In the northern hemisphere, few would think a late February day would have anything in common with “beach weather,” and on the day we visited Russian Gulch Beach, the inhospitable ocean certainly bore that out. High waves pounded the rocks and shore, warning visitors away from approaching the surf. In fact, the rip current at this beach makes it unsafe for swimming year-round.
But sunshine, few clouds in the sky, temperatures in the low 70s and a light breeze made for a wonderful walk on the beach. We enjoyed a perfect warm winter day at the ocean.
Not to be confused with a larger state park by the same name farther north in Mendocino, this Russian Gulch lies about 2 miles north of the town of Jenner along Highway 1. This hidden-away spot offers a short, peaceful stroll to the beach and stark, dramatic scenery at the beach itself. It’s a perfect place for “beach exploring,” as it’s described here.
Russian Gulch is easy to find, and it’s not a long drive from the house—just about 12 miles (a roughly 20-minute drive) from Monte Rio.
As we drove north on Highway 1, away from Jenner, we easily spotted the access point for the beach—it’s located near the bottom of hill, at a wide, sweeping turn in the road. Parking areas, right off both shoulders of Highway 1, clearly delineate the area.
The main parking lot is a spacious dirt and gravel turnout that will probably accommodate about ten cars; it’s just adjacent to the trailhead. A smaller, narrow dirt patch across the highway will probably hold an additional four or five more cars. Parking on this sunny, late February day didn’t prove difficult to find, though it seems likely to be scarcer during the summer months.
From trailhead to beach, an easy, flat trail meanders about a quarter of a mile through a patch of mossy, gnarled trees that grow at extreme angles, slowly bent over the years to accommodate the wind.
Since it’s still the rainy season and an El Niño year, we encountered not only a few muddy spots on the trail, but also marshy areas with ferns, and even a small bog off to one side of the path—something we haven’t seen in the past couple years of drought.
The trail follows Russian Gulch Creek at least part of the way. We could glimpse the creek from some spots along the trail.
The trail leads to a rocky spit of land cut off from the main beach by the wide, slow-moving Russian Gulch Creek.
In order to reach the main beach, we had to wade across the creek. It’s a bit too far across and potentially too deep in the middle, so we decided that the best way to ford the creek was make two crossings at narrower points, wading first from the bank where the trail lets out, to a large rock-covered sandbar in the middle of the creek, then another crossing from there over to the beach proper.
This is where what had been a peaceful afternoon walk gave way to some shrieking and slightly frantic scrambling across the creek. We took off our shoes and socks and waded into creek water that shocked with a deep chill. The rocky creekbed proved somewhat slippery, prolonging the walk through the icy water as we tried to keep our balance.
Rather than sand, this beach is made up of smooth stones of all sizes, and there are were a couple small patches littered with sharp shards of broken mussel shells best avoided by bare feet. We found ourselves wishing for the Tevas, which, the day before, it had seemed too optimistic to pack. Water shoes aren’t strictly necessary here—we saw no litter or broken glass—but having something on our feet would have made the walk around the beach more comfortable.
Arriving at the main part of the beach, we could hear the waves, but couldn’t see them, due to a large, gently sloping hill in the center of the main part of the beach, almost like a fortification between the ocean and the land. This rise in the middle of the beach obscured all but the tallest waves until we neared the crest of the hill.
We crossed the top of the hill, where the ocean had washed away the larger rocks and pebbles and smoothed the beach into an expanse of coarse sand.
The scenery quickly distracted us from the brief chilly creek walk and the pebbly surface of the beach. Waves pounded the rocky edges of the cove, kicking up so much spray that they often left a lingering mist in their wake. Little waterfalls appeared, running off the rocks after each wave broke.
The largest waves crashed on the shore but then kept spreading across the beach, reaching long fingers up the hill in the middle, and then back down the other side. As most of the water seeped into the gravel, the leading edge of the wave left behind its outline, traced by long lines of sea foam stranded many feet from where most of the waves were breaking.
We walked to one end of the beach, where Russian Gulch Creek flows into the sea. And we saw that the bigger waves were up to their usual tricks, taking off into places across the beach where waves don’t usually go—in this case, wrapping around a large rock near the shore.
We had considered bringing a picnic to the beach, but thought it might be too windy or cold. But we’d pack a picnic for a return visit some time, because Russian Gulch looks like a great place for it—especially suited for a beach picnic because there’s no fine sand to blow into the food. Camp chairs or a blanket would offer a more comfortable spot to sit.
Walking back to the car, we noticed many wildflowers growing along the trail, along with moss and ferns, and even a mossy log festooned with mushrooms. It made this day trip feel like we were seeing the best of both worlds: a visit to the ocean and with two quick side trips through peaceful woodlands.
Whether for beach exploring or a picnic—maybe both?—we’re looking forward to our next trip to Russian Gulch.
Russian Gulch, about 2 miles north of Jenner, along Highway 1
-Limited parking in turnout areas along the Highway
-You might want to pack: sunscreen; a light jacket or hoodie (even in the summer); water shoes; camp chairs or a blanket; a picnic; a frisbee
-This beach is unsafe for swimming, even in warmer months. It’s great for walks, picnics and exploring.