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A Mendocino Meander

Mendocino County is one of California’s most fetching treasures,

and a drive up its rugged Pacific coastline is one of North America’s memorable road trips. Here, majestic redwood forests march to the crests of steep cliffs that overlook unspoiled beaches. Somehow, the overdevelopment that swallowed other California coastal communities
missed Mendocino. 


The scenery along Highway One is nothing short of breathtaking. After coursing through Napa and Sonoma counties, it enters Mendocino County 154 miles north of San Francisco — four to five hours’ drive via the coastal route, or about three hours via inland U.S. Highway 101.  This is where Martha’s Vineyard gentility meets California sustainability, and indeed, there’s something for everyone. 


Mendocino brims with outdoor adventures, highlighted by dramatic cliffside hikes on manicured trails that link lofty lighthouses with pebbly beaches. As Highway One glides silently through tiny towns and languid fishing villages, it passes dozens of unique and enchanting Victorian inns. Many stand side-by-side with exquisite Michelin-starred restaurants thath serve farm-to-table California cusine from local organic farms.


The eponymous town of Mendocino offers delightful hand-crafted shopping finds. And the nearby, under-the-radar Anderson Valley wine region (think Napa in the ‘90s) has become famous for its cabernet sauvignons and other vintages, including pinot noir.


Pursuits and Exploits

The coast’s small population hubs — Mendocino Village and Fort Bragg — each are worthy of hours of exploration.Meander the streets of Mendocino or take a leisurely walk from downtown, along cliffside trails leading to Big River Beach in Mendocino Headlands State Park. The 19th-century Ford House serves as a local history and art museum and doubles as the visitor information center.


Underrated Fort Bragg, the biggest town on the Mendocino coast, is a 15-minute drive north. Once a hardy lumber town, it was previously a military garrison. At Glass Beach, a rainbow of colored sea glass washes up on the shore. Seafood restaurants adjoin the fish market at Noyo Harbor, one of California’s last traditional fishing. In July, it hosts the World’s Largest Salmon BBQ.


Fort Bragg is home to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, one of only a few oceanfront botanical gardens in the United States. A two-hour stroll through 47 tranquil acres of manicured flora reveal a dense coastal pine forest, including colorful fuchsias, magnolias, rhododendrons, succulents and dahlias. All roads lead to the spellbinding rocky coastline.


An excellent way to see old-growth redwood groves is to ride the famous Skunk Train or take rail bikes along Pudding Creek. The pristine forests have remained mostly unchanged since the 19th century, when loggers joined to expand their timber operations. 


Four miles north of Mendocino, the highlight of Point Cabrillo Light Station State Park is the impressive 1909 Point Cabrillo light, now fully restored. A half-mile trail from the parking lot also leads to three original keepers’ houses and other structures. These are now for rent as historical inns, ideal for those who want to get the full Mendocino coast experience. A museum chronicles the light
station’s inception.


The often-overlooked Anderson Valley Wine County stretches along Highway 128 for 15 miles, from the craggy coastal cliffs to rolling hill country. The coolest of California’s many wine regions, it comprises 90 vineyards and 62 low-key wineries revered for their terroir. Boutique wineries include Lula Cellars, Fathers+Daughters Cellars and Navarro Vineyards. Gowan Heirloom Ciders features cider tastings.


Outdoor & CULINARY Adventure

Mendocino’s vast open spaces make it an ideal location for hiking. There are miles of coastal trails, some with Pacific views, and longer paths that reach deep into the redwood forests. The region’s temperate climate makes it an ideal destination in most months. 


Should your visit be between November and February, plan to do some whale watching. Along the Mendocino coast, the odds are excellent that you will spot gray, humpback and/or sperm whales traveling south from Alaska en route to Mexican waters. Whale festivals, held in March, celebrate the migration.


Chow Down

Mendocino County cuisine is creative and refined, yet not stodgy. Serving both farm-to-table and fresh catch-of-the-day specials, its chefs are inspired by the unpretentious, coastal timberland surroundings, the fertile terrain juxtaposed by the sea. 

Review overview

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