Fort Ross, the southernmost Russian outpost in North America, stands on a high ocean bluff, with a calm sheltered cove below. The settlement was established in 1812 by explorers and fur traders of the Russian-American Company who came to hunt sea otters and seals. The settlers—25 Russians and 80 Alaskan Aleuts brought along to help in the hunt, built houses, barracks, workshops, and other structures, and surrounded them by a stockade; a Russian Orthodox chapel was added in 1820. Villages for the Aleuts and for lower-ranking employees were established outside the stockade. The colony also grew wheat and other crops for settlers at Russian outposts in Alaska.
By 1820, over-hunting had depleted otter and seal populations along the coast, and the Russian-American Company instituted a hunting moratorium. The colony declined, and in 1841 the company sold Fort Ross to John Sutter, who was later to make a fortune in the Gold Rush. In 1906 the State acquired the Fort Ross stockade for a park. It is one of California’s oldest state parks. The Rotchev House, which served as the residence for the fort’s last manager, Alexander Rotchev, is the only original structure to survive; it contains construction techniques dating back to the Russian era. Other buildings have been extensively restored and reconstructed. The park’s acreage has been expanded to include some 3,000 acres in addition to the fort compound. A variety of interpretive programs is offered, and Cultural Heritage Day is celebrated on the last Saturday in July.
Trail to fort
see access criteria for definitions
Trailhead: Near the visitor center
Length: Under one mile total
Typical Width: 4 ft. & above
Typical Grade: Gentle
The trail has some bumpy sections and the asphalt is cracked in places, but it is generally easy to navigate.
Begin your outing at the visitor center, to absorb the history of the various cultures that mingled in this settlement—Russian, Alaskan, and native and mixed-heritage Californian. The asphalt trail to the fort compound begins at the visitor center. You can start from the front of the visitor center, follow the path to your right and wind downhill through the forest behind the building; or start from the back door and take the ramp to the right off the patio, onto a path that soon joins the trail. You travel down a gentle slope through the forest and cross a wooden bridge, then emerge in a meadow with the fort spread out before you. The trail is wide and mostly level, though bumpy and cracked in places; rustic wood and low stone fences run along part of the route on the ocean side.
After about one-third of a mile you reach the fort compound. An opening in the stockade allows you to enter directly—if you can negotiate a lip with a big wood block in the middle and a rocky dirt slope. Another option is to continue to the gravel road that leads to the fort’s main entrance. (It’s also possible to drive down this road to the main entry and drop off passengers or, with a permit that can be picked up at the entry station or visitor center, park alongside the road.) Inside, the first building to the left, the Officials’ Quarters, is mostly accessible; here you can see a sleeping area, dining area, forge, woodworking shop, as well as furs, tools, and other furnishings. In the partially accessible Rotchev House, built in 1836, you can see some replica period furnishings. Travel beyond these buildings is impeded by the surface inside the compound, a combination of gravel, hard-packed dirt, and grass, much of which is very bumpy and rutted; the slope up to the Kuskov House and chapel is moderate, but it’s a rough ride, and very little inside these buildings is accessible.
Back outside the fort’s main entry, a gravel road travels a few hundred yards out onto the coastal terrace before dropping steeply to a small cove. It is uneven and bumpy but mostly level, and is a lovely spot to view the ocean, the fort, and the hills beyond, which were shrouded in fog when I visited in summer. Swallows darted and swooped through the meadow, fishing boats bobbed offshore, and the water was a deep, deep blue under steely skies. Below the terrace, divers explored the waters of the cove, while picnickers watched from shore. It was hard to imagine that this had once been a bustling settlement with shipbuilding and brickmaking works, a smithy, and much more; its Russian past seemed to have faded into the fog.
The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.
Accessible Visitor Center: Yes
The Fort Ross visitor center, completed in 1985, is an imposing, high-beamed wood structure designed to resemble the buildings of the old Russian fort. It’s well worth a visit just in itself, with its trove of information about and artifacts from the Russian settlement at Fort Ross and the Kashaya Pomo people who preceded it, as well as the Aleut people who were brought to the settlement from Alaska by the Russians to hunt otter. Look especially for the lovely maps and charts of the California coast made by Russian explorers, and replicas of the kayaks used by the Aleuts. A video about the settlement can be seen in the main auditorium.
Accessible Parking: Yes
By the visitor center. You can also ask at the entry station or visitor center for a permit that allows you to park along the access road near the fort compound, but this parking is not accessible; the surface is level but grassy and not firm, and may become muddy when wet.
Accessible Restroom: Yes
At the visitor center. The porta-potties in the fort compound are not accessible.
Hours: Open weekends and holidays
Map: See here.
Fees: Entrance, Camping
Dogs: Allowed in parking lot and nearby campground only