In 2 weeks: Portland’s Pearl District

POINT ARENA, Calif. — The rocky shoreline of California’s Mendocino coast is like few others. Blame the San Andreas Fault.

The great divider that separates the North American and Pacific tectonic plates defines the dramatic coastline northwest of San Francisco. Its legacy is a rugged line of tilted marine platforms, carved by eons of relentless waves into a landscape of rippled rocks and sea caves, sinkholes and natural bridges.

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 left its mark on Point Arena, 120 miles from the city, more than a century ago. But surf continues to crash upon the cliffs of the twisted Stornetta Public Lands, a once-private ranch that extends along more than two miles of seabird and marine-mammal breeding grounds immediately south of a historic lighthouse.

The tortuous seascapes of the Stornetta Public Lands were added in March as a mainland extension to the California Coastal National Monument. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, these 1,665 acres bolster a preserve that protects more than 20,000 offshore rocks and reefs.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

Added in March by presidential decree to the California Coastal National Monument, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the 1,665 acres of the Stornetta Public Lands are the first mainland extension to a federal sanctuary that protects more than 20,000 islands, rocks and exposed reefs along the entire length of the California coast.

A hike along this contorted shoreline, through a late-morning mist that slowly gave way to sunbeams and blue-sky breaks, was the highlight of my August visit to Mendocino County with photographer Barb Gonzalez.

Following California Highway 1 south from Leggett, on U.S. Highway 101 in the heart of redwood country, we spent three days driving through the towns of Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Point Arena and Gualala. We continued along the Sonoma County coast, including Fort Ross and Bodega Bay, then turned inland and returned to Oregon via Interstate 5 and U.S. Highway 97.

Along the way, we discovered quaint historic communities, spectacular state parks, one-of-a-kind inns and restaurants, quirky artists’ colonies, unique architecture and an unexpected wildlife park. But nothing stood out in our memory so much as the Stornetta Public Lands.

Unbeaten Path

We learned of this newly dedicated domain from Margaret Lindgren, who owns a small company called Unbeaten Path Tours. Lindgren guides day hikers at various “Mendonoma” (Mendocino-Sonoma) locations, from Bowling Ball Beach to the redwoods of Salt Point State Park. But none piqued our fancy like the newly established national monument.

Margaret Lindgren of Unbeaten Path Tours leads hikers on a 4-mile walk through the Stornetta Lands. Coupling environmental education with exercise, the year-round tour schedule extends from Mendocino's Bowling Ball Beach to Sonoma's Salt Point State Park redwoods.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

We met her at a trailhead off Lighthouse Road, a couple of miles south of the Point Arena Light Station, near the estuary of the salmon-rich Garcia River. A native New Englander who moved to this coast with her British husband seven years ago, Lindgren has coupled her love of nature with a background in education. Now, her year-round walking tours provide visitors with an alternative means of getting off the winding local roads to explore its environment.

We traversed about 4 miles on foot, making plenty of stops in our walk of three hours, past a wind-tossed cypress grove and along a low sandstone bluff that overlooked the waves. Just offshore, a cluster of islets called the Sea Lion Rocks (for their marine denizens) had also been adopted by waterfowl as a rookery. Jet-black, long-necked cormorants cared for chicks in crevices in the rocks, while on the mainland, gulls splashed in a freshwater pool above a waterfall.

Gulls enjoy a drink from a freshwater pool at the top of a waterfall in the Stornetta Public Lands. More than two miles of seabird and marine-mammal breeding grounds include the continental shelf and offshore Sea Lion Rocks, adopted by cormorants and other waterfowl as a rookery.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

There were no ridges to summit, so the walk was far from strenuous. But the tortuous thrust faults, uplifted above the Pacific surf at odd angles and cut by the waves, brought the force of nature into our outdoor living room. And a nearby sinkhole, its deep cavity disappearing into a fingerlike sea cave, made the action of the dramatic erosion all the more palpable.

The Stornetta Public Lands were once designated as a site for a nuclear power station, we learned. Only the presence of the San Andreas Fault led to plans being abandoned in 1973. Residents of the Point Arena area, already struggling with economic recovery following the collapse of the timber industry, had fought hard against it. They must have wondered why a fault-line reactor had ever been suggested in the first place.

Today Point Arena is home to the surprising B. Bryan Preserve. A sort of open-air zoo, the preserve is home to a half-dozen species of African hoof stock — giraffe, zebra and various antelope — that are nurtured and bred in large open fields just inland from the tiny harbor town. Twice-daily, 90-minute Jeep tours, by reservation only, introduce visitors to each of the species at feeding times.

But the 115-foot lighthouse, built in 1870, remains Point Arena’s biggest draw. The tallest light on the Pacific coast, it welcomes visitors to climb to its lantern room, tour its museum and grounds, or even book a vacation room in the historic keeper’s house.

The historic Point Arena Light Station, built in 1870, rises 115 feet immediately north of the Stornetta Public Lands. Formerly a private ranch, this fault-line acreage was once designated as a site for a nuclear power station; plans were abandoned in 1973 following a public outcry.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

Fort Bragg

We had begun our Mendocino visit at Fort Bragg, the largest town on this county’s coastline with 7,300 people. Perhaps best known as the home of the Skunk Train (officially the California Western Railroad), this town at the mouth of the Noyo River was established as a Pomo Indian reservation and military post in the mid-1800s. It grew as a redwood lumber port and commercial fishing center.

We lodged at the Grey Whale Inn, the original Fort Bragg hospital when it was built in 1915. Indeed, its three stories of spacious rooms are connected by wide ramps rather than stairways, and we could almost hear gurneys being wheeled past during the night. (There are rumors that it may be haunted). Amiable owner Michael Dawson, however, turned out to be quite the chef, preparing homemade quiche and other gourmet breakfast dishes, and we were glad to have stayed the night.

We also had a fine Italian dinner at Cucina Verona, the project of longtime area chef Joe Harris. With fresh seafood, an extensive regional wine list, live jazz guitar and an owner gung-ho about expanding its daily operation to include breakfasts, it was hard to go wrong.

Before heading down the coast the next morning, we discovered that this little town has several art collectives, indicative of a thriving local studio scene; the Guest House Museum, an area history museum in a three-story, 1892 Victorian home beside the water; and the pleasant Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, covered 47 acres atop coastal bluffs.

Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach is unusual, to be sure. About a century ago, local residents threw their household garbage over a cliff owned by a lumber company. In later decades, controlled burns and an urban cleanup removed appliances and other large discarded items, but the glass remained, pounded into small, smooth pieces of colored “sea glass.” Local and tourists alike now file to the end of Elm Street and clamber down to the beach to collect souvenirs.

Visitors scavenge Fort Bragg’' Glass Beach in search of colored "sea glass," remains of household garbage dumped off a cliff about a century ago. Small, smooth pieces of bottles and other glass items are often incorporated into works by local artists.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

But the Skunk Train lures the most visitors. Built in 1885 to carry redwood logs to the mill and port, the California Western Railroad runs 40 miles up the Noyo River to the inland town of Willits. Since 2003 it has been operated strictly as a passenger train. Steam- and diesel-powered locomotives pull rail cars through dense redwood forests, passing through two tunnels and crossing 30 bridges and trestles. At the halfway point of Northspur, trains stop for food and drink, and to swap passengers who may continue to Willits rather than return to Fort Bragg.

Historic Mendocino

The picturesque village of Mendocino is less than 10 miles south of Fort Bragg, but it seems a world away. Home only to about 900 people, the community fairly drips with maritime history, and indeed is listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places.

With its wooden architecture, landmark water towers and a location atop striking headlands, the hamlet is reminiscent of what I imagine a 19th-century New England coastal town to have been like. Indeed, it was cast as Cabot Cove, Maine, in numerous episodes of the 1980s and 1990s TV series “Murder, She Wrote.”

Nineteenth-century buildings line Main Street in Mendocino village, a community of 900 that is listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been a popular tourist destination since the 1950s, when it became home to a thriving community of artists.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

Tourism drives the local economy. Founded, like Fort Bragg, in the 1850s as a logging and fishing community, its isolation kept it from any sort of boom until the late 1950s, when artist Bill Zacha built the Mendocino Art Center and stimulated an influx of bohemian artisans. The handmade clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts of modern practitioners now fill dozens of shops along Lansing and Main streets, and the entire population supports the annual Mendocino Music Festival that takes over the village each July.

A good place to begin an exploration is the Ford House Visitor Center, which also serves adjacent Mendocino Headlands State Park. The house was built in 1854 by lumberman and town founder J.B. Ford, who raised his family of five children here. Restored in the 1970s, it displays a collection of historic photographs and artifacts, including a circa-1890 model of the village.

Walking tours — both guided and self-guided — begin from the Ford House or from the Kelley House Museum, just down the block. They take in such sights as the Temple of Kwan Tai, built around 1854 to serve a Chinese Taoist community, and the 1868 Mendocino Presbyterian Church, one of the state’s oldest Protestant churches still in use. The MacCallum House (1882) is now a bed-and-breakfast inn and an acclaimed fine-dining restaurant. The Central Temperance House (1878) is now the quaint Mendocino Hotel.

In all, 28 buildings dated 1894 or earlier are listed in a brochure published by the Mendocino Historic Preservation District. Weathered by the salt air, fog and wind, they have mostly been painstakingly restored, their gardens again filled with blossoms and foliage.

Mendocino is central to numerous state parks along the north coast of its namesake county. MacKerricher, Point Cabrillo, Russian Gulch, Van Damme, Navarro River Redwoods and Manchester state parks each have a wild beauty of their own, stretching along 35 miles of Mendocino County coastline.

Rugged headlands define the Mendocino coastline along California Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg. It requires about 90 minutes to drive the 59 miles straight through from Fort Bragg to Gualala, but most travelers find vistas and quaint towns that add hours to their drive.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

Gualala hospitality

Past Point Arena and the Stornetta Public Lands, in southern Mendocino County, the unincorporated community of Gualala has a character all its own. It’s a 59-mile drive from Fort Bragg (about 90 minutes on winding Highway 1). We were delighted to find one-of-a-kind treasures — to stay and to dine — as we passed through.

The dozen rustic Mar Vista Cottages at Anchor Bay were built in the ‘30s and ‘40s by a Danish fisherman, and they retain a sense of yesteryear even eight decades later. Hand-constructed as housekeeping cabins, built of native redwood with simple kitchens, they offer a rural experience complete with gardens and farm animals.

Renata and Tom Dorn upgraded the cabins after they bought the property in 2000, adding an herb-and-vegetable garden where guests may pick their own greens. Freshly laid henhouse eggs are delivered each morning, while rabbits and goats wander the grounds. “It’s a joy,” said Renata Dorn, who previously worked in hotel management for major San Francisco hotels for 35 years. “We don’t attract people who want chocolates on the pillows.”

We enjoyed dinner at St. Orres, its classic design drawing comparisons to that of a classic Russian stave church. Our dinner — rack of venison with wild huckleberries, pheasant breast with locally foraged mushrooms — could have been drawn directly from the redwood forest that fringes the establishment. Service was of the level usually reserved for elegant big-city eateries.

Built in the style of a Russian stave church, St. Orres specializes in dinners of wild game and foraged berries and mushrooms. A southern Mendocino landmark since 1977, St. Orres also has a small spa, and welcomes overnight guests in cottages and lodge rooms.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

Architect-partner Eric Black and chef-partner Rosemary Campiformio called upon many local artists and craftspeople in creating St. Orres, which Black bought with two other partners in 1971 and opened for dining in 1977 after a major reconstruction. Today, in addition to the restaurant, they offer 14 cottages and eight lodge rooms, along with a cozy spa.

Another attraction here is the Gualala Arts Center, which every August since 1962 has hosted the Art in the Redwoods festival. A fine art exhibit highlights the festival, featuring paintings, photographs, sculpture, woodwork, jewelry and fiber creations, most of which are offered for sale. On the grounds, amid a sculpture garden, an artful pizza kiln is the centerpiece of an outdoor dining area.

Sea Ranch and Fort Ross

Just south of Gualala, and across the Sonoma County line, is Sea Ranch. Designed in the 1960s by a team of noted architects led by Lawrence Halprin, the development extends along 10 miles of coastline, and inland across Highway 1. Its distinctive timber-frame architecture — build-out is presently at about three-quarters of the 2,400 projected homes — is intended to blend into the landscape with consideration for the prevailing ocean breezes and hilly topography.

Of all the buildings at Sea Ranch, none is as distinctive as the Sea Ranch Chapel. A nondenominational sanctuary designed by architect James Hubbell in 1985, this Hobbit-like structure features a cedar roof with a bronze spire, teak doors and native redwood throughout. The chapel was dedicated to the memory of Kirk Ditzler, an artist who considered art to be the intermediary between the physical and the spiritual.

The Sea Ranch Chapel, a nondenominational sanctuary built in 1985 by architect James Hubbell, was designed to honor a man who considered art as the intermediary between the physical and the spiritual. Its cedar roof is topped with a distinctive bronze spire.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

But for me, the highlight of the Sonoma County coast is Fort Ross. This California state historic park contains a restoration of Fortress Rossiya, the deepest penetration of the 19th-century Russian Empire on the North American continent.

Russians began exploring the Pacific coast as early 1742, seeking sea otters and other fur-bearing mammals. Following the establishment of an Alaskan colony (at Kodiak) in 1784, the Russian-American Co. began to expand, first to Sitka and the Hawaiian island of Kauai, then to California in 1812. With help from dozens of Alaskan Aleut natives, this stockade was established on the site of a centuries-old Pomo Indian village 18 miles northwest of Bodega Bay.

The only surviving structure is the Rotchev House, built in 1836 and fully restored. Other buildings have been reconstructed: an Orthodox chapel, a fur warehouse, the manager’s two-story home, barracks and blockhouses. The 3,386-acre historic park (established in 1906) also preserves a Russian cemetery, a garden and orchard, and the visitor center features a research library and bookstore along with interpretive exhibits.

Fort Ross State Historic Park features a restoration of Fortress Rossiya, which from 1812 to 1841 was a colony of the Russian Empire on the Sonoma coast. An Orthodox chapel, right, and managers house, left, are replicas; one house, built in 1836, has survived intact.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

The Russians established the first marine-mammal conservation laws in the Pacific in the early 1820s, when they realized overhunting had severely depleted otter and seal populations. But they didn’t stick around for the recovery. The company sold Fort Ross in 1841 to gold-rush pioneer John Sutter, who took hardware and livestock to his Sacramento Valley fort.

Running through the heart of Fort Ross is the San Andreas Fault. It would be surprising indeed if the Russians did not experience at least one major shake during their three decades on the site.

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