Fort Bragg’s Coastal Trail - A Wildlife, Wave And Wind Wonderland

Fort Bragg’s Coastal Trail - A Wildlife, Wave And Wind Wonderland
| 4 min read

Exploring coastal terrain that has been inaccessible to the public for more than 100 years is the most popular activity in Fort Bragg, California. In January, 2015, the spectacular Noyo Headlands Park, which encompasses the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail, opened. Nature is the star and Fort Bragg Coastal Trail provides the access. The trail is a magnificent way to see the rugged, wild coast, its many habitats, inhabitants and thought-provoking historical sites.

An abundance of nature

Pacific Harbor Seal

Within the park, Fort Bragg Coastal Trail is an 8 feet wide, hard-top path meandering along the coastal headlands. The trail is easy to navigate for people of all ages and for those using wheelchairs as well. Interpretive panels explaining nature and history are scattered along the way. Benches offer a scenic respite and unparalleled whale-watching positions when the breathtaking giants happen to pass by.

TIP: Take along a pair of binoculars to get a good look at birds, mammals, whales spouting and breaching, or the comical antics of Pacific Harbor Seals lounging in groups on rocks just off the shore.

Nature puts on a constant show of wildlife, waves and wind. It’s never the same performance. Conditions can change from hour to hour. High tides conceal beaches that were just visible. Sub tides reveal areas usually covered by water. Creatures flourish in the ocean, tide pools, beaches, headlands and in the air. Native plant life restoration is providing shelter and food for Mother Nature’s lodgers.

Open from sunrise to sunset, admission is free. Quiet, well-behaved dogs on short leashes are welcome. Staying on designated paths and stairs is critical to the reintroduction of native plant life, wildlife and for your safety. Restrooms and drinking water are available in the parking lot at the park entrance.

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Remnants of the logging/lumber industry

Soldier Bay

There are many historic and cultural sites inside and surrounding the park. A popular area is Glass Beach, the site of the former city dump. Look for the only set of stairs to take you there. Beach combing here will easily turn up gem-like pieces of glass and household pottery worn smooth by years of wave action. Collect all the glass and artifacts you wish, arrange them, photograph them and leave them behind for others to enjoy. It’s illegal to remove anything from the park. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.

TIP: The glass beaches are only visible and accessible during low tides.

The trail is bounded on the east by a Georgia Pacific mill site. Fort Bragg was a mill town from 1869 until 2002. Georgia Pacific closed the mill in 2002. Most of the mill buildings have been removed.

One-time mill ponds are now habitat for birds, mammals, amphibians and fish. Deer, fox, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, ground squirrels, gophers, moles, voles, mice and other mammals have returned and are thriving.

Soldier Bay, found along the south end of the trail, was once a busy dock for ships moving lumber, people and fish. Although it was destroyed by storms long ago, look closely to see remnants of pilings.

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A bird lover’s wonderland

Raven on fence post

Ninety bird species are a bird watcher’s delight in the park and along the trail. Sea and shore birds are joined by migrating geese stopping over for rest, food and water. Cranes, osprey and other hawks hunt for small mammals, fish and amphibians. Song birds, finches, larks, sparrows, thrushes and more feast on flowers and seeds in the prairie-like grasslands.

The raven prospers here. A large stand of cypress trees visible to the east of the park is a long-established roost and nesting site. In the spring, they use nearby stacks of lumber as training and feeding grounds for their young. Watching a raven’s flying lesson is heartwarming and a laugh a minute. Ravens are called “nature’s pranksters”. During nesting season, raucous sky battles break out between ravens and small birds. The ravens are notorious nest burglars. They squawk, chirp, soar and dive. The ravens always win and seem to enjoy leading the small birds on a vigorous aerial chase.

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Connections to other trails

Trail to the headlands

To the north, Fort Bragg Coastal Trail connects to Haul Road Trail, part of and leading to MacKerricher State Park. To the north and south, it connects with the 1200-mile trail network called California Coastal Trail (parts are still under construction). When the California Coastal Trail is completed, you will be able to hike north or south, border to border along the Pacific coastline.

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Getting to Fort Bragg

A bench along the trail

Noyo Headlands Park is located in Fort Bragg, California on the Pacific Ocean. This rather remote area is easiest to access by car. From the north or south, take Highway 101 to Willits, California. Then turn west on Highway 20, a 33 mile, 2-lane road over the Coastal mountains. This drive is beautiful and meanders through Redwood forest, state parks and wilderness. It will take 45-60 minutes to maneuver the 20 MPH turns that abound. The drive time is often influenced by traffic, weather and maintenance delays. Highway 20 dead ends into Highway One in Fort Bragg. Turn north through Fort Bragg for 2.5 miles to Elm Street. Turn west for 2 blocks. Elm Street dead ends at Noyo Headlands Park’s parking lot.

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Where to eat and sleep

Rare plant protection

There are numerous hotels near the park, such as Beach House Inn, which is within 25 miles of the trail. It sits on a beautiful estuary that is home to copious species of birds and amphibians.

If you are traveling with a group or are planning an extended stay, you might want to look into a vacation rental home near the parks and trails. Camping is readily available in public and private parks and resorts.

There are many restaurants in Fort Bragg. The Highway One Café, which serves breakfast and lunch, is very close to the start of the trail. Their food and service are excellent, organic and locally sourced.

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Other Fort Bragg activities

Rowing the Pacific

The Skunk Train, a vintage passenger train, offers scenic rides through the giant Redwoods. The Guest House Museum is a source for Fort Bragg history. Many water-related activities are available in Noyo Harbor. There you can kayak, canoe and row. You may join a fishing, crabbing, whale-watching or sunset cruise. Numerous California State Parks offer ocean, river and forest habitats to explore. A strong art culture exists in the area, supporting numerous galleries and exhibits. Live theater or dance performances are presented each week. The music scene here is very lively, covering all musical styles.

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Immerse yourself in nature

Surround yourself with nature and take a trip in one of the most scenic parks and trails you will experience. It truly embodies the nature and history of this remarkable coastal community.

Any must-sees we missed? Tell us about them in the comments section or write a post here to help out fellow travelers!
Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.


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Mary Charlebois is a Northern California Freelance writer, photographer and videographer. Her career in publishing technology fulfilled a lifelong dream, traveling the globe. Now retired,...Read more

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