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A scant four hours’ drive from the Bay Area, the sweeping beauty and rustic charm of Mendocino and Fort Bragg await. Fall is my favorite time to visit, as the barometer slides and the fog pulls away, the afternoons warm up enough to sit outside in the sun or spend it exploring the outdoors. Mendocino County’s relative isolation is part of what makes it special, wild, and rugged, much as it might have looked 400 years ago when the Indigenous people from the area—the Pomo Indians, Coyote, Yokayo, Redwood, and Potter Valley tribes—lived, foraged, and fished here.
This rugged coastline is framed by the Pacific Ocean, the vast Mendocino National Forest with its coastal redwoods, and the famed non-native eucalyptus trees lining Highway 1. Built upon the Redwood logging industry of the 1850s, the entire town of Mendocino is designated as a Historic Preservation District, with coastal hideaways, off-the-beaten-path wine tasting, and all the nature you could possibly need.
Mendo’s (that’s how the locals refer to it) rich history and New England-inspired architecture is what prompted us to staycation close to home, and here I share some off-the-beaten-path adventures, my favorite places to stay, hikes favored by locals, and the hottest places to eat.
With all the fires in our state, we noticed that much of Highway 1 was lined with non-native, fire-prone eucalyptus trees. How did all of this eucalyptus get to California we wondered? The Kelley House Museum had an interesting answer for us, “Turbans in the Trees.”
Tonia Hurst, Kelley House volunteer explains, “Eucalyptus it seems was not the only distant transplant to arrive here in those years. In the late 19thcentury, at a time when Eastern philosophy, spirituality, music and literature were popular and the University of California, Berkeley, welcomed Indian students, the first Indian labor gangs arrived in California. These colorful newcomers wore turbans and full beards and held close to Hindu traditions. Known as the third wave of Asian immigrants, they were called “Hindus” as opposed to Indians to avoid confusion with Native American peoples. Headlines from the 1910 San Francisco Call included warnings that “Orientals Flock to the State” which vied with advertisements for “Hindu Turbans”—women’s hats in Persian silks and pongees decorated with fancies of feathers and quills. Opposition to the newcomers in the Ukiah newspapers followed a pattern of vehemence spreading across the state.” Read the entire blog here.
The Ford House Museum and Visitor Center on Main Street is a great place head to after the Kelley House, with its scale model exhibit of the Mendocino in 1890, built by local craftsman Len Peterson. Exhibits here carry us back to another era. Throughout the house, are historic photographs, tools, and relics that tell the story from the felling of the great Redwoods to the shipping of the lumber aboard the legendary dog-hole schooners. John, the docent is very knowledgeable and does an excellent job of explaining everything.
Stroll over to the stunning Mendocino Art Center overlooking the ocean from the top of the headlands. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, primarily with native plants and the Zacha Sculpture Garden features not only sculpture but a lovely tiled courtyard surrounded by the art studios.
Three blocks from the Art Center, the Temple of Kwan Tai is one of the oldest Chinese temples in California providing a historical look into the 19th-century Chinese community that lived in Mendocino. Much like the surrounding homes and cottages, this Taoist Temple has been historically preserved and restored.
The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are stunning with the dramatic coastal scenery. Founded by retired nurseryman Ernest Schoefer and his wife, Betty they passed them to the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District which runs one of America’s few coastal public gardens.
Ride The Skunk Train and Railbikes
Such a fun ride for kids and adults alike, Riding “The Skunk” is a long-standing family tradition for many Californians. The nickname “Skunk” originated in 1925 when these single unit, self-propelled motorcars had gasoline-powered engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep the passengers warm. The combination of the fumes created a very pungent odor, and the old-timers living along the line said these motorcars were like skunks, “You could smell them before you could see them.” That’s not the case anymore, and their holiday-themed rides (Pumpkin Express for the Fall) are a great way to spend an afternoon.
But what we loved, loved, loved was their newest excursion, the Railbikes. These battery-powered (or pedal-powered if you prefer!) lightweight, four-wheeled, 2-seater railbikes run on the same track as the train, but a fun way to enjoy the towering redwoods, Douglas firs, alders, and fern that line the tracks.
Kayaking to Explore the Sea Caves
One of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences I have had on this trip. Mendocino and Fort Bragg are best seen from the water and one of the best ways to explore this coast’s incredibly rich and diverse sea caves. Sea caves are usually found at the base of a cliffside along the coast and are formed from erosion caused by the waves. The weathered rocks continually change over time, which makes each cave unique. Water still makes its way through the caves via small entrances formed in the cliff.
I spoke to Craig, Kayak Mendocino’s owner and he said that with their guide (ask for Mark, he was our guide and incredibly knowledgeable) and sit-on-top ocean kayaks, it was very safe even for people with no experience. We came across some harbor seals and lots of shorebirds.
If you’d like a relaxed tour, on calm water and a taste of sea life like harbor seals and river otters, try the Noyo Meander, offered by Liquid Fusion Kayak. It is great for children since they offer tandem kayaks.
Russian Gulch State Park
Things not to miss here are the waterfall hike, the bridge, and Devil’s Punchbowl.
The Falls Loop Trail was our favorite day hike. There is the long hike (6 miles) or a shorter 2.8-mile round-trip that starts from the Caspar-Little Lake Road on the eastern end of Russian Gulch State Park.
Both are beautifully shaded trails along a creek that takes you through the redwoods to a 36-foot high waterfall. The falls were still flowing, albeit a bit gently. But after the rains, it flows like a huge thunderous gush of water. When you reach the waterfall, you’ll find a footbridge and benches. The water at the bottom is shallow, with rocks and downed trees to climb on, a great spot for a packed lunch.
Ecological Staircase At the Jughandle State Natural Reserve
A favorite of area locals, this breathtaking hike is 5 miles with a steady, easy elevation gain. low, as the land underwent tectonic uplift. The lowest terrace consists of prairie; the second is covered with pines; the third supports a unique pygmy forest with knee-high trees possibly several decades old.
Van Damme Natural Preserve
Must do: The Fern Canyon Trail
If you plan on doing just one hike on your trip, then this should be it. The park is located in Little River and you can park in the parking lot on the ocean side (free) or drive in and park closer to the trailhead ($8). Along a babbling creek, which still has a decent amount of water flowing, this 3.5-mile hike is easy and very scenic. Line with ferns, you cross 10 marked wooden bridges, making this very picturesque.
Walk Over An Old Train Trestle
An Instagram-able spot, perfect for photography or to watch Mendo’s beautiful sunsets, this old train trestle is paved and open to pedestrians. There is a sandy cove below, surrounded by rock walls and a big tidal pool north of the beach.
Fort Bragg (right next to Harborview Motel)
Yes, there’s still some glass left, although you are not allowed to take it! The beach – actually three of them – was created over decades as the pounding surf and passage of time turned broken head- and tail-lights, apothecary and soda bottles, and discarded household trash into today’s treasure. The newly opened coastal trail at Noyo Headlands Park now offers visitors access to all the beaches at Glass Beach. Just take Elm Street to the west in Fort Bragg and you’ll find plenty of parking, and walks along the clifftops.
MacKerricher State Park and Beach
Another favorite spot for locals and visitors alike. Black sand beaches, plenty of coastal trails, and a seal watching station. It’s north of Fort Bragg about 20 miles up the coast from Mendocino.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
October through April marks the annual California gray whale migration, between Alaska and Mexico. The 12,000-mile roundtrip is considered to be the longest known mammal migration in the animal kingdom, and Mendocino is the stop for key sightings. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse with its panorama of the Pacific is the perfect spot for a sighting.
Pygmy Forest Natural Preserve
The Pygmy Forest, located at the eastern end of Van Damme State Park, is an area that 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 may be 100 years old but just a few feet tall. The forest has a wooden plank path, and the loop is a quarter-mile.
Drive on Little River-Airport Road, going past the airport, until you see a sign for the Pygmy Forest (about 3 miles). You’ll see a small parking lot and a sign indicating the trail.
We stayed at the Brewery Gulch Inn in Mendocino for 2 nights and I would highly recommend this charming Bed and Breakfast with its clean and contemporary Arts and Crafts style. Perched on a bluff overlooking Mendocino Bay, it is at once rustic and luxurious. It only has 11 rooms, and so it’s perfect for social distancing too! Our room (The Madrone) had an almost treehouse feel to it, with its redwood-shingled, eco-salvaged timber, surrounded by a verdant meadow of pine, fir, and hemlock. And the food! They spoil you with their fantastic breakfast (you must have their Key lime and Mango lassi and decadent Belgian hot chocolate) and evening wine and appetizer hour served in personalized wooden bento boxes.
The next 2 nights were at the Noyo Harbor Inn, a different experience. Set on a riverbank, against a sweeping view of the endless forests, a flowing river, and an active harbor. It is beautifully terraced with steps that lead down to the bustling harbor, where you get some of the freshest seafood. A lot of fishing boats also take off for excursions from here.
Little River Inn Restaurant
Great location and fantastic views of the Pacific. Birthday dinner here was fantastic in their
landscaped garden with lots of heat lamps. My husband thought their clam chowder belter than
the one we have in Boston! I would also recommend the Tomato and Mozzarella, the cheese is
made fresh in-house and is very tender. My husband enjoyed their Steak very much as well as
Pliny the Elder beer, which is a rarity to score.
One of the hottest meal tickets in town, it does not disappoint. Great terraced dining al fresco, views of the harbor with its boats and seals. The drinks are really good, they have great pastas, and the flash-fried Brussel sprouts are yummy!
A great coffee/lunch place, grab their chai latte and samosas before boarding the Skunk train.
Everything here is great. Lots of veggie options, we had the arancini balls, panucho, and the best vegetarian Fresh Mayan-Style Ceviche.
On The Drive There via 101 and 128:
Highway 128, aka The Wine Road: The route between Highway 1 and Highway 101 is Highway 128, aka the Wine Road. This route is home to countless wineries – here’s a guide.
A stop at Navarro Vineyards & Winery for wine & cheese is a must. Whoever isn’t driving can sample delicious locally made wine (there’s no tasting fee!) and whoever is driving – or isn’t quite old enough yet for wine – can enjoy a grape juice flight. Pick up some cheese, salami, and crackers and have a stunning picnic overlooking the vineyards.
Stop at the Philo Apple Farm on Highway 128 for fresh apples & apple goodies. At the self-service Farm Stand – which runs on an honor system if no one is around – you’ll find several varieties of delicious fresh apples to choose from, plus chutneys, jams, Apple Cider Syrup (which is amazing), balsamic vinegar, and fresh-pressed apple juice! Everything is grown and produced right here on the farm. Also, there are some really cute dogs who live on the property.
Suggestions for lunch or dinner on your way:
27.5 miles after exiting Highway 101 and heading down Highway 128, you will come to the town of Boonville where you will find
Lauren’s Restaurant at the Buckhorn (local, seasonal and organic).
Disco Ranch, casual wine, and specialty food market with a large selection of Spanish tapas that can be eaten on-premises, or taken to go.
40 miles after exiting Highway 101 and heading down Highway 128, you will see, on your left-hand side, The Floodgate. In this complex is the Bewildered Pig, a comfortable rustic-styled joint.
On The Drive Back via Route One:
For Horseback rides through the forests, or on the shore of the Pacific Ocean.
Experience the African veldt in the safety of your own automobile while visiting rare Rothschild Giraffes, Greater Roan, Sable and Kudo Antelope, and Grevy’s and Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra. The visit culminates with a gentle giraffe feeding.
Celebrating its 151st Anniversary, it is stunning and has self-guided tours.
Great place for coffee and a bite to eat with outdoor seating, live music on weekends, and views of the Pacific.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org