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Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area

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Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area
Explore a rocky and wild wonderland

This lightly visited area, protecting offshore sea caves filled with honking, squawking, and even neon-colored life, is a terrific destination for kayakers. Don’t have gear? No problem. Kayak Mendocino, a local outfitter, rents everything you need at adjacent Van Damme State Park, and 90-minute guided kayak tours let you get a close-up look at the caves and their resident seals (the honkers), seabirds (the squawkers), and brilliantly colored sea stars (the neon) dotting the rocks. On calm days, consider renting a stand-up paddleboard for a new way to skim across the surface.  

On terra firma, explore 10 miles of trails with such intriguing oddities as the Pygmy Forest, where unique conditions create a woodland scene in miniature, populated by cypress trees as short as six inches (they normally soar to 50 feet or more). For a scene straight out of Jurassic Park, explore the fern-carpeted canyon of Little River. There’s camping at the park, or spoil yourself at Little River Inn, a Victorian-style charmer with cozy rooms and a restaurant featuring fresh, local seafood.

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Northern California

Spotlight: Mendocino

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55
October
Average (°F)
Sept - Nov
65°
High
44°
Low
Dec - Feb
58°
High
40°
Low
Mar - May
62°
High
41°
Low
June - Aug
64°
High
49°
Low

With its dramatic ocean-bluff setting overlooking a steel-blue sea, the coastal hamlet of Mendocino is an obvious magnet for artists, romantics, and lovers of anything wild and untamed. The closest thing to a New England village in California, Mendocino invites you to stroll past tidy saltbox cottages and perfectly manicured Victorians wrapped in roses and picket fences, their wind chimes tinkling in the breeze.

This tucked-away seaside village wasn’t always so charmingly peaceful: during the height of the logging boom in the mid- to late-1800s, Mendocino was a thriving port filled with raucous hotels and saloons. When the timber industry declined in the 1930s, artists and craftspeople moved in, and soon tourism became the main source of commerce.

Now, luxurious B&Bs like the 1882 MacCallum House and the hilltop Joshua Grindle Inn welcome you to curl up by the fire. The town’s few strollable blocks contain more than a dozen top-notch eateries—Café Beaujolais and Trillium Cafe serve local, line-caught seafood, organically grown produce, and free-range meat. Shops and galleries beckon with artwork and one-of-a-kind gifts. Browse Sallie Mac for Parisian trinkets and artisan-made home goods, Gallery Book Shop for beachy reads, and Mendocino Gems for just the right bracelet or ring.

Getting outside in this breathtaking coastal scenery is a must. A string of state parks preserve redwood groves, pristine rivers, wildlife-rich wetlands, and bucolic coastal headlands. Wander through a pygmy forest of miniaturized pines and cypress trees at Van Damme State Park, kayak or paddle an outrigger canoe on Big River at Mendocino Headlands State Park, lounge on the sand beach cove at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, or photograph the historic concrete-arch bridge at Russian Gulch State Park. Wherever you go in Mendocino, you’re in fine company, surrounded by pounding surf, rocky sea stacks, picturesque bluff-tops, and sunsets that seem to go on forever.

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Mendocino Art & Artists

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Mendocino Art & Artists
Watch local artists paint on windy bluffs, or visit them in galleries and studios

When the logging boom petered out, Mendocino began to fade. But in the 1950s, artists began to migrate to the nearly abandoned hamlet, establishing it as an important artist’s community that still thrives, thanks in part to visitors who come to see and buy quality work.

Start exploring the local art scene at Mendocino Art Center, with galleries offering regular shows displaying works by local and national artists. It’s also a vibrant teaching center, offering more than 200 classes a year in everything from fiber arts to sculpture.

Insider's Tip: Enjoy artists reception the second Saturday of each month, and concerts the first Sunday of the month.

A sunset view of the ocean in Mendocino County
Courtesy of Albion River Inn

Lodging & Camping in Mendocino

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Lodging & Camping in Mendocino
Choose between cozy B&Bs, posh seaside lodges, and coastal campgrounds

In search of an ultra-romantic setting? Set your sights on the melt-your-heart places to bed down for the night in and around Mendocino. Victorian-era cottages and mansions now housing lace-and-finery B&Bs abound, offering personal-touch niceties and a homey feel. (At Headlands Inn, snuggle under hand-stitched quilts, then wake up to French toast and coffee.) There are resort-like options too, most notably Little River Inn, which offers on-site golf, tennis, fine dining, gracious gardens, and luxury oceanfront rooms that feature private decks and fireplaces. At the Glendeven Inn & Lodge, guests can choose from several lodging options, from a barn loft to cottages to more modern lodge rooms, and book a variety of restorative massages and treatments. The Inn’s own clucking chickens—which provide all the eggs for visitors’ breakfasts—and roving llamas add to the pastoral charm. 

For an only-in-Mendo twist, consider the treehouse-like Brewery Gulch Inn, where you can start the day with eye-rolling-good breakfasts featuring organic eggs and locally foraged mushrooms. And at the elegant Stanford Inn, an exceptional, earth-friendly experience is evident at every turn, from the organic gardens growing crops for The Ravens, the inn’s award-winning restaurant, to the high-quality and well-maintained bikes and canoes available for guests. Bliss out with massages at the on-site Mendocino Center for Living Well, which also offers eco-minded classes in foraging, yoga, cooking, and gardening.

And for those who want to get back to nature, or just have a different definition of “a room with a view,” consider pitching a tent at private campgrounds dotting the coast (consider Mendocino Grove or Hipcamp if you prefer glamping to camping), or reserve a site just south of town at Van Damme State Park, along the Little River. In search of true solitude? Take advantage of Mendocino National Forest’s permissive dispersed camping policy and pitch a tent in a completely undeveloped setting.

 

An example of one of Mendocino's historic buildings

Mendocino's Historic Architecture

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Mendocino's Historic Architecture
Take a guided tour to learn more about Mendocino’s National Historic Preservation District

You don’t have to know the history behind Mendocino’s charming Victorian-era buildings to appreciate them, but the backstories can enrich any visit. Get oriented at Kelley House Museum, which shares details on how, in the late 1800s, lumberman first moved here and started building homes out of the region’s magnificent coast redwoods. The house itself, built by William Kelley for his family in 1861, contains a rich collection of 19th-century furnishings. Dozens of early photographs capture life in the little town as it began to boom; permanent exhibits include ones on the Pomo, the original Native American inhabitants of the area, as well as a “Then and Now” photo exhibit that compares photographs of the same locations taken one hundred years apart. In the house’s garden, visit the pond that Kelley kept well-stocked so local children could toss in a line and nab a fish. There’s also a store onsite that keeps many books on Mendocino history in stock.

To explore the rest of the town, much of it protected as a National Historic Preservation District (it’s the only town on the California coast to be designated as such), join a 2-hour guided walking tour. These are offered by the Kelley House Museum on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. and are led by docents in period clothing, brimming with insights to share regarding pioneer homes, meeting places, and early businesses of the area. If you prefer to experience an informative tour at your own pace, self-guided audio walking tours are also available via rented Android tablets.

For more information on the Mendocino area, including the annual great migration of gray whales and the history of the logging industry that powered much of the town’s growth, visit the Ford House Museum, which is also home to the town’s visitors’ center.

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Courtesy of Mcallum House

Fresh Seafood & Local Treats

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Fresh Seafood & Local Treats
Where to order the daily catch, and other food finds

Given Mendocino’s Pacific-out-the-window location, it’s little surprise that restaurants here excel in seafood. Salmon, albacore, rock cod, Dungeness crab, and abalone are some of the ocean delicacies you can enjoy at area restaurants, some with dress-up fancy ambiance, others kick-back-with-the-locals relaxed. For a special meal, consider Trillium Cafe for fresh seafood in farm-to-table preparations, (chock-full ling cod bouillabaisse, local wild king salmon with creamy pumpkin seed pesto). The Grey Whale Bar and Cafe, housed within elegant MacCallum House B&B, also features nightly seafood specials.

If you see people walking by with crumbs on their shirts, they’ve probably been to Goodlife Cafe and Bakery, where locals have been known to describe pastries, such as the seasonal huckleberry Danish, as “insanely good.” Wholesome, organic, and fair trad are all buzzwords here.

Insider's Tip: Want a really fresh catch? Consider booking space on a local fishing charter and see what you can snag.

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Over 3,000 types of mushrooms grow in Mendocino County (500 which are edible.)
A North Coast beach
Courtesy of Mendocino CVB

Beaches & Hikes Along the Mendocino Coast

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Beaches & Hikes Along the Mendocino Coast
Discover secret coves, wild dunes, and tide pools

Wind- and water-carved sea stacks, secret coves, tide pools teeming with colorful sea stars and anemones—Mendocino’s coastline beckons with beaches for every kind of explorer. Roughly 15 miles north of Mendocino (and three miles north of Fort Bragg) on Highway 1, MacKerricher State Park beckons with sand dunes, wetlands filled with birds, and long stretches of sand where locals often gallop their horses along the surf line. Heading south toward Mendocino, you’ll come upon Glass Beach, one of California’s most extraordinary finds: polished bits of sea glass fill the beach (look but don’t take).

Closer to town, just north of the historic Point Cabrillo Light Station (also a worthy stop along the coast), follow the 2.5-mile self-guided nature trail in Jug Handle State Reserve. The path there takes you on a remarkable journey through five terraces created by glaciers, waves, and tectonic shifting, each level roughly 100,000 years older than the one below. Start in prairie, then climb through pines to the last level, where you’ll find a unique pygmy forest with trees not much taller than your knees.

"Start in prairie, then climb through pines to the last level, a unique Pygmy Forest with trees not much taller than your knees."

Wrapping the western side of town is Mendocino Headlands State Park, with meandering trails offering dramatic vistas and idyllic views of the village. When the fog retreats from the coast, typically fall through spring, come here for beautiful sunsets, and to look for migrating gray whales. Resist the temptation to head straight for the trails and the crashing surf when visiting the park though—the visitors’ center, located inside the 1854 Ford House, also serves as a museum, with historic photos, tools, and other relics on display. When you do head for the trails, bring an extra layer of clothing, as it can get quite chilly.

Other Mendocino beaches include Caspar Headlands State Reserve and State Beach, where visitors can wander amongst the ruins of the Caspar Lumber Company, which shut down in 1955. Bowling Ball Beach, which is part of Schooner Gulch State Beach, has massive spherical sandstone formations scattered along the water, but you’ll have to get there at low tide to be able to see them. Van Damme State Park, three miles south of town, has the hiking highlight of Fern Canyon Trail as well as beaches, and Portuguese Beach, located in Mendocino Headlands State Park, is accessible via the west end of the town of Mendocino’s Main Street.

 

Wild North Coast

The Skunk Train on California's North Coast
Courtesy of Skunk Train

Skunk Train

Skunk Train
Ride a historic train through soaring coast redwoods

Originally built in 1885 to transport redwood logs from the rugged backcountry to the coast, the Skunk Train now ferries sightseers to and fro between the waterfront town of Fort Bragg inland to the cowboy town of Willits on California’s North Coast. Two journeys are available year-round: the one-hour Pudding Creek Express, which departs from Fort Bragg and covers a 7-mile round trip, and the Wolf Tree Turn, a two-hour trip which departs from Willits and climbs to the highest point in the line (elevation: 1,740 feet) en route to the redwood-dense Noyo River Canyon.

Riding “The Skunk” is a long-standing family tradition for many Californians, with new generations getting wide-eyed and excited when the conductor bellows “All aboard!” Little ones leave nose prints on the windows as Ole’ No. 45 charges through the 1,122-foot tunnel #2, crosses over 30 trestles, and sends clouds of steam skyward. The steam and diesel-powered trains chug through the lush redwood forests of the California Coast Range, zigzagging along the Noyo River—keep your eyes peeled for deer, egrets, and other waterfowl, and the occasional river otter.

Holiday-themed trips include the Easter Express, with an egg hunt hosted by the Easter Bunny at Glen Blair Junction; the fall Pumpkin Express, and the Magical Christmas Train, complete with Santa and other North Pole characters, storytelling, cookies, musicians, and plenty of holiday cheer.

For a completely different but no less unforgettable experience, take a ride on a two-passenger railbike. Powered by two pedaling passengers who sit side-by-side in the open air, you’ll zoom along the rails in tranquil silence on a roughly one-hour round-trip along the Pudding Creek Estuary.

Tickets range from $27 to $53 per adult on the train rides, including the holiday editions; railbike tours are $79 per bike.

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Kodiak Greenwood

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

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Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Mendocino’s lush gardens are a haven for botanists and birders—and kids will love it, too

Rhododendrons as big as wedding bouquets, dahlias in popsicle-bright colors, ferns, fuchsias, succulents—it seems like the list of what doesn’t grow (and grow well) at this lush preserve must be shorter than what does flourish here. Walk among diverse plantings of perennials, trees, and shrubs—including many natives. Springtime—of course—is especially beautiful.

This is also a great spot for birding (some 150 species frequent the property), so bring binoculars for close-up views. If you’re traveling with kids, there’s one special feathered friend that will pique their interest: Quincy the Quail. Pick up a Quail Trail Guide at the park entrance so the kids can learn about Quincy and follow his hints for finding 17 quail markers along the stroller-friendly paths. The silly scavenger hunt, created by a longtime volunteer with 11 grandchildren, takes you through a eucalyptus forest, past a bush that’s a home for hummingbirds, and down to a secret fairy village where kids can make fairy houses with petals, sticks, and stones.

Master gardeners and other experts teach assorted workshops throughout the year; check the calendar of events to see if something catches your eye and matches your schedule. During the winter holidays, come see the gardens sparkle during the Festival of Lights (late November to mid-December).

November

Winter rains signal the beginning of the North Coast’s astounding mushroom season. Celebrate the harvest of one of the region’s most loved bounties—and a few other products of the libation variety...

Chefs at work at Feast Mendocino
Brendan McGuigan
The North Coast region of California
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Harriot Manley/ Sunset Publishing

Mendocino Whale Watching

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Mendocino Whale Watching
"Thar she blows" along the Mendocino Coast

Each year, November through April, California gray whales make their annual migration from feeding grounds in Alaska south to mate and have babies in the warm coastal lagoons of Baja, Mexico. Along the way, the whales do a swim-by off the Mendocino Coast, offering an unforgettable chance to see the leviathans spouting, breaching, and diving as they make their epic journey south.

"Book a spot on a whale-watching charter, or, if you’re feeling adventurous and waters are calm, rent kayaks."

High vantage points along the coast are good spots to spot whales, particularly on calm mornings. Favorite spots near town include coastal trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park, and at Point Arena Lighthouse. For a closer look, book a spot on a whale-watching charter, or, if you’re feeling adventurous and waters are calm, rent kayaks.

Whales are such big news here that they even get there own fleet of festivals, with the towns of Mendocino, Little River, and Fort Bragg all hosting special events, including walks, talks, and special boat charters, in March.

February - March

California’s North Coast is a hot spot for whale watching any time of year, but your chances for spotting the giants are best during the annual northern migration (typically March through May) as...

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Prayitno/Flickr
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Mendocino County has the most acreage of certified organic vineyards in the country.
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jalbertgagnier/Flickr

Mendocino Wine Country

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Mendocino Wine Country
Discover secret wineries surrounded by redwoods

Get ready for one of California’s prettiest—and least crowded—areas to sip and swirl. Known for ocean-cooled climates ranging from rolling coastal hills to vineyards wrapped with towering coast redwoods, the Mendocino County wine region is not only beautiful, it’s cutting edge too. The area is home to some of the state’s most progressive winemakers, who perfect organic sustainable techniques in their boutique vineyards.

In fact, Mendocino County has the most acreage of certified organic vineyards in the country. See what it’s all about at Frey Vineyards, America’s first maker of certified biodynamic wines—they even say they are vegan and gluten-free. (Frey was one of the few California wineries to sustain heavy damage during the wildfires of 2017, including its tasting room. The winery plans to resume production in November, and then construct a new winery building, which had already been planned for another site, in Redwood Valley.)

For a bonanza of award-winning Mendocino County wines, head inland on Highway 128. In the vineyards surrounding tiny Philo, have your pick of varietals: Gewürztraminer at Handley Cellars or Navarro Vineyards, or Pinot Noir at Husch. Be sure to stop at charming Boonville General Store in Boonville to pick up local cheeses and other artisanal foods for a picnic to go with your bottles.

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Tai Power Seeff

Point Arena Light House

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Point Arena Light House
Climb up the tallest lighthouse on the coast

Climb to the top of this 115-foot/35-meter tower, squint, and look really, really hard across the sea. Can’t see Hawaii? Probably not: the island chain is 2,353 miles/3741 kilometers southwest across the briny blue. But if you could see the 50th state from anywhere in the U.S., it would probably be here at this isolated point, which is the closest piece of land to the Hawaiian Islands in the Continental U.S.

"For a truly unique experience, book a stay in one of the Point Arena Light Station historic keeper’s homes, especially if it’s a stormy coastal night."

To learn more about this remote outpost and the significance of the light station—and how it works—join a guided tour; awesome nighttime tours are also scheduled periodically. There’s also a small museum on site. And, for a truly unique experience, book a stay in one of the Point Arena Light Station historic keeper’s homes, especially if it’s a stormy coastal night. You’ll get a real sense of why this light station is such an important beacon along this wild coast.