Heading to the Golden State for some sun and sea? Be sure to spend some time in the alluring coastal town of Mendocino. Developed during the redwood logging industry boom in the mid-1800s, the scenic headland village is a designated Historic Preservation District with oodles of charm. From historic architecture and art galleries to coastal hikes and beautiful beaches, discover all the fun things to do in Mendocino, California, with this complete guide!
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Mendocino Headlands State Park
There’s no better way to start your Mendocino itinerary than to immerse yourself in the area’s natural beauty at Mendocino Headlands State Park. Scenic trails wind along the edge of towering cliffs and offer spectacular views of secluded beaches and hidden grottos. Waves crash against rugged rock arches while pods of grey whales splash and play as they migrate south during the winter.
No matter what season you visit, Mendocino Headlands State Park always delivers. From carpets of vibrant wildflowers in the spring to the warm, rusty hues of the fall foliage, you’ll see nature at its finest here.
Visit the official Visitor’s Center for the park before heading out. Located in the Historic Ford House on Mendocino’s Main Street, the center offers information and maps for the park. You can also learn about the history of Mendocino through interesting artifacts found in the area.
Big River Beach
Head to the stunning Big River Beach for some seaside fun with the family. Located at the base of the cliffs below Mendocino, this iconic beach is the spot where the Big River meets the Pacific Ocean.
The sprawling, sandy beach is perfect for sunbathing, swimming, beachcombing, or picnicking. Big River Beach is one of the most popular beaches on the coast but is fairly crowd-free. You might find you have the beach all to yourself!
Big River Beach is part of the Mendocino Headlands State Park and a State Marine Conservation Area. Besides lounging on the beach, you can also enjoy canoeing around the ever-changing estuary.
Follow the inland trail along the riverbank on foot or bike, or climb to the bluff above the beach for spectacular views. Big River Beach also has some amazing driftwood logs that make for fantastic photographs.
Ford House Museum
Delve into the history of Mendocino with a visit to the Ford House Museum. Based on Main Street, this historic home was built in 1854 for lumber industry magnate Jerome B. Ford. The businessman was a central figure in the early development of Mendocino.
Get transported back to the 1800s as you wander around the exhibits at the Ford House Museum. Marvel at a model replica of the city circa 1890s and learn about life in Mendocino from a century ago. Fascinating displays of artifacts and objects detail the history of the coastal village and the townsfolk that made it their home.
The Ford House Museum also acts as the Mendocino Visitor Center. You’ll find a wealth of information about the town, including things to see & do, local events, and seasonal attractions.
Watch some interesting videos of the early 20th-century steam whistle logging industry and the migration of gray whales. The For House Museum also runs whale-watching walks during March when the mammals are migrating past the headland.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Museum
If you love the stories behind charming old lighthouses, make a turn at the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Museum. Based on a gusty headland in the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, the working light station dates to the early 1900s.
Several beautifully restored historic buildings surround the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Wander around the grounds and see the Lightkeeper homes and a blacksmith and carpentry shop. Learn about the indigenous Pomo tribe that’s lived in the area for over 12,000 years. Enjoy a fascinating marine science exhibit with a 240-gallon saltwater aquarium.
When you’re done exploring the buildings, take a walk along the bluffs for some breathtaking views of Cabrillo Point and Frolic Cove Beach. Watch out for pods of migrating grey whales in March.
Want to experience something truly unique on your visit? Spend a night in one of the lightkeeper’s cottages!
Mendocino Headlands Trail
Savor fresh air and soak up some stunning views with a hike along the Mendocino Headlands Trail. Winding along the bluffs of dramatic coastal cliffs, this scenic three-mile out-and-back trail boasts unbelievable coastal vistas.
The Mendocino Headlands Trail is considered easy for hikers of all skill levels. Dogs are allowed on a leash, too. It’s a popular spot for birders, so be sure to take your binoculars along if you’re a twitcher.
You’ll see towering cliffs, crashing waves, secluded beaches strewn with driftwood, and plenty of ocean. Keep an eye out for migrating grey whales during the season, along with super pods of dolphins and flocks of seabirds.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Take a moment’s respite and wander around the beautiful and tranquil Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. With its amazing array of gardens, you’ll be transported into a magical world of flora from around the planet.
Established in 1961 by nurseryman Ernest Schoefer, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are located on the North Highway in Fort Bragg. Meander along winding pathways through coastal and marine zone gardens, a camellia garden, a closed-cone pine forest, and a Mediterranean Garden.
Marvel at the incredible collection of hybrid rhododendrons that bloom year-round. If you love vibrant Begonias and Fuschias, don’t miss the Mae E. Lauer Display House.
If you’re visiting between the end of November and mid-December, be sure to get tickets for the spectacular Festival of Lights held in the gardens!
Russian Gulch State Park
Named in honor of the Russian fur trappers who founded Fort Ross, Russian Gulch State Park is home to some of the most dramatic coastlines in Northern California. Take a day to visit this incredible park off the Pacific Coast Highway to explore the rugged coastline and the forests to the east.
Start your Russian Gulch State Park adventure on the headlands and marvel at the famous Devil’s Punchbowl. Measuring 100 feet across and 60 feet deep, the flower and plant-lined blow hole blasts the surging tide into the sky at high tide. It’s a breathtaking sight!
Hike inland through the lush and virulently verdant Fern Canyon to see a spectacular 36-foot-tall cascading waterfall. Take a moment and imagine you’re on the set of Jurassic Park.
If you want to explore on foot, bike, or horseback, over 30 miles of trails wind their way through the park. You can also go swimming, canoeing, kayaking, and scuba diving here. Pack a picnic basket and relax over lunch in one of the many pretty picnic spots dotted around the park.
Van Damme State Park
Another outdoor lovers’ paradise, Van Damme State Park offers a ton of recreational activities to enjoy in beautiful surroundings. Based at the mouth of the Little River, Van Damme State Park has shaded fern canyon hiking trails, redwood forest campgrounds, and protected diving spots.
Start with a hike on the popular 2.5-mile Fern Canyon Scenic Trail. You’ll amble along the lush banks of Little River under a thick canopy of trees deep into the canyon. Take a dip in the protected cove, where you’ll find beginner divers and sea-cave explorers. You can also explore the sea cave by canoe or kayak.
Spend a few nights in the park at the Highland Meadows Campground. It’s got great sites and facilities with easy access to a lovely beach.
You could also book one of the nine hike-in campsites along the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail for a real adventure.
Pomo Bluffs Park
Venture out of Mendocino for the day and head north to Pomo Bluffs Park in Fort Bragg. Set on a rocky bluff south of the Noyo River, Pomo Bluffs Park is one of the best spots for whale watching during the season.
The easy-to-follow trails wind along the edge of the bluffs and offer spectacular views of the crashing waves far below. If you have the time, hang around Pomo Bluffs Park for sunset; it’s nothing less than breathtaking!
Spend some time in the charming town of Fort Bragg. Once a military garrison in the American Civil War, Fort Bragg is now famous for Glass Beach, with its shore full of colorful glass stones.
Fort Bragg is also the home of the California Western Railroad, otherwise known as the “Skunk Train.” This charming steam locomotive provides magical rides through the redwood forests of the Noyo River Canyon.
Another little slip of sand to escape to for some sun is Portuguese Beach. Located in Mendocino Headlands State Park, Portuguese Beach is a great spot for sunbathing, wildlife watching, and hiking. Strong currents and waves are not ideal for swimming, but you can watch marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and whales master the waves.
Grab your camera and get some Insta-worthy shots of driftwood, sunsets, and seascapes from the beach. Head up onto the bluffs above to hike the trails along the cliff edge.
The Mendocino Headlands State Park Visitor Center is located near Portuguese Beach. Stop in for further information and maps of the park.
Temple of Kwan Tai
Discover the ancient history behind this sacred Chinese house of worship in the heart of Mendocino. The Temple of Kwan Tai is a Chinese Taoist temple dedicated to Kwan Tai, the Taoist god of war, who symbolizes integrity and loyalty.
The Temple of Kwan Tai was built in the 1850s by Chinese immigrants who fled China for a better life. Today, it’s one of the oldest Chinese temples in California and the only remaining joss house on the coast.
Book an appointment to visit the Temple of Kwan Tai and learn the fascinating history behind the structure. On the tour, led by the great-granddaughter of one of the Chinese immigrants who lived in Mendocino, you’ll learn about the first Chinese community of Mendocino. Discover how survivors from a fleet of Chinese junks that sailed to California for the gold rush landed instead on the Mendocino coast.
If you enjoy history and rich, detailed stories, then a visit to the Temple of Kwan Tai shouldn’t be missed!
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
Another Fort Bragg gem is the picture-postcard Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. Named for the creek that runs through it, Jug Handle State Nature Reserve has a pristine, peaceful beach, a rocky shoreline, and high bluffs. The main attractions, however, are five levels of terraced coastline carved out by the action of the waves over millions of years.
Follow the looping 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail to see the incredible ocean-formed terraces. Check out the eye-catching grove of trees stunted by the ocean wind. Soak up spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, crashing into the rocks below.
Head into the fascinating Pygmy Forest to see centuries-old dwarf shrubs, cypresses, and pine trees only a few feet high. Watch the sunset over the sea from the bluffs and wait until dark to see phosphorescent algae glowing on the waves.
Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve
Hail the mighty redwoods! Stand among giants in the Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, where you’ll find some of the tallest redwood trees in the world. As it’s one of the more remote redwood parks in California, you’ll have to navigate 13 miles of twisty road west of Ukiah. But on arrival, you’ll be rewarded with a lush oasis of tranquility.
Extending for over a mile along Montgomery Creek, Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve is home to verdant valleys and secret groves. You can explore the park on several hiking trails that wind around the park and its lofty residents.
Far from the noise of cities and traffic, the reserve is the perfect place to unwind in Northern California, surrounded by the beauty of nature.
Navarro Vineyards & Winery
When in Rome—or California!—tasting some of the world’s best wines should be high on the list. Head to the Anderson Valley to visit Navarro Vineyards & Winery to sample some of the region’s finest wines. The family-owned and operated vineyard has been producing sustainably produced wines for over 45 years.
Book a cellar tour and delve into the history of Navarro Vineyards & Winery and how it produces its award-winning wines. Meet the family of winemakers that make magic happen and sample some of the estate’s finest wines.
If you aren’t a wine drinker, try one of the estate’s non-alcoholic juices. The tasting room is open daily, no reservations are required, and there’s no charge for tasting.
Pick up some simple picnic supplies from the deli case, buy a few bottles of Navarro wine, and enjoy a picnic in the vineyard in the shade of a grape trellis.
Mendocino Art Center
Discover the town’s rich creative character at the Mendocino Art Center. Established in 1959, the center has played a significant role in the revitalization of the coastal village and is a central repository for art, culture, and community today. You can enjoy wonderful exhibitions of local art, artisan-led workshops, and art-centric events.
Take a stroll through the galleries and admire amazing works by local and regional artists. Pop into the Open Studio to watch artists apply their skills or try your hand at creating artwork at one of the workshops.
Be sure to save time to meander around the beautiful gardens of the Mendocino Art Center and admire the many native plants and the Zacha Sculpture Garden.
GoodLife Cafe & Bakery
Celebrate the good life with freshly brewed coffee and mouthwatering pastry at the aptly named GoodLife Cafe & Bakery. This charming little café on Lansing Street in the heart of Mendocino is the go-to spot for delicious fare from freshly baked pastries to organic soups.
Grab a table inside the cozy café or out on the open-air deck and watch the world go by. The cafe is open for breakfast and lunch, and its menu features delectable dishes from Southern-style biscuits and country gravy to New York-style bagels with salmon and cream cheese.
Locally roasted Fair Trade organic coffee or espresso is the perfect pick-me-up at the end of your meal.
Trillium Cafe & Inn
Looking for a cozy home-away-from-home place to stay in Mendocino? The charming Trillium Café & Inn is a good bet. Nestled in the heart of the village, the inn is within easy walking distance of the beach, the shops, and the spectacular Mendocino Headlands State Park.
Three beautifully appointed rooms are comfortable and quiet, with gorgeous views and luxury amenities. Queen-size beds with down comforters promise an excellent night’s sleep.
One of the best things to do in Mendocino is to dine on delicious organic fare prepared with locally sourced ingredients at the attached Trillium Café. Snuggle up next to the fireplace in winter or relax on the seasonal outdoor deck in summer and soak up spectacular views of Big River Bay.