MY LIFE IN PLANTS: Sea Ranch

By Jim Bishop, for Let's Talk Plants! September 2022.


This past August (2022) we had the opportunity to borrow a home belonging to a business associate of Scott's located at the Sea Ranch in Sonoma County. We figured it would be a great time to visit there since San Diego can be a little warm and humid that time of year... and sure enough it was. The weather during our visit was nearly perfect - dry and cool and the famous fog stayed off the coast.

Getting There

We flew into Santa Rosa and drove along the Russian River to the coast. We followed the Shoreline Highway north to Sea Ranch, our home for the next 3 days.

Sonoma County vineyards just before landing.

Kayaks on the Russian River in Jenner.
The mouth of the Russian River.
Iconic view of the Sonoma Coast along the very windy and winding Highway 1.

History

Sea Ranch was created way back in the early1960s by several architects who wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the area along 10 miles of northern Sonoma County coast. The initial plan was a wood timbered lodge with condominiums. Buildings were to be of unfinished wood or muted-color stains with timber-frames and wood shake or rough wood, blend in with the topography, and somewhat echo the area's farm buildings. Most of the buildings lack overhanging eaves to allow the wind to pass around the buildings. Over time single family homes became the most popular structures with currently about 1800 homes. Most of the homes have large view windows and a steep roofline with the highest point facing away from the ocean to deflect the nearly constant northwestern winds. Landscaping outside of the enclosed courtyards is restricted to only indigenous plants. The style was copied by architects in California and other parts of the country. Visiting there has a reminiscent feeling of being in the 60s and 70s.

Condominium One and the entrance marker on Highway 1, 1965. It was the first in the Sea Ranch development, a complex of ten units considered a single structure.

Credit: Morley Baer Photography Trust, Santa Fe; via Special Collections, University Library, University of California Santa Cruz

The lodge has recently been renovated and ground planted in native bunch grasses.

A large portion of the land was set aside as a park at the north end of the development with no public access through the development to the coast. Opposition to the lack of coastal access helped lead to the creation of the California Coastal Commission by ballot initiative in 1972. Today, there are several public parking lots along the coast highway with trails to beaches and overlooks. A ten mile long trail runs along the bluff tops. Scott and I would spend the next several days exploring the trail and nearby areas.


Trail marker to the beaches.

Beyond the low impact and unique architecture of the buildings, the most notable thing of Sea Ranch is what is missing. Almost all of the plants are native to the area, so there are no Eucalyptus, palms or many of the other plants seen frequently in California. There are a lot of windblown Monterey Cypress, Hesperocyparis macrocarpa, and Monterey and Bishop pines. The bluff tops are covered with mostly native wildflowers with the exception of a lot of naturalized South African iceplant in places.

Nearby a few of the original farm buildings were still standing. However, the old barn building has become unstable and no longer accessible.

Back when it was in better condition a friend's sister was married there and it was filled with flowers.
Original Barn and Farm house pre-Sea Ranch.
Setting sun and the side of the barn.
Early period tsunami warning device.
Another side of the barn.

Where we stayed

We stayed in one of the original shake-shingled single family houses built in 1966. Most of the interior walls were unfinished wood. We were close to the bluff and the house had a large windows looking northward along the coast. We watched the sunset into the Pacific each evening.

The house we stayed in surrounded by Monterey Cypress.

A pair of Adirondack chairs in the lawn for viewing the surf and sunsets.

Native grasses illuminated by the setting sun.

Wind sculpted hop bush in the courtyard of the house.

Cliff top trail

We spent a lot of our time exploring the cliff top trail at Sea Ranch.

One of the many coves with clear water, cypress, coastal wildflowers and kelp.

The coastal California poppy, Eschscholzia californica maritima, is perennial with gray foliage and yellow flowers with an orange center. It also is more immune to mildew than the more commonly available, taller orange poppies.


Seaside Buckwheat, Eriogonum latifolium is very common along the cliffs and still showing color in mid-August.

Dudleya farinose.

Low growing coastal plants with some non-native iceplant mixed in.

Maritime California poppy and buckwheat.

Dudleya with Sea Plantain. At first I thought the Plantain was another dudleya.

Farewell to spring, Clarkia amoena.

Succulent sea plantain, Plantago maritima.

Dudleyas on top of a rock outcrop.

Non-native iceplant adding a touch of red to the scene.

Both the gray and the green form of Dudleya farinosa, growing on top.

Endless surf.

Seaside daisy, Erigeron glaucus.

The original barn of Sea Ranch.

California hedgenettle, Stachy bullata, growing with ferns in a damp drainage spot.

Non-native, Cirsium vulgare.

The coastal prairie is mostly native grasses and wildflowers. Windbreaks of Monterey pine and cypress help block the constant wind.

Hedgerow of windblown Monterey cypress.


Hedgerow of windblown Monterey cypress.

Found a live abalone! Don't think I've ever seen one in the wild before.

Submerged Sea Star.


Angelica, not sure which species since several are native.

Seep monkeyflower, Erythanthe guttata, which sure enough grew wherever there was a seep.

Dudleya inflorescence growing up through a bush lupin.

Scott in his hiking sun-protection clothing.


Sea palms, a type of annual algae on the lower right. They sway in surf.

Monardella villosa, Coyote Mint bloom.

Monterey Cypress framing the view.


When the wind starts to pick up in the morning, the Turkey Vultures start scouting the coastal bluffs.

A harbor seal.

On our return walk, the seal had been joined by another seal.

Sea arch and flock of seagulls.

Seagulls and sun.

Sea thrifts were in various stages of bloom.

Coastal California Poppy with closed bloom.

Seed pods on Monterey Cypress.


The long and wide beach below where we stayed.


Linum, flax flower, probably not native.


Buckwheat flowers.

Kelp and surf.

African Kniphofia, red hot poker. Remnants of earlier gardens are seen throughout northern California.

African Kniphofia, red hot poker.

African Kniphofia, red hot poker.

Sea stacks.








A lovely little white sand beach.

Marine Life

I'll do a separate blog on the marine life, but here's a preview.

Sea star...they were abundant and in different colors.


Sea anemone.

Seals on the beach.

Point Arena

We did a short visit into Mendocino County to Point Arena Lighthouse. The San Andreas fault runs just north of here and the geography of the sea cliffs was different from Sea Ranch. The cliffs were layered with softer rock which looked like coastal uplift. Undercutting of the cliffs by the surf had knocked over the cliffs in places.


Point Arena Lighthouse. The original lighthouse was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Sea arch formed in toppled cliffs.

Interesting fence made of upended flagstones. The yellow flower is Coast Goldenrod.

Solidago spathulata.

The line of rocks where once sea cliffs that were undercut by the surf.

Gualala River

Just north of Sea Ranch is Gualala Point Regional Park. Here the 40 mile long Gualala River enters the Pacific Ocean. The Gualala River runs parallel to the coast line roughly following the San Andreas fault through the coastal mountain range. Some of the largest redwood trees once grew along the river. But due to easy access from the river most of the old growth trees were cut down in the 1800s and after the 1906 earthquake to rebuild San Francisco.

Naked ladies, Amaryllis belladonna bloom in mass in old gardens in mid-August.

Sealion sculpture near the park headquarters.

Coastal sand verbena, Abronia latifolia, growing in beach sand.

Coastal sand verbena, Abronia latifolia.

Many creative structures built from the abundant driftwood on the beach.

A driftwood labyrinth.

Amazingly, Scott was able to find his way out of this labyrinth.

The fence marks the north end of Sea Ranch.

Sea cliffs and wind sculpted trees.

Pelican flyover.



Finally getting into a linear formation.

Wood stacks.

Dead wood was put into many stacks throughout the park. These will be burned during the wet season. The goal is preventing the buildup of fuel that could result in a much larger fire.

California Aster, Corethrogyne filaginifolia, was abundant in places.

The mouth of the Gualala River.

A large estuary where the river meets the sea.

Western Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea.

Non-native wild teasel, Dipsacus fullonum.

California hedgenettle, Stachy bullata.

California hedgenettle, Stachy bullata, growing along the river.

Cool looking trees growing along the river and undergrowth.

Carved totems near the park entrance feature Russian-style equestrian carvings.



Sea Ranch Chapel

The non-denominational Sea Ranch Chapel was designed by San Diego local artist James Hubbell in 1985. More recently it has been restored and preserved. Like many Hubbell buildings it has a free-flowing shape with few right angles. It looks a bit like a seashell, or a witch's hat, or...well lots of other things you might imagine.





Interior Details




Exterior Details

A small fountain near the entrance.

Paving mosaic.

Front door.

Coming Home

Life isn't always a pretty sunset... well maybe for a few days it is.






But eventually you have to come home.

Bye for now Sonoma.

 

Past President, Jim Bishop, is the current publicity chairperson on the Board of the San Diego Horticultural Society and he was the 2019-2020 SDHS Horticulturist of the Year among many, many other things.