Mendocino is not the most famous town in California, but it makes for one of the best nature getaways in the state nonetheless. The charming coastal town is full of Victorian buildings, unique stores, and quaint cafes and inns. In the surrounding village, you’ll find miles of rugged coastline, peaceful walking trails, and fun water activities.
If that’s not enough, you can visit the nearby areas for even more unique attractions and natural wonders. Aside from the many things to do in Mendocino, it’s also just a three-hour drive from San Francisco, which makes it a great day or weekend trip from SF. Additionally, it’s a beautiful stop to add to a Pacific Coast Highway road trip too. So this picturesque village is undoubtedly an inviting destination for your next weekend nature break.
What to Do in Mendocino
You’ll find a wide selection of activities and attractions on this list, from forest hikes and coastal walks to water sports and wine tasting.
Take a stroll through downtown Mendocino
Before you dive into the abundance of nature here, take a stroll around the charming town to check out the unique stores and museums and the beautiful Victorian architecture.
I recommend stopping by Mendocino Jams & Preserves for some delicious locally made jam, mustard, and their iconic Praline-Pecan Sauce. If you’re traveling with kids or looking to buy a unique children’s gift, check out the Village Toy Store, which stocks old-school toys like wooden trains, puzzles, and puppets.
Highlights Gallery showcases and sells various artwork, such as handmade furniture, sculptures, and jewelry, made by local artists. Similarly, Prentice Gallery has a superb selection of locally-made paintings, sculptures, and ceramics. Finally, the Kelley House Museum is an excellent place to visit if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Mendocino coast.
Hike the Mendocino Headlands Trail
The 4-mile (6.4 km) out and back Mendocino Headlands Trail is one of the best hikes in Mendocino as it is gentle, accessible, and close to town. It begins in Cypress Grove and takes you around the coastline of Mendocino Headlands State Park, passing by Portuguese Beach and finishing just before Big River Beach.
It takes around 90 minutes one way, is primarily flat, and gives gorgeous views of the coastline throughout. There are also several side trails that you can explore and go right out to the cliff’s edge.
Go canoeing in Big River
Big River Beach is one of the most popular places to visit in Mendocino, offering a wide array of activities. Enjoy a relaxed summer day sunbathing here with a picnic, or do one of the many river activities.
Canoeing, paddleboarding, and kayaking are all on offer at Big River as several companies rent out equipment, such as Catch a Canoe. However, a unique way to explore this 8-mile (12.8 km) long river is by redwood outrigger canoe. They are handcrafted from wood repurposed from old redwood barns and give more stability than polyethylene canoes.
Visit Gulch State Park
Russian Gulch State Park is just two miles (3.2km) north of town and is a Mendocino must-see as it is often compared to Point Lobos State Park on the Big Sur Coast. There are numerous sights to see here, including a majestic 36-foot waterfall, a large arch-bridge, and many tide pools and coves. You can see most of these sights on the hiking trails, such as Fern Canyon Trail and North Trail.
Don’t miss the intriguing sinkhole, named Devil’s Punch Bowl, either. You can reach it via the short and easy 0.75-mile (1.2km) Headlands Trail that starts and ends from the bridge. Come here at high tide, and you’ll see this 60 foot (18m) deep partially collapsed sea cave churning water like a boiling cauldron.
Check out Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
Less than 2 miles north of Russian Gulch Park is the small but beautiful Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, which sits next to the rugged, untouched coastline. There are also three restored lightkeepers’ houses, outbuildings, and a small museum.
You can wander around the bottom floor of the lighthouse and the museum yourself. You’ll have to book a guided tour if you want to access the tower, but these are only available on certain days and at specific times.
However, the lighthouse grounds are the true highlight as there is so much wildlife around. You might spot dolphins, seals, sea lions, and many bird species. You can also see Frolic Cove from here, the wreckage site of the 19th-century clipper brig Frolic.
Watch the sunset at Mendocino Bay Viewpoint
There are several gorgeous spots to watch the sunset, but the best is at Mendocino Bay Viewpoint by Big River. You’ll enjoy a beautiful vista of the historic town and the rugged cliffside here. The area has a genuinely serene ambiance. So if you have time, I recommend coming for sunrise, too, when you can enjoy a peaceful meditation as the day breaks.
Walk the forest trails in Van Damme State Park
Van Damme State Park is a short drive south of Mendocino, offering soul-nourishing forest trails and fun river kayaking experiences. You can also explore the sea caves and tide pools and see the marine life in this area on a guided kayaking tour run by Kayak Mendocino. Then you can follow the short and flat 0.2-mile (0.3 km) Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail that follows a purpose-built boardwalk through the old trees.
Another of the most popular walks is the 8-mile (12.9km) Fern Canyon Scenic Trail, which follows the river bank and ascends into the lush forest. The trail crisscrosses the river multiple times via a series of cute bridges. It takes around 3 hours, but it doesn’t feel too strenuous as the steep sections are gradual. While walking through the woods here you may even spot some wildlife in the distance, most commonly deer and coyotes.
Take a trip to Fort Bragg
The coastal village of Fort Bragg is just a 15-minute drive from Mendocino and has some excellent sights well worth checking out. The most famous is Glass beach, a shore full of naturally colorful glass stones that shimmer in the light.
Another place to visit here is Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 45 acres of landscaped and natural gardens. There are some short trails within the park, one of which leads to the ocean. Yet another thing to do in Fort Bragg is to take a railroad tour through the redwoods on the historic Skunk Train or the quirky railbikes.
Go on a whale watching tour
From November to April, humpback whales are one of the top Mendocino attractions. You might be able to spot them from the shore, but you’ll experience the best sightings by going on a whale-watching tour. Tours run every day during whale season and usually last around 2 hours.
If you’re in town in March, you’ll also experience one of Mendocino’s most famous events, the Mendocino Whale Festival. This event celebrates these impressive marine animals and spans the first three weekends in March. You can go on free guided whale walks and visit exhibits to learn more about these cool creatures during this festival.
Go wine tasting in Anderson Valley
Anderson Valley is the nearest wine region to Mendocino. You will probably taste these local wines in the town’s restaurants, but that doesn’t beat a visit to the wineries themselves. Anderson Valley is a 50-minute drive south of Mendocino, so you can visit during your trip or on the way home.
Anderson Valley is best known for its chardonnay and pinot noir. Roederer Estate, Lula Cellars, and Handley Cellars are three of the dozen or more wineries in the valley. They all offer tastings to the public, but you may need to book in advance, so give them a call beforehand.
If you’re not a fan of wine, check out Gowan’s Heirloom Cider Bar instead. You can taste their fruity delights in the outdoor tasting area surrounded by apple trees. They also make their own apple pie and mulled cider in winter.
Where to Stay in Mendocino
Most people visiting Mendocino will stay in the town center. It has a community feel, is surrounded by nature, and is within walking distance of some gorgeous beaches. There are some lovely independent cafes and restaurants, quirky stores, and small museums and galleries. Here you can stay in one of these homely inns and B&Bs.
- Agate Cove Inn is located just north of the town center, right by the beautiful Agate Beach. You’ll have a stylish yet cozy suite with priceless ocean views and luxurious amenities such as a spa bath and fireplace.
- Seagull Inn is a homely bed and breakfast set among tranquil gardens in the heart of the town center. Many of the rooms have private balconies where you can soak up the peaceful ambiance.
- Mendocino Hotel & Garden has an on-site Victorian dining room with a bistro-style menu. Spa services such as massages are also available, and the rooms are kitted out with traditional decor and antique furniture.
Weatherwise, Mendocino is pleasant year-round as the summers do not get too hot, and the winters can be pretty mild. However, as summer is the busiest time, spring and fall make the best time to visit Mendocino. The weather is lovely during the shoulder seasons, and the town is peaceful. Moreover, the whale watching season is between November and April, so if you visit in winter or early spring, you can go on a whale watching tour.
Mendocino is approximately a 3.5-hour drive from San Francisco and Sacramento, so it is possible to visit the coastal town on a day trip. However, with so much to see and many excellent hiking trails, I recommend spending 2 days and at least a night in Mendocino.