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21 Fun & Best Things to Do in Mendocino, California

21 Fun & Best Things to Do in Mendocino, California

Mendocino is a Northern California coastal village on Mendocino Bay. It is divided into two sections by the Big River, just 150 miles north of San Francisco. It is known for its delicious wines, prime whale watching, and thriving artistic interests like the Mendocino Art Center.  

This headlands community is also home to Mendocino Headlands State Park, where cliffside trails pepper the area offering stunning coastline views. Further up the coast is Russian Gulch State Park featuring pygmy forests, waterfalls, the Devil’s Punchbowl, and the Point Cabrillo Light Station.

Initially established to support the mid-19th Century redwood logging industry, the town boasts distinct New England-inspired architecture and is now designated a Historic Preservation District. But is Mendocino, California, worth visiting? Absolutely. It is a great weekend trip from the Bay Area, just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco. 

Mendocino’s climate is relatively temperate but can be a bit colder than other parts of the California Coast. During early summer, the coast is typically blanketed with morning fog keeping the day’s temperatures perfect for hiking. And in the winter, the whales herald the return of St. Nick – or is it the other way around?

The area is full of places to stay, from cliffside eco-resorts like the Stanford Inn by the Sea to glamping tents near Van Damme Park. There are also numerous VRBO vacation rentals throughout the Mendocino area, like this incredible, quirky oceanview cabin.

A relaxing drive along California Highway 1 is the best way to reach Mendocino. The route allows for stunning vistas. If you are new to the coast, download a helpful audio guide highlighting over 169 stops and famous sights along the way!

Interested yet? If you are planning to visit this small coastal town, here are some of the best things to do in Mendocino, California.

Railbikes California
1. Railbikes along Pudding Creek Top Recommendation

Looking for a unique way to explore the great outdoors? Then hop on a Railbike and pedal your way along Pudding Creek! This scenic stretch of track is the perfect place to soak up some dappled sunlight and take in the fresh air. With no need to steer, you can simply sit back and enjoy the ride as you take in all the natural wonders around you. Keep your eyes peeled for blue herons, osprey, turtles, river otters, deer and even bears as you peddle your way through this beautiful landscape.

Mendocino County Skunk Train Pudding Creek Train Ride
2. Mendocino County: Skunk Train Pudding Creek Train Ride

The Mendocino County Skunk Train Pudding Creek Train Ride is a unique and scenic way to explore the California coast. The seven-mile round trip ride offers stunning views of the estuary, home to many Blue Herons, Ospreys, Egrets, and other wildlife. The train passes through Giant Coast Redwoods, providing an educational experience about the history and ecology of the area. This is a rare opportunity to ride on one of the first tracks laid down by the California Western Railroad in 1885 and see logging history come to life through an incredible model railroad.

Private Holiday Professional Photo Shoot in Mendocino
3. Private Holiday Professional Photo Shoot in Mendocino

Make your Mendocino trip even more special with a private holiday professional photo shoot! Expert photographers will capture the best moments of your vacation while showing you the hidden wonders of this beautiful city. With more than 400 five-star reviews on different platforms, proud to offer photography services to travelers and locals alike. If it's your first time, there will be tips on how to pose and can provide multiple outfits.

TLDR

  • Most significant landmark – Ford House Museum
  • Best park – Mendocino Headlands State Park.
  • Best free activity – Whale Watching
  • Best thing to do for kids – The Skunk Train
  • Best thing to do for adults – Wine Tour
  • Best food –  McCallum House 
  • Best nightlife – Patterson’s Pub
  • Best all-around accommodation – Stanford Inn by the Sea

Best & Fun Things to do in Mendocino, California

1. Whale Watching

A tourist filming whales swimming

Address: Mendocino, CA 95460

Mendocino is considered one of the best places to whale watch on the Northern California Coast. High vantage points and fewer crowds make it easy to find an excellent spot for whale watching, particularly on calm mornings. 

Each winter, November through April, California grey whales can be seen off the shore on their annual migration from Alaska to Baja, California, and back. In recent years, Orcas have also been spotted in the early fall.

Locals prefer to whale watch on the coastal trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park. While the long herds of these magnificent mammals are visible from shore, numerous boat charters from Noyo Harbor, such as All Aboard Adventures, specialize in whale watching. 

Noyo Harbor, located between Fort Bragg and Mendocino, is also a great place to stay, especially at the Noyo Harbor Inn, Restaurant, and Tavern. And for a truly spectacular event, plan to visit Mendocino at the beginning of March for the Whale Festival at Fort Bragg!

2. Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park

Address: 13800 Point Cabrillo Drive, Mendocino, California

An active navigation aid, Point Cabrillo Lightstation, was constructed in 1909 and is a popular place for photographers and hikers. The lighthouse is open for Lens Tours and general exploration as part of the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historical Park. Three restored lightkeeper homes are available for overnight rental.

The onsite Lighthouse Museum is open daily and highlights the history of Point Cabrillo. If you are fascinated by tidal pools, a short distance from the lighthouse is a Marine Science Exhibit – a 240-gallon seawater aquarium detailing the ecosystems of these coastal shallows.  

See Related: Best National Parks to Visit in November

3. Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands State Park Scenery

Address: DowntownMendocino, CA 95460

The breathtaking Mendocino Headlands State Park and Mendocino Trail are a short walk from Main Street in downtown Mendocino. The headland trails are easy to follow, with impressive ocean views. The park surrounds the Village of Mendocino on three sides and is part of a 7,400-acre wildlife corridor that extends to Big River Beach.  

Point Mendocino Trail wanders over cliffs and peninsulas from the Ford House Museum to Point Mendocino, perfect for hikers of all skill levels. Additional trails lead east to the Big River delta or west to the sea arches and caves around Portuguese Beach.

Practically anywhere on the cliffs in Mendocino Headlands State Park is a great place to spot the grey whales during their annual migration. Don’t forget your camera!

If you’re visiting Mendocino Headlands State Park in the summer, don’t miss the annual Mendocino Music Festival. If you attend this festival, you’ll likely want a place to stay. A perfect option for solo travelers or couples sits just east of downtown, the Inns of Mendocino. Check it out and check in!

4. Ford House Museum

Ford House Museum in Mendocino, CA

Address: 45035 Main Street, Mendocino, California

Located on Main Street near the mouth of the Big River, the Ford House Museum is one of the best places to visit in Mendocino to get your stay started.  

Originally the home to lumber magnate Jerome B. Ford, the historic Ford House Museum is listed on the National Historic Register. The museum houses artifacts and exhibits detailing 19th Century Mendocino life, including a model city.

Other exhibits highlight the part lumber and logging played in Mendocino’s development. Mendocino’s historic house is also the state park and village visitor’s center, offering hiking and logging information.

A few blocks from the Ford House Museum is the perfect place to take a break, the MendoVino Wine Bar. This quirky wine-tasting room in the heart of town provides a Mendocino county wine tour in a glass – or two.

See Related: Best Museums in the US You Need to Visit

5. Mendocino Art Center

Entrance of Mendocino Art Center Building

Address: 45200 Little Lake Street, Mendocino, California

Led by Bill and Jennie Zacha, the local artistic community established the Mendocino Art Center in 1959 with the hope of revitalizing the failing logging town. The Art Center quickly became a focal point of a growing coastal art colony.

Intended as a cultural center for community engagement, the primary gallery and rotating exhibitions celebrate the works of local and regional artists. Artists in residence and traveling instructors add depth to over 150 workshops annually. Artists teach ceramics, glass blowing, painting, drawing, and sculpture. 

The Mendocino Art Center offers open studio time and retreat lodging for budding artists. In addition to supporting the visual arts, the Art Center’s Helen Schoeni Theatre houses the Mendocino Theatre Company.

A few blocks from the Art Center is a quintessentially California restaurant, Flow Restaurant & Lounge. The waterfront eatery features locally sourced ingredients, craft cocktails & deck seating for spectacular sunset views.

6. Russian Gulch State Park

Russian Gulch State Park

Address: CA-1, Mendocino, California

Russian Gulch State Park sits two miles north of downtown Mendocino, California, and will keep even the most active outdoor enthusiasts busy. It has a sandy beach, seasonal flowers, and towering redwoods. One of the park’s most distinct landmarks is a 1930s-era art deco bridge, Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge. Camping is allowed in the park.

Russian Gulch State Park boasts roughly 30 miles of trails, with the 6.2-mile Fern Canyon Trail as one of the most popular. But it does not compare to the 1.1-mile Waterfall Loop, which ends in a stunning 36-foot waterfall.

And something even more spectacular lies along the 0.4-mile Headlands Loop. This short but challenging trail leads to the awe-inspiring Devil’s Punchbowl, a collapsed sea tunnel. This spectacular formation is a must when visiting Mendocino with kids, as it becomes a deafening whirlpool as the tides change, worthy of any Satanic beverage.

See Related: What to Bring on a Camping Trip with Friends

7. Kelley House Museum

Infront of Kelley House Museum

Address: 45007 Albion Street, Mendocino, California

Did you know that the entire Village of Mendocino is a Historic Preservation District with Victorian sea cottages throughout town? Well now you do, and there’s one stunning example that can fill you in on all the deets. The Kelley House is an ocean-view home over a century old and has been transformed into a museum that chronicles the history of these unique cottages.

The historic Kelley House Museum features exhibits, items, and artifacts, including historical photos. Additionally, the Museum docents conduct two-hour walking tours detailing cottage architecture and outlining Mendocino’s logging and shipping history.

See Related: Where to Stay in Santa Barbara: Best Areas & Neighborhoods

8. Big River Beach

Big River Beach Scenery

Address: Mendocino, CA 95460

Big River Beach is where the Pacific Ocean meets the Big River in Mendocino Bay. Minutes from downtown Mendocino and part of Mendocino Headlands State Park, Big River Beach is one of the best places in Mendocino. 

Getting to the beach is easy. A small easterly path along the southern bluffs leads to a wooden staircase with beach access. Simple.

Although ocean kayaking is hugely popular around the rugged coastline, the area also offers the opportunity to canoe the Big River Estuary. The area’s water flow depends on the tides minimizing whitewater rapids on the upstream trip.

It also makes Big River Beach a safe Big River Estuary put-in for kayaks and canoes. Local canoe tour companies offer daily canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and redwood outrigger rentals to enhance the trip.

Once away from the headwaters and strong rip currents, the river is excellent for cooling off with a quick swim. There is picturesque hiking and biking along inland trails that closely follow the riverbank. Don’t forget to watch out for the harbor seals and great blue herons.

Less than a mile from Big River Beach is the MacCallum House. The Victorian-styled hotel is also famous for being home to a chef-directed farm-to-table restaurant. Housed in a restored barn, Chef Alan Kantor creates organic dishes for his unique restaurant. MacCallum house is also home to a favorite local dinner spot, the Grey Whale Bar and Cafe.

See Related: Best Black Sand Beaches in the World

9. Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Statue in Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Address: 18220 CA-1, Fort Bragg, CA 95437

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is one of a very small number of coastal botanical parks in the country. It sits on 47 acres, with breathtaking views of the ocean. The gardens are located a short 10-mile drive north of Mendocino and are one of the best things to do in Mendocino if you’re looking for a place to stroll or some quiet contemplation.

The Botanical Gardens boasts over 200 flower and plant species, with a unique Dahlia garden with over 120 varietals. There is also a nationally recognized Heaths and Heather Collection present.

In addition to coastal bluffs and a pine forest, the botanical gardens are home to roughly four miles of trails. Community events are held year-round, such as yoga and meditation classes, plant sales, mushroom walks, and the holiday Festival of Lights!

10. Mendocino County Farmers’ Market

Address: 44901 Main Street, Mendocino, CA 95460

 The Mendocino County Farmers’ Market is located directly on Main Street in the heart of Mendocino; the farmer’s market boasts coastal views, live music, and a fantastic assortment of picnic or wine country fixings. 

Seven area food farms support the market, where you’ll find everything from fresh produce to flowers. There are also handmade soaps, eggs, artisanal cheeses, homemade jams, fresh-cut flowers, olive oils, and baked goods.

The Mendocino Farmers’ Market is open from May to October on Fridays and is arguably the best free thing to do in Mendocino, California – right up until you spend money on some delicious produce. In which case, it’s still pretty baller.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Venice, California

11. Downtown Mendocino

Downtown Mendocino

Address: Medocino CA 95460

 If you’re looking for a few things to do in Mendocino, an excellent place to start is downtown Mendocino. Downtown Mendocino has everything you’d expect from a coastal village cute boutiques, quiet cafes, and a very walkable square. There is even a wonderful local chocolatier, Papa Bear’s Chocolate Haus!

Main Street, parallel to Mendocino Headlands State Park, is a great starting point to explore the Village. Along Main Street, grab some homemade jams from Mendocino Jams & Preserves, shop, or enjoy a drink at the local haunt, Patterson’s Pub. It looks a little dinky, but they have a great outdoor seating area, and the food is off the chain. Try the cobbler – do it.

The Brewery Gulch Inn is just south of downtown Mendocino, perfect for a cozy retreat outside of downtown. Downtown Mendocino is also a place to breathe fresh air and relax with a spa treatment at Mendocino Massage. If you prefer not to choose between an al fresco afternoon and the serenity of a spa, check out the Sweetwater Inn & Spa downtown Mendocino for the best of both worlds.

12. Van Damme State Park

Van Damme State Park Scenery

Address:  8001 CA-1, Little River, California

Outdoor enthusiasts will love Van Damme State Park. Located at the Little River’s headwaters, just three miles south of downtown Mendocino, the 2,000-acre reserve contains a range of habitats, including marine and coastal bluff terraces.

The forest canopy consists of pygmy pine, redwood, and riparian forests. Van Damme State Park also features protected scuba diving spots, roughly 21 miles of hiking trails, and redwood forest glamping sites nearby.

Fern Canyon Trailis Van Damme State Park’s signature hike. The 8-mile loop meanders under thick redwoods and connects with other hiking trails for more challenging routes and birding. 

A protected cove is a day-use area used by beginner divers and sea-cave explorers. It is also possible to kayak the sea caves around Van Damme State Park, with the most popular Kayak Mendocino tours lasting an hour and a half. 

The park houses Highland Meadows Campground, with over 70 sites catering to tents and RVs. Along the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail, nine hike-in campsites are available.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California

13. Van Damme Pygmy Forest Natural Preserve

Trail in Pygmy Forest
image by DBerry2006 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Address: Van Damme State Park, Little River, CA

Van Damme State Park also has a Pygmy Forest. Over time, the increasing acidity of the area’s soil helped create this unique sub-forest that’s ideal for easy walks. While many trails in Van Damme State Park are challenging, seeing the Pygmy Forest is easy.

The forest’s main trail, the Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail, features a quarter-mile boardwalk, allowing universal access to the stunted grove of cypress and pine trees. Educational plaques along the boardwalk explain this rare natural phenomenon. The accessibility of the path makes the Pygmy Forest one of the best things to do for families.

14. Wine Tasting in Mendocino County

Address: Mendocino County, CA

Why not try wine tasting if you want to take a day off hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities? You couldn’t be in a better place to enjoy some quality vino!

Mendocino County sits in the North Coast AVA and is one of the state’s most climatically diverse appellations. There are over 570 vineyards in Mendocino County, with over 20,000 acres under vine. 

Old favorites include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Merlot, the most widely planted black grapes. There are also a few lesser-known fruits, such as Sangiovese and Barbera. And some of the most popular white grapes are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier.

Each valley in the County has a unique taste and wine-making style. About 45 minutes due east of the Village of Mendocino are the Masut Winery and Redwood Valley’s Oster Wine Cellars. Both are great day trips. But if you want to sample multiple wineries, head south, down State Highway 128 in Navarro, where dozens of wineries, including the Navarro Vineyards & Winery, sit side by side.

One way to stay in downtown Mendocino and still sample the local wineries is an afternoon at Mendovino Wine Bar. Special wine flights and experts in wine cultivation make this intimate spot a perfect choice.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Napa Valley, California

15. Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

Address: CA-1, Fort Bragg, California 95437

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve sits just 15-minutes north of Mendocino and is one of the best things to do near Mendocino. It offers picture-perfect ocean views and a 1930s historic bridge. The Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a 1.2-mile area managed by the California Parks system.

Within Jug Handle is one of the best spots near Mendocino to see a pygmy forest up close. Another natural anomaly in Jug Handle is the 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail. Constructed of layers of marine materials molded by nature into step-style terraces, the Ecological Staircase is a detailed geological snapshot of the area.  

Just south of the reserve, campsites are available at Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center. There are also a series of charming cabins and roomy bunkhouses available for large groups!

16. The Skunk Train

Skunk Train in California

Address: 100 W Laurel St, Fort Bragg, CA 95437

The Skunk Train is an institution in Mendocino County and offers two different routes. It is one of the best things to do near Mendocino with kids or without. 

The Skunk Train: Pudding Creek Express, which leaves from Fort Bragg 15 miles north of Mendocino, takes riders on an hour-and-a-half seven-mile journey through the Pygmy Redwood Forest. A second Skunk Train, the Wolf Tree Turn train ride, tours the Willits Valley in a two-hour round trip over the valley’s summit, through logging tunnel #2, and down into the Noyo River Canyon. 

And if you plan a December visit, the Skunk Train offers a Holiday Train with hot cocoa and cookies, Christmas decorations, and carols. There are even rumors that Santa visits the train!

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Lake Tahoe, California

17. Railbikes

Couple Enjoying Railbikes
image by Viator

Address: 100 W Laurel St, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, USA

Railbikes are a unique way to see the Mendocino National Forest and the iconic California redwoods. Self-propelled, these open-air carts follow the old logging rails and meander through the majestic redwoods via a predesignated railbike tour. 

These two-person electric railbikes follow the old logging railroad tracks past Pudding Creek, around trestle bridges, and through the serene redwoods. Guides conduct the tours providing ecological information and ensuring the safety of the riders. Railbikes are a great way to get a little fresh air and exercise while viewing the redwoods from a totally different perspective.

18. Glass Beach 

Glass Beach Scenery

Address: Glass Beach Dr, Fort Bragg, CA 95437

Glass Beach is another fascinating tourist attraction in Mendocino County and one of three secluded beaches that were all community trash dump sites. For centuries, a common practice of seaside towns was to dump everything from bottles and cans to cars and appliances over the cliffs into the ocean.

Eventually, the refuse washed up on the beach, and these beaches were collectively known as The Dumps from 1906 to 1967. But the Sea transformed trash – some of it anyway. Over time, tidal forces turned The Dumps into a thing of beauty.

Located just ten miles north of Mendocino, what is now Glass Beach, is the southern beach of MacKerricher State Park and a small cove-like beach covered in soft, colorful pieces of sea glass. Accessible by foot, it is a quarter of a mile walk down a dirt trail.

The beach is covered in sea glass – worn and rounded over the years, creating a dazzling display of colors and shapes. Visitors can search for red glass from pre-1967 auto tail lights or sapphire shards from apothecary bottles throughout the small beach. 

The glass shines as though enchanted on a sunny day, but it’s a unique site to visit regardless of the weather. Immediately next to the beach are small tide pools with crabs, sea anemones, and other marine creatures visible during low tide.

See Related: Best Tropical Vacation Spots in the World

19. Temple of Kwan Tai 

Front of Temple of Kwan Tai
Tony Eppstein, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Address: 45160 Albion St, Mendocino, CA 95460

If you are still wondering what there is to do in Mendocino, why not take an hour or two to tour the Temple of Kwan Tai? The Kwan Tai Temple was initially built in 1854, costing $14. Nope, that’s not a typo.

The small suburban temple is dedicated to Kwan Tai, the Chinese god of war, who is a Taoist symbol of integrity and loyalty. This active Chinese Taoist temple is now the only remaining Taoist temple on the northern California coast, and a California historical landmark (#927 if you were curious). 

There are nine steps leading up to the front door of Kwan Tai Temple. Its exterior walls are painted bright green and red to confuse evil spirits trying to enter. If you’d like to learn more, temple docents conduct free tours explaining the Chinese community’s impact on California’s multicultural history beginning in the 19th Century. 

20. Mendocino Breweries & Taprooms

Ukiah Brewing Company Interior
image by Craig-World-Travelle/TripAdvisor

Address: Mendocino County, CA 

Although Mendocino County is known for its wine, several craft breweries peppered throughout the County are worth visiting if you’ve had your fill of adult grape juice. And while there are no specific breweries in downtown Mendocino, there are about a dozen traditional breweries and tap rooms throughout Mendocino County for an effective beer crawl.

Ukiah Brewing is in downtown Ukiah, 40 miles east of downtown Mendocino in the historic Marks Building. Beer brewed onsite complements fantastic food for an enjoyable evening or just a quality pint.

North Coast Brewing is a short 15-minute drive North of Mendocino, serving traditional brewpub fare. They’re right across from the Skunk Train, and perfect for a quick bite before or after your scheduled train ride.

Also north of the city near Fort Bragg is Overtime Brewing, whose creations range from Lemony Ginger Ale to Princess Oat Pale Ale. On the way back to Mendocino, you can find accommodations at the rustic B&B Brewery Gultch Inn just off California Highway 1, south of the Big River, to round out the brewery tour.

See Related: Best Places to Travel in Your 20s in the US

21. Artists’ Co-op Of Mendocino Gallery 

Artists' Co-op Of Mendocino Exhibit
image by PTS/TripAdvisor

Address: 10400 Kasten St, Mendocino, CA 95460

With the extraordinary beauty of the Pacific coast, it is no surprise that this small Village is home to several art galleries and local artists. Many of whom are members of the Artists’ Co-op of Mendocino. The best part about this place? You can buy any of the exhibits!

Located in downtown Mendocino, the Artists’ Co-op of Mendocino Gallery is a unique eco-forward gallery. Its artist members work in various media and strive to translate the area’s culture and beauty through photography, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, and drawings. Work is displayed year-round in the gallery.

Local artwork by guest artists such as Primitive painter and Mendocino resident Sev Ickes takes center stage for special exhibitions at the gallery and throughout the Village of Mendocino. The Savings Bank Mendocino is a popular extra gallery location. 

FAQ

What is Mendocino known for?

Mendocino is known for its rugged coastal beauty and the United State’sonly oceanfront botanical gardens. The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens occupy 47 acres, with over 200 floral varieties, on the northern coast.

The botanical gardens have over four miles of trails that crisscross the site. Community classes and educational events are held year-round. In the winter, the botanical gardens decorate for a Festival of Lights.

What is the best tourist attraction in Mendocino?

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historical Park is one of the best tourist attractions in Mendocino Village. This free attraction sits on roughly 30 acres of coastal bluffs with spectacular views.

Constructed in 1909, it remains an active navigational aid. On-site are an intimate museum, marine aquarium, and three restored lightkeeper homes available for overnight rental.

What is the best thing to do with kids in Mendocino?

The Skunk Train is the best thing to do along the Mendocino coast with kids. This Mendocino institution tours the Pygmy Forrest and the surrounding canyon on two different routes.

It is perfect for kids and the whole family. For a more adventurous afternoon with the kids, try the Railbikes — a unique way to see the Mendocino National Forest.

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