A Mendocino Coast road trip: outdoors, art, food, wine & history

by Mar 16, 2021California

Mendocino Coast Road Trip Headlands

There is nothing quite like a Mendocino Coast road trip in Northern California. Think picturesque villages, stunning coastline, deep redwood forests, outdoor adventure galore, gourmet food, amazing wineries, lots of history and plenty of art galleries.

No California travel adventure can be without a Mendocino Coast road trip. Mendocino California is only a few hours from San Francisco or Sacramento but takes you worlds away. Think dramatic coastal bluffs, redwood forests, outdoor adventures, gourmet food, top wineries, and loads of California history – all in a remote area sprinkled with tiny towns and expansive views.

One of the original counties created when California became a state in 1850, Mendocino County population centers are not on the coast but farther inland. That leaves the coastal areas and neighboring forests the perfect safe road trip destination with plenty to see and do, plus plenty of room to roam.

The beauty of a Mendocino Coast road trip

Many northern Californians will sink into a dreamy reverie with just the mention of romantic Mendocino. When the valleys are hot, the coast is cool with fingers of fog reaching up into the valleys. When the valleys are cold, the Mendocino coast remains temperate. Indeed, average year-round highs don’t go much above 60 while lows rarely sink below 50. If you want a little more warmth, head out to Anderson Valley, the home of several dozen international-caliber wineries, where summer temperatures may head into the 80s but also don’t go much below 40.

Mendocino Village And Headlands

Mendocino Village snuggles onto a stubby peninsula, hugging right up to the coastal bluffs.

There is indeed something magically romantic about the historic clapboard buildings in Mendocino village – a tiny thumb of a peninsula that surrounds the quaint artists’ colony with water on three sides. At less than a mile long or wide, more than half of the peninsula is actually a protected state park – Mendocino Headlands State Park – that offers coastal bluff walks and sweeping ocean views. A perfect sunset celebration viewpoint – if the fog isn’t creating its own beautiful, mysterious backdrop!

Mendocino Headlands View

Sometimes enjoying the peaceful view from Mendocino Headlands is best with friends.

Aside from Mendocino Headlands, there are literally dozens of other parks, including state parks (such as Hendy Woods in Anderson Valley, MacKerricher north of Fort Bragg, or Van Damme just south of the village), state beaches, national monuments, natural reserves, recreational areas, state forests and state preserves. The active Mendocino Land Trust has also conserved more than 15,000 acres in the county since it began in 1974.

Boardwalk MacKerricher State Park Mendocino

At MacKerricher State Park, a board walk in the main area at the northern end takes you across prairie to a viewing platform.

Getting to the Mendocino coast

Less than four hours from both the San Francisco Bay area or Sacramento, there are a couple of options for getting to the Mendocino Coast. You can head north on Highway 101 and cut over through Anderson Valley from San Francisco – the most popular and quickest route, not to mention allowing the opportunity for wine tasting. If you want to dawdle a bit more, you can head up winding Highway 1 that hugs the spectacular California coastline. Don’t believe the online mapping services that say you will make it along that route in less than five hours! This is not a route to rush, and twisting roads make for slow-going. Plus, you will find lots to stop and enjoy, from ocean views to tiny hamlets along the way.

From Sacramento, the selection of roads will depend on your hurry to get to Mendocino since you can also meander through the Napa and Sonoma Valleys on the way if you are on a wine-tasting tour in California.

From other points south, one choice in routes will take you through the Central Valley and towns like Modesto, Fresno and Visalia. No stops planned? Try Interstate 5. Do you have more time to take in scenery and make stops on your California road trip? Head along Highway 101.

Therese Iknoian Enjoying The Deck And Views From Brewery Gulch I

The back deck at Brewery Gulch Inn affords a sweeping view down onto Smugglers Cove. Head to the deck in good weather for breakfast, a glass of wine, dinner, or just to tuck yourself into a chair with a book.

Where to stay on the Mendocino Coast

Lodging varieties run the gamut from historic inns to luxury hotels to inexpensive chains. The best experience, however, is making your Mendocino Coast adventure more indulgent or even a romantic getaway (it is renowned for that). If there is one thing in which the area specializes, it’s cozy inns, historic bed and breakfasts, or even sweeping ranch escapes. Finer accommodations are the name of the game in Mendocino and the small towns.

Staying in the Mendocino village area means you will have your choice of great inns, including Brewery Gulch Inn (for an intimate experience that includes hot breakfast and light dinners with wine), the Little River Inn now run by the family’s fifth generation (with the coastal area’s only golf course), or the sister properties of Glendeven Inn and Inn at Cobblers Walk with direct access on three sides to parks and ocean. Of course, there are endless bed and breakfasts and small inns right in the village, too.

Many who head to Fort Bragg, just north of the Mendocino Coast village, are looking for less expensive lodging, even chain accommodations. All of that exists. We however would recommend the more off-the-beaten-path Noyo Harbor Inn, a former lumber baron’s home that holds court on the bluff over historic, working Noyo Harbor.

California Coastal Trail Views

Parts of the paved California Coastal Trail are steps from the main road in Fort Bragg, making it popular for walks, runs, skates … or a little ocean viewing.

Outdoors adventure a Mendocino hallmark

With all of those parklands, getting outdoors for a casual stroll, challenging hike, bike ride, or paddle won’t be too difficult. Indeed, Mendocino County specializes in human-powered outdoor adventures.

For example, the Mendocino Headlands State Park trails can give you a great walk or run around the bluffs right from town. In Fort Bragg, however, you can jump on the new section of the California Coastal Trail on your bike, by foot, or even pushing a stroller. That will take you right from town for close to eight miles up the coast without the need to deal with cars or streets, instead taking in sigh-worthy views, spotting wildlife, and enjoying coastal beaches. Another highlight of the area is Van Damme State Park, with its Fern Canyon Trail or Pygmy Forest of stunted trees. Also a part of the state parks is Van Damme Beach, which is a popular morning and evening dog-walking area with direct access and free parking on Highway One.

Skunk Train Railbikes Head Out From The Depot In Fort Bragg

Heading out from the Fort Bragg main station on a Skunk Train railbike tour into the redwoods — masks required during COVID but distance is a given on railbikes!

Also in Fort Bragg is the Skunk Train outpost that now offers a Skunk Train railbiking adventure. Pedal your own two-seater railbike on a guided seven-mile roundtrip journey along the tracks that were the first to be put down by the California Western Railroad in 1885..

A fan of water adventures? Try out Liquid Fusion Kayak’s Noyo Meander (or its other paddle trips led by paddle experts). The Noyo Meander is just what it says: a peaceful, no-experience-needed, all-ages-welcome meander up the Noyo River to spot wildlife and enjoy the flora.

Fern Canyon Trail Mendocino Coast

Fern Canyon Trail in Van Damme State Park — an oasis just steps up from the main parking area. Take a short walk or a much longer hike.

On foot or on a mountain bike, you can take your pick of trails along the coast, following creeks, or up into the hills. The easy hike on a boardwalk through the Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park is a popular destination with its mini trees and interpretative signage. Connect it with a longer walk along the lush Fern Canyon Loop or make it a true adventure by starting in the campground along the Fern Canyon Trail.

Being on the coast, you also have your pick of two lighthouses, both offering trails for hikes or walks on their surrounding lands. Point Cabrillo, a California state historic park (below), is just a few minutes’ drive north from Mendocino Village; it was first illuminated in 1909 and now sits on about 300 acres of land open for exploration. Point Arena Lighthouse, about an hour south of Mendocino, was first built in 1870. It is also surrounded by public lands, part of the California Coastal National Monument, and can be a good spot for whale watching.

Mendocino Coast Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse at sunset. Take in the sweeping Pacific Ocean view.

HITT Tip: If you are heading farther up the coast, another beauty of a lighthouse you’ll want to visit (and it’s very accessible) is Battery Point in Crescent City. You can walk across a spit of land to get to its little rocky outpost – but only at low tide. Check out the non-profit United States Lighthouse Society to find more lighthouses along the California coast.

Another safely distanced outdoor area to put on your Mendocino Coast road trip list is the 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, a non-profit coastal garden founded in 1961. Aside from spectacular groomed gardens (dreamy rhododendrons!), there are also wilder areas plus plenty of bird watching and wildlife sighting. And, if you want more of a walk with superb and definitely uncrowded coastal views, head out the gate in the back southern corner of the main garden onto the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden’s “natural area” to dally along the coastal bluffs and prairie, as well as wind through its Fern Canyon. Take a moment to also discover the pioneer Parrish Family Cemetery on the southern inland side of that area.

Fort Bragg Coast Botanical Gardens

Dining, food and wine in Mendocino

When you have outdoor adventures, then rounding them out with great food and a little wine-tasting is a must, don’t you think? On a road trip up the California coast to a place like Mendocino, fish really must be on the menu since the fishing industry there is huge – get it fresh off the boat! Of course, there are other options, as well as an emphasis on locally sourced and natural foods.

Anderson Valley is a gem of a wine region in Mendocino county, a down-to-earth area that locals call more like “flannel and jeans” compared to the pressed shirts of Napa. The Anderson Valley region area doesn’t have grandiose cellars or amusement park-like attractions, but it does have some of the best wine around that welcomes everyone from casual wine-lovers to true connoisseurs. Farther up the coast above Fort Bragg is the Pacific Star Winery with a breathtaking property that sweeps all the way down to the bluffs; it is just made for a little exploration, birdwatching and enjoying ocean views once you have tasted the wine.

Mendocino Anderson Valley Wine Tasting

Although Anderson Valley’s specialty is Pinot Noir, road-trippers will also find many aromatic whites with an emphasis on Alsatian style varietals. Long-timers include Navarro, Husch and Handley, and some favorite smaller newcomers are Lula, Pennyroyal and Fathers+Daughters. Remember, many of the 40 or so wineries in the area may not have tasting rooms OR only do tastings by appointment or on weekends.

Worked up an appetite by now? We visited Mendocino Country during the COVID-19 pandemic – the area has been very strict about safety including masks and abiding by other regulations – thus we were only able to experience a few restaurants that were open with safe, outdoor experiences. Little River Inn has transformed its outdoor gardens into a tented affair with heat lamps – making for a superb garden experience. Trillium in Mendocino Village also has set up spaced tables in its garden with a tent overhead and heat lamps at every table – we only had takeout during our visits, but the dining area looks wonderful.

Up in Fort Bragg, we highly recommend heading to the Noyo Harbor area for fresh seafood – in a true working harbor atmosphere. The Noyo River Grill satisfied our hankering for a great local dinner experience, but there are others in the harbor area, too. For lunch, take-away, or fish from the counter to cook yourself, try Princess Seafood. Run by local women – with their own fishing boat called, yes, Princess — the service is superb, not to mention the fresh fish. If you want a little spice, try Mayan Fusion for Yucatan-inspired Mexican fare and a huge local following.

Fort Bragg Princess Seafood

For a finer but not fancy experience, head into the Noyo Harbor Inn’s HarborView Bistro and Bar for superb dining as well as brunch. In a warm, safely covered outdoor area with views that can’t be beat. We tried both dinner and a brunch and can’t say enough about Executive Chef Fabrice Jean-Pierre Dubuc, his team, and the atmosphere created.

Heading up to the Mendocino Coast for a road trip won’t disappoint. Remember, the California coast doesn’t end in San Francisco. And if you go farther north than the Bay Area, fewer people really does mean plenty of room to get outdoors and enjoy whatever kind of adventure you seek.

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