Driftwood-strewn beaches and luxurious inns dot this undiscovered stretch of coast Mendocino travel guide

A gentle tapping at my window woke me the first morning I spent on the southern Mendocino County coast. The pitter-patter continued as fog kept condensing on the pane, though the heavy gray mist had drifted offshore by the time I’d finished breakfast.

Nearby, I found Greenwood State Beach littered with unearthly white driftwood, long strands of green and brown kelp, and huge logs. Sandpipers skittered over the coarse gray sand. Whitecaps dotted the water out to the horizon, where a seam of fog joined the sky with the sea. And no one else was in sight.

Along this sleepy, stunningly beautiful stretch of coastline, north of Sea Ranch and south of Mendocino, winter is glorious. California gray whales are migrating off the coast, tundra swans fill the plains, and the inns are at their coziest. The small towns of Gualala, Point Arena, and Elk are quiet during the off-season, and room rates at inns are often discounted. What’s more, the beaches are empty-save for driftwood, gulls, hawks, and regular visits from the coastal fog.

The timelessness of wind, saltwater, and sand sank in on a stroll along this coast. The Point Arena Lighthouse is a good place to watch for whales, now heading south. The 1907 lighthouse, built after the 1906 earthquake damaged the original 1870 structure, stands on a sliver of a peninsula.

Just north of the 115-foot tower, a quarter-mile hike leads to the beach at Manchester State Park. The sky had almost entirely cleared when I arrived. Overhead, a red-tailed hawk screamed out its call, agitating the little brown birds at the water’s edge. The hawk drifted, riding an updraft, its screeching sound carrying over the thrum of the waves.

Creature comforts

I hiked back and took a short drive south to the Food Company, outside of Gualala. Loaves of freshly baked bread were cooling on racks by the window. I bought some, along with a warming lunch of shepherd’s pie and roasted organic vegetables.

These comforts were all the more welcome because of the chilly day outside. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes this region so appealing: Though the coast is rough and damp, the inns along this stretch are indulgently luxurious. Several serve lavish, multicourse dinners for guests and visitors. And though there aren’t many restaurants in the towns here, the few that exist are superb.

On the drive back, I passed herds of sheep and some cows in new green grass. At Moat Creek, I hiked out to the rocky pocket beach, then doubled back to take the trail up to the bluffs for a higher view.

Farther north, surfers braved the cold, magnificent swells near Point Arena pier. I scanned the sky, hoping to see tundra swans on the Garcia Plain north of the lighthouse.

Back at the inn, a fire warmed the sitting area. From the dining room, I watched the sun start to drop behind the sea, reaching reluctant pink fingers into the sky before it went.

It was a nice way to end a wind-tossed day-pasta and sun-dried tomatoes on my plate, a glass of Pinot Noir, and the massive rocks hunched in the Pacific below me fading to gray and then black. Eventually, the ocean darkened and disappeared too. All that remained to remind me of the rough coast outside was the regular rush of the waves and the gentle tapping of fog at the window.

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