When most folks think of California beaches, thoughts of Southern sun soaked places like Malibu, Venice and Manhattan Beach typically come to mind. They’re all great destinations, but there’s more to be had at California beaches than a great tan. Visitors willing to trade a swimsuit for a sweatshirt will find reward and maybe even treasure in Mendocino County.
Manchester State Park is one of those great beaches hardly anyone seems to know about. Just off Highway 1, about seven miles north of Point Arena, five miles of gentle, dark-colored sand is waiting for you.
Protected by cliffs, seeing the sand and getting to it are two different things. There are a few fairly established-looking paths that lead you to the water, only to tease you with no way to actually get down onto the beach. After parking the car, face the ocean and head to the right. Signage about the endangered Point Arena mountain beaver and the western snowy plover mark the beginning of the way to the sand.
It’s less than a 5-minute walk to one of the best fort building supply surpluses I’ve ever found. (It’s an easy walk, but not stroller-friendly). The unique curve of the coast here creates a catchall for sea debris and beautifully weathered driftwood. The San Andreas Fault runs into the sea at the park. Bring a picnic, a blanket and some layers and you could spend the day with the beach practically to yourself.
Don’t head home without stopping at the Point Arena Lighthouse and Museum. If you’ve got the energy take a tour and climb to the top. At 115 feet, it’s one of the tallest Pacific Coast Lighthouses. The Lighthouse is open 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. almost every day during the winter and until 4:30 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend.
Don’t want to rush home? Spend the night in one of the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters and keep your ears peeled for the barking of harbor seals in between the noisy, crashing waves.
If the tides are working in your favor Bowling Ball Beach, is worth a look see. Three miles south of Point Arena, the beach might not seem like anything special during high tide, but when the tide goes out, clusters of large, round sandstone `bowling balls’ are left behind. The walk to the beachside cliff is flat, but again if you’re traveling with kids, leave the stroller in the car. Getting down to the beach is an entirely different matter. Erosion has taken its toll and very few people go down the ladder to the sand.
If you do have to make the trek home, at least don’t do it on an empty stomach. Bones Roadhouse in Gualala serves up authentic Texas style wood pit bar-b-que with attitude in a casual atmosphere. The Memphis Pulled Pork sandwich can’t be beat.
Great food and great beaches are all most folks need to lure them out the door, but one of my favorite parts about making the trip to Mendocino County is the drive and the small town glimpses you get along the way. Hardware stores that double as markets, and towns with populations of 250 people. Think about it, that’s the size of many San Francisco apartment buildings.