Wild and diverse, Mendocino County in California could be appreciated as a quick getaway from San Francisco or as an extended, epic summer road trip. At nearly 4,000 square miles, the county is bigger than Delaware. The area’s three defining landscapes are coastline, redwood forest and wine country.
Along the Coast
A portion of scenic Highway 1 leads drivers along the Mendocino shoreline. Point Arena-Stornetta coastal preserve, protected as the newest portion of the California Coastal National Monument, lies near the starting point. These two miles of untouched coastline contain hiking paths, picnic spots, the Point Arena Lighthouse and prime spots for whale and seal spotting. At nearby Bowling Ball Beach, low tide reveals spherical sandstone formations millions of years in the making.
Halfway up the Mendocino coast is the artsy town of Mendocino with a population of less than 1,000. Stroll the bluff-top coastal trails running parallel to its downtown and go inland to browse the shops and galleries. Unwind with an artisanal cocktail at the Victorian-era MacCallum House’s bar or stop for fish and chips at Patterson’s Pub, which locals consider the best in the county. Just below Mendocino, the Brewery Gulch Inn overlooks Mendocino Bay. It’s where guests might linger for a day or even a weekend, lounging and reading by a fireplace or in a rough-hewn Adirondack-style chair on the back lawn. The complimentary, made-to-order breakfast and wine hour buffet are served in the cozy lobby with vaulted, reclaimed-redwood ceilings.
Rent a kayak or canoe to get up close to the wildlife on the lazy 8.3-mile Big River estuary, which flows into the Pacific just south of town.
Continue up the coast to the little city of Fort Bragg, home to the only coastal botanical garden on this continent, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Wind through 47 acres of forest, canyons and bluffs where rhododendrons, camellias, dahlias, magnolias, succulents, begonias and conifers flourish. In town, order a homemade candy cap mushroom cone at Cowlick’s Ice Cream.
On the city’s headlands, follow the new Noyo Headlands Fort Bragg Coastal Trailloop, going from rugged ridge tops with majestic views down to sandy beaches. The property was blocked from the public for the more than 100 years that it was used as a lumber mill site.
Into the Redwoods
If you’ve dreamed of wandering among California’s famous soaring ancient redwood trees, head inland toward Mendocino’s wilderness.
Deep in the Coast Range at remote Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve are some of the world’s oldest living things. A two-mile loop takes hikers through lush fern forests to grove after grove of coast redwoods that survived both wildfires and the 1800s logging frenzy. For a longer walk, follow the three miles of the shady and scenic Shakota Trail on Lake Mendocino’s western shore, alternating between looking up to spot bald eagles and gazing down to appreciate the abundant wildflowers.
The California Western Railroad, nicknamed the “Skunk Train,” carries passengers on the same Redwood Route from Fort Bragg inland to Willits that it’s followed since 1885. The train got its name in the 1920s from the powerful fumes produced by its motorcars, fueled by gasoline and heated with crude oil.
Ukiah is Mendocino’s largest town, but its population only clocks in at 16,000. The rich surrounding farmland supports small organic operations, and Mendocino Brewing Company runs a large-scale facility in town—taste the local fruit at the Ale House. Named for the number of Buddhas in its temple, the community known as City of Ten Thousand Buddhas welcomes visitors to its vegetarian cafe and gardens. Experience Ukiah’s legacy of hydrotherapy at the natural springs hidden in its redwood forests. Day passes are available for soaking in the carbonated, alkaline waters of Vichy Springs Resort.
Down in the Valley
Highway 128 twists through Anderson Valley wine country, tunneling through old-growth redwoods, passing rolling vineyards and green hills dotted with grazing sheep and faded barns. The valley is so isolated that starting in the 1800s, one of its towns developed its own linguistic jargon called Boontling.
At the unassuming Lula Cellars, you’ll likely be greeted by Honey the dog and served by her human, tasting room manager Dan Reed.
At Roederer Estate, the French Champagne house marking Louis Roederer’s foray into California sparkling wine, savor a tasting on a patio overlooking the manicured grounds. Pinot drinkers should stop at Toulouse Vineyards &Winery, semi-hidden in the forest despite its highway location.
On a hot day, you’ll find locals at the Hendy Woods State Park swimming hole and cars parked along the highway often signal an unmarked swimming spot nearby.