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Mendocino is one of northern California’s most charming coastal towns, located about three hours north of San Francisco and boasts a striking natural beauty reminiscent of the Emerald Isle. It’s also the only one on the California coast designated as a historical landmark. Established in the 1850s, you’ll find magnificent Victorian buildings along with saltbox cottages with art galleries, antique shops, eateries and all sorts of independent boutiques in between. While you’re here, be sure to put some of these things to do on your itinerary.
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Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is just north of town and south of Fort Bragg, set across 47 oceanfront acres that include canyons, wetlands, coastal bluffs, a pine forest and of course, a wide variety of plant and floral collections. Visitors can walk through the path that winds through colorful flowers leading to a dramatic cliff where a park bench overlooks the ocean. An especially romantic spot, it’s ideal for stealing a kiss – or even getting married with ceremonies held on the bluff and other spots throughout the gardens.
Situated at the north edge of Fort Bragg in MacKerricher State Park, just minutes from Mendocino, is Glass Beach, a colorful beach that many California residents have never even heard of, though the word has been getting out in recent years. It’s made up of hundreds of thousands of small, smooth, colored pieces of “sea glass.” The site was once the home of the city dump, where from the late 1800s through the 1960s, people tossed their trash. Over the years since, the pounding waves cleaned up the beach, breaking down everything but glass and pottery, resulting in those intriguing tiny pieces that cover it today.
Searching through tide pools is so fascinating, one could easily spend hours doing it. Peer inside the little pools between the rocks at any of the beaches in the area and you’re likely to see creatures like sea anemones, brightly colored orange, pink and purple star fish, hermit crabs, and so much more. Gaze out at the Pacific and there’s a good chance there will be some sea lions and sea otters splashing around too. If you’re really lucky, you may see a few whale spouts too.
Mendocino Wine Country is arguably California’s prettiest wine destination. It also happens to be one of the least crowded and home to some of the state’s most progressive winemakers, many of whom perfect organic sustainable techniques in boutique vineyards. Mendocino County has the most acreage of certified organic vineyards in the entire nation. You can check out some of the best at Frey Vineyards, the first maker of certified biodynamic wines in the U.S., and enjoy tasting your way through Anderson Valley, including places like the Standish Wine Company, where the tasting room is an old apple dryer set high up in the trees like a fort. At the vineyards surrounding the tiny town of Philo, you can enjoy sipping Gewürztraminer at Handley Cellars or Navarro Vineyards as well as Pinot Noir at Husch.
There are practically an endless number of lodging options, including multiple high-end, luxurious accommodations. But if you’re on a budget and don’t want to camp out, try the Pine Beach Inn. It’s situated between Fort Brag and Mendocino, right on the coast. The small motel has its own private beach and cove, as well as pet friendly rooms so that you don’t have to leave your dog at home. Take the short walk down to the sand, build a roaring fire and watch the sunset as you relax with the sand between your toes.
Mendocino Headlands State Park surrounds the village of Mendocino on three sides, creating a scene that looks like a painting with a breathtakingly rugged coastline, secluded coves and beaches, and trails that wind through wildflower-filled meadows. Hiking to the cliff edge you’ll be mesmerized by the stunning views of rock arches and hidden grottoes. In the winter, you’ll have the chance to see the migration of grey whales from an exceptional vantage point. The headlands draw many photographers and artists who try to capture the magic found here. If you want to find out more, check out the Visitors Center for the Mendocino Headlands State Park, located in the Historic Ford House on Mendocino’s Main Street.
Van Damme State Park is a 1,831-acre park located just outside of Mendocino near the tiny town of Little River. On the inland side, it hosts multiple hiking trails that wind along the Little River, along with some amazing campsites. On the ocean side of the park is Little River beach, which is a launch point for kayaks. You can bring your own to explore the coast, or sign up for a kayak tour with some bringing paddlers to the sea caves nearby.
Noyo Harbor in nearby Fort Bragg is filled with eateries that are right on the harbor offering spectacular views and tasty meals. Nestled into the forested hills at the south end of Fort Bragg closer to Mendocino, you might recall seeing actress Goldie Hawn and actor Kurt Russell sailing out of the harbor at the end of the popular film “Overboard,” – the same movie the screen couple ended up connecting in real life and are still together today. The harbor is also a great starting point for a day out on the ocean, with multiple tours and charters available here, including fishing, whale watching and kayaking.