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  • Writer's pictureMark Robinson

A Coastal Drive Up Highway 1

Journey to Point Arena

After a long year without travelling and with my first shot of the COVID vaccine behind me, I decided to take my son on a drive up the coast. Not a lot of people know this, but between Bodega Bay and Point Arena there is an infrequently used section of Highway 1. Most people bypass it in favor of taking the 101 up the coast because it is faster but in this case, we were looking forward to the longer drive and a little-known destination called Fort Ross.

We started our morning early, leaving Palo Alto around 6:30am. I wanted to be over the Golden Gate Bridge before traffic was likely to hit and as it turned out, we just made it over before the morning rush. Within about an hour of leaving home, we found ourselves driving through the old downtown of Petaluma. If you have not been here, it is well worth exploring. It was a gateway town to the wine country back in the early 1900s and, with so many of its old buildings still standing, it has lost none of its charm.

It is a town full of 50’s diners, old shops and bank buildings that look like they are from the days of the gold rush. The drive through town was a short one and after a brief push through farming country, we found ourselves at Bodega Bay.

Bodega Bay is a community that has a single moment in fame that it still milks well…Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed there. There are signs and buildings from when the film was created and on a good day, you might see Tippi Hedren, the lead actress (who has been seen visiting).

We then started our long, winding and sometimes dangerous drive up one of the most beautiful stretches of the California coast. Our destination was about 60 miles up Highway 1 at Point Arena. The route up the coast is dotted with coastal ranches and Fort Ross (one of our upcoming stops). One of the most interesting parts of the journey is how large parts of the freeway have been cut into the mountains along the coast. Much of the road is along a 500-foot-high cliff with no guard rail. Rather than the traditional 55 miles per hour, we never got past a slow and meandering 25mph.

It was slow going but always beautiful. My son pointed out the many derelict buildings (mostly barns) that were visible off the highway.

We arrived at Point Arena about 4 hours after we left home (around 10:30am).

Point Arena Light Station

Point Arena

Point Arena is a remote light station that has stood for over 150 years. If you have ever had the pleasure to visit Pigeon Point Lighthouse, they are almost identical structures. The grounds of the lighthouse consist of approximately 23 acres of coastal land. The main structure, the lighthouse (of course) is about 115 ft high. The other prominent structure is the fog signal building which has been converted to a museum and gift shop. There are also several smaller sights to enjoy on the grounds that I will cover shortly.

We started our visit by enjoying the view of the lighthouse. My son pointed out that no matter where you look at it, it stands out against the landscape and looks dramatic from any vantage point. After walking around the tower, the wind picked up and we decided to go into the fog signal building.

Point Arena Fog Signal Building

The fog signal building has been converted into a shop and a museum which is a typical formula that most communities follow to raise money to keep a lighthouse in good condition. They typically convert one of the buildings into a small local maritime museum and another into a small store. In this particular case, the store and the museum are part of the same building.

My son and I always like this arrangement because it gives us an opportunity to get him a new t-shirt or book to remember the light.

Fresnel Lens of Point Arena

We started in the museum which has a large Fresnel Lens, the centerpiece to the museum. A Fresnel lens is a type of lens that redirects light into a focal point so that it can be seen from great distances. It is commonly referred to as “the invention that has saved a million ships”. Today, they make them out of plastic but back in the day, these were made from individually created glass panels that were fitted together in a brass cage. I have always thought of them as works of art. An interesting fact is that the process for making them in glass has been lost to time. They are highly complex and very difficult to manufacture to the level of precision they need to be.

The rest of the museum covers shipwrecks in the area, the light keepers and the wildlife. If you decide to visit Point Arena, you can cover the museum in about 30 min.

After we visited the museum, we purchased two t-shirts from the shop and decided to walk the grounds around the light.

View of the Point Arena Gazebo

We saw a gazebo off in the distance which was set up to provide a good vantage point to take pictures of the lighthouse. We made a quick decision to walk in that direction to take more pictures of the lighthouse.

Point Arena is sitting on a small peninsula and is surrounded by water on three sides. If you visit the light station, you should give yourself an hour or so to walk the cliffs around the lighthouse. The view is spectacular on all sides. As we made our way to the gazebo, we paid a lot of attention to the rocks in the water. It is easy to understand why a lighthouse would have been important here. This point is essentially death to ships on all sides.

Point Arena from the Gazebo

The view at the gazebo did not disappoint. We both noticed that the rocks around the lighthouse would not have been visible at night and the lighthouse would have been the only protection from them.

Rocks Near Point Arena

After the gazebo, we continued to walk around the cliffs. When you get to the ocean side of the peninsula (the west), it is hard not to notice how striking the rocks are. After centuries, the ocean has cut channels into them. We were there during low tide but at high tide, many of these rocks would not be visible to passing ships.

The Drive to Fort Ross

Following our scenic walk around the light station, we returned to our car and started the drive south, to Fort Ross where we passed through the town of Point Arena. This part of the drive was a sad reminder of the economic impact of the pandemic on smaller communities. Most of the businesses on the main street were now boarded up and the majority of those remaining were restaurants or small markets. It will be a very long road to recover for communities like this.

The rest of the drive was very scenic. The drive south was highlighted by coastal cattle ranches, small towns and expansive views of the ocean. Town after town was highlighted with the same economic devastation that we witnessed in Point Arena.

The drive continued for about 30 miles until we ended up at the Fort Ross State Park.

Fort Ross

Not a lot of people know this story but in the early 1800s, Russia established settlements in their North American territories as far south as what we know as Sonoma County. Fort Ross was the southernmost outpost, established in 1812. In addition to a defensive fortification, it was an active trading post for Russia until 1841. Today, it is part of the California State Park system. The fort has been well maintained and a visit takes 1-2 hours. The best place to start is at the interpretive center where there is a museum about the fort and the indigenous population as well as a small store (and bathrooms).

When there is no pandemic, the fort has dozens of reenactors who walk visitors through what life was like when it was actively used.

Our visit was highlighted by a walk to the towers and buildings of the fort as well as a stroll through the parade grounds.

The View of Fort Ross From The Cliffs

After our walk, we made our way to the cliffs to get a better view of the fort at a distance. Had we been a bit better prepared, it would have been a great place to have lunch.

After a few hours, we walked the trail back to our car and started our journey to Bodega Bay.

Our failed attempt to visit Bodega Bay

We had planned on finishing our trip in Bodega Bay. There is a light station at the end of the point on the way into the harbor. Sadly, it was not to be. As we drove up the point, a police officer informed us that a car had gone off the cliff at the top of the point. It’s a cringe worthy thing to hear as the road up the point is 500 feet above the water. We were told we could wait for the car to be recovered or turn around. We decided to head home but with the understanding that we would make the time to come back.

Later that evening, after we arrived home, we heard that a mother and daughter had been in the car and both had died. A very sad note to end the trip on.

By the next morning, we found ourselves determined to go back and see the lighthouse and we started planning our trip back.

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