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The September-glorious Mendocino-Sonoma coast.

Let Easterners rhapsodize over autumn leaves and spend dank weekends raking them up. At the same time, fall on the northern California coast is often its best season-September days hit the average high for the year (650) and can peak to 850. Wind falls to less than 10 mph, and days with fog dip from one in three in August to one in eight in September, even fewer in October. Views improve, too, according to meteorologists, since salt-hazed onshore wind dies down.

From Fort Bragg south to Bodega Bay, the 85 road miles of Mendocino and Sonoma County coasts now have 19 state and county parks (6 new), 12 campgrounds (4 new), and many new trails.

While these coasts are less spectacular, and less publicized, than their warmer southern counterpart Big Sur, they also offer more beach access and recreation. From San Francisco north to the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg is only a 4-hour drive.

On these six pages, we survey the activities, describe (north to south) our favorite beaches and parks, provide a guide to services, and examine the future of this stretch of coast.

Abalone to surfcasting-a guide to north coast pleasures.

The north coast has both secret and known pleasures: you can dive for abalone, collect driftwood, go tidepooling, surfcast or rockfish, camp, hike, or watch harbor seals. In fall, crowds are down and chances of getting into your first choice of campsite or inn are good. Camping in state parks costs $10 per night; reserve with Mistix: (800) 446-7275.

Abalone news. Diving season is April 1 through June 30, August 1 through November 30. You must free-dive (no scuba) and carry a shell gauge, a legal abalone iron, and a California fishing license. Limit is four red abalone, minimum 7 inches across the shell's broadest point. An eight-year survey indicates that the stock is healthy here (divers average three abalone, each nearly 2 1/2 pounds).

A recent study shows abalone move inshore in winter, offshore in summer. This may explain why, late in the season, the low-tide "shorepicking" areas seem exhausted; you'll have more luck in deeper water. Fall brings flat water and better visibility for deeper diving, but also a buildup of abalone-hiding kelp. We found no restaurants that served this delicacy.

Low tides. For tidepooling, good dates are September 9 to 13 and 25 to 29, October 7 to 11 and 22 to 27. Note: all tidepool specimens are protected.

Harbor seal-watching. Sonoma's Goat Rock Beach, at the Russian River's mouth, has a year-round colony of some 200 harbor seals. The seals' inch-worm locomotion is one way to tell them from sea lions, which walk on four flippers. Orange-vested volunteers are on hand weekends to answer questions and lend you binoculars. Keep 200 yards from seals-- they're easily spooked.

On Laguna Point in MacKerricher State Park are up to 80 harbor seals; for a better look, walk out at low tide (rocks are sharp and slippery-wear sturdy shoes).

Party boats. Fish for albacore, crab, bottomfish, salmon. By our press time, the salmon season (generally into mid-October) was looking very good- one party boat out of Noyo came back with 44 salmon for 22 fishermen. Out of Bodega Bay, call (707) 875-3495 or 875-3344. Out of Noyo, call 964-4550 or 3854. Trips cost about $35.

Urchin fishing. Working from the small fishing boats you see nosed deep into rocky coves, divers pry softball-size red urchins off rocks at 40- to 60-foot depths. The roe commands top prices in Japan's sushi bars, but because of concern about depleting the resource, no more permits will be issued here until 1989. The boats leave from Noyo Harbor daily (weather permitting) around 8, return around 3.

Campfires on the beach. In Mendocino County, you may have beach fires only in fire rings at Russian Gulch and Van Damme, or on the beach at Manchester State Beach. In Sonoma County, beach fires are permitted at the Sonoma Coast State Beaches anywhere on the flat portion of the beach (not in the dunes).

Driftwood collecting. Greenwood Creek, Manchester, and Goat Rock have the most. Individuals are allowed 25 pounds or one big piece of driftwood daily

Rogue or sleeper waves. They're lone, unpredictably huge waves created by certain weather, shore, and bottom configurations. Be most watchful at Goat Rock Beach and Wright's Beach more than 50 people have been swept off in the past decade). Keep your eye on the ocean and our children.

Fort Bragg to Point Arena: a wild and wooly lumbering past.

Logging opened up the coast in the 1850s, and mill towns and ports sprang up along the ragged coastline (you can still see remnants of piers running out to small "doghole" coves). In the 1940s, nearly 50 sawmills worked along this stretch of coast, but by the '60s only a handful remained active.

As you drive or hike the grassy benchlands, you might imagine them as they once looked covered with heavy forest; now sheep graze many of these terraces.

Public access has increased, sometimes through careful negotiation with landowners, so it's important to stick to designated trails. The parks are open dawn to dusk, free except where noted. You can dive for abalone, surfcast, and rockfish.

MacKerricher State Park. Ten Mile Dunes, the most extensive in northern California, were added to expand the park's north end. It's a wind-rippled landscape dotted with tufted bunch grass.

Along the sandy beach is good fishing for surfperch and smelt. Hiking or biking the old 7-mile Haul Road, which is closed to cars north of Lake Cleone, takes you past good tidepooling. Lock your car and take valuables the auto break-in rate here is 10 times that of other parks listed. Guided horseback rides into the park from Ricochet Ridge Ranch stables, on State 1 in Cleone, start daily at 10, noon, 2, and 4; cost is $18 for 1 1/2 hours, $23 for 2 hours; call 964-7669.

Jug Handle State Reserve. Where Jug Handle Creek empties into the ocean, an emerald green cove offers secluded picnicking. Take the short trail from the parking lot, but at high tide you may have to wade across a swollen lagoon to reach the beach. The hour guided pygmy forest walks are popular (Saturdays at 10:30 through October; bring lunch).

Russian Gulch State Park. Families enjoy camping here-some have returned for three generations; reserve early The 5 mile-round-trip hike up the lush canyon to a waterfall is worthwhile. You might try a sunset cookout at the beach fire rings, wind-sheltered by cliffs.

Mendocino Headlands State Park. The white Victorian Ford House is now a museum and park information center. Hours: 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Sundays until September 30, then Fridays through Mondays. Watch sunset from the bluffs.

Chapman Point. This area's so new there's no development --just a small sign. From Mendocino, head south on State 1 about 1 1/2 miles past Little Lake Road; park in the dirt pullout right across from Gordon Lane. The 1 1/4-mile path runs along the fence with views of Mendocino Bay and town. The path ends at sheer bluffs; look below for shorebirds, seals.

Van Damme State Park. Frequented by abalone divers, it has 73 campsites that are full much of the summer with a sometimes boisterous bunch. Ten backpack campsites, 1 mile in, offer privacy.

Greenwood Creek. At this new park across from the Elk Store, you can picnic in sheltering pines on the bluff, or hike 1/2 mile down to a lagoon and driftwood-strewn beach. It's a popular launch point for sea kayakers; for a 2-hour guided tour ($50), call Force 10 Ocean Whitewater Tours at 877-3505.

Manchester State Beach. You'll find camping (43 sites, 10 backpack camps 1 mile in), good birding at a lagoon, more grassy dunes, and driftwood to collect. At Alder Creek on the north end, fishing is for smelt and surfperch.

Point Arena to Bodega Bay

Here the rugged coast rises more sharply, and fewer mill towns and ports were established. But in the 1870s, Point Arena was the busiest port between San Francisco and Eureka. Shipping was, and still is, guarded by a lighthouse out on the point.

Point Arena Light Station. At one of the windiest places on the coast (40-knot winds are common in spring), its 1908 lighthouse (an earlier one was destroyed by the '06 quake) is restored and open. There are a small museum and lodging in three houses ($60 to $70 per night call 882-2777). Museum hours are 11 to 2:30 weekdays, 10 to 3:30 weekends; admission is $2, 50 cents ages 17 and under.

Sea Ranch. This private development, with award-winning houses on more than 5,000 acres of grassy benchlands and forested slopes, has four public access points (two more due soon). Each is signed off State 1, costs $1; each parking lot holds only four to six cars (no RVs, no parking on highway or in Sea Ranch). Black Point Beach, perhaps the most dramatic, is a 1/2 mile trail within sight of houses to a 3/4 mile-long beach for walking, surfing, or surfcasting. Another, Pebble Beach, is a small, sheltered spot popular for abalone diving and tidepooling.

Salt Point State Park. Some 7 miles of rocky shoreline have excellent rockfishing; tidepooling is good in Gerstle Cove Reserve. Campsites include 10 hike- or bike-in environmental camps, and there's beautiful picnicking in Fisk Mill Cove.

Fort Ross State Historic Park. A 28-site campground opened here last spring in a sheltered ravine. The fort has several recreated buildings and a new visitor center (10 to 4:30 daily) selling authentic Pomo basketry. Below the fort, Sandy Cove faces away from prevailing winds; at its north lip are deep rockfishing holes.

Sonoma Coast State Beaches (between the Russian River's mouth and Bodega Bay). Goat Rock Beach is the busiest, popular for rock and surf angling, and driftwood collecting. A spectacular 2 1//2 mile trail leads from Blind Beach parking lot south through pastures and benchlands to Shell Beach (backtrack to return). The bluff above Portuguese Beach is favored by easel-toting artists, who are drawn by its prospect of offshore sea stacks. There's camping at 30 sites right on Wright's Beach and at 98 sites tucked behind Bodega Dunes.

Lodging, supplies, fishing information.

Fort Bragg and Mendocino are centers for lodging, restaurants, and supplies. The oceanside offers classic old hotels, as well as some new finds. Longtime favorites are the MacCallum House in Mendocino, Little River Inn in Little River, and Harbor House and Elk Cove Inn in Elk. New on the scene: a fine Creole restaurant at the restored Old Coast Hotel in Fort Bragg (open 11 to 3 Tuesdays through Saturdays, 6 to 10 Fridays and Saturdays) and memorable chocolates at the Mendocino Chocolate Company on Lansing Street in Mendocino (10 to 5 weekdays, noon to 5 weekends).

Elsewhere, from north to south: Noyo has three restaurants with decks overlooking the harbor: the Wharf, Carine's Fish Grotto, and the Sportsman Dock. Elk has a grocery store, two cafes, and a crafts shop. Point Arena has four restaurants on Main Street. In Anchor Bay, find picnic supplies, fishing gear, and good fishing information. Gualala, busiest during steelhead season (November to February), has two hotels, an inn, restaurants.

The Sea Ranch Lodge has a restaurant overlooking Black Point Beach, as well as 20 rooms. You can also rent a house through one of four rental agencies. Rates range from two nights for $170 to a week for $1,500; call 785-2371.

Stewart's Point Store, built in 1868, is one of the oldest buildings along this stretch of coast; it has picnic food, tackle sales and rentals, bait, and eclectic oddities. Fort Ross and nearby Ocean Cove have small grocery stores. Jenner has restaurants, a deli, and several inns. Bodega Bay has two good seafood restaurants as well as lodging.

For a free brochure of events, restaurants, inns, and motels on the Mendocino coast, call the Fort Bragg/Mendocino Chamber of Commerce at 964-3153. For the Sonoma coast, call the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce at 996-1033.

Getting there, getting around.

According to old coast hands, the fastest way to Mendocino is from U.S. 101 via State 128 through the Anderson Valley; if your're in no hurry, you may want to dawdle at six winery tasting rooms (leave enough daylight for the twisty road).

State Highway 116, which runs 13 miles along the Russion River, is scenic, narrow in spots, and goes through Guerneville's heavy weekend traffic.

Taking cliff-hugging State Highway 1 the whole route from the Golden Gate to the town of Mendocino is spectacularly scenic, but time consuming (allow 5 hours).

For hikers, a well-written new guidebook details all the trails of this area; it's called The Hikers's Hip Pocket Guide to the Mendocino Coast, by Bob Lorentzen (Bored Feet Publications, Mendocino, 1986; $9.95). New this month is the California Coastal Resource Guide (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987; $14.95), by the California Coastal Commission. It covers geography, flora, and fauna, and gives detailed maps and history of the coastal counties,

What's ahead: oil drilling, future access.

Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel has proposed offering oil leases for the northern California coast off Mendocino, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties, Eureka, and Bodega Bay. Congress has delayed awarding leases until 1989, when a new administration takes office.

Since 1973, the California Coastal Commission has opened some 180 public accessways. One of the chief tools used by the commission is a requirement that coastside developers provide public access. In the recent Nollan case, the United States Supreme Court overturned this requirement. Whether the ruling can be applied to other projects remains unclear, but further litigation appears inevitable.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 1, 1987
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