The Splendor of Gualala River Frontage

It’s a beautiful morning for a trip up Highway 1, heading north from Jenner along the scenic, two-lane route.  The ocean to the west is restless with white caps and small swells, hitting the rocky coast and sending up sprays of white water. The winding road hugs steep cliffs as cascading waterfalls rush to the sea below. The road continues through forests of redwoods and firs, past the rustic fences and buildings of historic Fort Ross, through Salt Point State Park and Stewarts Point.  

The road straightens through gentle hills and pastures as it approaches The Sea Ranch. Here sheep fences and custom homes abound until you get to a drop in the highway that opens to a view of the Gualala River. You can see the sharp turn where the river curves into the lagoon, held back by a wide sandbar. Waves crash against the bar on the ocean side, but the lagoon is calm, blue-green and teeming with birds and wildlife. Upriver, wisps of morning fog still cling to the trees that come right down to the water’s edge. 

The Gualala River is a natural beauty that has been treasured for thousands of years by the local Coastal Pomo; they who have lived in harmony with the ebb and flow of the river they call “The water coming down place.” The name“Wa-la-la” describes where the mouth of the river gives way to the crashing waves of the ocean. Over time, the river has been the constant while the world around it has changed again and again. 

From the 1860’s to the 1980’s, logging drove the economy of the small town of Gualala. Mill Bend, where a large sawmill once operated is now a scenic, sandy area, where the river makes a sharp right turn and empties into the lagoon. The sawmill is gone, along with almost everything else the logging company built, with the exception of the original Gualala Hotel carriage house and the rebuilt, two-story, Gualala Hotel, established in 1903, and still standing watch over the river below. 

Life along, and in, the river changes with the seasons. During the spring and summer, the water level drops upstream, revealing sandbars and shallow pools. The river bottom becomes a playground as locals and visitors, many from the two popular campgrounds on either side of the river, walk out onto the sandy shoals and play in the shallow pools. 

Kayakers and canoers often portage long stretches, searching for deeper channels upstream. It’s worth the trip, as osprey, bald eagles and hawks can be seen overhead, deer come to the water’s edge to drink and, for the patient observer, the endangered California red-legged frog or the western pond turtle might be seen. In the lagoon, river otter scurry along the rocky bank or dive in to swim alongside a kayak. Brown pelicans dive for fish while gulls and harbor seals sun on the sandy bank.

When the rains come in the fall and the winter, the river swells, filling to its banks and surging towards the ocean. The lagoon fills, waves wash over the sandbar and give the steelhead a taste of the briny ocean waters to come. When the pressure is too much, a section of the sandbar will start to crumble, widening with each passing minute, until it breaks through to the ocean. A huge surge of water pushes through the ever-widening opening. Steelhead, trapped in the lagoon over the summer, and fingerlings awaiting their first trip into open waters, are freed into the open sea, where a frenzy of gulls and pelicans await them. Spawning steelhead in the ocean beyond make their break for the river opening, attempting to move upstream. And the cycle of life on the river continues.