I was lucky enough to pass through Mendocino, California on a West Coast road trip and I was immediately drawn in by the charm of the historic town surrounded by beautiful natural scenery. It’s a great example of good things coming in small packages and it’s easy to see why the tiny village is such a draw for the countless artists and filmmakers it’s inspired over the years, and still inspires today. Its most lengthy connection was with the series Murder She Wrote, in which many locals played small roles! Here are my 15 best things to do in Mendocino and nearby, hopefully, it’ll be the inspiration for that long overdue west coast trip…
Mendocino Headlands Historic District – a must see place in Mendocino
After an economic decline in the 40’s Mendocino finally got back on the map in the late ’50s when its Arts Centre was founded. Since then much of the town has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and with good reason, it is full of beautiful Victorian-era architecture including the Mendocino Presbyterian Church on Main Street which was founded in 1868 and is now one of California’s oldest Protestant churches still in use!
The colorful and surprising Temple of Kwan Tai on Albion street dates back even further to 1854 and is one of the oldest Chinese temples in the state. You can learn about the town’s rich history at The Ford House Visitor Centre and the Kelly House Museum, both of which are situated in beautiful Victorian houses themselves.
Jughandle State Reserve – a beautiful place to visit in Mendocino
Enjoy a hike through half a million years of ecological history at Jughandle State Reserve. Situated halfway between Fort Bragg and Mendocino the park stretches between the Pacific Ocean into Jackson Demonstration State Forest and contains an amazing ecological staircase.
The Ecological Staircase trail is a 5 mile round trip starting at the Jug Handle Parking lot and traversing one of the Northern Hemisphere’s most interesting geological areas. It includes pine and redwood forests and also a very rare Pygmy Forest as well as a dramatic beach, rugged coastal bluffs, and a 1930’s bridge not to mention some amazing offshore rock formations.
Boutique Shopping – one of the best things to do in Mendocino
For a small place, the shopping in Mendocino is amazing! From organic food to artisan clothes and gifts, you’ll find it all in the wonderful array of independent businesses. Mendocino has been attracting artists and artistic types since the ’50s and is well established as an artists colony, this is reflected in the many small shops and galleries the town boasts.
Treasure hunters will find an amazing selection of antiques, collectibles, and vintage items in shops like Mendocino Treasures and can peruse the works of local craftspeople in shops like Mendocino Artists, Rubaiyat Beads, and Prentice Gallery. You’ll also find custom-made shoes in Mendocino Shoe Works and amazing handmade furniture in Mendocino Redwood Burl. These are but a few of the delights on offer, an afternoon perusing the local shops is an integral part of the Mendocino itinerary!
Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkle’s Children’s Books
Deserving a little section all to itself, especially if you’re a bookworm like me, is Gallery Bookshop. It’s the old-fashioned kind of independent bookshop that you can literally spend hours in.
It occupies a beautiful white Victorian shopfront and has an absolutely amazing collection of literature and related merchandise that will mean there is no chance of leaving empty-handed. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to sit and read in and a lovely aspect out towards the coastline that is perfect for contemplation.
There is also a resident cat, The Great Catsby appeared in 2012 and has since been enjoying a lazy life as a bookshop cat… you’ll often find him snoozing on an Austen or supervising the till! Throughout the year Gallery Bookshop hosts many events and workshops with local and international authors attending, so be sure to to check their website and see if any of them coincide with your visit!
Try out the Mendocino eateries
Like its shops, Mendocino’s food scene reflects its eclectic and artistic residents and also utilizes the quaint historic vibe the town exudes. Many of the best restaurants are situated inside old Victorian houses, a wonderfully quirky experience in itself. Try rich and decadent fare in Trillium or a delicious breakfast at MacCallum House Restaurant.
Cafe Beaujolais, also an old converted house, serves delicious French-inspired dishes or enjoy a relaxed lunch of local seafood on the patio at Mendocino Cafe. Just outside the town perimeters is the fabulous Wild Fish where all the ingredients are seasonal, organic, and locally sourced.
The location of Wild Fish is also worth mentioning as it sits on the headland with views out across Little River Cove. It’s a very popular dinner spot so be sure to book ahead to save any disappointment! It’s also worth noting that there are some wonderful vineyards nearby and Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Booneville is definitely worth traveling out to if you are a fan of craft ales!
Watch the Pacific sunset
This is a part of California where you’ll be treated to possibly the most splendid sunset I have ever seen. The rugged cliffs fell away below us and the wild and windswept ocean, prompted by magnificent rock formations and the turbulent Punchbowl rolled out ahead.
As the sun reached its perfect flaming orange and began to sink below the horizon, everything took on magical shades of red and purple, and gold. It was truly spectacular, like arriving in some magical place just outside of our own reality. If you make it to Mendocino do me a favor, take a picnic and watch that sunset for me, it’s a sight you will hold in your heart forever!
Although The Devil’s Punchbowl is part of Russian Gulch State Park I wanted to include it on its own in case you only have limited time for exploring. This natural phenomenon set against beautiful coastal bluffs is not to be missed!
It began as a mere sea cave reaching into the Coastal Headlands with a small hole at its entrance. Thousands of years of crashing waves pounding against the cave’s ceiling gradually eroded the edges, making the hole wider and wider.
Water spraying through the hole continued to erode the ceiling until it collapsed entirely, gifting us with the dramatic Punch Bowl that can be seen today. The Devil’s Punchbowl is now 100ft wide and 60ft deep and during high tide, the waves swirl around inside like a bubbling cauldron occasionally sending sprays of water shooting up into the air… it’s quite a sight to behold!
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Surrounding Mendocino on 3 sides is the stunning Mendocino Headlands State Park. Covering 347 acres of bluffs and islets the park offers spectacular views of sea arches, hidden caves, and grottoes, and if you’re lucky a migrating whale or two. The park also encompasses two gorgeous beaches, The Big River Beach and the Portuguese Beach.
Numerous easy trails wind along the rugged coastline offering Pacific views on one side and wildflower meadows on the other. The Park also includes the historic Ford House Visitor Centre.
It’s a great place to explore activities such as hiking and surfing or to just take a picnic and relax in the natural beauty. Music lovers might consider a visit in July when the park hosts the Mendocino Music Festival; Jazz, Folk, and Blues with the breathtaking backdrop of the Pacific Ocean… who wouldn’t want to experience that?
Mendocino Arts Centre
The Arts Centre is situated on the site of the former Preston Mansion, which provided the setting for the 1955 movie East Of Eden, starring James Dean. Mendocino, once a thriving mill town, was declining rapidly by the time the mansion burnt to the ground in 1957, Cue Bill Zacha and his wife Jennie who had long harbored dreams of establishing an artists colony in the village.
They paid a deposit of just $50 for the land and remaining outbuildings and by 1959, with much help from the locals, the old carriage house had been converted into the heart of the Mendocino Arts Centre and the outbuildings around it had been transformed into studios. Gradually over the years, the Arts Centre grew into what you see today; a vibrant space with studios, galleries, a sculpture garden, and a theater space that attracts and supports local and international artists with its program of residencies and retreats.
The Establishment of The Mendocino Arts Centre breathed life into the failing town and began its transformation into the cool and quirky artist’s haven that it is today. Be sure to check out its program of classes and lectures, peruse the open gallery spaces and stroll through the attractive gardens, perhaps even take in a play by the Mendocino Theatre Company who has been based there since the late ’70s.
Mendocino Woodlands State Park
The Mendocino Woodlands State Park is an amazing group camping facility located in the heart of the redwood forest just a few miles inland from the town, it occupies about 700 acres of land along the Little North Fork of Big River.
The Camp was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program that operated during WW2, consequently, the whole site is now a National Historic Landmark. Jackson Demonstration State Forest borders the park on 3 sides and to the south is the Big River State Park. It’s the perfect place for a creative retreat, with three dedicated camping areas that are fully equipped to accommodate 30-200 people! If you don’t have a big enough group to arrange your own hiking, painting, writing or any other kind of hobby escape then fear not! Just join somebody else’s!
Check out ‘uncommon vacations’ online to see what’s on the cards. Failing that, another excellent way to experience this little slice of tranquility is to go as a volunteer, you spend a few hours helping out with a project and have the rest of the weekend all to yourself…best of all it won’t cost a thing as meals and lodging are included! The third and final way is to participate in one of the park’s Fall workshops that range from music and dance to herbs and wilderness. A truly unique Mendocino experience.
Russian Gulch State Park
This is the perfect spot for outdoor adventurers! This expansive park includes miles of headlands and rocky ocean shores where you can explore tide pools and beaches as well as numerous hiking and biking trails. The most famous feature of the park is The Devil’s Punchbowl but it has plenty of other delights to offer including the impressive Frederick W Panhorst Bridge constructed in the ’40s and a gorgeous cascading waterfall at its eastern edge.
It’s a great place to base yourself if you want to get back to nature and explore the great outdoors. Quaint wooden bridges and trails traverse the park, the most popular being the Fern Canyon Trail which loops through the lovely redwood forest to the waterfall and back and isn’t too taxing on little legs. You can take your pick from extensive campsites and just immerse yourself in the beauty of the nature surrounding you.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and Preserve
This beautiful State Historic Park is situated on the stunning headland that extends between Point Arena ( which has its own lighthouse and small museum ) and Cape Mendocino. The picturesque lighthouse dates back to 1909, as do its surrounding outbuildings. Adjacent to the lighthouse you can also visit the restored Kearn Farmhouse, home of the first assistant lighthouse keeper. The farmhouse is now a period museum, giving you a glimpse of what life would have been like in the 1930s.
It’s a gentle walk downhill to the unique Point Cabrillo Lighthouse which now houses a small museum and gift shop. Also worth a look is the Marine Science Exhibit in the restored Blacksmiths and carpenters shops, where you can learn about the fragile ecosystems of the area. It’s just a really sweet way to while away a couple of hours and learn a bit more about the history and geology of the area, and of course, the views are spectacular!
Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden
The Botanical Gardens are situated a short drive up the coast from Mendocino in Fort Bragg. Like a fairytale they unfold before your eyes in a riot of color and scent… paths wind between rare rhododendrons and every now and then you’ll stumble across a beautiful sculpture or one of the 180 bird species that call The Gardens home.
Established in 1966 by retired nurseryman Ernest Shoefer and his wife Betty, the two cultivated the land with care and created this little jewel of botany on the Pacific Coast. Exploding between canyons, wetlands, and coastal bluffs are a myriad of beautiful flowering plants. Heaths and heathers, camellias, succulents, and a delightfully weird pine forest give way to wide coastal prairies and spectacular views. Have a delicious locally sourced organic lunch overlooking the perennial gardens at Rhody’s Garden Cafe and peruse your favorite blooms in the onsite nursery and gift shop. A fabulous opportunity to bask in the peace and beauty of the landscape.
Glass Beach, Fort Bragg
Just 15 mins drive north of Mendocino is the historic coastal city of Fort Bragg. All through the early 1900’s, the residents would dump all their trash on a nearby beach. Over the years the waves crashed against the shore and gradually eroded the glass down to tiny smooth pebbles of green and brown and translucent ‘sea glass’.
When you look at the beach today it’s as though a giant has dumped a chest full of treasure along the shoreline, unsurprisingly the beach is now a protected area within MacKerricher State Park and it is strictly forbidden to remove any of the iridescent pebbles. You can appreciate some of the rarer and finer examples in the nearby Sea Glass Museum. A truly unique sight and unmissable photo opportunity!
Mendocino Beach Ride at Ross Ranch
An ideal way to explore the beautiful coastline and forests around Mendocino is on horseback and with Tobi at Ross Ranch you’ll be in very safe and experienced hands. The ranch offers two private ride options, each lasting two hours; the first is an amazing trek along the stunning Manchester Beach where you can explore miles of unspoilt sand and surf, beautiful rock formations and seastacks and eclectic bird and wildlife.
The second option (my favorite) is a trek through majestic redwood forests and up into the coastal Elk Mountains. You pass beneath shady branches and expanses of meadow, canyons, creeks, and rivers, climbing all the while and catching glimpses of the sweeping views of the breathtaking forests and valleys below. An unforgettable experience for animal lovers and anyone with a sense of adventure.
I hope this will encourage a visit to Mendocino, a truly remarkable place of art, nature, and tranquility, a must-see part of any west coast itinerary!