With its dramatic ocean-bluff setting overlooking to a steel-blue sea, this coastal hamlet 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 lets you stroll past tidy saltbox cottages wrapped in roses and picket fences, wind chimes tinkling in the breeze.
This tucked-away village wasn’t always so charmingly peaceful: during the height of the logging boom in the mid- to late-1800s, Mendocino bustled with people and commerce, a thriving port filled with lively hotels and saloons. Now, luxurious B&Bs welcome you to curl up by the fire; restaurants serve just-caught seafood and local organic wines, and galleries beckon with artwork and quality handcrafts. Festivals abound, often celebrating the region’s bounty, be it sweet Dungeness crab, craft beers, or wild mushrooms in winter.
Originally built in 1885 to transport redwood logs from the rugged countryside to the coast, the Skunk Train now ferries sightseers to and fro between the waterfront town of Fort Bragg and 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 11.5-kilometre round trip, and the Wolf Tree Turn, a two-hour trip which departs from Willits and climbs to the highest point on the line (elevation 530 metres) 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 342-metre tunnel no. 2, crosses over 30 wooden trestle bridges 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.
Seasonal trips include the Easter Express, with an egg hunt hosted by the Easter Bunny at Glen Blair Junction; the autumn Pumpkin Express; and the Magical Christmas Train, complete with Santa and other North Pole characters, storytelling, biscuits, musicians and plenty of Christmas cheer.
For a completely different but no less unforgettable experience, enjoy a ride on a two-passenger railbike. Powered by two pedalling 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 seasonal versions; railbike tours are $79 per bike.
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 centre, 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.
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, with luxury oceanfront rooms with private decks and fireplaces, golf, tennis, fine dining, and gracious gardens. 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 elegant Stanford Inn, a high-quality, earth-friendly experience is evident at every turn, from the organic gardens growing crops for The Ravens, the inn’s award-winning restaurant, to quality 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, or reserve a site just south of town at Van Damme State Park, along the Little River.
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 19-century furnishings. Dozens of early photographs capture life in the little town as it began to boom. 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.
To explore the rest of the town, much of it protected as a National Historic Preservation District, join a 2-hour guided walking tour (offered on weekends by Kelley House Musuem); docents share insights on pioneer homes, meeting places, and early businesses (self-guided audio walking tours are also available for Android users).
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.
Wind- and water-carved sea stacks, secret coves, tide pools teeming with colourful sea stars and anemones—Mendocino’s coastline beckons with beaches for every kind of explorer. Roughly 15 miles/24 kilometres north of Mendocino (and 3 miles/5 kilometres 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/4-km self-guided nature trail in Jug Handle State Reserve. The path that 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, 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.
Rhododendrons as big as wedding bouquets, dahlias in popsicle-bright colours, 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.
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).
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. Favourite 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.
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.
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, sip Pinot Noir at Husch. Be sure to stop at charming Mosswood Market in Boonville to pick up local cheeses and other artisanal foods for a picnic to go with your bottles.
Climb to the top of this 115-foot/35-metre tower, squint, and look really, really hard across the sea. Can’t see Hawaii? Probably not: the island chain is 2,353 miles/3741 kilometres 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.