MENDOCINO COAST, CALIFORNIA — Rambling for 100 miles along the wild and rugged Pacific Ocean, California’s Mendocino Coast is a show-off, flaunting wildlife, waves, wilderness, and wine. The region is California casual, home to artists, farmers, and naturalists.
Pacific headlands shelter hidden coves with secret beaches. The Noyo River snakes through a natural harbor, crossing the Rough Bar before entering the Pacific. Meadows and open grasslands give way to forests of conifers, deciduous trees, and shrubs. And everywhere there is wildlife. Marine mammals, birds, land mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
In small towns, residents are warm and welcoming, local businesses thrive, and fresh, locally sourced food is common. Open vistas of wild, unspoiled nature and the Mediterranean climate are captivating. The Mendocino Coast is ideal for an ‘unplug and occupy nature’ getaway.
1. Golf With Whales at Little River Inn
The Mendocino Coast’s only full-service resort, Little River Inn has an ocean-view golf course. Whales can be observed during their two seasonal migrations from the links.
The 5,458-yard, 9-hole golf course is surrounded by redwoods with openings to the west for whale watching. The beautiful course is Audubon Certified. Play golf and tennis on-site.
The Little River Inn is the ideal place to set up your basecamp on the Mendocino Coast. Since the first house on the property was built in 1853, the property has been owned and operated by the same family.
Spacious rooms, suites, and cottages are available with sunset balconies, fireplaces, and soaking tubs. An award-winning, full-service restaurant and bar host a mini-museum and art gallery. In the Whale Watch Bar are photos and artifacts from the family and property. The restaurant displays work from local artists.
Five-star chef Marc Dym creates seasonal and local delights for dinner each evening. Ask for an ocean-view table in the restaurant for more whale viewing.
Little River Inn is on California State Route 1 in Little River, just south of Mendocino.
2. Investigate Noyo Harbor
The Noyo River enters the Pacific at Fort Bragg. San Francisco and Eureka are not connected by a deep-water port other than Noyo Harbor. It’s one of the last small working harbors on the California coast.
Docks and piers, fishing vessels, seafood markets, and packing sheds fuse with historic lodging, eateries, outfitters, and charter boats. On the water, paddle the Noyo River or venture into the open Pacific. Party boats go into open water for fishing as well as whale and sunset watching.
On foot, wander the docks, watch the catch of the day as it’s unloaded, eat seafood, and drink wine. Try a moveable feast. Have one course at a seafood eatery, then move on to another. From appetizers to after-dinner drinks, you can sample at least four places.
Noyo Harbor is on the Noyo River in Fort Bragg. Turn right on the north side of Noyo Bridge.
3. Walk the Mendocino Coast
California Coastal Trail traces the same path as Mendocino Coast‘s coastal trails along the Pacific Ocean.
Known also as the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail and the Noyo Headlands Trail, the Ka-Kahle Coastal Trail connects with the Haul Road Trail, which leads north to MacKerricher State Park.
Plan to spend some time at the Noyo Center for Marine Science along the Ka-Kahle Trail. The NCMS is dedicated to research and education to protect the coast’s natural resources.
4. Paddle Big River on Mendocino Coast
At one time the Big River was used to float redwood trees to coastal mills. Now it’s protected by California State Parks Department and Mendocino Land Trust.
Explore by kayak or canoe. Kingfishers will lead you up-river. You’ll see turtles on logs and otters along the banks and in the water. Ravens soar, osprey hunt, and birdsong echoes in the forest.
Water and bike gear, plus trail and river advice, are available from Catch-A-Canoe and Bicycles Too. Their docks are available free of charge.
The Big River is south of Mendocino. The entrance to the recreational area is on the northeast side of the Big River Bridge.
5. Pedal a Logging Road on Big River Trail
The Big River Trail is 10 miles one way. In logging times, it was called a haul road. It was used to bring trees from the forest and move equipment. The trail follows the Big River from the beach and into a forest of conifers and deciduous trees. The trail goes from easy to moderate and eventually becomes a footpath with significant elevation gains.
Along the track, you’ll spot historical logging remains, conifer forest, birds, seals, otters, deer, fox, skunks, raccoons, and squirrels.
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6. Build Something on the Mendocino Coast
Now you see them, now you don’t. Some are tall and stately; others are short and round. All are charmingly temporary. I’m referring to driftwood structures that beachgoers build on our beaches, and high tides take away.
Walk a Mendocino Coast beach, and you’ll spot a sculpture, shelter, or maybe a bench-log used near a fire ring. People have utilized what washes up on the shore to shelter and warm themselves for an exceptionally long time.
There are many beaches with lots of driftwood. The most popular is Big River Beach. It is one of the most utilized driftwood beaches on the coast. It’s part of Mendocino Headlands State Park. After a high tide, you will see lots of people assembling their unique art and ingenious shelters on a sunny day.
7. Watch the Sunrise With Giraffes
Climb in a vintage touring jeep with a guide and explore the savanna-like grasslands of B. Bryan Preserve. Zebra, giraffe, and antelope are plentiful at the sanctuary. You’ll be eye-to-eye with Rothschild giraffes in their specially-built barn with viewing loft. Rothchilds are the tallest of all giraffes and the tallest land animal on earth. Their quiet grace is enchanting.
The 110-acre breeding and conservation preserve is for African hoof stock. Get to know Rothschild giraffes, roan, sable, and greater kudu antelope. Grevy’s and Hartmann’s mountain zebra are also residents.
Tours of the preserve are a good way to see and learn about the animals. I think the best way is to rent one of the beautifully eclectic and hand-built lakeside cottages. Watch sunset and sunrise with giraffe, zebra, and antelope.
Learn more about the animals, the preserve, the cottage rentals, and make reservations at B Bryan Preserve.
8. Go to the Lights on the Mendocino Coast
The Mendocino Coast has two historic and working light stations. Point Cabrillo Light Station is four miles south of Mendocino. Point Cabrillo is a State Historic Park. The restored lightkeeper’s homes are available as vacation rentals. Tours are available, or you can explore the ocean-front property on your own.
Point Arena Lighthouse is 4.5 miles north of Point Arena. The tallest lighthouse on the Pacific Coast celebrates its 150th year in 2020. Refurbished lightkeeper’s cottages are offered here for visitors. Take a tour or delve into their 23-acre outdoor museum, illuminating history, and nature in a magnificent setting.
Warning: this is one of the windiest places on the coast. If you’re wearing a hat, use a chin strap or it will be gone.
9. Ride a Skunk
Fort Bragg’s Skunk Train is a delightful way for you to experience the Redwood Line and the magnificent redwoods along Pudding Creek Estuary.
Pedal-powered railbikes go from Fort Bragg to Glen Blair Junction and return.
The leisurely seven-mile roundtrip journey takes about an hour and is suitable for riders of all levels, couples, families, and groups. The railbikes have a motor if the grade on the return to Fort Bragg gets a little tough. Our shuttles come with comfortable seats, a helmet, and a basket for storing your camera, pack, or water.
From the Fort Bragg depot, you can also take the Pudding Creek Express along the same route as the railbikes. Enclosed and open cars are accessible. Outside in the open-air observation car, passengers watch the scenery pass while listening to the conductor’s narration of Skunk Train and logging history. Inside the dining and bar car, adults enjoy cocktails, wine, or beer. Hot and cold soft drinks, popcorn, and snacks are offered. Learn more and make reservations at Skunk Train.
10. Kayak Sea Caves on the Mendocino Coast
Van Damm Beach is a popular launching spot for kayakers. Vendors in the parking lot rent equipment and conduct tours to the numerous sea caves off the beach.
Van Damm Beach is part of Van Damm State Park. It’s 3.5 miles south of Mendocino.
11. Forest Bathe in Redwoods, Ferns, & Waterfalls
Discover a forest bathing nirvana in the Redwood and fern canyons of Van Damme State Park.
You’ll encounter massive redwoods, alders, wild berries, Douglas fir, masses of sword ferns, wildflowers, mushrooms, and mosses. Waterfalls, quiet pools, and creeks add to the forest soundtrack.
Wildlife is plentiful. Raven calls echo through the woodlands. Wooden bridges cross creeks. Redwoods tower over the air, releasing a woody scent. Sit or stand quietly and you’ll hear their whispers. At the trail’s end, there’s a picnic area where you can forest bathe for hours.
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Getting There – You’ll need a car on the Mendocino Coast, although some folks traverse the Coastal Mountains and serpentine coast highway on bicycles. It’s a three-hour drive north from San Francisco or south from Eureka. Drive U.S. Route 101 to Willits, then turn west on State Route 20. Route 20 dead-ends into CA Highway 1 on the coast.
The Mendocino Coast is for escaping. Unplug, unwind, and take a walk on the wild side.