Not Just For The Birds.
For outdoor lovers, there are countless reasons to spend time on Mendocino County’s south coast. Along with the peerless beauty of the Stornetta Public Lands and the captivating views and history of the Point Arena Lighthouse, the Pelican Bluffs Coastal Trail is a wonderful stopover for families, photographers, and nature lovers.
Though everyone coming to the area should always be prepared by carrying a warm hat and even a pair of gloves, autumnal visitors to the south coast are often treated to the most jaw-dropping coastal views and the clearest weather of the year, as the summer fog almost always disappears along with the majority of tourists, making locations like the Bluffs feel like your own private retreat.
Located off US Highway 1 just south of the city of Point Arena, the 73-acre preserve and gentle 2.2-mile trail area has been protected through the efforts of the California Coastal Commission, the California State Coastal Conservancy and the Mendocino Land Trust. The trail was constructed by members of the California Conservation Corps. It was opened to the public in 2017 and is owned and operated by the Land Trust. Supporters hope this portion of the coastline will become another connecting piece of the California Coastal Trail, which will one day span the state’s borders from north to south.
The trail can be easily traversed by most walkers. Its wide profile and setbacks from the stunning but decidedly dangerous bluffs make this area a great option for families with small children. Though some areas of the bluff trail are fenced, there are other areas open to sheer, 100-foot drop-offs to the beaches below. Everyone using the trail should do so with the utmost caution, and like all coastal bluffs in Mendocino County, please avoid the fragile cliff-side edges, for your safety and for the preservation of delicate habitats. There are a number of stairs leading to and from the bluffs, but overall, the elevation change is very minimal and the stairs are wide and forgiving, making Pelican Bluffs an ideal walk for seniors or others who aren’t seeking out an overly challenging hike.
The Pelican Bluffs Trail begins at the parking area just off Highway 1. It briefly parallels the highway and then curves west, where numerous scenic views of the bluffs and shoreline await. There is no beach access, and any attempt to reach the beaches would be both illegal and foolhardy. Dogs are permitted on leash, and like all scenic trails throughout the county, visitors are asked to “leave no trace” and pack all trash out of the trail area.
Pelican Bluffs encompasses a wetland area that is home to the endangered Point Arena Mountain Beaver, and the bluffs are a favored location for whale watching. The wetland habitat is recovering from years of grazing, and one portion of the trail meanders through a tranquil forest of Bishop Pine, winding back to the parking area and the main trailhead.
From the bluffs area, visitors looking seaward are gazing on the Greater Faralones National Marine Sanctuary. Three dozen marine mammals call this area home. During the winter, grey whales make their annual migration south, and in the fall humpback whales can be seen offshore. Nearly any time of year, harbor seals and sea lions can be viewed cavorting near the kelp beds closer to shore, and patient viewers may see Orcas and even an endangered Blue Whale, as they feed in the area’s rich waters during the fall and summer.
Whale watching doesn’t require any special equipment, but binoculars can make viewing more helpful. The best times for viewing are clear, calm days, when the whale’s “blowing” tufts of water won’t be mistaken for whitecaps. Scan the waters near the “blow’ for signs of “spyhopping,” when a whale’s head rises from the surface or breaching, the dramatic rising and falling of a whale’s body as it leaves the water. Scientists are still unclear why whales feel compelled to breach, but for whale watchers, there is nothing more thrilling than seeing the grandeur of these huge animals during a breach. Pelican Bluffs is the perfect place to picnic and view the autumnal procession of many whale species.
The bluffs themselves are a spectacular sight, displaying the monumental forces that have formed California’s singular coastline. Most California visitors are well aware of the state’s reputation as “earthquake country.” Visitors to Pelican Bluffs can boast that they stood within a few miles of the San Andreas Fault, located nearby on the main stem of the Garcia River. The fault has been responsible for some of the state’s most powerful earthquakes.
Over a period of thirty million years, the interactions between the Pacific and the North American Plates created the San Andreas Fault. Pelican Bluff’s unique topography was formed when rocks located 300 miles to the south were dragged northward along the fault. Wave-cut terraces were created, and 80,000 years ago, the area traversed by the Bluffs trail was once a beach. Looking at the beach at low tide, a newer, emerging terrace is visible, and above and behind the trail, another terrace, over 100,000 years old can be clearly seen on the slopes above.
Careful viewers will discern clear striations in the upended, exposed bluffs, where the San Andreas fault flipped ocean sediments up, down and sideways. There are plenty of places to pause to photograph the bluffs and the unspoiled beaches below, which are characterized by gentle wave action and dark sands that contrast remarkably with the bluffs that surround them.
The Bishop Trail follows the coastline and wanders “out and back” to the Bishop Pine forest that skirts the Flat Loop Trail. The gnarled pines are native to California, but these days, they are only found in a smattering of locations up and down the state and in Baja, Mexico. Human and climatic changes have affected the health of the pines, which require very hot days to release their seeds encased in tight, resinous cones.
Fire suppression, drought, development, and competition from other species are threatening the future of Bishop Pines. The pines at Pelican Bluffs are nearing the end of their lives, and without the fires necessary to germinate their seeds, over time, they will most likely be replaced by tan oaks and firs.
Are there pelicans at Pelican Bluffs? Absolutely. The large, impressive birds and many other aquatic and woodland species can be viewed in the wetland area and along the beach. The evidence of gophers and ground squirrels can’t be missed, as the trail is peppered with the holes linking their underground homes.
A few important reminders for trip planning: there is little to no cell service in and around the trail areas, and no bikes are allowed. Several picnic tables are available off the Flat Loop Trail. In addition to the area’s “pack-in, pack-out” guidelines, visitors should note there are no restrooms available at the site, but plenty of facilities can be accessed in nearby Point Arena, the Stornetta Public Lands or at the Point Arena Lighthouse, just a few miles north of the city. The trail is open from dawn to dusk. If you’re up for a few hours of community service, the Land Trust holds periodic work days where volunteers pick up trash and remove invasive plant species.
For more information or to download a trail map, visit the Mendocino Land Trust website at www.MendocinoLandTrust.org