It sounded like quirky fun on the Sonoma Coast. The flyer said “learn to forage for seaweed and make seaweed soup” and was to be led by a docent at Stillwater Cove Regional Park. With two kids of prime tidepooling age we decided to make camping reservations at a nearby campground so we could make it in time for the morning outing timed to coincide with low tide. Had we known how great this little park is we would have made reservations to camp among the redwood trees.
From the parking lot the sound of the waves made made clear where our soup was to be found. The kids put on their adventure vests, straightened their junior ranger badges, stuffed a handful of snacks in their pockets, and ran off to meet the docent. From the meeting location it was a short 5 minute walk along a beautiful tree canopy covered creek down to Stillwater Cove. As we arrived the abalone divers were already winding up their catch of the day so the kids got a close look at some of the natives.
We learned from our docent that seaweed is broadly categorized in to green, red, and brown varietals and all are technically edible but the brown is generally too tough to eat. The objective our soup collection was Sea Lettuce which is a very tender thin green seaweed and Porphyra or Pyropia (aka Nori) also very thin and tender but of the red type. Having never spent much time examining the seaweed at low tide we were shocked to find food growing everywhere! I definitely was expecting to hunt long for meager rations but the bounty was plentiful!
After examining all the tidepool creatures and snatching a few strands of seaweed we returned to the picnic area and put the kettle on to boil up some ramen packets. After rinsing and dicing the our forage, into the ramen it went. It turns out that seaweed is high in protein and packed with tons of vitamins and minerals. It was a truely a superfood for the local Kashaya Pomo People. Unfortunately, the kids didn’t think that seaweed soup was a super food to eat for lunch! Good thing we had cream cheese sandwiches and trail mix!
From Stillwater Cove in the north to Wright’s Beach in the south, the area surrounding the hamlet of Jenner where the Russian River meets the sea is full of fun and sometimes quirky adventures for the whole family. Check out our choose your own adventure guide to a day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to Jenner.
Good to Know
If you look at a map of Sonoma County California, you will find the little hamlet of Jenner just a few miles north of Bodega Bay. It’s a very special place because it is the home of the Russian River estuary, which is where the Russian River meets the ocean. The weather in Jenner is typical of the northern California coast. It can often be breezy, foggy, or windy but sometimes you can get lucky and enjoy sunshine. So it’s important to be prepared and bring layers, a hat, and sunglasses so you can have fun no matter the weather.
Roadtrip to Jenner
There is no wrong way to travel to the Sonoma Coast because all drives are gorgeous! The most direct route is going to take you to the town of Petaluma where you then make your way west to Bodega Bay, and then go north on Highway 1 for a few miles until you are in Jenner. It’s an incredibly beautiful drive with plenty of landscape along the way as you travel through the rolling hills west of Petaluma where you will see many happy California cows. Then you will pass through Valley Ford where you can pick up some last minute provisions at the Valley Ford Market and Valley Ford Creamery. Once on Highway 1 you will get to enjoy the magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. You may even get lucky and spot a whale if the water is calm, or enormous waves if the surf is high.
There are a few more routes that are less direct but even more beautiful. For more details on the different road trips options to the Jenner area see all of the details on our previous blog post about road tripping.
Low Key or Little Kid Adventures
Shell Beach at Sonoma Coast State Park
Amenities: free parking, restrooms available but no water, dogs allowed on leash.
For the littlest adventurers, a short walk to play at the shore is enough to keep them happy for a good while. Shell Beach is a beautiful small beach that is accessed via a stairway from a parking lot that is up high on the bluffs. At the top the parents will enjoy the grand vista, and then at the bottom the whole family can go tide pooling. Be sure to check the tide charts and see if you can time it so you are there when the tide is low. While exploring around the rocks at Shell Beach you will discover mussels, anemones, sea stars, and plenty of seaweed. If you want to extend your visit to Shell Beach then hop on the blufftop Kortum Trail. To the south you could walk all the way to Wright’s Beach, and if you go north you can make it to Blind Beach. Beware of dangerous surf at Sonoma Coast beaches. Do not go in the water if there is a high surf warning, which often happens in the winter.
Goat Rock Beach at Sonoma Coast State Park
Amenities: free parking at 2 large parking lots, restrooms available but no water. Dogs not allowed north of Goat Rock, however they are allowed on Blind beach, south of Goat Rock.
Goat Rock Beach is an enormous beach, located right at the spot where the Russian River flows into the ocean. You can go for a walk of any length of time on this beach to hunt for beautiful rocks, play in one of the many driftwood forts, and watch harbor seals which hang out at this beach all year round. The river’s end is right there too, and the kids can enjoy playing in the river water which is usually warmer than the ocean water, while you can spot a variety of shore birds such as Cormorants and Pelicans. Sometimes the sand piles high into dunes which the kids love to play on, running down them and making sand avalanches. Another amazing feature of this place is that sometimes the river flows into the ocean, and sometimes it does not. Wave action can cause a huge sand bar to build up, keeping the bodies of water separate. Sometimes the water level on the river gets too high and the town of Jenner is at risk of flooding, so the sand bar is breached mechanically with a huge tractor. That is a whole other show on its own!
Stillwater Cove Regional Park
Amenities: parking for a fee, pit toilets available close to the beach and in the campground, but not in the parking lot, dogs allowed on leash,
Located north from Jenner, you can enjoy another small beach at Stillwater Cove. This park is quite a gem because from the parking lot to the beach you get to go for a short hike through the lush, green Redwood forest. The beach is small and crescent shaped, and has lots of seaweed and sea creatures. It is popular place for abalone diving too. Our kids have enjoyed watching the divers go into the water and bring out their catch. They always let you look at their abalone if you ask. To get an even better Redwood fix while there, you can take the canyon loop which is only 1.6 miles long. There is a small campground too, making this a great park as a home base for exploring the Sonoma Coast over a weekend.
Big Kid Adventures
Paddling the Russian River Estuary
Amenities: free parking at Jenner visitor center, toilet available
There is no better way to get immersed in the natural wonders of the Russian River than to paddle on the estuary. It’s easy to rent a kayak from Water Treks Eco Tours. Just be sure to call ahead and make a reservation. You will likely get to see seals, sea lions, otters, and a variety of sea birds. When the mouth of the river is closed, the water is super calm and more like a lake. When we paddle at the estuary we like to take a trip around the island in the middle of the estuary, and also stop on the beach so the kids can play.
Hiking the Kortum Trail
Description: 4 miles round-trip (out & back), dogs not allowed, free parking
Amenities: restrooms available but no water
This coastal trails runs from Wrights Beach all the way to Goat Rock Beach (4.5 miles one way along the whole length of the trail), with Shell Beach and Blind Beach in between. You can make this hike as long or as short as you want. Be sure to bring your binoculars because you might get lucky and spot a whale or two. For a more detailed description of this amazing hike, take a look at our blog post here.
Hiking the Raptor Ridge Trail at Jenner Headlands Preserve
Description: 4 mile loop, leashed dogs allowed except on final one mile of Sea to Sky Trail
Amenities: free parking, restrooms & water available
The Raptor Ridge Trail is good for kids because it starts out more or less level giving them a chance to get over their typical initial reluctance to hike. There are also a few great spots for the kids to climb on rocks and trees. Bring your binoculars and see if you can identify the types of birds you see. At the end of the loop you can watch the wildlife at the nearby Goat Rock Beach through a fixed telescope on the hillside. For more detail on this hike check our post which details every twist and turn of this gorgeous hike on the coastal prairie.
Where to Eat
Jenner is a small town with just a few places to eat, so you won’t have a hard time deciding where to grab a bite. At the time of the publication of this article, restaurants in Sonoma County are only doing takeout so you probably will want to plan ahead and eat your meal outdoors at the beach or at a scenic overlook. Cell service in this area is almost nonexistent so you can order at the restaurant when you get there or try to get lucky by calling or ordering ahead online.
Russian House #1
Address: 9960 CA-1, Jenner, CA 95450
Phone: 707-865-9456 or 707-806-8430
This unique gem is located right on the highway, very close the entrance to the Goat Rock Beach parking areas. The cuisine is what I would call Russian inspired comfort food. The flavors are complex and the food is hardy and satisfying.
Address: 10439 CA-1, Jenner, CA 95450
A casual cafe located right next to the Jenner visitor center and Russian River Estuary boat launch. The patio would be a wonderful spot to relax and eat your meal once COVID restrictions are loosened. It’s a great spot for a coffee and pastry or for lunch. They have vegetarian items on the menu as well. But beware because they close at 5pm.
Address: 11048 CA-1, Jenner, CA 95450
This is the fanciest restaurant in town where you can enjoy magnificent views of the ocean and river. For now they are doing takeout and you can get fish tacos, a duck confit sandwich, and many other items.