Checklist: Point Arena, California

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For those in the know, the tiny Mendocino town of Point Arena has always been a secret destination for those traveling along California’s North Coast.

The cat was officially let out of the bag in 2014 when President Obama proclaimed the 1,665 acres of stunning coastline as the state’s first land-based addition to the California Coastal National Monument. Now, those drawn to the new national monument will discover the town’s vintage art deco theater, protected North Coast cove, exceptional bakery, and the Pacific Coast’s tallest lighthouse. Just two and a half to three hours north of San Francisco, it’s a worthwhile trip from the Bay Area.

1. California Coastal National Monument Point Arena-Stornetta Unit

Visitors can truly experience the newly named California Coastal National Monument Point Arena-Stornetta Unit by hiking, bird watching, picnicking, and just staring in awe at what is truly one of California’s most scenic pieces of preserved coastline. We recommend a hike following the cliff-top trail from behind Point Arena City Hall four miles to the Point Arena Lighthouse.

2. Point Arena Lighthouse

point arena lighthouse .jpg
Photo: myheimu CC BY-NC-ND

A gleaming white tower rising 115 feet from the coastal bluffs, the Point Arena Lighthouse resembles a giant chess piece in the ongoing game between the sea and the shipping trade on the treacherous Mendocino coast. Take a tour and climb the 145 stairs to 360 degree views of the area including the adjacent California Coastal National Monument Point Arena-Stornetta Unit and Manchester State Beach, a long strip of sand to the north that looks like it would be more at home in Southern California than up here on the North Coast.

3. Bowling Ball Beach

For such a small town, Point Arena has a wealth of worthy natural sights. A favorite with photographers is Bowling Ball Beach, a striking (pun intended) bit of shoreline where small boulders are curiously lined up in rows on the beach at low tide. The sight is within Schooner Gulch State Beach located three miles south of Point Arena proper. Look for a sign that says, “park facing south only,” and then take the northern path to the beach. The last section of the trail is washed out but safe. Once on the sand, head north a quarter of a mile. Be sure to do it a low tide if you want to see this unique natural phenomenon.

4. Point Arena Cove

Technically, Point Arena’s Main Street is a section of Highway One that passes through town. But what really feels like the epicenter of this small community is Point Arena Cove, a perfect C-shaped indentation of Pacific Ocean located one mile from the highway. From the center of the cove, a small pier juts out into the water where fishing boats bob. Fishermen, abalone divers, and sightseers congregate here to take in the conditions of the ever-changing sea.

5. Main Street

Photo: Stuart Thornton

For such a small city (current population: 449), Point Arena has a couple of dining options that wouldn’t feel out of place in a big city. One of these is Franny’s Cup and Saucer, a bakery painted up in an impossible-to-miss robin’s egg blue color. They serve up sweet and savory baked goods including bacon slippers that ooze with depths of flavor. Across the street, Uneda Eat Café is a hole-in-the-wall yet upscale restaurant with a menu that really does change daily. Be aware that both establishments are only open from Wednesdays to Saturdays. A comfortable wine and beer bar with an amiable staff, 215 Main is another venue for an entertainment-filled night out in Point Arena. They have music three times a week along with other events like poetry readings, open mic nights, and oddly entertaining talks about how insurance companies have changed since “Obamacare.”

6. Arena Theater

The Arena Theater is an outpost of culture on the wild Mendocino coast. Dating back to 1928, this theater has been restored into an art deco artifact and hosts screenings of Hollywood blockbusters along with live broadcasts of opera from The Met, productions from the National Theatre of London, and dance recitals put on by the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. They also host the occasional concert by national touring artists like Loudon Wainwright III and Joe Louis Walker.

7. Former Coast Guard Station

The main building of the Coast Guard House Historic Inn used to be where lifesavers bedded down after a day of saving people from the nearby churning sea. You don’t have to be a hero to enjoy a night in one of the primary structure’s four rooms or in one of its two freestanding cottages. Located by Point Arena Cove, fall asleep here to the sounds of the sea, which is way better than any white noise sleep device.

Photo at top by Patrick Dirden CC BY-NC-ND

Stuart Thornton lives in coastal California and is the author of the Moon Coastal California Handbook, the Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast Handbook, Moon California Road Trip, and the upcoming Moon Monterey & Carmel Handbook.