Earlier this fall, we took a long weekend to head to Mendocino for the first time. In fact, we’d been to Mendocino County a couple of times but had never made it up to the Mendocino coast. Time and again, I’d heard this was not only some of California’s most beautiful landscape, but also its most authentic self, far away from the big business and crowds of Napa Valley or San Francisco. What we found is a place where people live a simpler life in small, oceanfront towns or on farms and where nature is truly all around you. Of course, photos don’t do this place justice — the sound of waves crashing and birds calling overhead, the smell of the trees, and the color of the water are essential aspects of the experience.
Mendocino County is a longer drive than many other Northern California destinations, but its relative isolation is part of what makes it special. What you’ll find here is a more rugged and wild coastline, few people, wineries where you can taste for just a few dollars, and an amazing diversity in nature — redwood forests sit just a short drive inland from the coast.
It didn’t take us long to realize that this is a place beloved by couples who come here for total relaxation, but it’s also a really fun place to explore with kids. A word of caution, though: the nature here can be unforgiving. There are many trails along the cliffs with no barrier, and the beaches here can be deadly. A few safety tips to review as a family:
Safety tips for kids on beaches and cliffs:
- Teach your kids how to keep a safe distance from the edge of cliffs. I tell my boys that they need to stand at least a body’s length away from the edge. I demonstrate how that would work for me so that if I fall, there will still be some space between me and the edge.
- While hiking on the cliffs, remind them to walk on the inside and not to run. It’s easy for kids to get distracted while hiking, so we ask our kids to walk on the inside (i.e. with an adult between them and the cliff edge) and to always walk, not run. They hold our hands as much as possible.
- Talk to your kids about the important of following the rules for safety at the beaches: because of dangerous “rogue” waves, they should never turn their backs on the ocean or chase waves. Stay near parents at all times and away from cliffs that might crumble, sending rocks down onto the beach.
Beach safety rules for everyone:
- Stay off of rocks in the water. They can be slippery and are often battered by unexpected waves.
- Keep kids within reach on beaches.
- Keep an eye out for dangerous waves and know what to do if one comes. The safest place to be is where you can run up away from a large wave if you see one coming.
- Don’t hang out on small enclosed beaches when the tide may begin to come in. It’s easy to get excited by exploring a new beach and not realize that the way to leave the beach is beginning to recede with the incoming tide.
- Cliffs here are unstable, so stay away from cliff edges.
- See more safety tips here.
30 things to do near Mendocino:
Russian Gulch State Park
One of the most stunning state parks I’ve ever visited, Russian Gulch State Park sits on the coast just two miles north of the town of Mendocino. The park’s main attractions are the 36′ waterfall, a mile and a half of craggy headlands, Devil’s Punchbowl, and the bridge (see below). There are also three miles of paved bike trails and picnic tables with amazing ocean views.
Like most of the Mendocino area, this park is not crowded at all. When we were here, we came upon only 6 other people!
Devil’s Punchbowl at Russian Gulch State Park
After walking a short distance (along the bluffs where it’s important to keep a close eye on kids!), you’ll come to a large circular fence. Inside you’ll see Devil’s Punchbowl, a collapsed sea cave 100 feet across and 60 feet deep. A tunnel 200 feet long from the sea ends at this point, where churning waves can be heard (and seen during high tide).
The beach at Russian Gulch State Park
You’ll cross the 100-foot-tall Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge while driving on Highway 1 past the town of Mendocino. Under it is Russian Gulch Beach, a quiet beach that is safe to hang out on thanks to its position in a cove (but not for swimming–it has a strong rip current). The bridge and the tall headlands that surround the beach on two sides make a stunning location, but the only downside is the traffic noise from above.
Here Russian Gulch Creek meets the sea. My kids spent a couple of hours building rock bridges to cross the creek and sending leaves down the creek to see which could go the farthest until sunset arrived and darkness forced us to leave.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
One of the highlights of our time in Mendocino was the 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in the town of Fort Bragg. A few not-to-miss experiences are sitting in the first big garden and watching the hummingbirds, visiting the organic vegetable garden (the fruit and vegetables are donated to the local food bank), the Fern Canyon Trail, and the bluffs, where you can view the ocean from benches, trails, and the Cliff House. As always, be careful on the bluff trails.
With kids, don’t miss the Adventure Trail and download the Quail Trail guide to the gardens. Admission to this non-profit organization is $14 for adults, $5 for kids (4 and under are free). There is a cafe, gift shop, and plant nursery on site.
The Skunk Train departs from Fort Bragg right behind the Northcoast Brewing Company building. The one-hour, seven-mile trip takes you to the Pudding Creek Estuary on the first tracks laid by the California Western Railroad in 1885. A 4-hour journey travels through Noyo River Canyon and redwood forests but leaves from Willits, which is quite a ways inland just off Hwy 101.
The Pygmy Forest
The Pygmy Forest, located at the eastern end of Van Damme State Park, may not look like a big deal, but this place is quite unique and unusual. The land in this area actually sits on five wave-cut terraces, each about 100,000 years older than the other. The Pygmy Forest sits on the highest and oldest of these terraces, where the soil is highly acidic and therefore inhospitable to much growth. The result is this unusual forest with many dwarf trees–mature trees that are even 100 years old but just a few feet tall! Such an interesting contrast to the redwoods that tower over everything in the nearby forests.
The forest has a wooden plank path that’s wheelchair accessible. It’s a loop of only about a quarter mile. You can easily access the walk by taking Little River-Airport Road until you see a sign for the Pygmy Forest. You’ll see a small parking lot and sign indicating the trail. Even though it’s part of a state park, there was no admission to park here and walk the trail. Like so many other places we visited in the Mendocino area, there were no crowds to contend with–in fact, we were the only ones here!
Van Damme State Park
This state park is located just a short 10-minute walk from Little River Inn, where we stayed (see below). Besides the pygymy forest and miles of trails through redwoods and ferns, the park is known for the kayaking a series of sea caves and tide pools where you can view wildlife up close.
Stop in the redwood forest along Highway 128
This two-lane highway is one way to reach the Mendocino Coast if you’re coming from the east. As you get close to the coast, the highway passes through a redwood forest, called the “Redwood Tunnel to the Sea.” Save some time to pull over and experience the magic of these amazing trees for yourself. You’ll see turnouts and trails that are visible from the road — we actually pulled into a closed state park campground and walked among the redwoods for about 45 minutes. Find out more here.
Point Arena Lighthouse
Further south in Mendocino County is the Point Arena area. The Point Arena Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse on the Pacific Coast, can be found down Lighthouse Road, a small rural road off Highway 1. This is a beautiful stop, not just for the views of the 108-year-old lighthouse, but also for the rocks loaded with fat sleeping seals and the nearby Stornetta Public Lands (below). You have to pay to enter the lighthouse grounds and take a tour, and the lighthouse also offers lodging in newly renovated cottages.
Stornetta Public Lands
Stornetta Public Lands is one of my favorite secret spots in Northern California. It was just added to the California Coastal National Monument by Obama in 2014, so it’s hardly known by anyone yet (which means you might have it to yourself, like we did). As you leave the lighthouse and begin driving on Lighthouse Road back toward Highway 1, you’ll spot a sign for Stornetta Public Lands.
Over 1100 acres of public land occupy this two-mile stretch of coastline. As you walk through the open field and approach the ocean, you’ll see Sea Lion Rocks, the numerous terrace islands that rise out of the water. Not only is this a beautiful coastal hike (but beware of unstable cliffs), it’s also a good place to view wildlife down by the water (find out how here). The cove here is protected from big ocean waves, leaving a large, calm area of water around the islands.
Manchester State Park
Just north of the Point Arena Lighthouse is Manchester State Park. Come here to walk through the dunes, view wildflowers, and relax on a long stretch of beach. The beach extends along a huge cove for five miles to the Point Area Lighthouse. There’s lots of driftwood for kids to play with here, but this beach is usually very windy, so try to come when the weather is nice. One interesting tidbit: the San Andreas Fault runs into the sea at this park! See our day at Manchester State Park.
Lula Cellars is one of several small wineries located on Highway 128 in Anderson Valley. We stopped here on the way to Mendocino and found it a perfect place to stretch our legs and get to know the local wine country before finishing the drive. The property includes a pond just outside the tasting room, a nice place to sit with a glass of wine or look for lizards and snakes with kids (we found both!).
Lula Cellars is a boutique winery, producing just around 3000 cases of wine per year of reasonably priced, ultra-premium wines. They use only grapes from Mendocino County, making this a good place to experience the terroir of this beloved wine region. I really enjoyed trying their award-winning Pinot Noirs and found the atmosphere friendly and laid-back. The tasting room is pet and kid-friendly, and the extremely reasonable tasting fee of $5 is waived with any purchase.
Family-friendly wine tasting at Navarro Vineyards
Navarro Vineyards is a family farm and small winery that produces wine and non-alcoholic grape juice. Stop here for the winery’s scenic grounds and picnic spaces, grazing sheep, complimentary tastings, and the deli area where local cheeses and snacks are sold. The winery is both kid and pet friendly and offers tours daily.
Buy fresh apples & more at the Apple Farm
The Apple Farm is located 18501 Greenwood Road (northwest of Philo), a small road just before the entrance to Hendy Woods State Park. Stop here and browse the self-serve farm stand, open 10-6. Bring cash so that you can help yourself and pay using the honor system. Besides the many varieties of apples that are grown in their orchards, they also sell jams and chutneys made on site. You can tour the farm (which uses biodynamic growing practices) on a self-guided tour and stop a while to enjoy a snack on the beautiful grounds.
Walk through the redwood groves at Hendy Woods State Park
Mendocino County is home to many redwood forests, and Hendy Woods State Park is the place to experience them with two easy loops through ancient redwood groves.
Big River Beach
Big River Beach was our favorite beach in the Mendocino area. The beach sits below the headlands in the town of Mendocino. You can park near the old Presbyterian church (or use street parking in town); then walk behind the church for beach access. Look for the trail that is the farthest to the left (the other two lead to a homeless camp and do not have direct beach access). Soon after you are on the trail, you’ll see a wooden stairway that leads down to the beach.
We loved this beach because of the views of the headlands, the large expanse of safe beach to explore, and the lagoon that forms near the shore.
Mendocino Headlands State Park
This state park consists of a trail system that winds along the headlands that surround the town of Mendocino. There are many places to park your vehicle and connect with the trail; we parked on one of the downtown streets and started walking until we hit the trail past the old church. As mentioned above, the trails here follow the cliffs, so it’s extremely important to walk carefully and maintain some distance from the edge.
The town of Mendocino
The town of Mendocino sits on the headlands and is surrounded on three sides by the ocean and three miles of bluff walking trails. The village, founded in the 1850s, is unique thanks to the Victorian character and the many old wooden watertowers. I recommend devoting one day to shopping and dining in the village, walking along the Mendocino Headlands State Park, and relaxing at Big River Beach.
TWIST in Mendocino
The town of Mendocino has many cute shops, but TWIST was our favorite. The lovely owner sells eco-friendly apparel, sweet children’s items, quirky gifts, jewelry, and art prints. Located at 45140 Main Street facing the bluffs.
The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Glass Beach was the crowd — it’s one of the best known places to visit in Mendocino County. For us it was also the most disappointing. Glass Beach is actually made up of three sites, beaches of rounded pieces of glass from garbage that was dumped there many years ago. The views from the walking trails are stunning, so if you visit, I’d recommend walking along the coast to find a less crowded beach. Although you will see people pocketing glass to take home, taking glass is not allowed.
Watch the sun set
This might seem like an obvious choice, but we were so busy exploring or dining every evening that almost missed it! Choose a prime spot for watching the sun go down — the benches along the Mendocino Headlands trails, the bar or your private balcony at Little River Inn, the picnic tables at Russian Gulch State Park, or a quiet beach.
Where to stay near Mendocino:
Brewery Gulch Inn
Brewery Gulch Inn was named the best hotel in California and #46 in the world by Conde Nast Traveler readers. Once we experienced the comfort and charm of this B&B, we understood why it has such a devoted following. Our kids loved staying here because the inn seemed like an oversized treehouse thanks to its location among gardens and trees on a hill overlooking the ocean.
We stayed in the spacious Meadowview Suite. The two bedrooms had everything for a comfortable stay: a mini kitchen with a microwave and mini fridge, a couch and flat-screen TV with DVDs to check out downstairs, a fireplace, and large armchairs for reading. Our kids also loved walking the nature trails that wander through the gardens surrounding the inn.
The highlight of any stay at Brewery Gulch Inn is the thoughtfully prepared food. Executive Chef Scott Allen chooses organic produce and sustainably raised meat from local farms. Every evening a drink and “light dinner” buffet is served. We found that this was plenty of food for an evening meal and made the perfect relaxing end to a busy day of traveling. Drinks include local beer and wine. Breakfast includes a range of seasonal dishes, all cooked to order.
If you’re traveling with kids, it’s important to note that the inn is primarily considered a romantic getaway. We felt completely welcomed not only by the friendly staff but also by the other guests, but we reminded our children to keep their voices down and respect the interests of others.
Little River Inn
Little River Inn has been a haven for guests for five generations. The owners’ love of children and family is evident in the inn’s service and welcoming atmosphere. We loved staying here, from the comfortable room with a private deck and ocean views to the meticulously cared for landscape and convenient trail to nearby Van Damme State Park. Besides the cottage-style lodgings, the inn has tennis, a full-service spa, and a golf course.
The restaurant and bar offer onsite convenience, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner either in the restaurant/bar or in your room. We enjoyed the restaurant for the garden views, special menu and activity books for the kids, the delicious crab cakes and many tasty offerings at breakfast. The bar, with views of the ocean and local craft beer on tap, is the perfect place to relax in the late afternoon. Next time, I plan to have dinner at the bar and watch the sun set.
Where to Eat & Drink near Mendocino
Northcoast Brewing Company: Stop in the taproom for a pint of their beer, which they make in the facility across the street. The beers are good; the food was OK but I found it overpriced and slow. Try their flagship Red Seal Ale.
Piaci Pub and Pizzeria For New York-style pizza and an excellent selection of local beers and wines, try Piaci Pub and Pizzeria in Fort Bragg.
Goodlife Cafe and Bakery: A local favorite in Mendocino, this cafe serves quiche, fresh-baked breads, panini, salads, and soups. Open for breakfast and lunch. The menu uses organic ingredients and offers locally-roasted, organic, fair-trade coffee and gluten-free and vegan options.
Ravens’ Restaurant This award-winning restaurant at the Stanford Inn just outside Mendocino serves vegan food using organic, sustainable, and local ingredients. Open all day from morning to 9 p.m.
Beer at the Little River Inn Bar: Chef Marc Dym is a craft beer fan, so the bar at Little River Inn serves excellent draft beer including the famous Pliny the Elder and a unique Saison from Anderson Valley Brewing Co. The view of the ocean from the bar is unbeatable.
Little River Inn Restaurant: The highlights of our meals here were the old wooden bar with views of the sunset over the ocean — highly recommended for a drink — and the breakfast, which was a relaxing, tasty meal, perfect for filling our stomachs before a day of exploring. And the kids’ menu and coloring pages with crayons mean kids are welcome.
Brewery Gulch Inn: The best food we had on the trip was at the Brewery Gulch Inn. Meals incorporating locally-sourced, organic cuisine prepared by an accomplished executive chef are included with the stay.
Have you been to the Mendocino area? What recommendations do you have? Until next time, Mendocino! We’ll be back!
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Disclosure: My lodging and meals at Brewery Gulch Inn and Little River Inn as well as the entrance to the Mendocino Botanical Gardens were complimentary. As always, all opinions are my own. Photo of Skunk Train: John ‘K’ on Flickr