Mendocino Coast: Unexplored Wilderness and Small-Town Charm

Mendocino Coast: Unexplored Wilderness and Small-Town Charm

Featured Photo: Mendocino Coast by Simon Hurry

If you’re the type that likes to hop in the car on Saturday morning and hit the backroads for some fun and adventure, keep reading. Just a couple of hours north of San Francisco is one of my favorite weekend getaway regions in the state: Mendocino County. With more than 4,000 square miles of unexplored wilderness, breathtaking coastal vistas, towering redwoods, adorable towns and villages, and world-class food and wine, coastal Mendocino County offers endless discoveries. Here are a few of the top picks from South to North.

A scenic view of a beach with a sandy shore meeting the ocean, typical of Mendocino County Getaways. The foreground features lush green vegetation, and a narrow body of water leads to the sea. The sky above is partly cloudy with patches of blue, adding to the serene, picturesque landscape.
Photo: Unsplash Sterling Lanier


It is situated north of the Sonoma – Mendocino border and technically the first town in Mendocino County heading north. Back in the old days the small coastal community of Gualala (pronounced wah-la-la) was a vivacious logging town, and you can still spot a few real-life, suspender-wearing lumberjacks roaming the town. There is nothing like spending the day paddling up the beautiful and serene Gualala River. Along its banks you’re likely to spot osprey, herons, egrets, ducks, and even river otters (you will LOVE this experience). Although the old Hotel Gualala is currently not open, there are other options such as the Sea Cliff Motel where each of the rooms have a private deck overlooking the ocean. Or you can head father north and stay at the iconic St. Orres Hotel also known for their high quality dining experience.

A tall white lighthouse stands on a rugged cliff overlooking the ocean along the Mendocino Coast. Next to it are smaller white buildings with red roofs. The blue sea crashes against the rocky shoreline under a clear sky. The lighthouse and buildings are in a fenced-off area.

Point Arena

About 15 miles north of Gualala is one of the smallest incorporated cities in California, Point Arena. The town’s highlight is the Point Arena Lighthouse & Museum, which was built in 1870 after 10 ships ran aground here on a single stormy night. For small fee, visitors can enter the lighthouse museum and get a guided tour of the historic lighthouse, which includes a trek up the six-story tower’s 145 steps to look through the dazzling 6-foot-wide lead-crystal lens (the views of the coast are amazing up here).

A coastal scene featuring the rugged cliffs of the Mendocino Coast and a small sandy beach. Houses are visible atop the cliffs, nestled among greenery. The calm blue waters of the ocean meet the shoreline. In the background, a forested area extends into the horizon under a clear, blue sky.
Photo: Carlos Wolters/Unsplash


The darling of Northern California’s coastal towns, this refurbished replica of a New England-style fishing village — complete with a white-spired church — is the region’s most popular tourist destination (it’s cute beyond words). To tour Mendocino proper, lose the car and head out on foot to the Good Life Cafe. Fuel up with a double cappuccino and cinnamon bun, then throw away your map of the town and start walking — the shopping district of Mendocino is so small it can be covered in less than an hour. Meander through, then head to the beach or go for a hike, and grab a sunset dinner at Cafe Beaujolais.

One must-do while you’re in town is a visit to Mendocino Headlands State Park. The park’s flat, 3-mile trail winds along the edge of a heather-covered bluff, providing spectacular sunset views and good lookout points for spotting seabirds and California whales. As for lodging, my favorite place to stay is the Stanford Inn by the Sea, a beautiful lodge along the Big River that happily welcomes pets and has the only totally vegetarian restaurant on the Mendocino coast: Raven’s Restaurant.

Another favorite hotel is the Little River Inn & Restaurant, a wonderful family-owned and -operated resort complete with a nine-hole golf course, full-service salon and day spa, restaurant, and two lighted tennis courts. The bar is a very special place to meet fellow travelers and locals with a great view to catch the sunset.

A serene view of a waterfront industrial area reminiscent of the Mendocino Coast, with docks and buildings on the left side, adjacent to a calm, narrow river. Boats are moored at the docks, and the water is bordered by a densely forested hill on the right. The sky is clear and the scene is tranquil.
Photo: Courtesy of Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg

Originally built in 1855 as a military outpost, Fort Bragg is still primarily a logging and fishing town proud of its century-old timber-and-trawler heritage. Three places I always visit when I’m up here are the Noyo Fishing Center to go on a whale-watching tours and stuff myself on great fish-n-chips; Antique Row on Franklin St between Laurel and Redwood to load up on gifts; and the North Coast Brewing Company, my favorite brewpub on the planet (seriously). And if you’re toting along kids, be sure to take them for a ride through the forest on the town’s beloved Skunk Train — you’ll enjoy it too.

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