From towering redwoods to historic sights, wine tasting, and coastal hikes, these are the best things to do in Mendocino, California.
Only 150 miles north of San Francisco, you’ll find the rugged and windswept beauty of the Mendocino Coast.
Mendocino has the feeling of a remote getaway, a place that’s perfect for getting away from it all, which is a hard feat to achieve in as populated a state as California.
It’s a destination that features the best highlights of Northern California beauty, from lush redwood forests to coastal views, foggy beaches, and wildflowers in the spring.
As someone who is based in the Bay Area and who has spent a decent chunk of time on the North Coast, these are the best things to do around Mendocino, California for every type of traveler.
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Table of Contents
Map of Places to Visit in Mendocino
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Top Things to do Around Mendocino
Walk Around Downtown Mendocino
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Mendocino, a good place to start is downtown Mendocino.
Downtown Mendocino has everything you’d expect from a small town: cute boutiques, friendly locals, and a very walkable area.
Start exploring the town of Mendocino from Main Street, which runs parallel to Mendocino Headlands State Park.
Along Main Street, pick up some homemade jams from Mendocino Jams & Preserves, shop for jewelry and clothing, and grab a drink at the local dive bar called Dick’s Place.
You can also learn more about Mendocino history at the Historic Ford House, which doubles as a visitor center.
Besides Main Street, there are a few blocks in either direction that makes up the small downtown area.
Within them, you’ll find cozy hotels and bed and breakfasts, cafes and farm-to-table restaurants, art galleries, and more unique shops and historic buildings.
A few other sights to not miss downtown include the Temple of Kwan Tai, Kelley House Museum, and the Mendocino Art Center.
Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park
One of the most popular Mendocino attractions, Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park is a sight to behold on the Mendocino Coast.
The Point Cabrillo Light Station was built in 1909 and features a number of restored historic buildings.
These include the Lightkeeper homes, the Blacksmith & Carpentry Shop that now has a marine science exhibit inside of it, and the lighthouse itself with its Fresnel lens.
Visit the Lighthouse Museum to learn more about the history of the lighthouse, as well as the Indigenous Pomo tribe that has lived in the area for over 12,000 years.
After finishing up with the lighthouse, spend some time walking around the bluffs looking out towards Cabrillo Point and head over to the scenic Frolic Cove Beach.
Local tip: If you want to immerse yourself in lighthouse history even more, you can stay overnight at one of the cottages within the light station grounds. Learn more about renting a cottage here.
Movie Scene Location: Watch the movie The Majestic with Jim Carrey after your visit to the Point Cabrillo Light Station, you’ll be able to spot the lighthouse in a couple of key scenes throughout the movie.
Mendocino Headlands State Park
A short walk from Main Street in downtown Mendocino is the stunning Mendocino Headlands State Park.
This is the place to walk along coastal bluffs, enjoy impressive views overlooking the ocean, and admire colorful wildflowers in the spring.
Mendocino Headlands State Park is one of those bucket list destinations and the prettiest spot for a breezy stroll near town.
Walk along the flat Point Mendocino Trail to take in the best views and highlights of the park, from Portuguese Beach to sea arches and caves and the mouth of the Big River.
While you’re at Mendocino Headlands State Park, keep your eyes peeled for gray whales that make their annual migration near the coast in the winter and early spring.
If you’re visiting Mendocino Headlands State Park in summer, don’t miss the Mendocino Music Festival that happens at the park each year in July.
Local tip: Learn more about Mendocino Headlands State Park and Mendocino as a whole with a stop at the visitor center on Main Street, housed in the Historic Ford House.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
One of the best things to do on the Mendocino Coast, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is a leafy 47-acre paradise of coastal bluffs, colorful flowers, and a pine forest.
This is one of the top places to visit in Mendocino if you love gardens and you’re looking for a relaxing place to soak up more coastal views.
The botanical gardens host a number of events throughout the year including yoga classes, plant sales, mushroom walks, and their popular Festival of Lights during the holidays.
To visit the gardens, you’ll need to reserve a ticket ahead of time here. Check their website before you go to find out what’s in bloom and what events are happening right now.
The gardens can be found on the way to Fort Bragg, about a 10-minute drive north of Mendocino.
With the amount of state and local parks nearby and an outdoor culture that is so prevalent in Northern California, there are a lot of great options for hiking in Mendocino.
Whether you’re looking for coastal hiking trails along the Mendocino Coast or hushed redwood forests, these are the top parks and the best Mendocino hikes in the area.
Van Damme State Park
Located in Little River and just off Highway 1 in Mendocino County, Van Damme State Park spans 1,831 acres and features green forests filled with ferns, campsites, and a protected cove.
Start off your time at Van Damme State Park on the Pygmy Forest Trail to see these rare small trees up close on a short and easy 0.25-mile walk.
Afterward, you can explore the Fern Canyon Trail. The full Fern Canyon hike is eight miles and features plenty of ferns, birdwatching, and a mostly shaded trail.
If you have more time at Van Damme State Park and you’re looking to do something besides hiking, Van Damme Beach is a great place for kayaking.
You can usually sign up for kayaking tours at the Van Damme Beach parking lot during the summer.
Russian Gulch State Park
One of my favorite state parks in Northern California, Russian Gulch State Park features the Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge (an art deco bridge built in the late 1930s), sandy beaches, redwood trees, campsites, and 15 miles of hiking trails.
My favorite hike at Russian Gulch State Park is the 6.2-mile Fern Canyon and Waterfall loop trail that leads to a majestic 36-foot waterfall in the middle of the forest, complete with ferns and moss-covered rocks and trees surrounding it.
Another popular trail at Russian Gulch State Park is the short 0.4-mile Headlands loop trail that takes you to a sinkhole called the Devil’s Punchbowl.
Visit in the spring to see the bright yellow wildflowers that contrast nicely with the usual lush green scenery around the park.
Local tip: Like most state parks in California, Russian Gulch State Park charges a $10 day use fee. Make sure you have exact change with you since there’s not always someone working the toll booth.
Hendy Woods State Park
If you’re looking to explore an old-growth redwood forest and you’re willing to make a slightly longer trek, head over to Hendy Woods State Park in Philo.
Located about a 45-minute drive from the town of Mendocino, Hendy Woods State Park is the place to see towering redwoods in the Anderson Valley.
Start your visit with the 0.6-mile Discovery Trail to see Big Hendy Grove, the park’s most impressive redwood forest.
Another sight that shouldn’t be missed is the redwood tree that was once the home of Hendy Hermit, a Russian immigrant who lived amongst the trees in this area of California for 18 years.
Read my full guide on where to find redwoods near San Francisco.
If working up a sweat on the trail doesn’t appeal to you or you’re looking for an after-hike treat, another one of the best things to do around Mendocino County is to go wine tasting.
Although Napa and Sonoma tend to get a lot of attention in California, Mendocino has a fantastic wine scene that’s friendly, welcoming, and highly underrated.
It’s also one of the most climatically diverse wine regions in California.
There are two main areas to go wine tasting in Mendocino County. The first is along Highway 128 in the Anderson Valley and the second is along Highway 101 in the Ukiah Valley.
My favorite Anderson Valley winery is dog-friendly Lula Cellars.
Not only is the property gorgeous, but Dan, the tasting room manager, and his dog Kepler are the best hosts you could ask for. I especially love their Guntly Red, a juicy blend of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel grapes.
Rejuvenate at a Bed & Breakfast & Have a Spa Day
There’s something about the Mendocino Coast that makes you want to just kick back and pamper yourself.
Maybe it’s the comforting sounds of the ocean or the quiet nature that feels so far away from bustling San Francisco and the Bay Area, but Mendocino and relaxation go hand in hand.
That’s why treating yourself to a cozy and relaxing spa weekend is one of those must-do Mendocino activities.
Book a room at Sweetwater Inn & Spa in downtown Mendocino for the best of both worlds – ocean-view cottages, spa services, and a hot tub and sauna.
Otherwise, take your pick from one of the relaxing bed & breakfasts around Mendocino and book a spa treatment at Mendocino Massage for a weekend of pure rejuvenation.
Visit the Small Historic Museums
The historic Ford House Museum is not only the visitor center for the Mendocino Headlands, it’s a place to learn more about the unique and layered history of Mendocino as a whole.
At the Ford House Museum, discover a scale model of what Mendocino looked like in the late 19th century, as well as historic artifacts, photographs, and tools.
This is also the place to learn about Mendocino’s logging history, local plants and animals, and the history of Indigenous Americans in the Mendocino area, a place they’ve called home for thousands of years.
The Kelley House Museum is located just a few blocks away and offers another look at Mendocino’s logging and shipping industries.
Spend the Day in Fort Bragg
Just a 15-minute drive north of Mendocino, doing a day trip to Fort Bragg is one of the best things to do near Mendocino.
There are a lot of things to do in Fort Bragg but the 3-4 activities I’d recommend for a day trip from Mendocino are walking around downtown Fort Bragg, hopping on the Skunk Train or riding railbikes through the forest, and visiting Glass Beach.
- Downtown Fort Bragg – Historically restored storefronts, good food, art galleries, and a great museum is what you can expect to find with a walk around downtown Fort Bragg. Stop at the Guest House Museum to learn more about Fort Bragg’s logging and railroad past, grab lunch and a pint at North Coast Brewing Co., and pop your head into the small boutiques and art galleries around town.
- The Skunk Train – The Skunk Train is an institution in Mendocino County and a popular family outing with young ones. This historic train takes you on a peaceful journey through the redwoods. If you’re visiting in December, they run a holiday Skunk Train, which includes hot cocoa, Christmas carols, sugar cookies, Christmas decorations, a holiday skit, and numerous SANTA sightings.
- Railbikes – If you’re looking for a more active and open-air ride through the redwood forest, sign up for a railbike tour (also run by the Skunk Train). These two-person electric railbikes follow historic railroad tracks and take you past Pudding Creek, trestle bridges, and quiet redwoods. It’s one of the most unique ways to experience the California redwoods.
- Glass Beach – Another popular attraction in Fort Bragg is Glass Beach. Glass Beach is covered in soft and small colorful pieces of sea glass, a leftover remnant of what used to be a garbage dump in the area. It’s the most stunning on a sunny day when all the sea glass colors shine brightest, but regardless of the weather, it’s a fun experience to have on the Northern California Coast. Just please don’t take any sea glass home with you!
Free Things to do in Mendocino
Spend the Afternoon at the Beach
Although the North Coast can be much chillier than what you’ll find in Southern California, one of the top Mendocino tourist attractions is checking out its rugged beaches.
Along the coast, from Point Arena to up past Fort Bragg, you’ll discover tide pools, sea lions, sea caves, and a windswept beauty that can only be found in Northern California.
These are a few of the best beaches in Mendocino County that are perfect for beachcombing, picnicking, or tide pooling.
Jug Handle State Beach
Visit the tucked-away Jug Handle State Beach for a scenic picnic with views of rock formations, wildlife spotting, Pacific Ocean views, and the best ecological walk in the area.
The beach is right off Highway 1 and only a short walk from the parking lot. Come here on a sunny day to see the water turn aquamarine and the beach at its prettiest.
After enjoying the beach, don’t miss the 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail that takes you through half a million years of history and teaches you more about the local flora, including a pygmy forest.
Big River Beach
Right next to downtown Mendocino and part of Mendocino Headlands State Park, Big River Beach is one of the easiest beaches to get to on this list.
This also means it’s one of the most popular beaches on the Northern California Coast.
This white sand beach is where the Big River flows into the Pacific Ocean, which means it’s a great spot to launch canoes or kayaks for exploring the Big River Estuary nearby.
Big River Beach is also an ideal beach for swimming since it runs alongside the calm Big River.
You’ll just want to avoid swimming near where the river meets the ocean since there can be strong rip currents in that area.
Another conveniently located beach near the village of Mendocino, Caspar Beach is a rocky cove that has a mix of calm and rough surf depending on the day.
On more boisterous days, surfers come here to test their balance on the waves. On calmer days, it’s the perfect place to bring the whole family and for little ones to get their feet wet.
During low tide, you can sometimes find small tide pools in the area as well.
Accessible from the Mendocino Headlands, Portuguese Beach is a secluded, sandy beach in the midst of one of the prettiest areas of Mendocino.
You’ll often find driftwood washed up on the sandy beach that is almost non-existent during high tide.
Come here during low tide for a breezy picnic on the beach to give your legs a break after walking around the Mendocino Headlands.
Where to Find Tide Pools
Tidepooling can be great if you’re traveling with kids or you’re interested in discovering colorful sea life along the Mendocino Coast.
Although Casper Beach has a small tide pool area that can be found during low tide, the best place to go tide pooling in Mendocino County is Laguna Point at MacKerricher State Park. This is also a great place to spot harbor seals.
Nearby Glass Beach also has decent tide pools at low tide, as well as Van Damme State Park.
Check out the Art Galleries
Being one of the most beautiful areas on the Northern California Coast, it’s not surprising just how much artistic inspiration there is in Mendocino.
You can get a glimpse of Mendocino’s artsy culture by visiting the galleries around the village of Mendocino.
If you only have time for one place, choose the Mendocino Art Center.
You really can’t get more local than the Mendocino Art Center, which features impressive works of art from resident artists in the community.
The Art Center also offers a number of classes in different types of art forms that you can sign up for if you want to test your artistic prowess.
Mendocino Farmers Market
Known as one of the best farm-to-fork destinations in California that’s all about fresh, organic, and local food, Mendocino County is a prime spot to visit a farmers market.
There are various farmers markets throughout the county but the downtown Mendocino Farmers Market happens every Friday from noon to 2 pm from May to October.
This farmers market is the place to soak up coastal views, listen to live music, rub shoulders with locals, and grab some picnic fixings.
At the market, you’ll find everything from fresh produce to flowers, handmade soap, artisanal cheeses, homemade jams, baked goods, and more.
Point Arena Lighthouse
If you’re looking to explore more maritime history on the Mendocino Coast, head to Point Arena Lighthouse.
The Point Arena Lighthouse is about an hour south of downtown Mendocino, so it’s the perfect place to stop on your way to or from Mendocino if you’re coming from San Francisco.
It’s the tallest lighthouse on the Pacific Coast and features over 150 years of history that can be explored through the indoor and outdoor museums.
Nearby, don’t miss Bowling Ball Beach (also known as Schooner Gulch Beach) and Manchester State Park.
Unique Activities in Mendocino
Horseback Riding on the Beach
If you’re looking for romantic things to do in the area, it doesn’t get more quintessentially romantic than galloping on a horse near the ocean with your loved one.
Just north of Fort Bragg, you’ll find Ricochet Ridge Ranch, which offers affordable one-hour horseback beach rides along Ten Mile Beach.
If the beach isn’t your thing, they also offer rides through the forest, which can be especially magical with the lush forests that Mendocino is so well known for.
Temple of Kwan Tai
One of the more unique places to see in Mendocino, the Temple of Kwan Tai is a Chinese Taoist temple and a California historical landmark.
The Temple of Kwan Tai is a sight to behold in downtown Mendocino with its bright red and green paint.
It’s not only one of the oldest Chinese temples in California, it’s also a good place to learn more about the impact that the Chinese community has had in California since the 19th century.
The best way to experience the temple to the fullest is to hop on a free docent tour. They’re offered May through October on Saturdays from 12-3 pm and Sundays from 11-2 pm.
Craft Beer Tasting
One of the best things to do in the Mendocino area if you enjoy taste-testing quality beer is to do a self-guided brewery tour.
Although Mendocino County is more well known for its wine scene, there are a few craft breweries that are well worth a visit if you’re looking to grab a pint.
Take your pick from the following breweries to create a fun afternoon of beer tasting:
Otherwise, if beer isn’t your thing or you’re looking for something a little different, don’t miss the apple cider from Gowan’s Heirloom Cider.
Read my full guide to the best California breweries.
Outdoorsy Things to do in the Mendocino Area
Kayak or Canoe the Big River Estuary
Although ocean kayaking in Mendocino is popular, the Mendocino area also offers a unique (and usually more relaxing) experience of canoeing or kayaking the Big River Estuary.
The Big River Estuary is one of the best spots for wildlife watching in Mendocino.
Don’t be surprised if you come across harbor seals, Great Blue Herons, and a few of the 22 different types of fish that call this place home.
Catch-a-Canoe is a local company that offers daily canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and redwood outrigger rentals so you can enjoy the beautiful experience of cruising by the local wildlife from the water.
Local tip: Your time on the Big River should be based around tides since it’s a tidal estuary. Call Catch-a-Canoe ahead of time to ask for the best time to start your journey.
The California Coast has numerous whale watching spots but Mendocino is one of the best, especially since there are fewer crowds compared to what you’ll find further south.
From November through April, you can often spot grey whales off the shore, making their annual migration from Alaska to Baja California and back.
Try and spot them yourself from the Mendocino Coast or hop on a whale watching boat charter to get closer to these amazing creatures in their natural habitat.
For boat charters, I’d recommend All Aboard Adventures which leaves from Noyo Harbor and offers affordable whale watching experiences in the winter and early spring.
And if you really want to get into the whale watching spirit, time your visit to Mendocino for the first week of March for the Whale Festival.
Explore Sea Caves by Kayak
Kayaking the sea caves along Mendocino’s coastline is a one-of-a-kind experience.
It combines beautiful scenery, a good workout, and the chance to see marine life and interesting geological history up close.
Sign up for an hour and a half tour with Kayak Mendocino to explore the sea caves around Van Damme State Park.
Throughout the tour, you’ll get your fill of birdwatching, saying hi to the harbor seals, and navigating dark and breezy caves to your heart’s content.
Otherwise, if you’re looking for more adventurous and fun things to do, you could sign up for a whitewater kayaking trip.
Liquid Fusion Kayak offers three-hour whitewater kayaking tours in the ocean that allow you to test your skills in the waves and explore unique rock gardens.
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
Head to Jug Handle State Natural Reserve in Fort Bragg to take in some of the best views in Mendocino and walk the popular Ecological Staircase Trail.
The 5.1-mile Ecological Staircase Trail is one of the best spots to see a pygmy forest up close.
The “staircase” also consists of layers of marine terraces that have distinct geology and flora. It’s one of the most unique natural history spots on the Mendocino Coast.
Other sights to see at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve include Jug Handle State Beach, panoramic ocean views, and a historic bridge that was built in the 1930s.
Big River Haul Road
Meandering along the Big River, you’ll find Big River Haul Road, a popular place to hike or mountain bike to the backdrop of beautiful riverside scenery.
What once used to be a logging haul road has since turned into the spot for wildlife watching near the river in Mendocino.
Rent a bike or put on your most comfortable walking shoes to explore the 10-mile Big River Haul Road that takes you past the highlights of the estuary and the diverse wildlife that lives there.
Where to Eat & Drink
If you’re a foodie, one of the best things to do around Mendocino is to enjoy the delicious local restaurants.
The North Coast is known for its phenomenal foodie scene that features fresh and simple ingredients combined in tasty ways.
Here are a few of my favorite places to eat and drink in the Mendocino area.
- Little River Inn – One of the best Mendocino restaurants. They’re known for their local fare, family hospitality, and fine dining experience.
- Frankie’s – A popular local pizza joint in downtown Mendocino that’s quaint, family-run, and known for quality ingredients.
- North Coast Brewing – Just a 15-minute drive North of Mendocino, serving 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 for lunch before you hop on the train.
- Café Beaujolais – Located in a Victorian farmhouse, Café Beaujolais is another fine dining experience in Mendocino that serves French-inspired cuisine.
- Cowlick’s Ice Cream – A local favorite that should be on every ice cream lover’s list. They have tons of homemade flavors and frozen treats for sale.
- Dick’s Place – The best dive bar in Mendocino to rub shoulders with locals and drink a pint in an unpretentious space.
Where to Stay in Mendocino
Brewery Gulch Inn
The Brewery Gulch Inn is one of the best hotels in Mendocino, perfect for anyone who’s looking for a cozy retreat just a few minutes outside of downtown.
The features I love best about this place are the made-to-order breakfast, the light dinner buffet and wine hour in the evenings (um, free wine and food? Yes, please!), and the welcoming staff that are always helpful with any questions about the area.
When I stayed here last, I had a fireplace in my room, a view of Smuggler’s Cove from my personal balcony, and found salted caramels on the pillow.
Besides the Brewery Gulch Inn, these are the other two Mendocino hotels I’d recommend:
If you’re looking for vacation rentals in the Mendocino area, Airbnb has some great options. Here are a few of my favorite Airbnbs in Mendocino:
If you want to sleep underneath the stars, Russian Gulch State Park and Van Damme State Park are ideal spots for camping in Mendocino.
Otherwise, you can browse a full list of options for camping near Mendocino here.
And if you’re camping and looking for gear, make sure to check out my recommendations for the best four-person tents, large camping tents, pop-up tents, six-person tents, eight-person tents, and 3-room tents.
Best Time to Visit Mendocino
Like most of California, Mendocino is a temperate destination to visit year-round.
With that said, temperatures are usually chillier in Mendocino compared to other parts of the California Coast, so you’ll want to bundle up and bring layers no matter what time of year it is.
Visit in the spring for wildflowers, the summer and fall for good hiking and beach weather, or the winter for whale watching.
The fog often rolls in on this part of the coast in the mornings, especially during early summer, but tends to burn off by the afternoon.
One thing to be mindful of is fire season in California, which starts toward the end of summer and goes through fall.
It’s hard to predict fire season, but if you’re traveling to Mendocino during this time of year, it’s good to check air quality, conditions, and nearby fires ahead of time.
Tips for Visiting Mendocino
- Bring layers and bundle up – As I mentioned above, Mendocino and the North Coast as a whole can feel chilly compared to the rest of California’s coastline. It’s often foggy and breezy near the water, especially once the sun goes down. It’s a good idea to bring layers and warm clothes, even if you’re visiting in summer.
- Indulge in all things local – One of the best aspects about Mendocino is its local nature and friendly community. If you can, time your visit for one of the many seasonal events that happen around Mendocino throughout the year. Support local businesses and poke your head into the many shops that sell homemade treats or unique goods.
- Embrace getting away from it all – Mendocino is the perfect place to get away from it all and recharge. Embrace the sleepy nature of the area, expect to disconnect with spotty cell service, and simply enjoy a relaxing break amidst some of the most stunning scenery in Northern California.
What to Pack for Mendocino
- Good walking shoes
- Hiking shoes
- Reusable water bottle
- Portable charger
- Travel insurance for Mendocino
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