For a healthy dose of fresh air, majestic redwoods and craggy Pacific coastlines, head north from San Francisco for a one-gas-tank getaway to Mendocino. We recommend making the drive in daylight. It’s full of twists, curves and hairpin turns through forests (which cover 60 percent of Mendocino County) on a narrow route CA-128.
Your map shows a 150-mile journey, but it doesn’t reveal what feels like a trip back in time. Founded in 1850, Mendocino presents a slower pace, where high-speed Wi-Fi really doesn’t matter. Bring your hiking shoes, camera, binoculars and paintbrushes, but leave the laptop at home.
What to See and Do
Point Arena Lighthouse
Thirty-five miles south of Mendocino, the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast is one of the best whale-watching spots along the California gray whales’ migratory route (November through April). When the fog stays at bay, trek up the 145 steps for endless views.
Point Cabrillo Light Station
Love historic lighthouses? This second option is closer to town, with a half-mile approach on foot. The lighthouse, with its original Chance Brothers classic third-order Fresnel lens, is only open for tours eight days a year; dates are posted online. Whale sightings, happily, are a much more frequent occurrence.
Easy to access from the town center, Mendocino Headlands State Park’s gentle trails provide walkers with views from the rugged cliffs right down to the coastline, with its hidden sea grottos and rock formations, perfect for kayaking. For variety on inland walks, Russian Gulch State Park leads hikers to a 36-foot waterfall. Van Damme State Park offers a peaceful path along Little River among second-growth coastal redwoods, a fern canyon and a pygmy forest.
Mendocino Art Center
The focal point of a thriving arts community, this center’s studios and beautifully landscaped grounds provide a gift shop, artists’ exhibition space and workshops for painting and drawing that day visitors can join. (Call ahead.) You can also catch a repertory show at the Mendocino Theatre Company’s intimate 75-seat Helen Schaeni Theatre on the campus of the art center. Since 1976, the nonprofit organization has produced a wide range of shows to delight audiences.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
It’s not every botanical garden that’s located by a forest and the coast, so you’ll get Pileated woodpeckers and crashing waves alongside seasonal floral displays. Plan to spend at least two hours in 47 acres of (dog-friendly) bliss. Fun to spot: spouting whales and blushing brides. Tip: General admission is $14, but there’s no fee to eat at Rhody’s Garden Cafe overlooking the Perennial Garden.
Where to Eat and Drink
GoodLife Cafe & Bakery
A good Mendocino day starts here. Everything in the tempting display case is made on the premises. Try gluten-free options like the blueberry streusel, the breakfast burrito and veggie cake to accompany a great cup of organic, fair-trade, locally roasted coffee.
Surrounded by an antique rose garden, the pretty Victorian farmhouse with a white picket fence has been a dining destination for four decades. It’s a widely acclaimed, family-run business, where the greeting is as warm as the freshly baked bread from the ovens.
Ole’s Whale Watch Bar
Take a seat at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar adjacent to Little River Inn’s dining room. A congenial mix of regulars and visitors enjoy well-crafted cocktails, California wines and glasses of bubbly where the terrific ocean views are framed by big picture windows. Ask someone about the story of how James Dean once got kicked out of here.
Where to Stay
Little River Inn
Rocking chairs and a yarn shop, tennis courts and Mendocino’s only nine-hole golf course—they all come together around the main house of this resort, a white-gingerbread Victorian set on a flowered hill above the sea.
MacCallum House Inn
This charming B&B is actually a collection of 19th-century landmarks sprinkled among unbeatable downtown locations. Plan well ahead to stay and dine at Grey Whale Bar during the popular Mendocino Jazz Festival every July.
The Inn at Newport Ranch
How about your own private coast on a working cattle ranch? Rustic and elegant describe this custom-built, cathedral-ceilinged inn with commanding views along its mile-long coastline. Twenty miles north of Mendocino, this is a destination property with 20 hiking trails on 2,000 acres where guests can immerse themselves in authentic local experiences such as ATV adventure safaris and horseback riding along ridge-top trails.
Brewery Gulch Inn
The secret’s out on this luxury 10-room woodsy hideaway. Named one of the world’s best hotels by both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines, this is rare rustic refinement. Settle in with morning coffee by the wood-burning fireplace in the vaulted Great Room or wander out back to observe blue jays above and ocean views below.