On our last road trip to Fort Bragg, we explored a huge stretch of the Mendocino County coastline from Inglenook Fen and Ten Mile Beach Dunes all the way to the Point Arena Light Station. While we made it as far south as Moat Creek Beach, that was as far as we got because we had tour reservations at B Bryan Preserve. Ever since that trip, I have wanted to head back to Northern California’s stunning pacific coast to explore one of the last stretches of coastline we haven’t driven — CA Highway 1 between Bodega Bay and Point Arena.
So over Memorial Day Weekend, our family headed to Bodega Bay to explore the coast and visit two specific spots: Bowling Ball Beach and Fort Ross. Bowling Ball Beach is located just a few miles south of Point Arena at the northern end of Schooner Gulch State Beach, so we drove straight there in the morning for low tide, then slowly worked our way back to Bodega Bay.
Bowling Ball Beach is a beautiful wide, sandy beach tucked beneath vertical coastal bluffs. It is best visited at low tide when the bowling balls — almost perfectly round rocks — are visible.
The giant, sandstone bowling balls are one of the more famous geological landmarks in Mendocino County. As if these odd spherical boulders aren’t weird enough, they sit in near perfect rows on the beach as if a giant sat here and lined them up one by one.
What’s most interesting is that the bowling balls aren’t boulders that have been smoothed and shaped into a round shape by water as you night think. They are the result of a geological phenomena known as concretion, where mineral cements bind grains of sand or stone into larger sedimentary rock formations. Over millions of years, concretion formed the bowling ball formations and erosion of the mudstone of the cliffs slowly exposed them.
It’s also worth mentioning that the cliffs are also beautiful. You can see in the cliff walls, tilted layers of alternating hard and soft strata that are the result of geological uplifting.
Best Time To Visit Bowling Ball Beach
If you hike the short trail down to Bowling Ball Beach at high tide, you may walk the beach and wonder what all the fuss is about as you search for the bowling ball rock formations everyone talks about. But if you visit the beach at low tide, it’s a whole different story…
During low tide, you can’t miss the lines of round bowling balls at the edge of the surf, just begging you to climb on and hop from rock to rock down the beach. Or, if you don’t want to stand on the bowling ball rock formations, you can wander along the hardpack of rock and sand around them that is home to tidepools with hermit crabs and sea snails, sea anemones, and even some small rockfish.
The Trail To Bowling Ball Beach
Bowling Ball Beach is part of Schooner Gulch State Beach. The parking area is a roadside pullout on the west side of the highway at the intersection of Schooner Gulch Road and CA Highway 1. But when we arrived the pullout was full, so we parked along Schooner Gulch Road.
From the parking area, there are two trails to choose from:
- The trail at the south end of the parking area leads to Schooner Gulch State Beach
- The trail at the north end of the parking area, directly across from Schooner Gulch Road, leads to Bowling Ball Beach. There is no sign marking this trail.
The narrow dirt trail begins atop the bluff and works it’s way through tall grasses and shrubs as it reaches the edge of the bluff. Then wood beams form a wood/dirt staircase that curves down the edge of the bluff. But unfortunately, the stairs don’t extend all the way to the beach…
To get from the bottom of the stairs to the beach, you have to climb/scramble over a large pile of driftwood, across a bed of rocks in the creek runoff. It’s a bit treacherous, especially in flip flops, but totally doable. Once on the beach, you’ll wonder if you’re in the right place, because there are no bowling balls! Don’t worry. All you need to do is walk along the beach a couple of hundred yards to the north and you find them (during low tide).
Schooner Gulch History
Schooner Gulch is within the territory of the coastal branch of the Central Pomo Indians which extends from the mouth of the Navarro River to the mouth of the Gualala River. The area was visited by Russians and native Alaskan hunters as early as 1812, and by Mexican land owners in the 1840s.
One evening a schooner was seen stranded on the beach in the mouth of the gulch, but in the morning it disappeared and there was no evidence of it ever being there. The gulch was then named Schooner Gulch.
Schooner Gulch was used as a milling operation for timber and logging continued into the late 1800s.
John Galloway of Scotland was the first recorded resident. He lived in the Schooner Gulch area between 1866 and 1868. The Galloways donated land for the construction of the Galloway School, which operated for 62 years, from 1874 to 1936 with never more than 40 students.
In 1940 the school lot was sold, and land around the lot was farmed by the Nobles family until it was sold to the State of California in 1986.
Know Before You Go
- Bowling Ball Beach is located three miles south of Point Arena at Schooner Gulch State Beach at 28200 CA Highway 1, Point Arena, California 95468 in Mendocino County.
- Parking and beach access is free.
- At the intersection of Schooner Gulch Road and CA Highway 1, there is a roadside pullout on the west side of the highway only large enough for about 5-6 vehicles depending on size. If the pullout is full, park along Schooner Gulch Road and walk in.
- Two trails leave from the parking area. The trail on the south end leads to Schooner Gulch State Beach. The trail on the north end leads to Bowling Ball Beach.
- The northern trail to Bowling Ball Beach is suffering from erosion where it descends the bluff so at the end you have to do some scrambling over a pile of driftwood and rocks to reach the beach.
- Dogs are allowed on leash. You must clean up after your pets.
- The same geological phenomenon that created the bowling balls at Bowling Ball Beach is what created the Cannonball River in North Dakota and the Moeraki Boulders and Koutu Boulders in New Zealand.