You’ll have no problem finding fun things to do in Mendocino, California. Anybody I have bumped into since visiting Mendocino exclaims “I love that place.” That’s how I feel about it too. For a small village with a population of just 849, Mendocino and the surrounding area offers an incredibly diverse range of things to do in a spectacular setting. And getting to Mendocino is part of the fun.
Mendocino, well-known for its delightful bed and breakfasts, picturesque saltbox houses, and locally run eateries offers everything from scenic coastal walks to beautiful paddling to magical redwood forest. Just outside of Mendocino there are state parks to explore, rivers to paddle and wineries to visit. Here’s a taste of what I did over the better part of three days.
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Getting to Mendocino
There’s a good chance you’ll be driving north from San Francisco to Mendocino. You could take Highway 101 part of the way there, but it’s a whole lot more interesting to drive Highway 1 along the coast.
Considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world, you may have difficulty making good time with all the possible stops along the way. From San Francisco Airport – without stops – it’s a 3 hour and 45 minute drive. I’d say allow a day so you get into holiday mode.
Location map of things to do in Mendocino
The best time to visit Mendocino
With it’s coastal location, temperatures in Mendocino are pleasant year round. In the summer, expect daytime high temperatures to be in the 60’s, and 50’s come the winter.
We visited in fall – and ran into sunny days without any fog. This is actually the warmest time of year to experience Mendocino. Winters can be wet, so don’t forget your rain coat. Spring is beautiful with lots of green in the hills along with wildflowers. Expect summer to be the foggiest time to visit Mendocino, but with luck it will burn off by noon.
Explore Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino itself is small and easy to explore on foot. Although it’s loaded with cute shops and art galleries, it’s also only a few minutes walk away from Mendocino Headlands State Park.
Here you’ll find one accessible beach and miles of cliff-side walking trails. With its spectacular coastline featuring sea arches, hidden grottos, and plenty of bird life, you’d have no problem spending an hour or two.
Paddle the Big River Estuary
John and I spent one afternoon in an outrigger paddling the Big River Estuary, just minutes away from downtown Mendocino. Catch a Canoe and Bicycles Too offers kayaks, canoes, outriggers and bicycles though there was no time to explore nearby trails.
They encouraged us to take out a tandem outrigger though normally we’re partial to single kayaks. We both found it to be a fun way to explore the estuary. They’re extremely stable and the larger ones are ideal for large family groups and novice paddlers – at least under these river conditions.
If you have the time, it’s possible to paddle a total of 16.6 miles – but the Big River is tidal and if the tides aren’t working in your favour, it can be a lot of work. We got as far as the 5 mile mark – and had to turn around so we’d be back to the rental shop before they closed.
It took us three hours at a leisurely pace with lots of photography stops to paddle a total of 10 miles. Highlights apart from the sheer peacefulness once you got inland a mile were the playful harbour seals in one section, a fine lot of seabirds and remnants of man-made structures related to the logging history of the river.
Hike in Russian Gulch State Park
The Devil’s Punch Bowl, a collapsed sea cave that gets pounded with waves, was the initial reason I wanted to visit Russian Gulch State Park. But then we discovered a couple of hiking trails – going in opposite directions to two different headlands.
They both offered big drama with magnificent views of a very rugged coastline. Allow a few hours so you can take in all viewpoints along both trails.
You can’t beat wine tasting in the Anderson Valley
It may not be Napa but the Anderson Valley offers some incredible wines – especially Pinot Noir. And their wine-tasting experiences over the 25 – 30 wineries in the Boonville area are a whole lot of fun.
We visited two wineries – Lichen Estate, an organic winery that plants vines on a metre by metre spacing (a rare planting method used by the Grand Cru wineries of Burgundy and Champagne) and Phillips Hill – housed in a beautiful, old apple drying barn.
After sampling at least a half dozen wines at each winery, we walked away with two bottles – and wishing our bags had room for more.
Walk among the redwoods in Hendy Woods State Park
It was a rainy day but we didn’t let that stop us from visiting Hendy Woods State Park. Within spitting distance of wine country, it’s well worth a stop. We had the place to ourselves as we wandered through grove after grove of magnificent coastal redwoods – in a state of awe.
Explore the Point Arena – Stornetta Public Lands
I wrote about the Stornetta Public Lands in another post. As one of the units of the California Coastal National Monument, try not to miss a quick trip here – if nothing else but to experience this section of rugged coastline. If your timing is right, the birds and the sea life can be fantastic. You could easily spend a few hours here hiking and taking in the abundant nature.
Check out the Fort Bragg sea glass beach
Drive 13 miles north of Mendocino to MacKerricher State Park, just outside of Fort Bragg. Head for Glass Beach, and look for beautiful pieces of sand and wave-washed glass – but don’t take any home with you.
The sea glass was formed over time because the coastline near the northern part of the town was used as a dumping ground for years. The property was purchased by California State Parks in 2002 and eventually incorporated into the state park.
Visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are just a 10 minute drive north up the highway from Mendocino. If your timing is right you could enjoy a docent led walk of their plant collections. They have conifer, camellia, dahlia, heather, and heritage rose garden collections to give you examples of what you might see.
As a passionate gardener I know I would love a visit here.
Check out Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
Located halfway between Fort Bragg and Mendocino, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve offers nature walks in forests and along the beach.
The 5.0 mile out and back hike on the Ecological Staircase Trail is a standout from the geological perspective. The state park describes the trail as “three wave-cut terraces formed by the continental glaciers, rising seas, and tectonic plates that built the Coast Range. Few places on earth display a more complete record of how geology, soils, and plants change over time.”
Where to eat in Mendocino
We ate out the entire time while we were in Mendocino. For breakfast I highly recommend Flow – not so much for the food which was fine but not memorable – but for the view of the coast. You can’t beat it.
Lunch was on the fly both days but dinner one night at Café Beaujolais was a treat. Located in an old yellow farmhouse with a long history, the menu is a mix of French and Californian. I started with local Dungeness crab cakes and Asian slaw followed by the catch of the day – a piece of fresh halibut that was divine. John and I split a piece of coconut cream pie to finish the meal. Don’t miss this place if you’re in the area.
On another night we ate at the bar of The Little River Inn. The food was average but the ambiance and the views were excellent – and there was lots of local wine to try.
Where to stay in Mendocino
John and I stayed at The Andiron Seaside Inn and Cabins – about a 10 minute drive from Mendocino. Although the cabins aren’t fancy or even luxurious they are unique and clean – and each cabin comes with a theme.
Ours was called “curious” which suited us well. Inside the cabin were binoculars, a telescope, loads of bird and field guides as well as puzzles and games. There’s a fridge, small stove and microwave so you can cook if you want. Outside there are a couple of chairs (though there is some highway noise at times) and on the property itself you can feed a couple of goats and relax in a very private hot tub. I’d happily stay here again.
Mendocino offers the full spectrum of accommodation choices – from camping to the very luxurious Inn at Newport Ranch. Your budget will be the deciding factor.
For a bed and breakfast that’s just a 5 minute walk to Mendocino Bay beach choose the Headlands Inn Bed & Breakfast. Or pick the highly rated Agate Cove Inn and enjoy beautiful gardens.
Brewery Gulch Inn, rated superb, would also be a fine choice.
I think Mendocino is a remarkable village with so much to offer the visitor in a very small area. If you love the California coast – and you want something wilder and less crowded than southern California, then this is a great area to visit.
Further reading on California
- A Visit to Catalina Island – A World Away From LA
- Hiking in Palm Springs: The Three Must Do Hikes
- Mariposa California – Gateway to Yosemite
- A Hike to Escondido Falls in Malibu, California
- What to Do in Death Valley National Park
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Thank you to Visit Mendocino County for providing some of the experiences and the delightful accommodation. I highly recommend a visit!