A gray whale off California's coast spotted during the Mendocino Whale Fest
Michele W/Flickr

FEBRUARY - MARCH

Mendocino Whale Festival

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 they head back to Alaska. Thankfully, Mendocino Coast Whale Festivals bring more to the table than just an opportunity to stare at the ocean, waiting to see a spout or a fluke. All three annual March celebrations, which take place on concurrent weekends in the villages of Mendocino, Little River, and Fort Bragg, are timed to coincide with the annual gray whale migration to maximize your chances of a successful sighting. But each town also has offerings worth a visit no matter how many of the massive mammals you manage to lay eyes on.  

The first on the calendar is the Mendocino Whale Festival in actual Mendocino village. Mendocino Headlands State Park provides the perfect vantage point from which to spot whales, and before or after you can taste wines as you explore the village. Many participating shops and galleries will keep your Mendo Whale wine glass topped off with the area’s finest varietals, and over a dozen wineries will also be represented at the wine tasting held at the Ford House Museum. There is also a chowder tasting and competition, and a beer tasting featuring brews form North Coast Brewing Company, both at Crown Hall, a historic building in the heart of Mendocino that dates to 1901.

The next weekend, Little River pulls out all the stops for its turn at the Mendocino Whale Festival series, the Little River Whale Festival. Take a free docent tour from Van Damme Visitor Center to see Van Damme State Park, which includes Fern Canyon Trail; along the trail, you can fish for abalone, launch a kayak into a protected cove, or simply explore the forest. Other activities include art exhibits, a docent-led whale-watch walk, a guided kayak sea-cave tour, and a bloody mary and bacon competition.

On the last weekend, the Fort Bragg Whale Festival welcomes visitors to whale watch from the many dramatic vantage points that are part of the Coastal Trail. They also throw a spirited chowder competition, held in Fort Bragg’s Masonic Hall, with local chefs seeing who can whip up the best version. Wine and beer-tastings are held there as well.