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14 Best Things to Do in Mendocino, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Jan 31, 2022

Mendocino is a stunning headland village on the Northern California coast that shines with natural appeal and many things to do. It's surrounded on three sides by the bluff trails and windswept views of Mendocino Headlands State Park. This stunning natural space buffers the quaint, artistic town from the dramatic waves of the ocean.

Mendocino was built upon the redwood logging industry of the 1850s, and today, the entire town is designated as a Historic Preservation District. With distinct New England-inspired architecture, it's hard to deny the charm of the Victorian mansions and ocean cottages throughout town.

Mendocino's postcard aesthetics make simply ambling around town one of the top things to do. Different museums and organizations in the town offer guided walking tours that further illuminate the history of the area. For more cultural things to do, the Mendocino Art Center intertwines with the character of the city.

Another reason to visit is the stunning Mendocino coastline, stretching in either direction from the village. 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 for those wanting to immerse themselves in this dazzling environment.

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
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 easily done by simply walking towards the ocean.

The trails along the headland are well worn and easy to follow, veering towards different ocean views and perfect picnic spots. With these constant breathtaking saltwater vistas and nearby seaside cottages, it's common to see artists with their easels trying to capture some of the grandeur presented by Mendocino Headlands. Different seasons bring different aspects to appreciate, including wildflowers in the spring and gray whale sightings in the winter.

The Historic Ford House within Mendocino is the official visitor center for the state park and village. Here, interpretive and hiking information is available, as well as numerous artifacts from throughout the town's history.

Big River Beach
Big River Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Outdoor things to do at the state park extend beyond the bluffs. Big River Beach, adjacent to the headlands, is a popular place to explore the shore. A hiking trail follows the brackish waters of Big River into the inland forested canyon. Explore this 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
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

This active navigation aid is a popular place to visit for photographers, hikers, and anyone looking to spend the night. A state historic park encompasses this aesthetic light station, which is partially open for the public to explore. The park also features three restored lightkeeper homes, two of which are available for overnight rental.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Generally, visitors to Point Cabrillo park their cars a bit inland from the lighthouse and choose between two walking paths to the ocean. One follows a dirt path, while the other follows a paved access road. The paved road is a bit shorter, making for an approximately two-mile round trip, but the dirt path offers more windswept vistas.

Address: 13800 Point Cabrillo Drive, Mendocino, California

Official site: http://pointcabrillo.org/

3. Ford House Museum

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. The home once belonged to Jerome B. Ford, a lumber industry magnate credited with the early development of Mendocino. Today, 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 the 1890s. Other exhibits detail the lumber and logging industry that built Mendocino, and the original townsfolks that gave the village its initial charm.

The Ford Museum is open seven days a week and doubles as the Mendocino Visitor Center. More information about the city, including local events and seasonal attractions, are available through exhibits and the 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

Russian Gulch State Park waterfall
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. It also highlights the lush landscapes found inland from the ocean, covered in nearly every shade of green.

Two headland trails at Russian Gulch tour the dynamic, rocky shoreline. The north Headlands Trail leads toward 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.

The adventure also heads inland at Russian Gulch State Park. The lush Fern Canyon Trail leads to a stunning 36-foot waterfall fanning down a rock feature. Including the Fern Canyon Trail and the popular North Country Trail, the park has over 30 miles of trails to explore. And 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
Big River Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This State Marine Conservation Area is part of Mendocino Headlands State Park. It's a constantly changing environment 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 next to the village and filled with gigantic driftwood logs. Here, a wooden staircase provides access to the bluff trail above.

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

6. Kelley House Museum

Kelley House Museum
Kelley House Museum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

With the entire town designated as a Historic Preservation District, well-aged houses and cottages line Mendocino, 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 a beautiful addition to Mendocino's Historic District. The museum features a well-preserved interior alongside 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
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. The park was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and ties back the logging history of the area. It features fern canyon hiking trails, protected diving spots, and redwood forest campgrounds. Van Damme State Park also has a universally accessible Pygmy Forest.

The 2.5-mile Fern Canyon Scenic Trail is the park's signature hike, navigating next to the lush banks of Little River. The trail navigates under a thick canopy and the constant sound of moving water. It connects with other hiking trails to explore deeper into the canyon. Near the ocean, the protected cove and surrounding day-use area is popular with beginner divers and sea-cave explorers.

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 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
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. Today, it's a central repository for art, culture, and community engagement. The main gallery and rotating exhibition galleries at the Art Center showcase local and regional artists.

The Art Center fosters an artistic community through its residence programs, hosting prominent artists and traveling instructors. It also hosts over 150 annual workshops, including ceramics, sculpture, and fine art. Open studio time is also available for anyone who would like to drop in.

Temple of Kwan Tai
Temple of Kwan Tai | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

For further cultural appeal, 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 Coast Botanical Gardens

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is a stunning collection of plants and trees set on 47 acres near the ocean. The gardens are a 10-mile drive north of the village within Fort Bragg city limits. They are open to the public throughout the year, and thanks to the moderate climate, something is always in bloom.

Plan for a couple of hours touring the property. Several colorful displays catch the eye immediately, including colorful heath and heather gardens and the signature rhododendron collection. Other notable landscapes include a closed-cone pine forest and a windswept coastal bluff.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens also hosts several events throughout the year. Most notably, the property transforms at the end of the year for the annual Festival of Lights. This celebrated event occurs on the weekends between the end of November and mid-December.

Address: 18220 CA-1, Fort Bragg, California

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

10. Mendocino Farmers' Market

Mendocino Farmers' Market
Mendocino Farmers' Market | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Mendocino Farmers' Market features fresh produce with a great ocean view. It occurs every Friday between noon and 2pm, between May and October. Much of the fun takes place on Main Street, surrounded by Mendocino's Historic Preservation District. These antique homes and well-preserved cottages add an extra appeal to the farmers' market, as do the friendly faces of the community.

Address: 44901 Main Street, Mendocino, California

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

11. Van Damme Pygmy Forest Natural Preserve

Pygmy Forest
Pygmy Forest | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Within Van Damme State Park, this Pygmy Forest features an accessible quarter-mile boardwalk trail, touring a stunted landscape of cypress and pine trees. This universal access and unique landscape make the Pygmy Forest a favorite for family exploring.

Receding ocean shores and the acidic soil within this region helped create this unique forest within Van Damme State Park. 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

12. Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

Ocean scene at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
Ocean scene 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. Fort Bragg has a wider range of hotels to choose from than Mendocino, making it a more viable option for spending the night.

Fort Bragg offers its own unique things to do close to Mendocino, including the postcard-perfect Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. This photogenic state reserve features a dynamic coastline defined by a rocky shore and high bluffs, and the ocean scene at Jug Handle is nearly unrivaled anywhere else in California.

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

The inland Ecological Staircase Trail at Jug Handle offers a unique geological perspective as it navigates three distinct ocean-cut terraces. This includes an eye-catching grove of trees stunted by the ocean wind. Jug Handle is a great way to spend the day or afternoon and is just the beginning of scenic coastal attractions in Fort Bragg.

Address: CA-1, Fort Bragg, California

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

13. Noyo Headlands Park

Noyo Headlands Park
Noyo Headlands Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Noyo Headlands Park is one of the signature outdoor spaces of the neighboring city of Fort Bragg. It encompasses approximately 3.5 miles of bluff shoreline adjacent to the city. A beautiful path navigates the entire coastline, offering one postcard view after the other. Plenty of benches also line the route, often occupied with people enjoying a picnic or a break in the day.

Noyo Headlands is also a connecter for other beach exploration in Fort Bragg. Immediately north, the rugged coastline connects to Glass Beach, where some of the city's old trash washes ashore as treasure. And north of Glass Beach, Pudding Creek makes a dramatic entrance to the ocean underneath a historic railroad trestle.

Both Glass Beach and Pudding Creek Beach are part of the larger MacKerricher State Park, which extends all the way north to Ten-Mile Dune. On the south end of Noyo Headlands Park, near the Noyo River Bridge, the Noyo Beach Off-Leash Dog Area is a popular place to visit for pet owners.

14. Hendy Woods State Park

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

This hidden gem of a state park is 45 minutes southeast of Mendocino on Highway 128. It features camping, hiking, and two magnificent groves of redwood trees. And because it's a slightly more remote location, the lack of crowds at Hendy Woods rarely spooks the resident wildlife.

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 include 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. This family-owned business offers guided horseback rides either on a secluded beach or through a forested inland canyon. A few 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

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

imageMore 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.

imageExploring 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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