Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens: rhododendrons, ocean views, whales

by Mar 23, 2021California

Mendocino Botanic Garden Groomed Lawn

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg is a hidden and magical destination located on the California Mendocino coast. World-class rhododendrons draw many visitors, as does birding, whale watching, and peaceful garden trails.

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Full of color and delightful discoveries, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg, California, don’t look like much from busy Highway 1. But look beyond the front entrance and you discover a magical world full of bright colors, fascinating sculptures, and moist fern canyons. The 47-acre coastal property also has sweeping views across bluffs with Pacific Ocean waves crashing onto the rocks below. Truly, there are few botanical gardens on earth that can claim to offer whale watching, birdwatching, and world-class plant collections all in one place.

Botanical Gardens Mendocino Entrance

The gardens were founded by Ernest and Betty Schoefer in 1961 who worked to improve the property while preserving its natural beauty. In 1977, private investors acquired the property and created the perennial garden near the entrance, among other changes. Then, in 1982, the California Coastal Conservancy acquired the land, transferred ownership to the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District, and set up the non-profit Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Preservation Corporation to run the gardens.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Trail Signs

Let’s talk colorful blooms and native plants

If there is one thing the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are world famous for, it’s the rhododendrons. This is in large part to the fact California’s northern coast is one of just a few places on earth where every variety of rhododendron will thrive. By the latest count, the property boasts more than 1,000 rhododendrons (with over 124 separate species), all blooming in the gardens during peak season, between April and May each year (although we also found beautiful blooms as early as February).

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Hododendrons

But we’re not stopping at rhododendrons here. Think dahlias, too, a favorite for artists and certainly wedding organizers. The Dahlia Garden bursts into full bloom in mid- to late-summer with over 400 plants. There are also amazing camellias; the botanical gardens have the largest collection of species on the west coast. Add in heathers, magnolias, azaleas, fuchsias, and coastal wildflowers, to name but a few, and most visits promise to be an explosion of color.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Lawn Area

And then there are the native ecosystems, including upland and riparian areas, preserved and managed by the botanical gardens. More than half of the property is dedicated to preserving naturally occurring plant life, including fern canyons, coastal bluffs and closed-cone pine forests, all tied together by natural winding paths (some are not accessible but there are other ways around). You will find small surprises tucked here and there, too, such as mini ravines, a small waterfall, bridges, winding trails, and fern grottos. Children (and adults too) will find those areas magical.

Botanic Garden Coastal Bluffs Trail

Whale watching at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

There are not too many botanical gardens I know that also offer such an amazing opportunity to view migrating whales from the coastline. Think location, location, location as the botanical gardens is perfectly positioned on the Pacific coast. By following the Coastal Bluff Trail past the Cliff House (a small protected hut, below), you end up on the bluffs and wind-swept coastal grasslands where whales and other marine mammals and birds can be spotted throughout the year.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Cliff House View

The viewing is so good, in fact, that the gardens are officially listed on The Whale Trail, a series of sites from Canada’s British Columbia to California where the public can view whales from the shore. Think California gray whales from November to May, humpback whales from April to November, blue whales from June to October and, if you are really lucky, killer whales any time of the year.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Coastal Bluffs

Sculptures add a special touch to the gardens

As you wander the paths throughout the botanical gardens, your eyes will be drawn to sculptures, creatively displayed within various garden settings. The artwork is for sale and rotates in and out every two years. The sculptures primarily feature California artists and are sourced through the Arts Council of Mendocino County.

Mendocino Botanical Gardens Sculpture

Rocky and Takoda (on her shoulder) were rapt when listening to the stories the statue told at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.

Birdwatching is a big attraction year-round

According to the Mendocino Coast chapter of the Audubon Society, there are over 180 species of birds that live in or frequent the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. For birders of all levels, the Audubon leads monthly birdwatching walks every month through the gardens. Check with the botanical garden website for updated times and schedules.

Mendocino Botanic Gardens Entrance Egret

Even at the pond in the parking lot, wildlife can be seen, as with this egret looking for lunch.

Pay a visit to the Parrish family cemetery

Not much more than a few small gravesites with markers, the cemetery area was uncovered when the Schoefers were clearing their property in the ‘60s. They preserved the historic site, which reportedly dates back to the early settlement of the property when David Parrish, a protégé of Luther Burbank, began horticultural research there.

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