FT. ROSS HISTORICAL STATE PARK, Calif. — Motorists who travel the remote Sonoma County coast may be surprised to see a stark wooden stockade near the water's edge.
The seven- and eight-sided blockhouses appear rather odd, and the two-towered building at one corner even has the look of a Russian church.
Ft. Ross, in fact, was established by the Russians in 1821 and became their southernmost settlement in North America.
You can discover more about the Russians' brief possession of a piece of California real estate during a visit to Ft. Ross Historical State Park. The Russians left in 1842 after selling the place to John Sutter, who had his own fort in Sacramento.
Although Ft. Ross may be the highlight of a highway cruise along California 1, the seaside scenery and a quiet interlude at one of the area's distinctive lodgings are other attractions.
There's Timberhill Ranch, a few miles inland from the fort, and the vintage Gualala Hotel, St. Orres, Old Milano Hotel or Whale Watch Inn up the coast.
Drive to Ft. Ross from Los Angeles by cruising north on U.S. 101 beyond San Francisco and Petaluma to California 116. That highway winds its way to the Russian River and the ocean, where you'll join California 1 and climb to dizzying heights above the Pacific Ocean.
Stockade on a Bluff
After the road descends again, you'll see the Ft. Ross stockade on a coastal bluff. Pay the $3 parking fee at the park entrance and walk to the new visitor center, where exhibits recall the Russians' 20-year residence. Displays also feature sea otters, Pomo Indians and ranchers who settled here after the Russians.
A paved walk leads into the fort. Most structures are minimally furnished, but the lower level of the commandant's house portrays a storeroom with supplies and an armory with racks of muskets and gunpowder barrels. Cannons are mounted in the two blockhouses.
The most striking building is the 1820s-era chapel that was reconstructed after damage by an earthquake and a fire. At the entrance you can ring a replica of a church bell that was cast in St. Petersburg and melted in one of the fires.
Traditional Russian Orthodox services will be held at the chapel July 4. Costumed volunteers also bring the fort back to life July 29 during the park's annual Living History Day. For more information, call (707) 847-3286 during the visitor center's open hours, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., daily.
Visitors can picnic at tables by a grove of Monterey cypress, but the nearest supplies are 10 miles south at Jenner. Campers will find 20 small sites at Ft. Ross Reef Campground ($10; first-come, first-served), plus 110 sites a few miles north at Salt Point State Park. Make reservations through Mistix at toll-free (800) 444-7275.
Summer fogs often blanket the coast, but you can climb the foothills to sunshine and seclusion at a country inn, Timberhill Ranch. Drive Ft. Ross Road to Seaview Road, turn left to reach Hauser Ranch Road, then go right to the woodsy retreat.
The noisiest things are the squawking ducks and geese.
Guests are served at the 10 cedar cottages that feature wood-burning fireplaces and decks for lounging. Three meals, featuring a six-course dinner, are included in the nightly rates. You'll pay $143 per person at Timberhill on weekends, $10 less on weekdays. For reservations, call (707) 847-3258.
Other lodgings are 28 miles north of Ft. Ross, between Gualala and Anchor Bay. California 1 leads to the doorstep of the turn-of-the-century Gualala Hotel, a rustic B&B with 19 rooms and bargain rates of $39 (bath down the hall) and $50 (with private bath). Phone (707) 884-3441 for reservations.
Meals are served at the Gualala Hotel. The public also is welcome for dinner at the Old Milano Hotel, an inn dating to 1905, with Victorian decor and English gardens. Room rates with breakfast are $75 to $105, a separate cottage or train caboose $130 and the master suite $160. Call (707) 884-3256 for reservations.
Onion domes and weathered wood give a Russian look to St. Orres, a 16-year-old inn that's known for fine dining. Its eight hotel rooms (shared bath) are $50/$65 a night, while 10 cottages on the forested property have rates $75 to $180. Phone (707) 884-3303 for reservations.
Spectacular in decor as well as location is the Whale Watch Inn by the Sea, a cluster of contemporary buildings with vistas of the Pacific and a choice of 18 romantic rooms and suites. Some feature a fireplace and whirlpool bath. Room rates from $135 to $210. Phone (707) 884-3667 for reservations.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Ft. Ross is 955 miles.