Local Getaways: Escape to the Mendocino Coast

Wild trees, wild coast, mellow people.

Local Getaways: Escape to the Mendocino Coast

Mendocino offers a mix of untamed nature, epic coastline, and history.

Photo by W. Galletti/Shutterstock

Drive three hours north of San Francisco and you’ll hit the southern border of Mendocino County, a nearly 4,000-square-mile swath of land comprised of coastal hideaways, off-the-beaten-path winetasting, and all the nature you could possibly need. Mendocino County still feels wild and rugged, much as it might have looked 400 years ago when the Indigenous people of this part of California—the Pomo Indians, the Coast Yuki, and the Coast Miwok—lived, foraged, and fished here.

Framed by the town of Gualala in the south and Piercy in the north, and bookended by the Pacific on the west and Mendocino National Forest to the east, Mendocino County is packed with little hamlets to explore, each with their own flavor. There’s Fort Bragg, a nautical town home to the famous Glass Beach, and Boonville, an excellent base for exploring the wine-filled Anderson Valley, among dozens of others. Smack in the middle of the coast is the town of Mendocino, which is an easy place to position yourself for a weekend—or a week—away.

The town was established in 1852 as a logging community. (In fact, the local mill supplied much of the wood used to build San Francisco in the late 19th century and rebuild it after the 1906 fire.) Mendocino was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, enshrining both the Victorian architecture and its ubiquitous water towers, many of which have been converted to lodgings and shops.

You’ll never see everything in two or three days, but why try? Here’s how to tackle a weekend in Mendocino.

Where to stay in Mendocino

At sunset each evening, visitors at Glendeven can feed the resident llamas and alpacas.

At sunset each evening, visitors at Glendeven can feed the resident llamas and alpacas.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

Some of the best places to stay in Mendocino include:

Glendeven Inn & Lodge

Book now: from $255/night, expedia.com

We love the newly renovated Glendeven Inn & Lodge, a tranquil, sprawling lodge that shares its backyard with Van Damme State Park and keeps a pack of chickens and rescued llamas, plus two new alpacas. A hearty breakfast basket—expect freshly baked pastries and dishes that use freshly laid eggs—is delivered to your door each morning.

Glendeven currently offers a portion of its Forest Bathing package (massages are off the table during COVID): an hour-long nature immersion with a foraging and mushroom specialist, which includes 15 minutes of meditation and a DIY forest tea that will likely feature candy cap mushrooms, a Mendocino specialty.

The grand king room at the JD House in downtown Mendocino offers full ocean views.

The grand king room at the JD House in downtown Mendocino offers full ocean views.

Courtesy of Four Sisters Inn

JD House

Book now: from $150/night, expedia.com

Picture a ship captain’s home with a modern vibe and you’ve got the JD House, a six-room bed-and-breakfast in the heart of town. Choose a room in a water tower or one with a 360-degree view of the Pacific. Breakfast here, too, comes in a basket filled with pastries, a savory dish, and plenty of coffee. JD House is part of Blue Door Inns, which has three unique inns sprinkled throughout the town, should you want to explore other options.

Van Damme State Park

Book now: from $40/night, reservecalifornia.com

To get close to nature, camp at Van Damme State Park, a 1,831-acre park that stretches from the beach back into the redwood forest, with dozens of trails, including one that leads to the Pygmy Forest, a stretch of stunted trees and shrubs.

Creative Airbnbs

For a longer stay, there are several excellent Airbnb properties in and around Mendocino. Sleep in a four-bedroom water tower built from redwood (from $280/night) or a one-bedroom tiny house situated between the redwoods and the Pygmy Forest (from $126/night).

Things to do in Mendocino

Stroll along the moody coastal trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park.

Stroll along the moody coastal trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park.

Photo by Brendan McGuigan/Visit Mendocino

Soak in miles and miles of nature

Hike the 2.5-mile coastal trail that skirts the town in the Mendocino Headlands State Park, dropping down onto Portuguese Beach if the tide is out, and starting in mid-March, watching for the return of the gray whales that call this area home. (Want to get even closer to the mammals? Book a whale-watching tour.)

Also part of the Headlands: Big River Beach, the sandy stretch where the Pacific Ocean meets the 42-mile Big River. From the beach, you can hike a section of the 16-mile trail that parallels the river—keeping an eye out for the playful otters that call it home—or rent a kayak or canoe and paddle up the peaceful estuary.

But wait, there’s more! You’ll find 21 miles of trails in nearby Van Damme State Park—including the 9-mile Fern Canyon Lollapalooza, which covers the park’s best features—and 15 miles of trails in Russian Gulch State Park, two miles north of Mendocino. (The 3.8-mile waterfall loop, which winds past a 36-foot fall, is a highlight in spring.)

At Loot & Lore, the witch is always in.

At Loot & Lore, the witch is always in.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

Wander downtown Mendocino

Mendocino’s petite commercial area is packed with fun shops, B&Bs, and delicious food housed in charming Victorian-era buildings. Browse crystals and “magick”-infused jewelry at the new Loot & Lore, a modern shop in a weathered water tower. Shop Italian wares such as Venetian pottery at My Chic Farmhouse, housed in a former apple shed-slash replica of Mendocino’s Masonic temple. The global vibe continues at the new Study Club, where Finnish dishtowels and Mexican sandals await.

For treats, don’t miss Frankie’s Ice Cream, which specializes in candy cap mushroom ice cream. Book lovers, you’ll find your treats at Gallery Bookshop, which also has an impressive children’s selection, and Main Street Book Shop, a tiny but mighty used book store.

Taste your way through the Anderson Valley, just a 45-minute drive inland.

Taste your way through the Anderson Valley, just a 45-minute drive inland.

Photo by H Roberson Photography/Shutterstock

Take mini road trips

From Mendocino, you can drive in nearly every direction and stumble on something unusual, delicious, and outdoorsy.

Drive 15 minutes north to Fort Bragg to beachcomb at Glass Beach, visit the Point Cabrillo Light Station, or hike the Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail. End the day with fish tacos or kimchi crab cakes at Princess Seafood, run by a team of rad fisherwomen, and a sunset glass of Mendocino pinot gris at Sally Ottoson’s coastal Pacific Star Winery.

Spend an afternoon winetasting in Anderson Valley, 45 minutes inland. Book a bubbly tasting at Roederer Estate, go for sauvignon blanc at Husch Vineyards, and taste a pinot noir flight at Toulouse. Load up on cheese at goat-studded Pennyroyal Farm and consider ordering takeout from the Bewildered Pig to pair with your new bottle friends.

Or head to Point Arena, 50 minutes south. On Wednesday mornings, you can pick up Meyer lemon cruffins, croissants, and bread at Pelican Bread (on weekends, check out the local farmers’ markets and groceries). From Friday through Monday, Izakaya Gama offers a seasonal pop-up featuring nigiri, donburi, and other delights—make sure to order ahead. Or if you plan to hike the new Pelican Bluffs Trail, a 2.2-mile route on a 73-acre preserve, pick up sandwiches from the Elk Store on the way down.

If you take the coastal route in or out of Mendocino, make sure to save time for a stop in the area bordering northern Sonoma County and Mendocino County known as Mendonoma. The region is home to Sea Ranch, the utopian coastal community created in the 1960s (stopping for cinnamon rolls from Twofish Baking on the way in), and its sister town, Gualala, highlights of which include the Gualala Arts Center and Surf Market, a nearly carbon-neutral shop with a bevy of local foods and crafts. (You’ll find Pelican Bread provisions here as well.)

Order casual, but deeply satisfying, takeout from Café Beaujolais.

Order casual, but deeply satisfying, takeout from Café Beaujolais.

Courtesy of Visit Mendocino

Where to eat and drink in Mendocino

Wild Fish: You can’t visit Mendocino without sampling the local catch. And Wild Fish, just five minutes south in Little River, celebrates the bounty in creative and mouth-watering ways. Start with local oysters and finish with a whole rock cod or grilled swordfish topped with a citrus-onion marmalade. There’s a Mendocino County wine pairing for each dish, too.

Trillium Café: Order a picnic box or enjoy an outdoor meal at Trillium, the restaurant attached to a sweet, three-room inn in central Mendocino. California ingredients shine brightly, from the wild-caught fish of the day to the hearty vegetable gnocchi.

Café Beaujolais: You know those meals you’re slightly haunted by, in a good way? Well, I can’t get the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich from Café Beaujolais out of my mind. That may be surprising, given that the restaurant is known for its wood-fired French cuisine, but during COVID, chef Julian Lopez has pivoted to a more casual takeout menu (burgers and pizza) and still manages to deliver a mighty fine experience.

Fog Eater Café: Find vegetarian and vegan fare that even carnivores will enjoy at this colorful spot. Think California fresh crossed with Southern decadence—specialties include fried cauliflower and sorghum waffles for brunch and chickpeas and dumplings for dinner.

MacCallum House Inn: This popular restaurant, part of a 19-room Victorian-era inn, mixes a fantastic cocktail, should you be jonesing for something stronger than wine. But the restaurant is best known for its five-course tasting menu, which rotates seasonally.

Mist Farm Stand: Not exactly a place to eat, but an excellent stop for sparkling local, organic produce. (Keep in mind it’s only open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

How do you get to Mendocino from San Francisco?

Given its remote location, most people drive to the town of Mendocino. From San Francisco, you have two options. You can follow Highway 101 north from San Francisco until you hit Highway 128 W, which you would follow to the coast, driving along Highway 1 for the last 10 miles (a three-hour drive). Or you can travel the scenic route (our preferred mode), tracing Highway 1 along the coast, which takes about five hours.

If you want to charter a private jet, however, there’s a small airport in Little River, California, just two miles south of Mendocino.

>>Next: A Guide to the Ideal Weekend in Big Sur, California

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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