2020 was a challenging summer in California with unrelenting heatwaves, skies darkened by the smoke of fires, and that’s without even talking about COVID-19. Our two-day trip to the remote, foggy, and rugged coastline near Mendocino was a welcome change. We found a place for a walk on the beach or a relaxing stay at a historic inn. We walked in the woods and biked in a strange contraption on a railroad. We explored. We sipped. We dined. We loved it.
Table of contents: ()
- The Mendocino Coast
- Getting to the Mendocino Coast
- Anderson Valley
- Mendocino Coast State Parks and other Parks
- Fort Bragg
- Accommodations – Inns Near Mendocino
The Mendocino Coast
The coast of California near Mendocino is one of the most remote and one of the most rugged parts of the California coast. Cooling fog covers it much of the time. It is an area of towering redwoods, rugged cliffs, secluded beaches, abundant rivers, and poor cell coverage. It is a perfect place to social distance.
Getting to the Mendocino Coast
You can’t get to the Mendocino coast by any of California’s major highways. Unless you fly in, expect a winding road. From Santa Rosa to Mendocino, you can take Highway 101 North to Highway 128, which winds its way through the Anderson Valley, or Highway 20, which winds its way from Willits. From Bodega Bay, you can take the even slower Highway 1, which winds its way up the coast. Each will be scenic. Each will be slow.
The first time we drove to Mendocino was with young kids in the back seat, and our son didn’t make the entire length of Highway 128 without getting car sick so bring Bonine if you are prone to car sickness. We drove in via Highway 128 through the Anderson Valley again on our recent trip.
The Anderson Valley is not just a road to enjoy or endure (depending on your love for driving), but a destination itself. The Anderson Valley is known for its farms and wineries. You can stop for fresh Apples in the fall or stop, as we did, at one of the many wineries in the area.
We stopped at the Toulouse Winery for no other reason than we found it on a list of highly-rated wineries, and it was open for tastings on a Wednesday afternoon.
: Some of the better-known wineries have closed for tasting, and many of the others are doing tastings on the weekends only. You will need reservations, and you will need a mask. We had a temperature check as well before entering the outdoor deck.
We would definitely go back to Toulouse. Call to make a reservation and get the gate code when you still have a cell signal. Follow the pictures of geese up the hill. The winery is named for the Toulouse Goose because the owners liked the pun that they had little “Toulouse” in opening a winery. When we told the bartender that night at the Little River Inn that we had stopped there, she agreed that it was one of her favorites and specifically asked if we had tried the rosÃ©. Tried it, liked it, and bought it.
A tasting is $10, but the fee is waived on purchase. I swear that one of their Pinots smelled to me like the Carmel Bay Company and the other like a walk in the woods. That was not what the winery put in the wine’s description. My wife pointed out that as we were tasting on the deck under the redwoods with a commanding view of the valley, everything smelled like a walk in the woods.
Hendy Woods State Park
Speaking of a walk in the woods, we also stopped at Hendy Woods State Park for a walk in the redwoods. On a Wednesday in October, we saw only one other person after we left the parking lot. We took the 1.6-mile Upper Loop Trail because we heard it was more spectacular than the shorter Discovery Loop, but I don’t believe it. The entire hike was a beautiful easy stroll through spectacular scenery. Even the drive in through the park was lovely.
It would not hurt to have a GPS device and a more detailed map from alltrails.com, as the signage was a tad confusing at times.
Mendocino is a bit like the town that time forgot. I am not sure that there is a building in the tiny town that was built in this century, and many that appear to have been built before that last century. The town is filled with inns, restaurants, and touristy shops. You can find shops for vintage clothing, jams and jellies, beads, pottery, and pot.
The visitor center is at the Ford House, which was built by Jerome B. Ford in 1854, who was the superintendent of the local sawmill. He had the house built for his new bride. The house is now a museum of local history.
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino is set on a promontory that juts out into the Pacific. It is, somewhere oddly, set back from cliffs at the end of the peninsula, with the space in between composed of the Mendocino Headlands State Park. In this part of the park, there are hiking paths along the cliffs. The park also includes the Big River beach area just south of the town.
Mendocino Coast State Parks and other Parks
The Mendocino coast is strewn with state parks. Just in the 8 miles between Mendocino and Fort Bragg to the north, you will find Mendocino Headlands State Park, Russian Gulch State Park, Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, Caspar Headlands State Beach, Caspar Headlands State Natural Reserve, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, and further inland Mendocino Woodlands State Park.
Some of these hug the coastline with cliffs, beaches, and sea caves, like the Big River part of the Mendocino Headlands, Van Damme State Park just south of Mendocino, and Russian Gulch State Park follow one of the local rivers inland for walks along the river and in the Redwoods.
One of the nicest beaches in the area that we saw was 10 Mile Beach in Inglenook Fen Ten Mile Dunes Preserve in MacKerricher State Park. 10 Mile Beach is about 7 miles north of Fort Bragg. The area has both a beautiful beach and a large stretch of tall sand dunes between the beach and Highway 1.
The beach is, oddly, only 4 miles long but is named after the 10-mile river, which is 10 miles north of the mouth of the Noyo River. There are a large number of small rivers in the area, and someone was clearly running out of creativity in naming them.
Hiking in Mendocino
For serious hikers, the nearly 25 miles long Lost Coast Trail can be found north of Fort Bragg. This trail is mostly flat and runs along the coast. The area had a boom in the 1800s as logging moved into the region, but it gained the nickname the “lost coast” when it depopulated after the boom in the 1930s. No highways go to this most isolated coast of California.
Fort Bragg is the commercial hub of the area. The city has a few less than 7,000 residents. It has hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, drug stores, and whatever else one would need for everyday living.
The best-known tourist attraction in Fort Bragg is the Skunk Train. This train, officially the California Western Railroad, has been running since 1885. The train runs 30 miles from Fort Bragg through the old-growth redwoods inland to Willits. It crosses over 30 different trestles and through two different tunnels along the way. The train was built originally to haul lumber, mostly redwood logs. The train is popular with families. I remember taking our kids on it when they were little.
The folks at the Skunk Train are continuing to innovate. By 2023 they plan to have a hiking trail along their tracks between Fort Bragg and Willits. The idea is that you can have the train bring a tent and other camping gear and that you can do a multi-day hike carrying no more than a day bag.
In 2019, they introduced a new way to explore the redwoods on a contraption called a railbike. This was one of the highlights of our trip. Two passengers can sit on a bike which is fitted with wheels to ride the same rails as the Skunk Train. I say passengers but a railbike is propelled by you… with an assist from an electric bike motor.
Riding through the railroad crossings and waving at the cars is a trip. The locals are certainly familiar with railbikes, but you have to suspect that more than one tourist is given a “what the hell?” moment.
The railbikes leave from the Skunk Train station in downtown Fort Bragg, and you bike down into a ravine outside of town and then up again over small trestles around curves and into the redwoods. You get to decide how much electric assist you want so you can choose your level of workout.
The trip is 2 hours long, and after about 20 minutes, we were getting a good workout, so we were pleased to find that we biked about 25 minutes into a picnic area and had an hour from there to explore a one-mile loop trail through the redwoods before biking back.
Fort Bragg also has the popular Glass Beach park, which has both cliffs and a popular beach. The area is known for its sea glass because it used to be a coastal dumping site until 1967.
North Coast Brewing Co. Taproom, Restaurant & Bar
We grabbed a quick lunch at the North Coast Brewing Co. Taproom, Restaurant & Bar in town, which was set up with a large tent in the parking lot because of COVID-19. We enjoyed both the BBQ chicken salad we ordered and a cup of their chili. Joan also enjoyed one of their wheat beers.
Accommodations – Inns Near Mendocino
We spent 2 nights on the Mendocino Coast at two very wonderful and very different inns. The Little River Inn was just a bit south of Mendocino, and the Noyo Harbor Inn was in Fort Bragg.
Little River Inn
The historic Little River Inn was built as a private home for the Coombs family in 1853 during the logging boom in the area. It was turned into an Inn by Cora, the granddaughter of the original owner, and her husband Ole. The same family still owns the inn. The on-site bar is still named Ole’s Whale Watch, and the breakfast menu still includes Ole’s Swedish pancakes.
The inn has hosted Hollywood stars over the years who were in the area for some film production. Stars from the 1930s – 1950s like Myrna Loy. Joan Fontaine, Jane Wyman, and Ronald Reagan have all stayed in the inn. One of the deluxe ocean view rooms is named for James Dean, which is ironic because Dean was kicked out of Ole’s Whale Watch for putting his feet on the table.
Given all that history, I was expecting a historic inn, but I was not expecting our room (Abalone 271) to be modern… and well, yes, amazing. It had a gas fireplace, a bathroom where you could set up a reasonably sized bowling alley with a whirlpool and shower, a big-screen LCD, USB ports on the outlets, a NEST thermostat, fast wi-fi, and a deck with 2 Adirondack chairs where you could watch the ocean. My first thought was, darn, I could have stayed here two nights!
We ate dinner at the inn in the garden which was set up with heaters and a tent. I ordered the pulled pork sandwich which had a great tangy taste. My wife had the Seafood Louie Salad with crab and shrimp. dessert was a scrumptious berry cobbler.
Noyo Harbor Inn
I think it is fair to say that I have never had a hotel room before that had one porthole, let alone two, as we did at the Noyo Harbor Inn. I was surprised when we opened the door to the room to find a large whirlpool tub in one corner of the room with a porthole looking out on the Noyo Harbor. The shower in the bathroom also had its own porthole.
The Noyo Harbor sits on a protected bend near the mouth of the Noyo River. The inn sits on top of a peninsula overlooking the harbor. You might think about getting the seafood when you have dinner at their restaurant because it probably came from one of the boats you see below you.
We went to sleep to the sound of sea lions barking in the harbor and woke to the sound of sea bird cries. It was wonderful.
We ate dinner out on the lawn and breakfast on the deck of the inn. Joan did indeed order the seafood, getting the pan-seared scallops and shrimp with saffron risotto, sun-dried tomatoes, and local mushrooms. I ordered the chicken breast marsala with a porcini mushroom sauce, polenta, and local vegetables. Both were delicious, enhanced, I am sure, by the venue.
Joan had a glass of one of the local wines, but I wanted to try one of their signature cocktails from the cocktail menu. I had the very citrus-tasting Sunday’s Best with the house champagne, Luksusowa Polish potato vodka, Tempus Fugit crÃ©me de violette, St. Elder elderflower liqueur, and fresh lemon juice served with a twist of lemon.
Dessert was a difficult choice, but we shared a delicious bread pudding with local berries.
We had a long drive planned on the morning we left and almost opted out of the breakfast. That would have been a mistake… a serious mistake. I had the breakfast burrito, which looked like your normal burrito but was made with braised beef brisket, onion, black beans, rice chorizo, and cheese. A little TapatÃo hot sauce, and it was perfection. Joan had this wonderful french toast served with fresh fruit.
I highly recommend the Little River Inn and Noyo Harbor Inn, but there are numerous other hotels and Airbnbs in the area.
Hear more about Mendocino in this episode of the Amateur Traveler podcast: Travel to Mendocino, California – Amateur Traveler Episode 783
The poor cell coverage and winding roads that lead to Mendocino and the Mendocino coast are part of what is great about this area. This is a place to get away, that feels separated from the day-to-day. Whether you lounge in a historic inn, get a workout on a railbike, hike in the redwoods, or just sit on a beach, the Mendocino coast will be a welcome retreat.
Our stay and our meals at the Little River Inn and the Noyo Harbor Inn were sponsored (paid for) as was our railbike trip. The opinions above, however, are my own.