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The Northern California coastline undulates past breakers, cliffs, and grand hillsides that once held the ancient redwood forests. Most were sacrificed to build San Francisco during the Gold Rush and after the earthquake of 1906. As Highway 1 veers past Fort Ross, an early Russian outpost, forests again dominate between villages. Today, logging towns have turned to tourism to maintain their economies.

Those that survived fires and economic cycles, including the colorful village of Mendocino, burnish their Victorian heritage to lure visitors with galleries, bookstores, and trendy restaurants. Nature lovers also have much to appreciate in the area thanks to its trails and viewpoints. The most intrepid venture even further north to explore the phenomenon of Glass Beach, where ocean-worn remnants of broken glass carpet several small coves.

Glass Beach in California.

1. Finding Glass Beach

Glass is found in the sandy deposits of the southern coves in and around MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg. The most famous is Glass Beach, situated inside the park. Getting there is simple enough; just take the wide walking path from the free parking area on Glass Beach Drive. It's a few blocks west of Highway 1 off of West Elm Street. Wear shoes or sandals with good tread as you'll want to climb between the rocks to get to the small beaches and coves where the glass is found. Many dot the area. There are several trails going south out of the state park that lead to other glassy beaches as well.

2. How Glass Beach Formed

There’s an old myth that every time a sailor was lost at sea, mermaids would cry and their tears would wash onto the shores as sea glass. The story began with a mermaid who loved a sailor from afar and tamed the stormy sea to save his life. Neptune was incensed and banished her to the depths. Since then, her mermaid tears wash up as sea glass -- mementos of unrequited love. In truth, the origins of the Fort Bragg sea glass are far more mundane.

The 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco also tore Fort Bragg apart. Prior to that tragedy, people stored their garbage on their properties and reused what they could. After the quake and before rebuilding could begin, the fallen homes, shops, and all the garbage had to be removed. Much was burned or bulldozed toward the ocean. This practice continued for decades while, to the surprise of the community, most of the garbage remained in the coastal coves. It’s thought that broken bottles and pottery, old glass windows, and mirrors washed into the surf to become sea glass, though there’s no consensus on why it keeps returning to this area.

The refuse remained on the beach until the 1960s, when coastal cleanup began and the phenomenon of Glass Beach was revealed. The shards, smoothed from tumbling in the sea, poured onto the sand with every wave. When author Richard Lamott, appeared on the Martha Stewart show to give tips on collecting sea glass, Glass Beach became an international phenomenon.

Sea glass on Glass Beach in California.

3. Making Sea Glass Takes Years

It takes years for the tumbling and aging of glass to create the unique frosted sheen and pitting associated with sea glass. The lime and soda used in making most glass leaches out in a process called hydration. When you make it to Glass Beach, hold a piece and run your fingers over the edges -- you’ll find they’re round and feel soft, unlike the glassware we’re used to.

4. Is It Beach Glass Or Sea Glass?

Since the glass on Glass Beach came from many different sources, other chemicals have interacted in the weathering process, forming crystals on some of the pieces’ surfaces. Glass tumbled in fresh water escapes the pitting process due to the difference in pH. Some experts argue that freshwater glass is "beach glass" but saltwater glass should be called "sea glass."

Inside the International Sea Glass Museum.

5. You Can Learn About Sea Glass From The Captain and His Transparent Collection

Captain Cass Forrington, a retired sea captain, has been telling visitors all about Mendocino Coast sea glass since he opened the International Sea Glass Museum in the winter of 2009.The small museum is set back from Highway 1 in between Mendocino and Fort Bragg and is packed with cases of unique sea glass arranged according to their color and history.

Forrington began collecting sea glass during his voyages and proudly exhibits rare and chemically unique pieces. The gift shop features Glass Beach and other sea glass jewelry. At last count, Forrington had over 150,000 pieces -- and he’s still collecting. His galleries include displays of rare stoppers, handle pieces, marbles, and “rounds.” While the cottage museum is quite small, there's room for displays detailing the history of wrecks like the clipper ship Frolic, which spilled its Gold Rush cargo along the coast, and Vaseline glass, which was manufactured until the end of World War II. Under a black light, uranium in this unique glass glows, making it a sight to see.

Interested in all things sea glass? Before you pummel the Captain with questions, watch one of the short videos playing inside the museum.

6. What To Look For At Glass Beach

Author Lamotte suggests that the best times to look for sea glass are after a high tide or during a full moon during the spring or fall. While new beach glass may wash up after storms, what remains in the Glass Beach coves are very small pieces and most of the colored pieces are gone. Years as a popular tourist destination have led to poaching.

It’s illegal to remove anything from a state beach, but many visitors settle into a comfortable position and begin the relaxing task of sifting through the glass pebbles, unable to resist the urge to take their favorite finds. Don’t add to their abuse.

A small tourist-made tower at Glass Beach.

7. Where The Color Comes From

According to the collectors at By The Sea Jewelry, most sea glass is green, brown, and clear (which becomes white), which corresponds to items most commonly discarded at sea, including beer and soda bottles. Sometimes bits of pottery or china emerge from the sea. Lavender, pink, red, and blue glass are rare finds.

  • Blue glass likely came from Noxzema and Bromo Seltzer bottles, and some perfume and prescription medicine containers.
  • Gem shades from pink to lime green may have come from perfume bottles or clear glass mixed with manganese during the clarification process. As the chemicals oxidized, they lead to shades of lavender and pink.
  • Clear, faintly green pieces, known as Vaseline glass, were made in from the 1800s to the 1940s. Larger pieces glow when you hold a light up to them -- a phenomenon accounted for by the uranium that melted into the molds. This glass is extremely rare.
  • Fire glass is the rarest find. Old dumps may have undergone burning, which can lead to glass melting around objects, or inclusions. These pieces are considered precious for their “impurities.” Some of these gems can be found in the International Beach Glass Museum.
Pudding Creek Beach in California.

8. Take Pictures At Beautiful Pudding Creek Beach

After searching Glass Beach, stretch your legs along the multi-use trail that leads out of MacKerricher and north to Pudding Creek Beach, crossing a tall, wooden train trestle.

This beach is worth exploring for the lofty views of the trestle and several tide pools in the small, picturesque cove that’s dotted with rock outcroppings. There are several trails over the bluff. One leads to a huge tidal pool below rocks on the point just north of the beach. If you have more time and the tide is low, cross around the point to the “hidden” sandy strand known as Old Haul Road Beach.

9. Explore Beyond The Coves

Ten miles north of Mendocino, Fort Bragg holds onto its working-class roots. Commercial and sport fishing boats still anchor in the deep shelter of the Noyo River harbor. The town has a small street of shops, the requisite Starbucks, and several modest restaurants where a decent meal or several plates of sushi will cost far less than in Mendocino. North of town and west along the coast there are staggeringly picturesque views. Given all the natural wonders in the area, Glass Beach is only one of the interesting spots worth a visit.

Look to the forested hills for a land adventure. You’ll pass old miners cabins, some of the same design as those destroyed in the earthquake that led to the creation of Glass Beach. The 1885 Skunk Train runs from the coast to Willits, another Mendocino-County locale. It once hauled logs inland but now shuttles tourists through second-growth redwoods. Marvel at the towering forest while listening to the costumed guides who are full of historical insights. Before turning back, passengers will enjoy lunch at a recommissioned logging camp. A handful of hotels are scattered between Pudding Creek and the Noyo River.

Coral growing along Glass Beach in California.

10. Low Tide Treasures And Cautions

The coves and cliffs of MacKerricher State Park are dynamic places defined by the incessant roar of breakers. Low tides often reveal much more than glass. Crabs, mollusks, anemones, and aquatic plants make their homes between rocks and in tide pools. Stay still for a few moments and the small world underfoot becomes busy with movement. Cast a shadow and all goes still again.

Take care while beachcombing as waves can be dangerous along the Fort Bragg coast. Children should be watched. Dogs need to remain on their leashes. Stay on trails as the sandy cliffs can collapse, especially after one of the area’s frequent rainstorms.

The most important thing any visitor to Glass Beach can do is to leave what glass remains. If you must have a souvenir, find it at the International Museum of Glass gift shop.

For more beautiful stops on a California Highway 1 drive, check out these 10 quaint towns on California’s coast.

Photo Credits: Wollertz / Shutterstock

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