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Three Adventures, One County: The Ultimate Mendocino Road Trip

Spectacular coastline, majestic redwoods, prime wine country—why choose? Mendocino County packs in all the West Coast highlights.

Wild and diverse, Mendocino could be appreciated as a quick getaway from San Francisco or as an extended, epic summer road trip. At nearly 4,000 square miles, the county is bigger than Delaware. Here's a guide to exploring the area's three defining landscapes: coastline, redwood forest and wine country.

Mendocino State Beach
Mendocino State Beach (Courtesy Visit Mendocino)

Along the Coast

A portion of scenic Highway 1 leads drivers along the Mendocino shoreline. Point Arena-Stornetta coastal preserve, protected as the newest portion—and the only land-based segment—of the California Coastal National Monument, lies near the starting point. These two miles of untouched coastline contain hiking paths, picnic spots, the Point Arena Lighthouse and prime spots for whale and seal spotting. At nearby Bowling Ball Beach, low tide reveals spherical sandstone formations millions of years in the making arranged in striking chains.

Downtown Mendocino's Main Street
Downtown Mendocino's Main Street (Courtesy Brewery Gulch Inn)

About halfway up the Mendocino coast is the artsy town of Mendocino with a population of less than 1,000. Stroll the bluff-top coastal trails running parallel to its downtown and go inland to browse the shops and galleries. Unwind with an artisanal cocktail at the Victorian-era MacCallum House’s small bar or stop for fish and chips at Patterson’s Pub, which locals consider the best in the county. The Mendocino Music Festival (July 8-22) brings genre-spanning concerts to a massive white tent pitched right on a cliff overlooking the Pacific.

Brewery Gulch Inn
Overlooking the Mendocino Bay (Courtesy Brewery Gulch Inn)

Just below the town of Mendocino, the Brewery Gulch Inn overlooks the Mendocino Bay. It’s the sort of place where guests might linger for a day or even a weekend, lounging and reading by a fireplace or in a rough-hewn Adirondack-style chair on the back lawn. The complimentary, made-to-order breakfast and wine hour buffet are served in the cozy lobby with vaulted, reclaimed-redwood ceilings and massive windows.

Wine Hour Buffet at Brewery Gulch Inn
Wine hour buffet (Courtesy Brewery Gulch Inn)

If you’re up for an adventure, rent a kayak or canoe to get up close to the wildlife—river otters, harbor seals and so many birds—on the lazy 8.3-mile Big River estuary, which flows into the Pacific just south of town. For dinner with a waterfront view, book a table at the Little River Inn Restaurant’s main dining room, where repeat diners start with an order of the Dungeness crab cakes and end with the olallieberry cobbler (we recommend the bouillabaisse in between).

South of Fort Bragg on the Mendocino coast
South of Fort Bragg on the Mendocino coast (Courtesy Visit Mendocino)

Continue up the coast to the little city of Fort Bragg, home to the only coastal botanical garden on this continent, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Follow the paths winding through its 47 acres of forest, canyons and bluffs where rhododendrons, camellias, dahlias, magnolias, succulents, begonias and conifers flourish. In town, order a homemade candy cap mushroom cone at Cowlick's Ice Cream

On the city’s headlands, follow the new Noyo Headlands Fort Bragg Coastal Trail loop, winding from rugged ridge tops with majestic views down to sandy beaches. The property was blocked from the public for the more than 100 years that it was used as a lumber mill site.

Inn at Newport Ranch
Inn at Newport Ranch (©Dave Mathews)

Ten miles north of Fort Bragg is a rare new addition to the Mendocino oceanfront, the Inn at Newport Ranch. This passion project of now-retired Wall Street exec Will Jackson was years in the making. All rustic luxury made of wood and stone, the seven-room inn sits on a working ranch with 150 grazing cattle, encompassing a staggering 2,000 acres—most efficiently explored via an ATV tour that travels along ocean cliffs, into thick forest and up to hillside views. A full-time gardener feeds guests with the fruits of her labor.

Inn at Newport Ranch
Inn at Newport Ranch (©Dave Mathews)

Into the Redwoods

If you’ve dreamed of wandering among California’s famous soaring ancient redwood trees, head inland toward Mendocino’s wilderness.

Deep in the Coast Range at remote Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve you’ll find yourself surrounded by some of the world’s oldest living things. Their hushed, noble presence is humbling. A two-mile loop takes hikers through lush fern forests to grove after grove of coast redwoods (one rises over 367 feet) that survived both wildfires and the 1800s logging frenzy. For a longer walk, follow the three miles of the shady and scenic Shakota Trail on Lake Mendocino’s western shore, alternating between looking up to spot bald eagles and gazing down to appreciate the abundant wildflowers.

Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve
Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve (©David Eppstein)

The California Western Railroad, nicknamed the Skunk Train, carries passengers on the same Redwood Route from Fort Bragg inland to Willits that it’s followed since 1885. The train got its name in the 1920s from the powerful fumes produced by its motorcars, fueled by gasoline and heated with crude oil.

Engine 65 of the Skunk Train in the redwoods
Engine 65 in the redwoods (Courtesy Skunk Train)

Ukiah might be Mendocino’s largest town, but its population only clocks in at 16,000. The rich surrounding farmland supports small organic operations, and Mendocino Brewing Company runs a large scale facility in town (taste the local fruit at the Ale House). Named for the number of Buddhas in its temple, the community known as City of Ten Thousand Buddhas welcomes visitors to its vegetarian cafe and gardens.

City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah
City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah (Courtesy Visit Mendocino)

Experience Ukiah’s legacy of hydrotherapy at the natural springs hidden in its redwood forests. The Pomo tribe used them for thousands of years before European settlers came across them in the 1800s and marketed them as a retreat for city dwellers. Day passes are available for soaking in the carbonated, alkaline waters of Vichy Springs Resort, a California Historical Landmark, and in the secluded, clothing-optional waters of Orr Hot Springs.

Boonville in the Anderson Valley
Boonville in the Anderson Valley (©Bob Dass/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Down in the Valley

Highway 128 winds through Anderson Valley wine country, tunneling through old-growth redwoods and passing rolling vineyards and green hills dotted with grazing sheep and faded barns. The valley is so isolated that starting in the 1800s, one of its towns developed its own linguistic jargon called Boontling. It’s no surprise that the vibe is casual at the many tasting rooms lining the route.

Roederer Estate tasting room
Roederer Estate tasting room (©Rachel Ward)

At the unassuming Lula Cellars, you’ll likely be greeted by Honey the dog and served by her human, tasting room manager Dan Reed.

At Roederer Estate, the French Champagne house marking Louis Roederer’s foray into California sparkling wine, savor a tasting on a patio overlooking the manicured grounds. Pinot drinkers should stop at Toulouse Vineyards & Winery, semi-hidden in the forest despite its location on the highway.

Anderson Valley vineyards
Anderson Valley vineyards (©Jay Bergesen)

On a hot day, you’ll find locals at the Hendy Woods State Park swimming hole. Cars parked along the highway often signal an unmarked swimming spot nearby.

Continuing south, Pennyroyal Farm plays host to tastings of its goat and sheep cheese and at Anderson Valley Brewing Company, you can buy a six-pack and stick around to play a round on the 18-hole disc golf course. There's no need to rush in Mendocino.