What to Do at the Sea Ranch

Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

In the summer of 2016, as summer started to wind down, we realized we hadn’t taken a trip with just the four of us for months. After no luck finding a last-minute vacation rental on the Mendocino coast, we found a beautiful vacation rental in the Sea Ranch on Airbnb, somewhere we’d never heard of (more info here). It’s a rugged, sparsely-populated area just south of the Mendocino County line on one of the most beautiful stretches of coast on the West. We wanted a relaxing trip of hiking, biking, and animal watching, and that’s exactly what we got. Here’s my advice for what to do at the Sea Ranch:

(See more off-the-beaten-path ideas in my Secret California category.)

Favorite Airbnbs for families in Northern California

After posting photos on Instagram, I realized that this place is definitely not unknown! I heard from people who have loved to vacation there for years or even plan to relocate there. The Sea Ranch is a small community of about 1000 people at the northernmost part of the Sonoma County coast, just south of the small town of Gualala (pronounced “Wa-la-la”). The community sits on the meadows between Highway 1 and the ocean, so most houses have a sea view.

The houses are purposely simple, designed not to stand out against the nature. There’s no landscaping or lawns; instead, the natural vegetation surrounds the houses (wildflowers, cypress trees, ice plant, and low-growing shrubs).

Houses at Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

What attracted us to the Sea Ranch was the coastal trail system that connects miles and miles of bluffs and beaches. The coast allows public beach access for everyone, so even though the trails are part of the Sea Ranch community, the public can use the trails, too. There are even a few small parking lots with restrooms for the public to use. But we rarely saw anyone while walking! It was usually just us and a bunch of deer.

Sea Ranch, Sonoma County   DSC_0090  Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

The coast here is rugged, and I find it fascinating to see how the ocean has shaped the nature, from cypress trees that mimic the wind’s flow to cliffs like the one above that have been terraced by the constant force of the waves. And, like so many places along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, there are sea caves:

Favorite Airbnbs for families in Northern California

Just outside all the Sea Ranch homes are miles of trails. If you go north, the trails take you to Gualala Point Regional Park, a 195-acre park with coastal and inland hiking trails through meadows and forests, the Gualala River (for kayaking), and Gualala Beach, where we spent a fun morning. If you’ve spent much time on the beaches in Northern California, you know that the water is generally not safe, so we kept our distance from the crashing waves and instead played among the cliffs and driftwood.

Trails at Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

Gualala Point Regional Park, Sonoma County

Gualala Point Regional Park, Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

Gualala Point Regional Park

The town of Gualala has two grocery stores, a few shops and restaurants. Make time to eat at Trinks Cafe — the food is good, the baked goods are homemade and the view out back toward the water is lovely.

All along the Sea Ranch coast are beaches, some accessible (via trails and steep stairs), and some not so much. We visited Stengel Beach, which felt small and secluded, and Walk On Beach, which was bigger and a bit busier with local kids and their dogs having fun. My kids quickly slipped into their favorite activities: Gabriel found pieces of kelp to represent each member of the family and then played “family” with them on the rocks while Noah played frisbee and soccer with his dad.

Beaches at Sea Ranch, Sonoma County  Beaches at Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

(The downside to visiting the beaches on most late afternoons in summer…overcast and cold!)

Walk on Beach, Sea Ranch

In case you’re wondering about the scarves and long sleeves you see above, the weather was cool and mostly cloudy, with misty mornings and evenings–normal weather for summer on the coast. But we did get some clear weather toward the end of our stay, which made for spectacular star-gazing from the hot tub. We saw the Milky Way, planets, and several shooting stars! And being in such a remote place meant lots of animals to see right from the house windows: foxes (in fact, a fox family greeted us when we arrived!), raccoons, quail, vultures, and lots of deer around at all times of day.

Animals at Sea Ranch, Sonoma County

We loved staying at the Sea Ranch so much that we made plans to spend a week here next spring and wondered out loud what it would take to have a vacation home there. (And here’s how we spent the day in Mendocino County while staying at Sea Ranch.)

Have you been to the Sea Ranch or the Sonoma coast? I’d love to hear your suggestions for our next trip there!

(This is the Airbnb vacation rental we stayed at, in case you’re interested. It was one of the nicest rentals we’ve stayed in.)


  • Looks beautiful!! We recently spent the day in Mendocino and had the same thoughts about a vacation home! I was ready to move and spend the rest of my days kayaking (clearly not a realistic plan). Looking forward to reading more about your trip.

    • Jenna says:

      I can imagine! The less crowded parts of the coast are such a refreshing change from the busy feeling of Sacramento and the Bay Area. I’ll be in Mendocino in October and can’t wait!

  • Cindy says:

    Such beautiful photos! My favorite is the one of the cliffs and the cypress, all slanting from the wind/surf. And the one with the frisbee!

    We have been looking into a vacation with our airstream in Gualala. It really does look very inviting, especially in California, where it can be hard to get away from crowds. (Maybe we can make it a family trip in the spring…:-)

  • Kara says:

    So glad you finally got to Sea Ranch. We love it up there!!! If you’re looking for a good camping weekend, just south is Salt Point State Park with an amazing campsite on the coast. We got every year and it’s one of our favorite places in CA!

    • Jenna says:

      Thank you for the tip! My mom has an Airstream, and they’re always looking for places to camp. I will look into it.

  • Sea Ranch sounds like a lovely eco-friendly community, very much in touch with nature. The people must be very healthy – what with all those hiking trails :-). It’s interesting you mention that the gardens and yards grow wild and aren’t manicured. Here in Victoria, where we’ve just moved, we’re seeing some of that in many of the gardens when walking the neighborhoods. Anyway, happy you enjoyed a great family holiday there…

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, I think it’s a pretty healthy community. We didn’t see a lot of people out on the trails, but it’s a place where the residents enjoy being outdoors, from eating breakfast on their decks to running on the trails in the morning and walking their dogs. I can imagine that you’re seeing more of that style of yard in Victoria. We have a lot of that here in California, usually planted with native plants that are drought resistant. This was a little different, though, because the houses just seemed to sit on the meadow without a clear line of where the “yard” would be.

  • Elsa says:

    Looks amazing! I would love to explore Northern California. This post is a great reference for those who want to visit. Thank you for sharing. XO


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