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 18 miles north of the town of Mendocino (and six miles north of Fort Bragg), the wild stretch of rugged, unspoiled coastline known as Ten Mile Beach offers visitors outstanding wildlife-watching, thanks to its three preserves and one of California’s least developed estuaries. Three miles south of there 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. Continue 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.
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.