Pomo Canyon Trail: A Sonoma County scenic sampler

Michael Combs

Michael Combs, Staff Writer

From redwood forests to coastal prairies and beaches, the Pomo Canyon Trail offers the best sampling of Sonoma County scenery you can get, but be prepared to sweat for it.  

The Pomo Canyon Trail is a 7.2-mile out-and-back trail with a rough elevation gain of 1,463 feet that is classified as moderate to strenuous. Hikers have the option of starting at Shell Beach off of U.S. Highway 1, about 7.7 miles north of Bodega Bay, or they can continue north another 1.6 miles and turn onto Willow Creek Road at the Russian House and drive a mile to reach the Pomo Canyon Trailhead. Be careful driving Willow Creek Road as it is a gravel road with potholes. 

An out-and-back trail means that hikers will start at one trailhead, reach the other trailhead, turn around and hike the same trail back to the start. If you want to trek in a loop, take the Red Bluff Trail, which begins at the same trailhead, but forks off to Red Bluff and loops around to the start of the trail. 

Deciding to take the Red Bluff Trail reduces the hike by about a mile, but adds about 300 feet of elevation gain. Alternatively, you can take the Pomo Canyon Trail and Red Hill Loop in the same hike, which adds a mile and 300 feet of elevation gain. 

It’s important to note that the Red Hill Bluff at 1040 feet is the highest point on the trail, so when maps state the elevation gain is 1,463 feet, it means there is a lot of uphill and downhill. 

To start at the Pomo Canyon Trailhead, drive down Willow Creek Road and park along the road near the sign for the Pomo Canyon Campsite next to a metal swing gate. Walk for 0.3 miles to the campsites and trailhead. There are portable toilets and a bench to stretch on near the trailhead. 

The hike starts in scenic redwoods that provide a lot of cover, so it may seem chilly at first, but the immediate uphill should get your blood flowing. In 0.6 miles you’ll reach the first fork in the trail, splitting the Pomo Canyon Trail and the Red Hill Trail. The Pomo Canyon Trail is recommended as the hike to Red Hill is steep. Staying on the Pomo Canyon Trail will provide a more gradual ascent, and since both trails connect, you can take the Red Hill trail on the way back. 

Regardless of the path you chose as you move towards the coast, the redwoods clear out to reveal coastal prairies and eagle-eyed views of the Russian River, Jenner and the Pacific ocean. This is the perfect time to find a tree or bench to relax and take a water break. 

Soon the Pomo Canyon Trail and Red Hill Trail connect again at another fork. You can choose to make the hike a loop and turn back on Red Hill Trail or continue on the Pomo Canyon Trail to Shell Beach. 

While it’s nice to go to the beach, it also adds another steep climb on the way back.  There are also a few large rocks and bluffs along the Red Hill Trail that you can climb for clear views of the coast (amazing place to watch the sunset). However, the Red Hill Trail is steep at times and you’ll be sweating and breathing at the next level if you choose this path. 

Taking the Red Hill Trail will bring you to a fork that either leads back to the Pomo Canyon Trail or takes a detour to Red Hill Bluff. The hike to Red Hill Bluff is short, but very steep. Another bench and a great view of the coast reward hikers who make the trip.

Hikers should bring water, snacks and multiple layers of clothing. Parts of the hike — like in the redwoods — can be quite chilly or windy near the beach. There is also the danger of overheating as the rest of the hike features large elevation gains and sun exposure. It is about a 2-4 hour hike depending on pace and breaks.