Along 13 winding and picturesque miles of Highway 1 -- from Bodega Bay to Goat Rock Beach in Jenner -- stretch the Sonoma Coast State Beaches. These beaches are ideal for walking, tide pooling, abalone picking, fishing, and bird-watching for species such as great blue heron, cormorant, osprey, and pelican. Each beach is clearly marked from the road, and numerous pullouts are available for parking. Even if you don't stop at a beach, the drive alone is spectacular.
At Jenner, the Russian River empties into the ocean. Penny Island, in the river's estuary, is home to otters and many species of birds; a colony of harbor seals lives out on the ocean rocks. Goat Rock Beach is a popular breeding ground for the seals; pupping season begins in March and lasts until June.
From Jenner, an 11-mile, dramatic coastal drive brings you to Fort Ross State Historic Park (tel. 707/847-3286; www.fortrossstatepark.org), a reconstruction of the fort established in 1812 by the Russians as a base for seal and otter hunting (a post they abandoned in 1842). At the visitor center, you can view the Russians' samovars and table services. The compound contains several buildings, including the first Russian Orthodox church on the North American continent outside Alaska. A short history lesson takes place daily at various times between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and at noon and 2pm the rest of the year. Call ahead to be sure. The park also offers beach trails and picnic grounds on more than 1,000 acres. Admission is $6 per car per day.
North from Fort Ross, the road continues to Salt Point State Park (tel. 707/847-3221). This 3,500-acre expanse encompasses 30 campsites, 14 miles of trails, dozens of tide pools, and old Pomo village sites. Your best bet is to pull off the highway any place that catches your eye and start exploring. At the north end of the park, head inland on Kruse Ranch Road to the Kruse Rhododendron Reserve (tel. 707/847-3221), a forested grove of wild pink and purple flowers, where the Rhododendron californicum grow up to a height of 18 feet under the redwood-and-fir canopy.