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12 Top-Rated Things to Do in Mendocino, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Aug 7, 2019

A stunning headland village in Northern California, Mendocino shines with natural appeal and things to do. It is surrounded on three sides by the bluff trails and windswept views of Mendocino Headlands State Park, and this stunning natural space buffers the quaint, artistic town from the dramatic waves of the ocean. Built upon the redwood logging industry of the 1850s, the entire town of Mendocino is designated as a Historic Preservation District.

Unique with its New England-inspired architecture, it's hard to denounce the charm and postcard aesthetics of the Victorian mansions and ocean cottages throughout Mendocino. Located near the Ford House Museum and Visitor Center on Main Street, the Kelley House Museum offers guided walking tours that illuminate the history of the area. For more cultural things to do, the Mendocino Art Center intertwines with much of the character of the city.

Alongside Mendocino Headlands, other Mendocino area state parks, like Van Damme and Russian Gulch, feature pygmy forests, fanning waterfalls, and dramatic ocean features like the Devil's Punchbowl. Camping is available at Russian Gulch and Van Damme State Parks. For fun things to do in the winter in Mendocino, the entire coastline offers great vantage points for spotting gray whales, migrating between January and April.

Plan your sightseeing in and around this scenic coastal town with our list of the top things to do in Mendocino.

1. Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Hiking the bluff trails of Mendocino Headlands State Park, surrounding the Mendocino Village on three sides, is the quintessential thing to do on this part of the coast. Accessing the state park from the community is easy by simply walking towards the ocean. With constant breathtaking ocean vistas and quaint ocean cottages, it's common to see artists with their easels trying to capture some of the grandeur presented by Mendocino Headlands.

The trails along the headland are well worn and easy to follow, veering towards different ocean views and perfect picnic spots. The Historic Ford House within Mendocino is the official visitor center for the state park and village, with interpretive and hiking information available, as well as numerous artifacts from throughout the town's history. Different seasons bring different aspects to appreciate about Mendocino Headlands State Park, including wildflowers in the spring and gray whale sightings in the winter.

Outdoor things to do at the state park extend beyond the bluffs, and Big River Beach, adjacent to the headlands, is a popular place to explore the shore. Extending inland from the brackish waters of Big River meeting the ocean, a hiking trail follows the river into the surrounding forested canyon. Explore that canyon far enough, and hikers can reach the large expanse of Mendocino Woodlands State Park.

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=442

2. Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

An active navigational tool on a stunning stretch of Pacific coastline, this historic park is popular for photographers, hikers, and anyone looking to spend the night. Encompassing an incredibly scenic and operational lighthouse partially open for the public to explore, Point Cabrillo also features three restored lightkeeper homes, two of which are available for overnight rental. Numerous headland trails surround the lighthouse, providing windswept vistas and a breathtaking place to catch the sunset.

Address: 13800 Point Cabrillo Drive, Mendocino, California

Official site: http://pointcabrillo.org/

3. Ford House Museum

Ford House Museum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

On Main Street in Mendocino, this historic home and museum is a popular tourist attraction that transports visitors back to the 1800s. Once belonging to Jerome B. Ford, a lumber industry magnate credited with the early development of Mendocino, the Ford House Museum is now on the National Historic Register. On display throughout the well-preserved home are artifacts and exhibits detailing what life was like in Mendocino a century ago, including a model replica of the city circa 1890s.

Open seven days a week, the Ford Museum doubles as the Mendocino Visitor Center. More information about the city, including local events and seasonal attractions, are available through exhibits and a friendly staff. The Ford House Museum also sits on the inland edge of Mendocino Headlands State Park, featuring a sprawling bluff trail buffering the city from the ocean.

Address: 45035 Main Street, Mendocino, California

Official site: http://www.mendoparks.org/visitor-centers

4. Russian Gulch State Park Editor's Pick

Russian Gulch State Park waterfall | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Two miles north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park showcases one of the most dramatic coastlines in Northern California. Two headland trails at Russian Gulch tour the dynamic, rocky shoreline, with the north Headlands Trail leading towards the park's biggest natural feature—the Devil's Punchbowl, a humongous basin in the bluffs carved out by a collapsed sea tunnel. High tide is a particularly fun time to check out the churning movements and roaring appeal of the Devil's Punchbowl.

Filled with inland things to do, the lush Fern Canyon Trail of Russian Gulch State Park leads to a stunning 36-foot waterfall fanning down a rock feature. Including the Fern Canyon Trail and popular North Country Trail, the park has over 30 miles of trails to explore. The campground at Russian Gulch lends access to everything at the state park, with 30 sites available.

Address: CA-1, Mendocino, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=432

5. Big River Beach

Big River Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Part of Mendocino Headlands State Park, this State Marine Conservation Area is constantly changing as the Big River meets the Pacific Ocean. Family fun things to do at this dynamic estuary include exploring the sandy shore and launching canoes into the water. Paddling upstream is a manageable task on Big River, as is hiking or biking the inland trail following the riverbank. The largest portion of beach at Big River is filled with gigantic driftwood logs, next to a wooden staircase lending access to the bluff trail above.

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=442

6. Kelley House Museum

Kelley House Museum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

With the entire town designated as a Historic Preservation District, Mendocino is lined with well-aged houses and cottages, easily visible from the street. The best way to learn about these preserved homes is with a historic walking tour offered on weekends by the Kelley House Museum. These two-hour walking tours dive into the 1850s pioneering history of Mendocino and highlight the architecture that remains today.

The Kelley House Museum itself is a more-than-a-century old home and significant addition to Mendocino's Historic District. Featuring a well-preserved interior, the museum also features rotating exhibits and permanent installations, including a "Then and Now" photo collage. Other programs and events at the museum include a Sunday speaker series and community barbecues.

Address: 45007 Albion Street, Mendocino, California

Official site: https://www.kelleyhousemuseum.org

7. Van Damme State Park

Highland Meadows Campground, Van Damme State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

At the mouth of the Little River three miles south of Mendocino, Van Damme State Park exemplifies the outdoor things to do along the Mendocino coast. Featuring fern canyon hiking trails, protected cove diving spots, and redwood forest campgrounds, Van Damme State Park also has a universally accessible Pygmy Forest. Tied to the logging history of the area and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the park still displays remnants of this history.

The 2.5-mile Fern Canyon Scenic Trail is the park's signature hike, navigating next to the lush banks of Little River. With a thick canopy and the constant sound of moving water, the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail connects with other hiking trails to explore deeper into the canyon. The protected cove and surrounding day-use area at Van Damme State Park is popular with beginner divers and anyone looking to explore the sea caves just offshore.

The Highland Meadows Campground within the park features over 70 sites catering to tents and RVs, lending easy access to the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail and just across the highway from the beach. Overnight guests at the campground are also in proximity to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers. Nine hike-in campsites along the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail are also available by reservation.

Address: 8001 CA-1, Little River, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=433

8. Mendocino Art Center

Mendocino Art Center | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Established in 1959, the Mendocino Art Center played an important role in the revitalization and preservation of the Mendocino Village. Hosting prominent artists in residence and professional instructors, the Art Center fosters an artistic community, with over 150 annual workshops, including ceramics, sculpture, and fine art. Open studio time is also available for anyone who would like to drop in. The main gallery and rotating exhibition galleries at the Art Center showcase local and regional art.

For further cultural appeal in the village of Mendocino, three blocks from the Mendocino Art Center, the Temple of Kwan Tai provides a historical look into the 19th-century Chinese community that lived in Mendocino. Much like the surrounding homes and cottages, this Taoist Temple has been historically preserved and restored for community members to enjoy. The public can view the Taoist temple throughout the day, with tours available by appointment only.

Address: 45200 Little Lake Street, Mendocino, California

Official site: http://www.mendocinoartcenter.org

9. Mendocino Farmers' Market

Mendocino Farmers' Market | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Taking place every Friday between noon and 2pm, the Mendocino Farmers' Market features fresh produce with a great ocean view. On Main Street, surrounded by Mendocino's Historic Preservation District, antique homes and well-preserved cottages add an extra appeal to the farmers' market, as do the friendly faces of the community. Other community events of Mendocino include Second Saturday celebrations, Summer Art Fairs, and the Mendocino Music Festival in July.

Address: 44901 Main Street, Mendocino, California

Official site: http://www.mcfarm.org/

10. Van Damme Pygmy Forest Natural Preserve

Pygmy Forest | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Within Van Damme State Park, this Pygmy Forest features an accessible quarter-mile boardwalk trail that tours a stunted landscape of cypress and pine trees. Receding ocean shores helped create this unique forest and the acidic soil within this region of Van Damme State Park, and interpretive plaques along the boardwalk detail this rare natural phenomenon. Parking is available near the trailhead of the Pygmy Forest, or intrepid hikers can reach the shortened surroundings via the Fern Canyon Trail from the state park's campground.

Address: Van Damme State Park, Little River, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=433

11. Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

Stunted tree at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

North of the village of Mendocino, the city of Fort Bragg offers a similar stunning coastline and modern amenities. An option for spending the night when visiting Mendocino, Fort Bragg has a wider range of hotels to choose from. A great place to explore, Fort Bragg offers its own unique things to do close to Mendocino, including the postcard perfect Jug Handle State Natural Reserve.

Featuring a dynamic coastline defined by a rocky shore and high bluffs, the ocean scene at Jug Handle is nearly unrivaled anywhere else in California. The inland Ecological Staircase Trail at Jug Handle offers a unique geological perspective as it navigates three distinct ocean-cut terraces. A great way to spend the day or afternoon, Jug Handle is just the beginning of scenic coastal attractions found in Fort Bragg.

Address: CA-1, Fort Bragg, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=441

12. Hendy Woods State Park

Owls at Hendy Woods State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Forty-five minutes southeast of Mendocino on Highway 128, this hidden gem of a state park features camping, hiking, and two magnificent groves of redwood trees. The Big Hendy Grove and Discovery Trail that tour the 300-foot trees of Hendy Woods is simply breathtaking and often teeming with wildlife big and small. Other outdoor things to do at Hendy Woods State Park includes exploring the Hermit Hut Trail and swimming in the Navarro River.

Towards the ocean from Hendy Woods State Park along Highway 128, Ross Ranch is another fun stop for tourists and residents of the region. Offering guided horseback rides either on a secluded beach or through a forested inland canyon, Ross Ranch has a great reputation for catering towards those with an equestrian interest. Popular riding options include two-hour tours, with 90 minutes spent in the saddle.

Address: 18599 Philo Greenwood Road, Philo, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=438

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More on the Northern California Coast: The neighboring city of Fort Bragg offers a dramatic coastline just north of Mendocino, and the two communities often come together for events and celebrations. Farther north, the artistic city of Eureka provides a vibrant community filled with history and things to do. For further sand and surf excitement, our guide to the best beaches in Northern California is a good reference for finding the best sunsets.

Exploring Big Sur: If the stunning sea caves, sea stacks, and headland trails of Mendocino tickle your travel bug, the stunning shoreline of Big Sur on the Central California coast is known to have much the same effect. For those that like to pitch a tent or park an RV, our guide to campgrounds near Big Sur will have you spending the night in no time. While you are on the Central California coast, the city of Monterrey is worth a visit, with world-class attractions, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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