9 Best Things to Do in Gualala, My Favorite San Francisco Trip

Gualala is a Pomo name meaning “where the waters flow”. Pronounced “wa-LA-la”, it’s 185 km from the center of San Francisco, perfect for a budget road trip.

The name is descriptive of this small northern California coastal town. Coniferous forests grow on the slopes of the coasts to the edge of the Pacific. The Gualala River drains the watershed of countless streams and streams in the Pacific. The coastline is wild and rugged, with few beaches. Gorgeous cliffs and blufftop trails are standard.

Gualala is at the southern end of the Mendocino Coast, bordering Sonoma County. The rugged and rugged coastline is known for its towering cliffs, coastal paths and driftwood beaches. The small town is an artist’s and nature lover’s nirvana and the perfect place to disconnect and relax with the waves, wilderness and wine.

Gualala Art Center and Theater

Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

Some of the best things to do in Gualala

1. Art in the Redwoods

Gualala Art Center and Theater has been the heart of Gualala’s artistic community since 1961. The center hosts classical and popular music performances, theater, art exhibits, classes, workshops, lectures, and more. Youth programs are also offered and some classes are open. Stop for a music or painting workshop.

The arts center is a magnificent 15,000 square foot building designed by Paul Styskal. It was inaugurated in 1998. Three gardens surround the building – Mendocino Stone Zone, Frog Songand Gualala Arts Global Harmony Sculpture Garden. Each garden features art among redwoods, evergreens, woodland trees, and native flowering shrubs.

Go to the Events page for a program of festivals, exhibitions, performances and courses. You can also buy tickets online.

Pro Tip: Many art lovers plan a trip to Gualala to Art in the Redwoodsa 4 day celebration of local art, music, food and wine.

Serge Posts at Gualala Point Regional Park

Serge Posts at Gualala Point Regional Park

Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

2. Honor the Elders

Gualala Point Regional Park has some of the most breathtaking views in Gualala of where the Gualala River enters the Pacific Ocean. The park features a variety of landscapes, including beaches, coastal cliffs, an estuary, redwoods, forest, and a river.

One of the man-made features of the park is Serge Posts (pronounced sayr-gay). The ceremonial poles were carved by craftsmen from the Sakha Republic in northeastern Russia. The artists came to the park in 2014 to sculpt the Serge and honor their heritage in the region. Russian fur traders were among the first non-native settlers in the Gualala region.

While at the park, enjoy the beach, driftwood carvings, biking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, tent camping, and fishing. There are many picnic areas, including one with fabulous views and a windbreak at the visitor center.

Pygmy forest conifers

Pygmy forest conifers

Photo credit: Mary Charlesbois

3. Visit some small trees

Salt Point State Park Pygmy Forest houses miniature versions of pines, cypresses and redwoods. These are the same types of trees that flourish in the region’s forests, just smaller. Stunting is the result of acidic soils lacking nutrients. Additionally, the hard soil is not far below the surface, which impedes the drainage and root growth necessary for thriving.

The 3.8 miles Pygmy Forest Trail is a loop, on average 2 hours to complete. It’s rated easy, with a gradual elevation gain of 793 feet. In addition to dwarf trees, you will pass by eucalyptus, madrones, douglas and tan oaks. The prairie section of the trail is beautiful during a spring bloom of wildflowers.

Widow's Walk at Cypress Village

Widow’s Walk at Cypress Village

Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

Cypress Village is a charming little shopping center on the corner of South Highway 1 and Ocean Drive. The businesses are linked together by balconies and stairs, looking more like an upscale townhouse complex than a shopping mall; it’s perfect for an art afternoon. Galleries showcasing local artists mingle with a bookstore, clothing boutiques, home decor, kitchen store, offices and restaurants.

Climb the Widow’s Walk for great views of the coast. The Widow’s Walk has a clock tower at the top.

Pro Tip: After visiting the galleries in Cypress Village, cross Highway 1 and walk north. Stop at the galleries you pass through or take a coffee break at a local cafe.

Whales near Gualala

Whales near Gualala

Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

5. Whale Wave

Whale watching point on the Bluff Top Coastal Access Trail is a great place to watch migrating whales from November to March.

Bluff Top is 3 miles one way. The trail begins in Gualala Regional Park and ends at Walk On Beach Trail. You will also see stunning offshore rock formations, beaches and coves. Many wildlife species can be encountered on land, at sea and in the air.

Whales can be easily spotted from the shore. Keep an eye out for their misty beaks. I think the best viewing times from the shore are at high tide in the late afternoon.

Pro Tip: Don’t forget the binoculars!

redwoods

redwoods

Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

6. Camp with tall trees

Gualala River Redwood Park’s slogan is: “There is no better place to disconnect. Connect with the redwoods, explore, breathe, run, enjoy and disconnect from city life.

This campsite in the redwoods is made for a city getaway. Whether in a tent or an RV, pitches are available by the river or in the forest. Hiking, biking, swimming, picnicking, fishing, kayaking, and stargazing are popular activities at this private outdoor resort. Pets are welcome but must be kept on a leash at all times.

Pro Tip: You can see photos of each campsite on the park’s website. Make your choice and book online before your arrival.

Driftwood at Gualala Point Regional Park

Driftwood at Gualala Point Regional Park

Photo credit: RelentlessImages / Shutterstock.com

7. Build a driftwood masterpiece

Sculptures, shelters, and some nondescript structures populate most beaches along the Mendocino-Sonoma Coast. That’s because it has some of the best driftwood beaches in the state.

Building your masterpiece solo or in a group is fun and good exercise. So first, collect driftwood from the beach. Then let your imagination and your inner engineer/artist run free. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it; Have fun. Finally, take photos of your genius work; it will probably be gone with the next rising tide.

In Gualala, a good driftwood beach can be found at Guala Point Beach at Gualala Points Regional Park. There is an accessible path to the beach. All-terrain wheelchairs are available from park staff on a first-come, first-served basis.

Pro Tip: You can gather and build with any unused driftwood you can find. However, you cannot take it with you or burn it.

Fresh produce at Gualala Surf Market

Fresh produce at Gualala Surf Market

Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

8. Bring a cooler and stock the pantry

Fill up at surf market on California Highway 1 in Gualala. You can get a full taste of Mendocino and Sonoma County at Surf. Family-owned since 1956, the shelves are stocked with local wine, beer, vegetables, fruit, cheese, seafood and meat.

If you’re from San Francisco, plan to shop at Surf. Bring a cooler for perishables and make room in the trunk for plenty of wine. The caterer can fill the picnic basket with sandwiches, prepared meals, baked goods, and don’t pass up the fudge — yum!

Pro Tip: The Gualala Farmers Market is Saturday mornings at the Gualala Community Center on Center Street. It’s not just an exceptional place for local produce; it’s a friendly way to meet the locals.

Sunset over the Gualala River and the Pacific Ocean

Sunset over the Gualala River and the Pacific Ocean

Photo credit: W. Galletti / Shutterstock.com

9. Sip the sunset

This one is simple and can be done anywhere you can see the sun falling into the Pacific. First, open the bottle of wine you bought at the Surf Market. Then pour the wine. Then, sip the wine as you watch the sunset. Finally, cheer when the last spec of that golden ball has disappeared below the horizon.

Pro Tip: The winter months have the most golden and red sunsets on the Mendocino Coast.

Sleep

I suggest a vacation rental if you plan to spend a night or two in Gualala. Rentals are available, small cabins in the forest by the ocean Architectural Summary– dignified dwellings. Sea Ranch, just south of Gualala, is a popular rental location. There is a golf course on the development property.

Camping is one of the best options in the many public and private parks. Check with Glamping Center and hip camp for unique camping and glamping spots.

California Highway 1 near Bodega Bay

California Highway 1 near Bodega Bay

Photo credit: Naeblys / Shutterstock.com

Getting There

The drive to Gualala is part of the experience as you head north on California Highway 1 at Bodega Bay. From there, the next 47 miles are made for sports car commercials. As you twist and climb along the rugged North Pacific coast, you’ll want to stop at every fork to savor the view.

Pro Tip: After the hectic drive out of San Francisco, I suggest stopping at Bodega Bay for a break or maybe lunch. One of the last small fishing villages on the west coast, Bodega Bay will be an easy going place for a break from the car and a taste of the seafood served in the restaurants.

Why Gualala?

Gualala runs on “Mendo Time”. It’s relaxed and never rushed. The locals are warm, creative and like to share their little corner of paradise. Gualala is a bit remote, keeping tourist buses away. Instead, you’ll find pristine old-growth forests, clean, fresh air, trails where you’re unlikely to encounter others, and plenty of room for your driftwood carving on the beach.

Check out the best getaway ideas in Mendocino, including:

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