery, or attend an event. You’ll also find man independent galleries around town.
Go Wine Tasting at 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.
Savvy Tip: Bring a picnic lunch or snacks from Surf Market and set up on one of the winery’s family and dog-friendly patio tables.
Where to Eat on the Mendonoma Coast
SAVVY TIP: Skip down to the bottom of this page for links and locations of resources mentioned here.
The Ranch Cafe is new and already a favorite with locals. Located in the Ranch Center in The Sea Ranch, the cafe serves pastries, and an ever changing specials menu for breakfast and lunch.
You won’t find many dining options in The Sea Ranch, but it’s a short drive north to the town of Gualala.
In Gualala, Trinks is 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: is a good spot for Pizza, Chinese food, and Mexican baked goods.
Twofish Baking Company, popular with both locals and tourists, was a popular Sea Ranch restaurant and bakery for 14 years. Recently they moved four miles south, to Stewart’s Point. Still worth a visit, especially for the sticky buns (“big, caramel, walnut sticky goodness”). Also, pizza night is a party (every Friday 4pm until 8:30pm). And the calzones aren’t bad either.
St. Orres features locally sourced ingredients with specialties like wild game, a great choice for fine dining and special occasions.
For locally made artisan gelato and cheeses, try Pazzo Marco Creamery, located at Surf Market. Their Gelato Cart is open on Saturdays (from Memorial Day to Labor Day.)
Local Markets in and around The Sea Ranch
Stewarts Point Store
Stewarts Point Store serves up local artisanal 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 features 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
People usually opt for vacation rentals in The Sea Ranch rather than hotel chains. Many homes are are available for rent and some feature ocean views, hot tubs, and access to local amenities, including the community pool. Although I stayed last time at The Sea Ranch Lodge, which is currently closed, friends say the vacation home rentals in the area are spectacular.
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 in general on the Northern California Coast.
The Sea Ranch Attractions & Activities
26055 Soda Springs Rd., Annapolis, CA
707-886-5460 | www.annapoliswinery.com
Tasting room open noon to 5pm daily. Kid and dog-friendly.
Sea Ranch Chapel
40033 HWY 1, The Sea Ranch, California
(northern end of The Sea Ranch, on the east side of Highway 1)
Open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset.
Adventure Rents: Kayaking and Canoeing on the Gualala River
Mill Bend Launch Location: Gualala River Bridge, HWY 1, Gualala, California
707-884-4386 | www.adventurerents.com
Open daily mid-June through Labor Day weekend
Gualala Point Regional Park
42401 CA-1, Gualala, California
707-785-2377 | parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Visit/Gualala-Point-Regional-Park
Gualala Arts Center
46501 Old State HWY, Gualala, California
707-884-1138 | gualalaarts.org
Sea Ranch Golf Links
42000 HWY 1, Sea Ranch, California
707-785-2468 | www.searanchgolf.com
Scottish Style links with ocean views, open to the public
The Sea Ranch Beaches with Coastal Access
Black Point Coastal Access Trail
35050 HWY 1, The Sea Ranch, California
0.27 mile path through pines and a meadow to stairs down to a sandy cove.
Pebble Beach Coastal Access Trail
36498 HWY 1, The Sea Ranch, California
0.25 mile path over the bluffs to a steep staircase down to the quarter-mile long beach north of Black Point cape, a popular surfing spot.
Stengel Beach Coastal Access Trail
37900 HWY 1, The Sea Ranch, California
0.12 mile path through cypress trees with staircase to small beach with easonal waterfalls.
Shell Beach Coastal Access Trail
39200 HWY 1, The Sea Ranch, California
0.65 mile trail through pine trees and meadow to a wide beach with rocks and tide pools, boat ramp.
Bluff Top Coastal Access Trail
40101 HWY 1, The Sea Ranch, California
3 mile trail along the headlands from Gualala Point Regional Park to Walk on Beach, through cypress grove, meadows, sandstone formations
Walk On Beach Coastal Access Trail
40101 HWY 1, The Sea Ranch, California
0.25 mile trail through a Monterey cypress grove to a quarter-mile beach accessed via staircase.
The Sea Ranch Restaurants
Here are some good ones I’ve been lucky enough to dine at and can recommend.
The Ranch Cafe
35590 Verdant VW, Sea Ranch, California
707-785-4529 | www.theranchcafe.biz
32000 Highway 1, Stewarts Point, California
707-785-2011 | www.twofishbaking.com
Gualala Pizza & Bakery
39225 HWY 1, Gualala, CA
707- 884-4055 | gualalapizzabakery.com
36601 HWY 1, Gualala, California
707-884-3335 | www.saintorres.com
39140 HWY 1, Gualala CA
707-884-1713 | trinkscafe.com
Sea Ranch / Gualala Area Local Markets
Stewarts Point Store
32000 HWY 1, Stewarts Point, CA
707-785-2011 | www.facebook.com/stewartspointstore
39250 S HWY 1, Gualala, California
707-884-4184 | surfsuper.com