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10 Surprising Things to do on the Mendocino Coast
Much to do on the Mendocino Coast
Story and Photography by Mary Charlebois
Horses, cattle, sheep, goats and llamas graze along the Pacific headlands. Below the bluffs, hidden coves with concealed beaches appear and vanish with the shifting tides. Open grass and meadowlands give way to woodlands and redwood forest. Farms dot the coastal hills. And everywhere, wildlife scurries to and from earthen hideaways. From sea to air, nature explodes.
The Mendocino coast is sparsely populated. Small towns, welcoming locals, hole-in-the-wall businesses, outdoor life, artist studios, performing arts, organic wine, and fresh, locally sourced food are the way of life here. Open vistas of unspoiled nature nurtured by the Mediterranean climate are captivating. Much of the coastal lands are state, federal or county parks and preserves.
Over 100 miles of coastline stretches across the west side of Mendocino County. Most of the land is remote, skirted by CA Hwy 1 and inhabited only by Mother Nature. It’s said you come here for wildlife, waves, wilderness and wine and you return for the people. On the Mendocino coast, you’ll unplug, unwind and slow down. There’s lots to do at your own pace.
Getting to the Coast
From Hwy 101 in Willits, turn west on Hwy 20. Wind over the California Coastal Mountains through redwood and conifer forest. Forests and parks along the way provide picnicking, hiking, equestrian trails and camping.
Hwy 20 ends at the Pacific Ocean on CA Hwy 1 in Fort Bragg. Once a hub for logging and fishing industries, Fort Bragg is still the largest community on the Mendocino coast with over 7,000 residents.
Row Noyo Harbor, the Hub of Maritime Life
Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor is one of the last small working harbors active on the north coast. Locally caught seafood is available in harbor restaurants and seafood markets. Watch fishing boats unloading, harbor seals in the river, ravens gliding on thermals and vessels of all sizes heading in and out of the Pacific.
Charter boats are available for fishing, whale watching and sunsets. For a down-low and up-close view of harbor life, a canoe or kayak is the way to go. Rental equipment and gear are available at various harbor outfitters.
Noyo Headlands Park and Fort Bragg Coastal Trail is a spectacular place to explore. The ADA-accessible paved trail is an intimate way to experience the rugged, wild coast, its many habitats, inhabitants and thought-provoking historical sites. Open from dawn till dusk, and accessible to all feet and wheels, enter the trail at the west end of Elm Street in Fort Bragg. There you will find parking, water and restrooms. This trail is part of the 1,200-mile California Coastal Trail.
Unwind in a Redwood Forest
Untouched redwood forest and more than 30 train trestles cross rivers and creeks that may only be seen from the Skunk Train. By traveling tracks first laid in 1885, you’ll pass through Redwood forest, meadows and estuaries. The photo and video opportunities are matchless. Enjoy open-air seating, inside seating and a snack bar. The Skunk Train has daily trips; some include music and a BBQ in the Redwoods.
Investigate 7,400 Acres of Big River State Park
Purchased for public lands in 2002, Big River State Park (the Big River watershed), was the site of logging operations for over 100-years. Now protected, local citizens are restoring fish, wildlife and habitat. Thanks to their efforts, salmon, redwoods and conifer forests will return and thrive.
Big River Beach is a popular driftwood sculpture area on the Pacific. Gather, build, photograph and leave behind for others to admire your creation before high tide wipes the canvas clean for the next artist.
TIP: The local business, Catch a Canoe and Bicycles Too, provides wind-powered, people-powered and solar-powered transportation options. Rent a bike, kayak, canoe or outrigger for exploring.
Let Lights Shine
Mendocino coast has two lighthouses; Point Cabrillo Light Station, between Mendocino and Caspar, and Point Arena Lighthouse, just north of Point Arena. Each are fully restored and in use.
Point Cabrillo holds docent-led tours that detail the light station’s history, equipment, local plants, birds and whales. Stay in one of the four houses once used by light station attendants. Built in 1909, the head lightkeeper’s house has an enclosed “watch porch” for viewing headland and ocean wildlife.
In addition to guided tours, Point Arena Lighthouse hosts overnight guests in the light keeper’s quarters. This location is one of the best whale watching spots on the northern California coast. An annual gray whale migration begins in late November and continues through May. Humpbacks are spotted throughout the year. Pods of orcas and blue whales may also occasionally pass by.
Stroll a Garden by the Sea
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is one of the few botanical gardens with ocean front. The 47 acres include canyons, wetlands, coastal bluffs and forest. The gardens are known for rhododendrons and tender plants that thrive in the coast’s climate. Open year-round, the botanical gardens are a superb whale watching and picnic spot. Numerous festivals and events are held in the gardens throughout the year.
Meet a Giraffe
There’s a bit of Africa on the Mendocino Coast. Climb in a canvas-covered touring jeep and explore the pastures of B Bryan Preserve. View zebra, giraffe and antelope. Stand eye-to-eye with Rothschild Giraffes in their specially built barn. From a loft, you can look the tallest of all giraffes in the eye.
B Bryan Preserve is a 110-acre breeding and conservation reserve for African hoofstock, including Roan, Sable and Greater Kudu antelope, and Grevy’s and Hartmann’s Mountain zebra.
The Rothschild Giraffes are stately kings of the preserve. Close to extension in the African wild, BBP's group of male giraffes are involved in breeding programs internationally. All the preserve’s species are endangered or critically endangered due to poaching and habitat loss.
Tours of the preserve are a wonderful way to see and learn about African animals. The best way to immerse yourself in this special place is by renting one of the three lakeside cabins and watch the sunset with a giraffe.
Art & Music
Visual and performing arts thrive on the Mendocino coast. Visit the Mendocino Art Center and stroll the sculpture gardens and the galleries. Attend a play at the theater or join a drop-in open studio. Music of every genre is performed in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, community centers and concert halls. A calendar of entertainment and special events can be found in Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Packet, a regional publication covering entertainment, festivals, food and shopping on the coast. It’s free and on newsstands everywhere.
Mendocino County has at least one festival per month, some months have one every weekend. Festivals celebrate whales, crab, abalone, mushrooms, wine, beer, music, ukuleles, rhododendrons, Paul Bunyan, film and so much more. Something is always being celebrated on the coast.
Sleep and Eat
Mendocino coast offers every style of lodging from camping on the beach, to luxury inns and vacation rentals. One of the area’s greenest accommodations is located on the edge of Big River Estuary. Mendocino’s Stanford Inn by the Sea, is a pioneer of sustainability among North American inns. Their restaurant, Raven’s, is an award-winning eatery, serving plant-based, ethical and sustainable meals. The enormous organic garden influences the menu daily and provides fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs year-round.
There are countless things to do on the coast. Come to unplug, unwind and watch the surf, or take a sea cave tour by kayak. Rejuvenate at a spa or free-dive for abalone. Cook like a local in an ocean front vacation rental or seaside campsite. Find your inner wildlife photographer and capture sunsets. You’ll have lots to do, or blissfully, nothing to do at all.