Mendocino County is one of California’s most fetching treasures, and a drive up its rugged Pacific coastline is one of North America’s memorable road trips. Here, majestic redwood forests march to the crests of steep cliffs that overlook unspoiled beaches. Somehow, the overdevelopment that swallowed other coastal California communities missed Mendocino.
The scenery along Highway One is nothing short of breathtaking. After coursing through Napa and Sonoma counties, it enters Mendocino County 154 miles north of San Francisco — a four-to-five-hour drive via the coastal route, or about three hours via inland U.S. Highway 101. This is where Martha’s Vineyard gentility meets California sustainability, and indeed, there’s something for everyone.
Mendocino brims with outdoor adventures, highlighted by dramatic cliffside hikes on manicured trails that link lofty lighthouses with pebbly beaches. As Highway One glides silently through tiny towns and languid fishing villages, it passes dozens of unique and enchanting Victorian inns. Many stand side-by-side with exquisite Michelin-starred restaurants that serve farm-to-table California cuisine from local organic farms.
The eponymous town of Mendocino offers delightful hand-crafted shopping finds. The nearby, under-the-radar Anderson Valley wine region (think Napa in the ’90s) has become famous for its Cabernet Sauvignons and other vintages, including Pinot Noir.
A favorite place to stay is the Victorian-style Little River Inn, in the same family since it was built as a dwelling in 1853. Today, fifth-generation innkeeper Cally Dym works together with her executive-chef husband Marc in managing the family business. Renovated from home to inn in 1939, the pet-friendly property now has 66 units (all with full or partial ocean views) of many styles, including the premier, seaside Mallory House cottages.
As you stroll the garden paths, you can almost feel the presence of actor James Dean, who stayed there in 1954 while filming East of Eden. Sip cocktails at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, then slip into Marc’s restaurant for such plates as braised short ribs, cioppino, Thai-inspired rock cod, and pan-roasted halibut.
The historic, wood-shingled Brewery Gulch Inn was built in 2001 with redwoods salvaged from the adjacent Big River. A massive, custom-built, metal-and-glass fireplace is its centerpiece, towering windows affording sweeping views of Smuggler’s Cove. Eleven faux-rustic rooms take their names from the flora and fauna of the region: Redwood, Pine, Pelican, Heron, and Manzanita, to name a few. Breakfast is made to order; an afternoon happy hour features local craft brews and wine, followed by a light dinner, such as chicken curry with coconut rice.
The Elk Cove Inn & Spa relishes its striking slot in the hamlet of Elk (population 200) on the hilly Mendocino coastline. This exquisite bed and breakfast — romantic, luxurious, and remote — dates back to 1883, when its Craftsman-style quarters were built. Spa suites were added more recently. Oceanfront cottages display understated elegance, with cathedral ceilings and massive picture windows upon a small beach and gigantic rock. Breakfast is delivered to the room each morning. A trail winds down to the beach from a gazebo. Passionate innkeepers Victor Passalacqua, the chef, and his wife, Melissa Boon, the sommelier, serve a daily revolving menu of coastal cuisine at the inn’s Sibo restaurant. Many of the ingredients are sourced from an on-property greenhouse.
Pursuits and Exploits
The coast’s small population hubs — Mendocino Village and Fort Bragg — are each worthy of hours of exploration. Begin with a cup of morning coffee at Goodlife Cafe & Bakery. Then meander the streets of Mendocino or take a leisurely walk from downtown, along cliffside trails leading to Big River Beach in Mendocino Headlands State Park. The 19th-century Ford House serves as a local history and art museum and doubles as the visitor information center.
Underrated Fort Bragg, the biggest town on the Mendocino coast, is a 15-minute drive north. Once a hardy lumber town, it was previously a military garrison. At Glass Beach, a rainbow of colored sea glass washes up on the shore. Seafood restaurants adjoin the fish market at Noyo Harbor, one of California’s last traditional fishing. In July, it hosts the World’s Largest Salmon BBQ.
Fort Bragg is home to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, one of only a few oceanfront botanical gardens in the United States. A two-hour stroll through 47 tranquil acres of manicured flora reveals a dense coastal pine forest, including colorful fuchsias, magnolias, rhododendrons, succulents, and dahlias. All roads lead to the spellbinding rocky coastline.
An excellent way to see old-growth redwood groves is to ride the famous Skunk Train or take rail bikes along Pudding Creek. The pristine forests have remained mostly unchanged since the 19th Century when loggers joined to expand their timber operations. More adventurous visitors can take a two-hour guided tour on electric-powered, custom-built, two-person rail bikes, following the track of the Skunk Train.
Four miles north of Mendocino, the highlight of Point Cabrillo Light Station State Park is the impressive 1909 Point Cabrillo light, now fully restored. A half-mile trail from the parking lot also leads to three original keepers’ houses and other structures. These are now for rent as historical inns, ideal for those who want to get the full Mendocino coast experience. A museum chronicles the light station’s inception.
The often-overlooked Anderson Valley Wine County stretches along Highway 128 for 15 miles, from the craggy coastal cliffs to rolling hill country. The coolest of California’s many wine regions, it comprises 90 vineyards and 62 low-key wineries revered for their terroir. Boutique wineries include Lula Cellars, Fathers+Daughters Cellars, and Navarro Vineyards. Gowan Heirloom Ciders features cider tastings.
Mendocino’s vast open spaces make it an ideal location for hiking. There are miles of coastal trails, some with Pacific views, and longer paths that reach deep into the redwood forests. The region’s temperate climate makes it an ideal destination in most months.
Mendocino Headland Trail is an accessible four-mile roundtrip for viewing tide pools and marine birds. Jug Handle Ecological Trail is five miles long with a gradual 300-foot climb. Van Damme State Park has excellent coastal hiking on its Spring Ranch property two miles south of Mendocino Village. Its Fern Canyon hike along Little River is a narrow but paved and wheelchair-accessible trail. The Big River Trail follows Big River Estuary on its north side; it’s 11 miles long and beautiful, with a very mild elevation gain.
Big River Estuary, surrounded by soaring redwoods, provides kayakers, canoes, and stand-up paddlers with effortless adventures. At 8.3 miles in length, this is California’s second-longest tidal estuary. Catch A Canoe and Bicycles Too, located on the river below the Stanford Inn, offers a choice of guided adventures. A highlight is meandering the calm waterway in a redwood outrigger.
Should your visit be between November and February, plan to do some whale watching. Along the Mendocino coast, the odds are excellent that you will spot gray, humpback, and/or sperm whales traveling south from Alaska en route to Mexican waters. Whale festivals, held in March, celebrate the migration.
Mendocino County cuisine is creative and refined, yet not stodgy. Serving both farm-to-table and fresh catch-of-the-day specials, its chefs are inspired by the unpretentious, coastal timberland surroundings, and the fertile terrain juxtaposed by the sea.
In Mendocino Village, palate-pleasing restaurants include the MacCallum House, Trillium Cafe & Inn, and longtime standout Cafe Beaujolais, all serving modern California favorites. For a laidback bar food experience, locals visit Patterson’s Pub for evening libations. Goodlife Cafe & Bakery is well worth the wait for breakfast and pastries.
In Fort Bragg, Mayan Fusion serves Yucatan-inspired Mexican dishes. In Noyo Harbor, watch boats going out to the sea from the docks of one of California’s few remaining small fishing villages. Noyo Fish Company and Princess Seafood Market serve fresh fish or shrimp and chips, lobster bisque, and sashimi.