Guest author Mimi McFadden makes a convincing case of why you’ll love Mendocino County, too.
There’s a lot to love about Mendocino, California – from coastal scenery to an underrated wine scene, redwoods, beaches, local charm, and historic sights.
Some people might pass over Mendocino for more popular counties like Napa or Sonoma. However, if you’re looking for a pampered and relaxing time away surrounded by rugged nature, there’s no better place to visit than Mendocino.
Only about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, Mendocino is one of the most popular weekend trips from the busier cities of Northern California.
And it would be hard to ask for more than what you’ll find in Mendocino. The county offers the perfect balance of all the best parts of California without the crowds or touristy nature of so many other spots around the Golden State.
These are the top 10 reasons why people love Mendocino, California, and why you probably will too if you visit yourself.
1) Coastal Scenery
It’s hard to beat the rugged beauty of the Northern California coastline and Mendocino is one of the most scenic areas along this part of the California coast.
One of the best places to visit in Mendocino to experience its coastal beauty to the fullest is Mendocino Headlands State Park. At the park, you can enjoy breezy views from seaside bluffs, walk above secluded beaches, and see colorful wildflowers in the spring with a backdrop of the deep blue ocean below.
Another place you shouldn’t miss to experience just how unique the coastal scenery is in Mendocino County is Point Cabrillo Light Station. This historic lighthouse was built in 1909 and provides generous views of the coastline and a look back in time to early 20th century California on this part of the coast.
2) The Wine
Although most people think of Napa Valley or Sonoma when they think of California Wine Country, Mendocino County has some great wineries to discover as well. I’d even go so far as to say that some of the most beautiful wineries I’ve visited in California have been in Mendocino County. Plus, if you’re into the organic wine scene, Mendocino County has the most acreage of organic vineyards in the US.
And what makes these wineries even better is that they’re hardly ever crowded and tastings are often free.
A few wineries that offer free tastings and that shouldn’t be missed include Navarro Vineyards, Handley Cellars, and Lula Cellars.
Note: Due to COVID-19, most wineries in Mendocino County are doing tastings by appointment only so it’s best to call ahead to schedule a time to visit.
3) Small-Town Charm
With how crowded California can feel at times, it might seem like there’s really no small-town charm left in the state. However, if you just head a few hours north of San Francisco, you’ll find countless small coastal towns along the Northern California Coast. And some of the best of these small towns can be found in Mendocino County.
Specifically, the walkable downtown Mendocino area oozes small-town charm with the many local boutiques, pubs, and restaurants to poke your head into. It’s clear that locals know each other as you walk around town and there’s a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
A little further up the coast, Fort Bragg is another town in Mendocino County that features small-town charm and a historic downtown area. It feels like another world from the bustling cities in Southern California or around the Bay Area.
4) Farm-To-Table Cuisine
California is blessed with good soil, farms, and agricultural regions throughout the state, and Mendocino County is no exception.
In recent years, the city has become even more well-known for its farm-to-table cuisine and is considered one of the best foodie spots on the Northern California Coast. Really, one of the biggest draws to Mendocino and why so many people visit from the Bay Area each weekend is because of its stellar foodie that features some of the freshest food on the coast.
A few good spots to check out the farm-to-table cuisine in town include The Golden Pig, Glendeven Inn & Lodge, and The Restaurant at the Boonville Hotel.
5) B&Bs & Boutique Hotels
It’s hard to beat the luxuriousness of a cozy bed & breakfast with seaside views and fluffy bathrobes, and Mendocino has plenty to choose from. We’ll get into specific places to stay below, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mendocino’s bed & breakfasts, and boutique hotels as one of its main draws.
A lot of Mendocino accommodations are more upscale than what you’ll find further up the California Coast, but the prices translate to beautiful places to stay with ocean views and everything you could want for a relaxing stay.
If you’re looking for a pampered weekend tucked away amongst California’s redwoods and rugged coastal beauty, there’s really no better place to enjoy that than at the accommodation along the Mendocino Coast.
6) Rugged Nature
Even if you’re not an outdoorsy person, there’s something about the rugged nature of Mendocino that takes your breath away and makes people come back for future visits. Most notably, there are various state parks and beaches that are worth a visit to show you just how much natural beauty there is in the Mendocino area.
My favorite park just outside of downtown Mendocino is Russian Gulch State Park, which features an art deco-style bridge and easy hiking trails that don’t have too much elevation gain. Mendocino is also a great place to see towering redwoods north of San Francisco. Van Damme State Park and Navarro River Redwoods State Park are the best spots to walk amongst these towering trees.
If beaches are more your thing, head up to Glass Beach in Fort Bragg for a unique area that features smooth colorful glass pieces on the beach. Other beaches that are unique to Mendocino include Bowling Ball Beach, Ten Mile Beach, and Big River Beach.
7) The Skunk Train
The Skunk Train is an iconic piece of Mendocino’s railroad history and one of the most lovable attractions in the county. Locals who grew up in the Mendocino area will often speak fondly of childhood rides through the forest on the Skunk Train, and even as an adult, it’s a fun way to explore the county by train.
The famous Skunk Train has been running through scenic old-growth redwoods since 1885. With its two routes, it offers a comfortable and relaxing ride through Mendocino nature. And if you happen to be visiting during the holidays, they have a holiday train with actors, homemade cookies, and hot chocolate on board, too.
8) Lack of Commercialism
The lack of commercialism in the Mendocino area makes it the perfect escape from the bigger cities around California. Although Mendocino has a lot to offer tourists, it never feels touristy or overrun with non-locals and you won’t find many chain stores or restaurants. The local feel to the small cities in Mendocino County and the preserved nature along the coast and in Mendocino’s parks is truly one-of-a-kind in California.
For a state that’s known for its commercial nature with developments and resorts built up along most parts of the coast, Mendocino feels like a tucked-away gem that has still managed to stay somewhat undeveloped and natural.
9) The Gardens
Okay, so I’ve mentioned the beautiful beaches, coastal views, redwoods, and state parks, but did you know that Mendocino County is also known for its leafy and colorful gardens? Everywhere you look, you’ll come across gardens, whether that’s down alleyways, around town, or in people’s front yards.
And Mendocino has its own coastal botanical garden as well. It’s one of the best places to visit in the county if you’re looking to relax and smell the flowers while enjoying stunning coastal views. The garden is in bloom year-round due to Mendocino’s mild climate and features various colorful flowers, a coastal pine forest, native plants, fern-covered canyons, and coastal bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
10) Stargazing Opportunities
This goes back to the lack of commercialism and therefore lack of pollution (both in terms of light and gases), but Mendocino offers stellar stargazing opportunities. Even if you’re not camping in one of the state parks near town, on clear nights (and there are many throughout the year) you can often enjoy a bright sky lit up with stars.
In fact, Mendocino has strict policies in place to reduce light pollution, which makes it one of the better places for enjoying dark skies and bright stars on the California Coast.
Where to Stay in Mendocino
As I mentioned above, there are a lot of great bed & breakfasts and boutique hotels to enjoy in Mendocino County, but a few of my favorites include:
Brewery Gulch Inn – I stayed here the last time I was in Mendocino and I couldn’t have asked for a better stay. Not too far from downtown, the Brewery Gulch Inn features ocean views, comfy beds, a relaxing atmosphere, and one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a lot).
Sea Rock Inn – If you’re looking to be close to nature, Sea Rock Inn is an ideal option. This bed and breakfast is across from Agate Cove and a short walk from the Mendocino Headlands. It features cottages with an ocean view as well as a spa and sauna on-site.
Little River Inn – If you’re looking for a luxury stay that’s a little further from downtown Mendocino, I’d recommend staying at Little River Inn. This Victorian-style accommodation offers cottages near the ocean, a great restaurant on-site, a golf course, and in-room massage services. It’s also pet-friendly if you’re traveling with your pooch.
Mendocino COVID-19 Update
Although things are starting to open back up with more people getting vaccinated, this is what you need to know about traveling in Mendocino and California as a whole with COVID-19.
As of March 14th, 2021, Mendocino County has moved into the Red Tier in California. This means the following:
- Retail and shopping centers are open at 50% capacity.
- Museums are open at 25% capacity.
- Wineries, breweries, and distilleries that offer food are open at 25% capacity. And if no food is available, they can still operate outdoors as long as patrons are able to make reservations and only stay for a max of 90 minutes.
- Bars where no food is available are closed
In addition to these restrictions, you should expect to wear a mask outside if you’re within six feet of another person. All indoor establishments require masks to be worn at all time (unless you’re eating or drinking).
You should plan to stay home if you’re feeling ill at all, some stores and restaurants might also require a temperature check before entering. Make sure to bring extra hand sanitizer with you and stay safe.
There are also free COVID-19 testing sites in Mendocino County although it is recommended that you get tested for COVID-19 before you arrive in the county as well.
For a full list of how to stay safe when visiting Mendocino, visit the county tourism’s health and safety site for up-to-date information.
California’s COVID-19 restrictions are mostly decided by individual counties, but Governor Newsom will likely lift most restrictions by June 15th, 2021. With this said, he still plans to have a statewide mask mandate in place, meaning masks will be required indoors and outdoors (if you’re within six feet of another person) for the foreseeable future.
All California residents who are 16 and up can now get vaccinated and COVID-19 testing sites are still very common up and down the state in most cities and communities.
About the author
Mimi McFadden is the founder of The Atlas Heart, a California travel website that helps people explore the best of the Golden State through local insight, road trip itineraries, and bucket list guides.
After living in three different regions of the state, calling California home for 83% of her life, and writing a book on California road trips, she still somehow hasn’t gotten tired of her home state. You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook.
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