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Where to camp to the sound of the ocean in Sonoma County

If you’re thinking recent warm temperatures and triple digit highs are signs of the new normal for California, experts say you’re right. And when the heat heads for record territory this summer, many are taking a welcome break and heading for the coast, where it can be a dramatic 20 or 30 degrees cooler than inland.

To really immerse in the cool Pacific coastal experience, Sonoma County offers a choice of State, County and private campgrounds, where folks can watch ocean sunsets, sit around an evening campfire and drift to sleep with the timeless sound of the surf.

Here are five of the best oceanside public campgrounds along Highway 1 as it winds north along the coast.

Many of these spots have been popular for generations. Families in the Bay Area and Sacramento have been vacationing there in earnest since 1900, and for good reason.

It’s cool on the coast because of a natural atmospheric effect.

When the summer sun bakes California’s interior, the resulting hot air rises high into the atmosphere, pulling in surrounding air to replace it. Since the temperature of the Pacific Ocean hovers at around a chilly 57 degrees all summer long, when air that’s been cooled by contact with the ocean gets drawn inland, the coastline gets chilled. That’s why it’s often windy and foggy there during the summer months.

Incidentally, that unique summer cycle is also responsible for another California icon. Giant coast redwoods only grow in a narrow band within 30 miles of the ocean, because they depend on fogs to bring them the moisture they need to survive the long dry summer.

The same conditions create a unique coastal ecology tied to the ocean, including grass covered hills, cool forest groves, and bluffs carpeted with wildflowers. Dozens of species of wild birds wheel and sing along the coast, and small animals like rabbits, foxes and racoons make homes in brush and creekside canyons.

Spending a few days by the wild Pacific is not only cool relief, but the coast offers plenty of outdoor activities, and ocean breezes and blue water vistas have a way of lowering stress.

The Campgrounds

The five coastal campgrounds selected here are all within earshot of heavy Pacific surf. Wrights Beach and Doran campgrounds are actually on the beach. All the campsites come with fire rings, table, and clean modern restrooms, camp hosts on site, and cost between $35 and $45 a night. Since campgrounds fill up fast in the summer, reservations are highly recommended. Some book weeks in advance, and weekends and holidays are most popular.

Gualala Point Park - Sonoma County Regional Parks

This gem of a campground is the farthest north, near the Mendocino County Border. Tucked beneath redwood and bay trees along the shore of the Gualala River, it has 23 mostly shady sites. Enjoy kayaking on the river, hike to the beach and the river mouth, or wander the short bluff trail for ocean vistas. Stop in for supplies and eateries in nearby Gualala, just five minutes away, or book tee time at nearby Sea Ranch Golf Course.

Salt Point State Park

Salt Point is situated on a rugged and dramatically scenic coastline, with wave washed coves, miles of trails, and two campgrounds. Gerstle Cove Campground is closest to the ocean, with 28 sites, some in meadow and about half beneath pine trees. When the wind blows, and it frequently does, Gerstle feels it, and folks wanting a bit more sheltered experience can stay in Woodside Campground, which is on the east side of Hwy 1. Depending on the season Woodside has up to 79 available sites among the pines. Trails in the park run for miles along the bluffs, and eastward up into the hilly terraces, which are studded with redwood groves, and even a pygmy forest of dwarfed trees. Popular with abalone divers in season, Salt Point’s rocky shoreline is also fantastic for tidepoolers and photographers, although the surf is treacherous and should be treated with caution. Blufftop walks are often carpeted with wildflowers in spring and early summer.

Wrights Beach – Sonoma Coast State Park

Wrights is a small campground on an expansive sandy beach, with several of the 27 sites facing the surf. Not surprisingly, they book up well in advance. If you’re lucky enough to get a spot here, you can play in the sand, walk along the nearby 4 miles of Kortum trail, which follows the bluff tops, or just pull up a chair and relax with the sea breeze in your hair. Even though it’s an attractive wide sandy beach, which are rare in Sonoma County, the ocean here is not for swimming, and lifeguards warn against even turning your back to the waves. Nearby Salmon Creek is popular with local surfers.

Bodega Dunes– Sonoma Coast State Park

As the name suggests, the campground is situated among tree studded sand dunes, just north of the hamlet of Bodega Bay. It’s also the largest campground on the Sonoma Coast, with 98 sites. Although you can’t see the ocean from the campground thanks to the tall dunes – a few sites have views of Bodega Bay - it’s a great base for heading to nearby beaches and coastal access points, as well as Bodega Bay itself, which is popular with kite flyers and kite-surfers, thanks to the steady afternoon breezes. There’s a horse trail for equestrians, and within a 15 minute drive north the Russian River enters the Pacific Ocean at Jenner, where kayaks can be rented, and harbor seals pull out to pup.

Doran Beach - Sonoma County Regional Parks

Doran Campground is situated on a level “c”-shaped spit of land extending out into Bodega Bay, with two miles of sheltered beach and kid friendly, mild surf. Popular with RV’s and families, the 120 year-round campsites provide access to boat ramps, fishing and crabbing (in season), in addition to sand, sun and sea. Very little shade here, and visitors should be forewarned, whenever a fog bank approaches, the foghorn situated at the end of the jetty moans, loudly. Some find it romantic, others not so much. Trails run around nearby Bodega Head, which offers vistas and whale watching. Seafood, tourist shops and two small markets are nearby.