The Bluff Top Trail hugs the rugged coast of Sonoma County from Gualala Point Regional Park in the north to Walk On Beach in the south. This also roughly parallels CA Highway 1. Access to the trail is available at the northern and southern ends and via the Salal Trail roughly at the trail's midpoint.
A view of the Pacific Coast from the Bluff Top Trail.
The Bluff Top Trail provides a physical reminder of a contentious issue that has played out in California for decades - access to the shore. In the 1960s a development group purchased a large segment of land and proposed an extensive housing development. Opposition to the development ultimately led to the creation of the California Coastal Commission
and public emphasis on access to the Pacific Ocean. Sonoma County Regional Parks has a public access easement through a portion of the Sea Ranch and that's how the trail became possible.
Interpretive markers along the trail provide a bit of background into the history of the area. Not so surprising uses of the coast and surrounding lands include farming, raising cattle and lumbering of Redwoods from the uplands. The bigger surprise is that the land occupied by Sea Ranch now used to be an Navy bombing range! Between 1944 and 1946, Navy pilots flying out of Santa Rosa who were finishing up their training used Gualala Point Island as a guide point to zero in on a spot about 50 yards inland to dive bomb.
Coppertone on the trail showing the homes lined up throughout most of the trail's length.
The easiest and most abundant parking for the trail is within Gualala Point Regional Park at the northern terminus of the trail. From the park's information center the trail heads toward the shore and then south. A short spur to the north leads to a spot called Whale Watch Point.
Most of the trail's length hugs the cliff top along the Pacific Ocean coast. To the east lies the homes in the Sea Ranch development. Though a couple of clumps of trees and shrubs will appear periodically, the hiker can generally expect to be fully exposed to the Sun and wind. Sunscreen is highly recommended.
Coppertone looks down on one of the small beaches found throughout the trail's length.
Northern Sonoma County has mostly rugged, rocky shorelines. But small bits of secluded beaches appear here and there, dependent upon the occasional landslide and the typical currents along the coast. Along the trail one can see some of these landslides represented by cuts into the bluff. Those that are still unstable are fenced off and the trail slightly rerouted ever so slightly inland.
There's sometimes an uneasy feeling walking past the houses at Sea Ranch. There's plenty on nature on the sea side of the trail and the houses on the land side are not so tightly packed as remove all signs of nature. But what's a little strange is the quietness of the neighborhood. It appears a good percentage of the homes are summer retreats that get used a few times a year. Some are quite clearly sealed up for an extended period of time. It's like walking in one of those science fiction movies where all humankind has disappeared off the face of the Earth.
The trail ends at Walk On Beach. There's a nearby access trail that leads to the highway, so that's an alternative access point. Though a trail continues further south at that point the trail enters the property of Sea Ranch itself and so if you're not a resident you don't have access.