There is a wealth of activities on the Mendocino Coast. The combination of great weather, proximity to the ocean, and giant redwoods throughout the area combine to provide outdoor activities of all kinds. Because this is a tourist destination (albeit largely undiscovered), the indoor activities are just as numerous. In particular, there is a thriving artistic community, and there are a lot of excellent restaurants. Finally, the valleys leading to the coast have proven to be excellent for growing wine grapes, and there are now wineries and tasting rooms all over the county.
The Mendocino Coast provides opportunities for many kinds of outdoor activities: hiking, birdwatching, fishing, whalewatching, kayaking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and more.
Hiking and Mountain Biking
With 17 parks and preserves in the local State Parks system, as well as the largest state forest in California, there are limitless opportunities to hike. Here are some favorites (listed north to south):
- MacKerricher State Park: 12 miles north of Mendocino, this park travels along the coast for 10 miles, with an old haul road providing a great path for hiking and biking. The park has a harbor seal rookery, and sweeping vistas north to the Lost Coast.
- Jug Handle State Reserve: this place features a 2.5-mile nature trail called the Ecological Staircase, which follows five ancient terraces formed by glaciers, waves, tectonic activity, and erosion. Each terrace is approximately 100 feet higher and 100,000 years younger than the next-lowest level. Each terrace has a different ecosystem, including finally access to the Pygmy Forest, where a hardpan layer traps water near the surface. The corresponding lack of oxygen creates a natural Bonsai effect, resulting in 100-year-old pine trees that are a foot tall.
- Russian Gulch State Park: 2 miles north of Mendocino, this park features a 3-mile hike out to a 35-foot waterfall. The North Boundary trail heads east into the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, connecting up with hundreds of miles of trails and logging roads.
- Mendocino Headlands State Park: this park surrounds the village of Mendocino on 3 sides, all along the ocean. Easy trails follow it all the way around, with bathrooms at the north and south ends. This is a spectacular place from which to watch sunsets, large waves, migrating birds, and California Gray Whales on their annual migration. Listen to a podcast about the Headlands by Doug McConnell (from OpenRoad.tv), in association with the California State Parks.
- Big River Unit, Mendocino Headlands State Park: destined to be a state park, this is now attached the Headlands SP for financial reasons. This 700-acre park covers a large potion of the Big River watershed, formerly owned by a logging company. You can walk or bike for miles on the old haul road along the north bank of the river. You can also find a lot of blackberries out this way in late summer.
- Chapman Spoint and Spring Ranch Preserve: just a mile south of Mendocino, this preserve runs along the ocean from Gordon Lane down to Van Damme State Park.
- Van Damme State Park: in addition to an excellent beach, this park features a hike through the redwoods in the Fern Canyon, as well as a boardwalk in the Pygmy Forest.
- Forest History Trail, Jackson Demonstration State Forest: 7 miles east of Mendocino in the JDSF, this 4-mile loop runs along a series of ridges through mixed and redwood forest.
- Navarro Point Preserve: 9 miles south of Mendocino, this new preserve is an easy hike along ocean headlands, with great vistas to the north.
There are 2 lighthouses in the area. The Point Cabrillo Light Station is only 2 miles north of Mendocino, while the Point Arena Lighthouse is 35 miles to the south of Mendocino.
- Point Arena Lighthouse : this 108-foot lighthouse has a First-Order Fresnel Lens, although it is not installed in the tower. The lighthouse is located on a spectacular rocky promontory.
There are several places where you can go riding, either along the ocean or inland among the redwoods. Lari Shea’s Ricochet Ridge Ranch works out of Cleone, adjacent to MacKerricher State Park, and they take you riding along the Haul Road and beaches in MacKerricher.
Sport Fishing and Whalewatching and Abalone
- Noyo Harbor, at the south end of Fort Bragg, has a commercial fishing fleet and a large complement of sportfishing boats. These boats will take you out on fishing expeditions (salmon, rockfish). During the winter months, the same boats will take you out on whalewatching trips to see the 20,000-strong California Gray Whale migration. The whales come south from Alaska during December and January, and head north again in March and April. When the whales are passing by, it is almost impossible not to see some from the shore.
- Fishing is allowed from the shore in many locations, including the Mendocino Headlands and Navarro Point Preserve.
- Abalone diving is a very popular sport on the coast. Whenever there is a minus tide, every parking spot along the Coast Highway is filled with ab divers. This sport is highly restricted because of the predations of poachers, so be sure to get the proper license and abalone card with tags before you go into the water. Maximum take is 3 per person per day (24 in a year), and all must be tagged immediately upon leaving the water.
Kayaking and Canoeing
There are seven navigable rivers on the coast, as well as the ocean for the adventuresome. Big River is immediately to the south of Mendocino, and you can take canoes or kayaks for many miles (at least 8) up the river. You can also canoe up Noyo River and Ten Mile River. With an ocean-going kayak, there are many interesting features along the coast, such as sea stacks and arches, caves, seal rookeries, and great views.
Practically any of the places mentioned for hiking and biking will grant access to birds. You will find both sea birds and inlands birds here, with ducks, geese, cormorants, blue herons, pelicans, ravens, spotted owls, and more. Some well-known birding spots include: Lake Cleone at MacKerricher SP, which has a boardwalk partially around the lake; Mendocino Headlands; Big River, which has forest and river habitats, as well as several lagunas (home to wood ducks and blue herons) that feed into the river.
Parks and Gardens
The State Park system has 17 properties in Mendocino County alone, as well as many other properties owned by the county, the cities, the Mendocino Land Trust, and others. In addition, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens offers a beautiful collection of indigenous plants. Collectively, the Coast offers an incredible variety of parks and preserves to visit.
North of Fort Bragg, you’ll find the most accessible and the most inaccessible parks on the Coast. In the far north, the Lost Coast was so rugged that the highway builders went inland with Highway One for a long stretch. The area they skirted is called the Lost Coast, and the southern section in Mendocino County is mostly only available with 4WD, and only in the dry season. Ten Mile Beach and Dunes, at the mouth of the Ten Mile River, features a beach and haul road that go south for almost ten miles, through Mackerricher SP on down to Pudding Creek. MacKerricher State Park has miles-long beaches, a lot of campsites, a stocked fishing lake (Lake Cleone), and a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk out to a promontory overlooking the rocks where harbor seals live. The pupping season in April and May is fascinating and photogenic. Glass Beach was the city dump for many years, and all that is left is the finely-tumbled bits of glass (don’t take it, either!). It’s colorful on a sunny day, and a beautiful spot regardless of the weather. The beach was recently added to MacKerricher State Park, and the recently-restored Pudding Creek Trestle is now open to foot and bike traffic. This allows you to walk or bike from Glass Beach for 10 miles north to Ten Mile River without crossing a road.
Between Fort Bragg and Mendocino, you’ll find the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens feature indigenous plants, especially rhododendrons — they have a fabulous collection. Caspar State Beach is a nice pocket beach where you’ll see an occasional surfer. You’ll also find old pilings where the river comes down to the ocean, remnants of the Caspar Logging Company. Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park has a restored lighthouse with a third-order Fresnel lens. This is a wonderful location from which to spot whales, since they seem to consistently come very close to shore. Russian Gulch State Park features a beautiful headlands area by the ocean, complete with a blowhole. As you head inland by bike or foot, you’ll find a waterfall out in the redwood forest. Mendocino Headlands State Park surrounds the village of Mendocino, which is itself a National Historic Preservation District. The headlands have foot paths all the way around, connecting up with Portuguese Beach and Big River State Beach at the south end of town. It’s a great spot for walking by the ocean, whalewatching, and finding wildflowers. At the north end of the Headlands, you can see the Point Cabrillo Light Station. The Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park was intended to be a separate park, but budget constraints caused it to be attached to the existing Headlands park unit for now. This park unit contains 7000 acres of the Big River watershed, with a great gravel road following the river for many miles. You can walk the road with your dogs, or take a mountain bike out for many miles into the Jackson Forest.
Heading south from Mendocino, Chapman Point and the Spring Ranch Headlands Preserve features a pleasant walk along headlands, with postcard views of Mendocino from across the bay. It is also a popular spot for abalone divers. This preserve connects up with Van Damme State Park at Little River. Van Damme State Park has an excellent beach here where many kayaks and abalone divers set out, and a campground within the park. The park follows Little River inland into the redwood-filled Fern Canyon. There’s also a boardwalk through a section of pygmy forest, where the hardpan traps water just under the surface. Oxygen-starved plants grow slowly — along the boardwalk, you’ll find 100-year-old pine trees that are only a foot tall. This boardwalk is located several miles away from the ocean; you can drive right to it. Navarro Point Preserve (day use only) is on the bluffs overlooking a huge expanse of ocean. Make sure you have a windbreaker here – the wind never stops! This is a popular spot for abalone divers and other fishermen.
Activities for Kids
Most of the outdoor activities mentioned above are good for kids, too. In addition, there are some other things specifically aimed at children. Find out more here on DestinationMendocino.com.
One favorite activity for kids and adults is riding the Skunk Train, the historic train that takes you along the Noyo River into the redwood forest. Although it no longer carries freight or lumber, the Skunk provides a thrilling experience for young and old. Except for the passengers’ high-tech cameras and modern garb, a time traveler from the last century would feel quite at home riding California Western Railroad’s Skunk Train in modern days. The view from the restored rail cars is pretty much unchanged: towering trees, deer drinking from the Noyo River, an isolated fisherman’s cabin peeking from the forest. With occasional whistles as it chugs through tunnels, over bridges and past open meadows, the train follows the coastal “Redwood Route” as it has since 1885.
Winetasting and Wineries
Because the climate of the coastal valleys is perfect for growing grapes, you’ll now find many wineries and tasting rooms on your way to the coast. The main route to Mendocino from inland passes through the Anderson Valley on Highway 128. In addition to the beauty of the oak-lined valley, it is also filled with vineyards and tasting rooms. The stretch from Yorkville to Boonville to Philo to Navarro has the majority of the tasting rooms. For a listing of wineries and tasting rooms, including their hours and addresses, visit our sister site DestinationMendocino.com.
If you want to focus more on the tasting and less on the driving, The Mendocino Hotel boasts an expansive wine list that has received the coveted Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” for the past eleven consecutive years. The Hotel offers premium wine by the glass or bottle including those that are certified organic or biodynamically grown.
The Mendocino Hotel updates its award winning wine list quarterly with premier selections from well known and respected wineries as well as small, boutique wineries off the beaten path with small allocations only available to the finest establishments. Aglow from the soft stained glass lighting and crackling fire from a 200-year-old Dutch fireplace, sit back in a carefully restored antique sofa, view the Pacific Ocean and listen to the sounds of the waves and distant foghorns as you sip your favorite California and Mendocino County wines. And when you experience those wines you just can’t leave without, purchase several or create an eclectic case to take or have shipped home.
There is a lot of history here; the village of Mendocino is a National Historic Preservation District. There are several excellent museums in Mendocino: the Kelley House Museum and the Ford House Visitor Center. Also, the Temple of Kwan Tai is a California Historical Landmark that preserves and displays the legacy of the 19th Century Chinese community. In Fort Bragg, you’ll find the Guest House Museum.
The Kelley House Museum is the repository of the history of Mendocino Village. The museum is located in the historic Kelley House, built in 1861. Among other assets, the Kelley House has over 8000 old photographs of the area dating from the 1860s on. They have been scanning these for some time now, and their Web site has a searchable index of photos. If you are interesting in old logging operations, or coastal life before 1900, this is a rich collection. The museum also offers walking tours of the Mendocino Historic Preservation District.
The Ford House Visitor Center for the Mendocino Headlands State Park is located across the street from Kelley House. The Ford House is packed with information about the area and its history, including a large (10 feet by 10 feet) scale model of the town as it was back in the lumber days. Before 1900, there were buildings on the south side of Main Street, as well as a lumber mill, lumber yards, roads, and a railroad for hauling lumber to the point for shipping. The Ford House is staffed by a great crew of knowledgeable docents, so this is a great place to get your questions about Mendocino answered.
Also located in Mendocino, the Temple of Kwan Ti offers living evidence of Mendocino’s 19th Century Chinese community. Four generations of its founders’ descendants have preserved this original Taoist temple, a site now recognized as California Registered Historic Landmark Number 927. It is located at 45160 Albion Street.
The Guest House Museum is located on Main Street in Fort Bragg. Once a boarding house for lumber people, this beautiful Victorian building is now a museum. This building was a showplace for wood and design work, including stained glass windows. They even have a giant redwood slice (14 feet in circumference) displayed outside the building. The Guest House Museum is also adjacent to the terminal for the historic Skunk Train on Laurel Street.