Fort Ross has been on my “things to do in Sonoma County” list for so long, it was almost a joke. Thankfully, I finally had the opportunity to visit the fort over Memorial Day weekend. We spent the weekend in Bodega Bay and one day was blocked out for a scenic drive and exploration the coastline between Point Arena and Bodega Bay — one of the last stretches of California coast we hadn’t visited.
Fort Ross is a historic Russian-era fort compound that is now part of the 3,400 acre Fort Ross State Historic Park that features historic structures and orchards, museum exhibits, interpretive displays, a hiking trail, a sandy beach, and jaw-dropping views of the Pacific coastline.
The Russian-American Company controlled all Russian exploration, trade, and settlement in the North Pacific, and established permanent settlements in Alaska and California. Fort Ross, established as an agricultural base to supply Alaska, was the center of the southernmost Russian settlements in North America from 1812 to 1842.
Following the Russian period, the area was a working ranch with diverse interests in agriculture, livestock, and shipping. Relics of this period, like the the 1878 Call House, can be seen at the park today.
California’s First Windmill And The Fort Ross Visitor Center
After exploring Bowling Ball Beach, we were all hungry and ready for lunch. We parked near the giant windmill and picnic area at the southeast end of the upper parking lot for a tailgate lunch and a closer look at the wooden windmill replica and original millstones.
While you might know that the original Fort Ross windmill was the first windmill built in California, did you know Fort Ross actually had two windmills — both of which are believed to be the first windmills west of Mississippi. The first mill was constructed in 1814, not long after the Russians settled Fort Ross. The second mill was built in 1841. The windmills were used to grind grain into flour and to power the stamping of local tan bark, used in the hide tanning industry.
The windmill you see today was a gift from a Russian cultural and historical foundation for the Fort Ross Bicentennial.
The windmill was constructed in the Vologda Oblast in Russia, then disassembled, put into two containers, and shipped to California, where it was trucked to Fort Ross in September 2012. The 32 foot tall windmill is manually turned on a central post to face into the wind and turn its four 38 foot blades.
Next, we headed into the Visitor Center and Museum to get more information on the state park, visit the museum, and stop by the gift shop. The Fort Ross Visitor Center, considered the gateway to the park, is tucked away within a grove of trees. Here you’ll find:
- An auditorium where you can watch a short documentary on the fort’s history
- Museum exhibits on the park’s major cultural stories, covering the Kashaya, Alaskan Kodiak, Russian, Ranch, and California State Park eras.
- Beautiful Russian-era cemetery artifacts retrieved during an archaeological dig
- The Fort Ross Conservancy bookshop that sells books, natural history guides, memorabilia, jewelry, Russian chocolate and Russian snack foods, and children’s items related to the natural and cultural history of Fort Ross.
The back door of the Visitor Center opens up to a beautiful shaded deck and a paved trail that leads to the fort — our next destination.
Inside The Walls Of Fort Ross
Unlike many historic places we have visited, at Fort Ross, almost nothing is off-limits. We were able to explore the fort, walk through the buildings, check out interpretive displays, and climb up to the second floor of the blockhouses — watchtowers for sentries with muskets and cannons — to peer out the cannon openings and windows.
Of the seven buildings presently within the fort compound only one, the Rotchev House, is an original Russian-built structure. It t is one of only four surviving buildings built in the Russian-American colonial period, and the only surviving Russian-built structure outside of Alaska.
The Rotchev House was built in 1836 on the site of the old Russian clerk’s quarters. It served as the home of the Russian-American Company’s last manager at Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev, his wife Elena, and their three children, Olga, Elena and Konstantin until 1841.
During the American ranching era following the Russian settlement, the Rotchev House was enlarged by the owner William Benitz with a two-story addition and a long front porch. Later, when Fort Ross was part of the George W. Call Ranch, the enlarged structure became the Fort Ross Hotel. Rotchev House was restored to its late-1830s appearance in a series of modifications between 1925 and 1974 and in 2011, a five-year preservation and furnishing project was completed.
Other reconstructed buildings in the fort include:
- The two-story Russian-American Company warehouse, called the old magasin, was a company store and warehouse where supplies for agricultural operations and hunting were documented, assessed, and stored for distribution. This building reconstruction and interpretive display was completed 2012.
- The seven-sided Northwest Blockhouse protected the north and west stockade walls from potential attack by land. Originally built in 1812, it was reconstructed in 1950-1951.
- The Kuskov House was the residence of Ivan Aleksandrovich Kuskov, the founder and first administrator of Ross. Four of the five Fort Ross managers lived here.
- The mid-1820s Fort Ross Chapel was the first Russian Orthodox structure in North America outside of Alaska. The chapel was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt between 1916 and 1918. The restored chapel was destroyed in a fire in 1970 and reconstructed again in 1973. The chapel bell melted in that fire and was recast in Belgium using a rubbing and metal from the original Russian bell.
- The eight-sided Southeast Blockhouse protected the south and east stockade walls from possible attack by sea. Originally constructed around 1817, it was reconstructed in a number of phases between 1930 and 1957.
- The official’s quarters also called officer’s barracks were originally built in 1817 and reconstructed in 1981.
The Coastal Trail Above Sandy Cove
Fort Ross State Historic Park features more than 6.0 miles of majestic coastline that includes North Cove Beach, Clam Beach, Fort Ross Cove, and Sandy Cove Beach. Sitting just offshore are Sea Lion Rocks, a great place to scout for barking sea lions, and the wreck of the USS Pomona, an underwater exploration destination for divers.
In March of 2015 the Obama Administration expanded the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to include the Sonoma Coast, including both Fort Ross and Salt Point parks.
After exploring the inside of Fort Ross, we followed the dirt trail out to the grassy coastal bluffs to take in the jaw-dropping views of the California coastline and the fierce Pacific Ocean. Visitors can follow a trail down the cliffs to the beautiful, wide Sandy Cove Beach or remain atop the bluffs for a hike to the Fort Ross Cemetery and Reef campground. We had big plans to explore other beaches on our way to Bodega Bay, so we opted for some relaxing quiet time on a bench perfectly situated to take in the view.
Sandy Cove Beach
Sandy Cove Beach is a wide protected beach just below the fort. While the picturesque beach offers awesome tide pooling on the north end during low tide, the water here is not safe for swimming due to extremely cold temperatures and dangerously strong rip currents.
The principal port of the Russian settlement was located 19 miles south at Port Rumiantsev (Bodega Bay). There was frequent travel and transport of goods between Sandy Cove Beach and Port Rumiantsev in Russian launches and Native Alaskan baidarkas (kayaks) and baidaras (large, open skin boats used to carry cargo and up to 15 passengers).
The Fort Ross Coastal Trail
The Fort Ross Trail is an easy, out and back trail that totals 2.8 miles. You can walk all of the trail or just portions of it based on what you want to see or how much time you have.
The first section of the trail, from the Visitor Center to the Fort is paved. It takes you through a cypress forest, over a wooden bridge, and past the historic Call Ranch buildings, on the way to the fort.
From the fort’s main gate, the trail becomes a hard-packed dirt trail. It leads across the grassy bluff to the edge of the cliffs and panoramic views of Fort Ross Cove and Sandy Cove Beach. It then makes a u-turn, descends into crescent-shaped Sandy Cove, and crosses over Fort Ross Creek before climbing back up through a forest of bay laurel, alder, and willow, trees on the way to the Russian Settlement’s cemetery.
Marked with a large Russian Orthodox cross, the Fort Ross Cemetery is the final resting place for 131 people who died during the Russian-American Company’s thirty-year settlement.
From the cemetery, follow the dirt trail back to the cove and take the gated dirt road to the beach. Once at the beach, find the wooden staircase to the left, climb back up to the coastal terrace bluffs, and follow the trail over three bridges to the Reef Campground.
Know Before You Go
- Fort Ross State Historic Park is located between Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg 11.0 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1 at 19005 Coast Highway, Jenner, California 95450 in Sonoma County.
- Day use fees are $8.00/vehicle and $7.00/vehicle for seniors — special events like the Fort Ross Festival may require additional fees.
- There is a ton of parking!
- The Visitor Center and the Fort Compound are open from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm daily. The park grounds are open from sunrise to sunset.
- Call House Museum tours and Windmill Demonstrations are on the first weekend of each month from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm.
- Download the Fort Ross Brochure.
- There is no food available at Fort Ross. There is a small market north of Fort Ross at the Fort Ross Store and a small market at the Jenner Sea Store 10 miles south of Fort Ross.
- Bring a picnic! Picnic tables are located near the parking lot, in the Fort, in the Call Picnic Area, and in the orchard.
- Fort Ross Conservancy offers both public and private tours available in English or Russian. Private one or two hour tours must be arranged in advance for the day and time of your choice. A paid public one hour Group Walking Tour starts at 1:00 pm and 2:30 pm at the Visitor Center on many Fridays and Saturdays from September through May, and Wednesdays thru Saturdays from June through August. Depending on staff availability, free talks and walking tours may be available.
- Dogs are permitted on leash anywhere you can drive a car, inside structures like the Visitor Center, Fort compound, and buildings, in picnic areas, and in campgrounds. They are not permitted on trails and beaches or beyond the limits of roads, parking areas, campgrounds, and picnic areas.
- The Visitor Center, restrooms, upper picnic areas, and trail to the historic compound are handicap-accessible via new ADA trails. There is also handicap-accessible parking near the fort compound.
- Fort Ross was named a California Historic Landmark in 1932, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.