What you need to know to plan your own weekend in Mendocino – the perfect hideaway on the northern California coast!
What do you think of when you hear the words ‘California road trip’?
Perhaps it’s grand coastal views, world famous beaches, a day of cruising down Hwy 1 in a convertible with good company by your side.
If you know California well, you might add in a hike in a redwood forest, a sea lion colony, a night of camping in the desert, a day of exploring one of the many national parks, or maybe getting lost in the rugged north. In the right season, you might even add in a day of snowboarding at Mammoth after a couple days of surfing off the coast.
California has a wealth of options on hand for any traveler or local that’s adventurous at heart. It’s a state that I continue to discover a little more of each time I come back.
My memories of growing up here intertwine with the natural beauty that this part of the world has to offer.
I’ve lived in California through so many different stages of my life, and I will always feel a deep love for my home – which is exactly why I love sharing so many parts of it with you guys, especially when it’s a new part to me!
I had the chance to spend the first weekend of December up in Mendocino for a girls weekend with one of my best friends, and in the process I experienced a new favorite part of northern California.
Mendocino is an easy weekend getaway from San Francisco. It’s the place you go when you want to get out of the city and smell the fresh coastal air, surrounded by redwood trees, nature trails, and pioneer history.
Here is my weekend in Mendocino itinerary for your own girls trip – or maybe a romantic getaway or family reunion. It’s one of the chillest parts of the California coast, and a must-see if you love the idea of a relaxing weekend surrounded by nature – beach and lush forests included.
How to Get to Mendocino
From San Francisco/Bay Area
If you have time, leave early enough to enjoy the mini 3.5-hour road trip from San Francisco to Mendocino, and the many stops you can take along the way.
If you’re leaving after work on a Friday and just want to get up to Mendocino the fastest way possible, take the 101 North out of the city, get on the 128 West around Cloverdale, and finally the 1 North once you get to the coast, just after Navarro River Redwoods State Park.
Note that you usually lose cell service on the stretch between Navarro and the coast on Hwy 128.
Coastal vs. Inland Route
If you have more time and want to enjoy a more roundabout way to start off your weekend in Mendocino, I’d recommend either taking Hwy 1 up the coast for gorgeous ocean views, or going up the 101 but including a few stops at the many award-winning wineries along the way. You might want do both – the coastal way up and the inland way down.
The coastal route could include stops at Point Reyes National Seashore, Salmon Creek Beach, Jenner, and Point Arena Lighthouse. The views are stunning along this stretch of the coast, so make sure to give yourself enough time to (safely) pull over a lot.
If you want to go the quicker inland route and take in more of the wineries and pioneer history, I’d recommend stopping in at the small towns of Healdsburg, Philo, and Boonville, and making visits to Navarro Vineyards, Lazy Creek Vineyards, and Lula Cellars.
I also love the Anderson Valley Brewery if craft beer is more your thing.
Places to Stay in Mendocino
Brewery Gulch Inn
The features that I loved best were the made-to-order breakfast, the light dinner buffet and wine hour in the evenings (i.e. free wine & food!), and the welcoming and helpful staff that helped me with any questions about the area or accommodation.
The fireplace in the room, view of Smuggler’s Cove from our personal balcony, and the salted caramels on the pillow were extra bonuses!
Little River Inn
I actually mostly know of Little River Inn for their restaurant, which was recommended to me by multiple people, but it’s meant to be a great little place to stay on the coast as well. It’s a 75 year old accommodation and blends Victorian architecture with family style hospitality.
Staying in Mendocino isn’t always cheap. As beautiful and cozy as the guesthouses and inns are, they’re not always the most affordable places to stay in Mendocino if you’re on a budget. If you’re looking for more budget-friendly options, look at Air BnB for unique homes to stay at in the area.
If you want to enjoy the outdoors, Russian Gulch State Park also allows camping during the warmer seasons.
Best Restaurants in Mendocino
If you’re looking for a fancy evening in Mendocino, Glendeven Inn offers a Shared Table dining option, which is a multi-course set meal with locally-sourced ingredients. The Shared table only happens Thursdays and Saturdays and reservations are required. Meals start at $65 per person. You can reserve a spot here.
Little River Inn
As I mentioned above, Little River Inn was recommended by a lot of people in the area, and they’re meant to have one of the best restaurants in Mendocino. They’re known for their local fare, family hospitality, and fine dining experience with a coastal view.
Frankie’s is the popular local pizza joint in downtown Mendocino. It could be described as quaint, family-run, and known for its quality ingredients.
In addition to pizza, they also serve falafel, homemade ice cream, and coffee. This is one of the more laid back options in Mendocino if you’re looking for a quick homestyle lunch/dinner.
North Coast Brewing
North Coast Brewing is just a 15 minute drive up the road in Fort Bragg and serves up fresh seafood dishes, burgers, and tasty beer. They’re located right across from the Skunk Train, so it’s the perfect place to stop in at for lunch before you hop on the train.
Located in a Victorian style farm house, Café Beaujolais is another fine dining experience in Mendocino that serves French-inspired cuisine.
7 miles south of Mendocino village, Ledford House is a fairly large restaurant known for it’s southern France and Mediterranean cuisine with a California twist, and huge windows that look out over the ocean. They have live jazz nightly.
Cowlicks Ice Cream
Cowlicks is a local favorite and a must-stop if you’re an ice cream lover. They have tons of homemade flavors and frozen treats for sale.
And if you’re just looking for a cute and cozy coffeehouse for your daily fix or to read a good book, Headlands is a good option. It’s a late-night coffee shop in Fort Bragg and it’s known to have live music seven days a week and monthly art exhibits.
How to Get Around
There’s not much in terms of public transit on this part of this coast. You’ll want to have a car while you’re in the area to fully take advantage of the nature at your fingertips, and to get around in a timely manner.
We hilariously tried to call an Uber one night to checkout the ‘nightlife’ in Mendocino. There was only one driver that popped up on the app.
After waiting for 10 minutes or so and not seeing him move from around the Fort Bragg area, we gave him a call, and he said “oh yeah, where are you guys again?” HAHA.
We told him we were still waiting for him just south of downtown Mendocino, at the Brewery Gulch Inn. His response? “Yeaahhhh … I don’t think I’m going to make it tonight.”
We politely asked him if he could cancel the ride for us and laughed about it over a glass of wine afterwards. That was our experience with Uber in Mendocino. So, if you want to go out at night, you should either plan to drive yourself or to call an expensive taxi to take you into town.
What to Do in Mendocino
Point Cabrillo Light Station
Point Cabrillo is one of the most scenic spots in Mendocino, and personally, coastal lighthouse views are some of my favorite types scenery. Gotta love that nautical feel.
This particular lighthouse was built in 1909 and is now part of a California state historic park. It’s about a half a mile walk downhill from the parking area to the lighthouse.
Make sure to watch the movie The Majestic with Jim Carrey afterward, you’ll be able to spot the lighthouse in a couple of key scenes.
Russian Gulch State Park
I’ve been to Russian Gulch a couple of times and I’m always surprised at how peaceful this park is, and the lack of people I come across while walking its trails. Granted, this last trip was in the winter, but my previous trip was in the spring and there were still hardly any people at the park.
There are two spots in Russian Gulch that I recommend seeing. The first is the beach were the scenic Panhorst Bridge is located, right around the corner from the parking lot.
The second is the 36-foot waterfall that’s hidden in the redwood forest and mossy leaves. The Fern Canyon Trail from the parking lot takes you there. It took us about 45 minutes one way, 1.5-2 hours round trip with a lot of pictures.
If you have time you can do the full loop that continues on past the waterfall, or turn back the way you came for a shorter return trip. Russian Gulch is seen as the go-to spot if you want to do some low-key hiking in Mendocino.
Note that most state parks in California, Russian Gulch included, charge you $10 for parking. Make sure to have exact change with you because there’s not always someone working the toll booth, but they do come around and check cars regularly to make sure you’ve paid.
Canoe the Big River
Although ocean kayaking can be popular around this part of the coast and up in Oregon, the Mendocino area offers a unique (and usually more relaxing) experience of canoeing up the Big River. Catch a Canoe is a local company that came highly recommended, and offers daily canoe rentals from 9am to 5pm every day.
If canoeing doesn’t sound like your thing, but you still want to enjoy the beautiful experience of cruising by the redwoods from the water, they also offer kayak and stand up paddle board rentals.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
I heard good things about the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens while I was in town, especially about the local events they host. While we were there, they put on a Christmas light show at the gardens with live local music.
If you go to their website, they let you know what’s in bloom right now and any upcoming events. General admission is $15 per person.
Explore Downtown Mendocino
Mendocino village, or the ‘downtown’, is worth spending an afternoon in because it represents small coastal towns in northern California so well. There are little boutique shops, cafes, dive bars, and gorgeous views looking out over the rugged coastline to keep you entertained.
We even stopped at Dick’s Place one night, a local dive bar that gave us a feel for the local characters in town and the close community. We had a fun time people watching and sipping on a local beer for an hour or so.
A day in Historic Fort Bragg
Similar to spending an afternoon to explore the small village of Mendocino, take a day to do the same for the small city of Fort Bragg.
Whereas Mendocino has that Victorian coastal feel to it, Fort Bragg is much more into its pioneer history and has a more western feel. In Fort Bragg, there are still plenty of boutique shops to explore, the Skunk Train, and popular eateries.
The Skunk Train
The Skunk Train in Fort Bragg is an institution and a popular family outing with young ones. Even though my bestie Carrie and I don’t have any kids, we enjoyed spending an afternoon on the train.
Since we were there at the start of December, we were able to experience the holiday Skunk Train, which included hot cocoa, Christmas carols, sugar cookies, Christmas decorations, a holiday skit, and numerous SANTA sightings.
My inner 6-year-old self was stoked. I think Carrie was a little embarrassed to be sitting next to me when I got excited about Santa making an appearance.
Normally, the Skunk Train doesn’t have all those added bells and whistles, but it’s still a fun family outing and relaxing train ride through the redwoods at any time of the year.
Another popular attraction in Fort Bragg is Glass Beach, a beach that is covered in soft small colorful pieces of sea glass. It’s much more stunning on a clear blue sky, but regardless of the weather you have, it’s a unique experience to have on the northern California coast.
Glass Beach is located in MacKerricher State Park. The glass has gradually filled the beach from years of garbage dumping on the coastline just north of Fort Bragg.
Wine Tasting at Lula Cellars
And lastly, I’d recommend stopping in at Lula Cellars on your way back down to the Bay. Dan, the Tasting Room Manager, and his dog Honey were the best hosts you could ask for. I had a lovely time chatting with Dan about the wine at Lula and the passion they put into their business.
At the time of my visit, they were donating proceeds to an organization that was helping displaced dogs from the California wine country fires. Anytime someone brought their dog to the winery they would donate to the organization.
I love being able to support local businesses who give back and who clearly have a lot of love for what they do. Lula’s felt more like a community than just your average winery that you stop in at on a road trip.
They have a stunning property in the Anderson Valley, and I enjoyed walking around in the sunshine and giving a lot of pets to Honey.
In terms of the wine, because that was fabulous too, I especially loved their Guntly Red, a juicy blend of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel grapes.
Have you been to this part of the California coast? Where is your favorite spot in northern California?
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Watch my Girls Weekend in Mendocino vlog here!
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