If walking, beachcombing, birdwatching or camping sound like a perfect way to spend a day or a weekend at the coast, look no further than Gualala Point Regional Park.
The 195-acre park, managed by Sonoma County Regional Parks, lies just over the Sonoma County line, a few minutes south of Gualala, in an area fondly known by locals as “Mendonoma.”
The open-space park was an outgrowth of negotiations between Sonoma County and Sea Ranch, according to Sue Bechtel, Park Ranger II, with the North Coast Division of Sonoma County Parks.
“In 1968, Oceanic, developer of The Sea Ranch, struck a deal with Sonoma County to provide public access to the park. They donated a large portion of the parcel, with an additional stipulation that there would be a sheriff’s residence on site,” says Bechtel. In addition to the main park site and the campground located on the east side of Highway 1, a number of parking areas within The Sea Ranch property provide public access to several beaches.
The park is situated at the mouth of the Gualala River watershed. Visitors are immediately greeted by a stunning view of the river winding its way to the ocean.
Adjacent to the parking area is the beautiful Visitor’s Center, designed by famed Sonoma County Architect J. Carson Bowler. The all-volunteer-staffed center features displays covering the area’s natural history, including an exhibit of Coastal Pomo Indian artifacts, watershed information and a large, stunning sculpture of a salmon hanging from the high ceilings, made from repurposed litter collected on and around the beach.
On rainy days, sit on the couch and read from the extensive library. The outdoor wind wall and outside tables and picnic benches make for a convenient lunch stop before heading to the beach.
Like many beaches in this area, wildlife of all kinds make the park their home. Beginning in November, eagle-eyed observers can spot California Grey Whales heading south on their way to warmer waters, plentiful food and calving season. Harbor Seals and Sea Lions have haul-out areas near the park. River Otters can be seen cavorting along the banks of the Gualala River, and currently, a pair of bald eagles have been frequenting the park.
Ospreys, Brown Pelicans, Common Mergansers, Black Oystercatchers, Goldfinches and Western Bluebirds are among some of the birds that make their seasonal home in the park. “This is a world-class pelagic birding area. People come from all over the world to birdwatch here,” says Bechtel.
Multiple trails, including a wheelchair-accessible asphalt trail take guests from the Visitors Center to bluff trails, Whale Watch Point or west-southwest to the beach. Bike-riding is allowed on the asphalt paths, but no bikes are allowed on the bluff trails.
The Gualala River outlet opens and closes seasonally, but it’s not just the time of year that determines if and when the river will block access to the northernmost portion of the beach. “The outlet’s opening is influenced by ocean storms and rainwater. It will stay closed until big swells open the outlet, and there’s no way to predict it. Currents push sediment up the river to close the outlet. Wave action, swells and water coming from the tributaries affect the opening,” says Bechtel. Regardless of the season, there is plenty of sandy beach for kids and adults to enjoy, and a large supply of driftwood, which visitors use to create makeshift structures and sculptures.
When the river is low, it makes a safe location for swimming, and importantly, Bechtel cautions visitors to avoid swimming in the surf. “Sleeper waves pose a serious threat. People should observe where the sand is wet, move above that area and stay on the berm. Visitors often don’t realize how powerful and rigorous the undertow is. The sea floor’s drop-down is steep, so the water gets very deep, very quickly, and just churns. People have lost their lives trying to rescue their pets, which is one reason we strictly enforce keeping dogs on-leash,” says Bechtel.
Like most California beaches, dogs must be licensed and are required to be on leashes no longer than six feet. “We understand dogs love to run free, but our goal is to reduce people-dog and dog-dog conflicts. Dogs also run seals off from this area, making them expend essential calories they need for breeding and survival. We also ask guests to please clean up after your pets,” she continues. And despite the greenery, the Gualala area is considered to be a fire-prone region, and no beach fires are allowed.
Kayakers enjoy paddling up the Gualala River, and the current is generally slow, making the river good for families and beginning kayakers. “When the water is really low, you might be dragging your kayak across sandbars. Adventure Rents in Gualala has kayaks and canoes for rent, and is located just a mile north of the park entrance.”
The park’s family-oriented campground is located across the highway, and is a one-mile walk from the campground to the ocean. There are 25 sites, and reservations may be made up to three days in advance. It’s a great place to camp when it’s hot inland, and early reservations are recommended during the busy season,” says Bechtel.
There are second-growth redwoods throughout the campground. A few walk-in sites for tent campers are available, with a 150-feet walk to reach to the furthest walk-in site. The campground has coin-operated showers. Wi-Fi is available at the campground for a small fee, and free Wi-Fi is available at the Visitors Center, regularly utilized by cyclists and other travelers.
Near the main parking area, take a few minutes to view the fascinating installation of hand-carved wooden poles, made by visiting Sakha woodcarvers who are native to northeastern Russia. The Sakha people have a deep connection to the region, some settling in the county following the establishment of Fort Ross in the early 19th Century.
The park is open sunrise to sunset. There is a nominal day use fee to use the park, but there is no charge to use the Sea Ranch beach access areas. The Visitors Center is open Friday-Monday from 10:30-3:30 pm. The park is located at 42401 Coast Highway 1, just south of Gualala. For more information visit MendocinoGuide or parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov