Things to do in Mendocino, California

By Kay S
Last Updated

Mendocino is located about a 3-hour drive north of San Francisco International Airport and 4 hours from Sacramento. The charming small town lies on a peninsula bounded by cliffs and is one of the best places to visit on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. 

The town has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, which ensures the preservation of the early Victorian architecture that dominates the town. This charismatic little place on the coast of California is the only one to be designated as a historic landmark in the area.

Fun fact: Mendocino is a popular filming location. The Blair House Victorian Bed and Breakfast Inn was used as the filming locale for Jessica Fletcher’s house in 1984’s American crime drama ‘Murder, She Wrote’. 

Bed and breakfast type of accommodation is the most popular in town, and there are many to choose from. Some of the top reviewed ones include Agate Cove Inn and Headlands Inn Bed and Breakfast.

Things to do in Mendocino

Mendocino welcomes visitors with a laid-back atmosphere and aesthetic views, as well as fine seafood and wine. The wide range of activities available appeal to those craving for an escape into nature. The nearby state parks with various trails for all physical activity levels, make it a great destination for all ages. 

Those who like to take in cultural attractions also love the town of Mendocino. The downtown is sprinkled with historic buildings, various art shops, and restaurants. A mixture of raw wilderness and tranquil beauty is what makes visitors want to come back to Mendocino again and again. 

Downtown Mendocino

Found in the 1850s, Mendocino combines magnificent Victorian buildings with saltbox cottages. These New England-style buildings are a legacy of the early settlers of the community and form a big part of the town’s identity even in the modern-day.

Through the years, the seaside town has transformed from a small coastal logging community into a charming town that is a destination in itself. Mendocino is full of art galleries, wooden shacks, cafes, boutique stores, and bookstores. 

Book lovers must visit the Gallery Bookshop, one of the oldest independent bookstores opened in 1962, and browse through its shelves. Visit Mendocino Jams & Preserves to stock up on gourmet jams, preserves, mustards, or chutneys. 

In the evening, taste award-winning wine while enjoying a live piano performance at Albion River Inn. With its million-dollar ocean views, the restaurant is one of the most romantic places for a date night in Mendocino.  

Kelley House Museum

To understand Mendocino’s history, visit the Kelley House Museum. This historic home is the former residence of the Kelley’s, one of the first families to settle in Mendocino. The home was established as a museum in 1973 and is great to visit. 

The museum has several exhibits, historical objects, documents, and photographs that narrate Mendocino’s past as a logging and shipping center. It shares the story of this beautiful town and how it came to be in an inspiring and interesting way. 

It is highly recommended to visit the Kelley House Museum if you want to learn about and truly appreciate the culture that surrounds this town. The museum also offers 2-hour guided walking tours of Mendocino every Saturday and Sunday at 11 AM. On a tour, you can listen to intriguing facts about the town, way of life in the past, notable residents, as well as gain a unique insight into Mendocino’s history. 

Ford House Visitor Center & Museum

Located on Mendocino Main Street, the Ford House Museum serves as the official Visitor Information Center for the town and for Mendocino Headlands State Park. Built-in 1854, the historic house building is delightful and worth a look for its architecture and features.  

Inside the center, visitors can find historical and contemporary information about Mendocino and the surrounding area. There is an amazing handcrafted scale model of Mendocino as it was in 1890. You can read through and purchase brochures, books, and maps of Mendocino. This is also a perfect place to buy souvenirs including postcards, magnets, and gifts. 

Visitors can also watch educational and informative videos about the town. The videos cover topics such as the early 20th-century steam-powered logging engines which transformed the logging industry and the fascinating gray whale migration along the Pacific Coast.

The museum organizes seasonal exhibits on local flora and fauna, including whales, wild plants and mushrooms. In March, visitors can enjoy whale watching tours, organized by the center. For more information, visit the Ford House Visitor Center, or check out their official website.

Mendocino Art Center

For art lovers, a visit to the Mendocino Art Center is a must. This center demonstrates the artsy side of town and displays the works of several local Californian artists as well as national artists. 

The Mendocino Art Center is located in a beautiful location atop the Mendocino headlands and enjoys a stunning view of the coast. The building and the grounds are also very charming, with the Zacha Sculpture Garden displaying excellent sculptures and artworks. 

The center’s collection is spread over several galleries including the Mendocino Art Center Gallery, the Abramson Gallery, the Nichols Gallery, Gallery Ten, and the Members’ Gallery. Walkthrough all of them to admire the beautiful range of artwork including landscape paintings of the wild Northern California coast, paintings of marine life, and more. 

Throughout the Art Center, you can see everything from collages to sculptures and ceramics to paintings. At the Gallery Store, visitors can purchase artwork and souvenirs. You can even attend art classes at the center. The Art Center is a real gem in Mendocino and should be on the top of your list. 

Mendocino County Farmers Market

This local farmer’s market has a perfect location overlooking the Mendocino Bay. Here you can find fresh produce and artisan goods and is a great way to experience the local vibe of Mendocino. There’s often music and food to eat. The farmer’s market offers a chance to experience Mendocino’s local culture, talk to the vendors, and enjoy local life in Mendocino.

Local vendors sell their wares at the market every Friday from 12 PM to 2 PM from May to October. You can find a variety of products like seasonal fruits, herbs, and vegetables fresh from the Northern California farms, local organic honey, artisan cheeses, fresh cut flowers, various dipping oils, jams and jellies, wine from area wineries, freshly caught seafood, ranch-raised or free range meats, and even fresh-baked goods.

Local Cuisine

While Mendocino is a small town, there is plenty to choose from for food lovers. You will be spoiled for choice as there are many options when it comes to satisfying your taste buds. Due to proximity to the Pacific Ocean, seafood is naturally one of the specialties in Mendocino. 

Wild Fish, a family-run restaurant located outside the town, prides itself on serving fresh fish and seafood directly from the ocean. The menu changes frequently and you are sure to be delighted whether it’s your first or fifth visit. Meat lovers should try Café Beaujolais. This historic restaurant is located in a charming Victorian farmhouse and serves delicious fare including Jamaican Jerk Chicken and a Cubano Pulled Pork Sandwich. 

Try the Trillium café for modern California-style food as well as baked goods. Popular among locals and visitors alike, Goodlife Café has excellent coffee, breakfast burritos, quiches. This is an excellent place to grab breakfast in the city. Visit Patterson’s Pub for a cold beer after hiking in the woods. 

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Located near Fort Bragg, Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are a real oasis for nature lovers. Inside you can see hundreds of different species of plants, blooming flowers, as well as a variety of birds. 

Thanks to the geographical location of the gardens, the climate here is just right. The dry but foggy summers and rainy winters create an environment where fragile plants, that cannot blossom in other gardens, thrive and expose their beauty. You can take a stroll in over 47 acres of pure nature at the park.

Families and couples come to the gardens to relax, unwind, and appreciate the beauty of these plants and birds. The gardens have many picnic areas and observation points. The Cliff House is good for seasonal whale watching during winter and spring. Even dogs are very welcome here, but for everyone’s safety, make sure to always keep them on a leash.

The Temple of Kwan Tai

Perhaps one of the most exotic sights visitors can find in Mendocino is the Temple of Kwan Tai, which is the oldest Taoist temple in this part of California. Built-in 1854, the temple is a historical landmark. It was constructed by one of the earliest Chinese settlers in the area and is made from local redwood trees.

Located facing the Pacific Ocean, the charming colorful temple is the last remaining building built by the 19th-century Chinese community in Mendocino. Visiting the temple and taking in its surroundings is a unique experience. Inside you can see Taoist deities, drums, flags, and mandalas. 

The temple is not just a place of worship but also a good place to learn more about the history of Chinese American residents along the northern coast. The Temple of Kwan Tai also organizes a parade as a part of Chinese New Year celebrations in winter.

Mendocino Headlands State Park

One of the major attractions for outdoor explorers in Mendocino is the Mendocino Headlands State Park. Spread over 347 acres, the state park consists of undeveloped seaside bluffs and islets and surrounds the picturesque town of Mendocino on three sides.

The state park promises a combination of beautiful rugged coastline, romantic secluded beaches, scenic trails, panoramic views, and so much history. Walking along the edge of the cliffs, visitors can enjoy views of the rocky arches and hidden coves along the coast. 

The park is an ideal place to go hiking, look for tidepool creatures, lounge at Big River Beach, and take photos of the stunning coastline. Some other activities available are abalone diving, sea kayaking, and whale watching. 

To get information on hiking trails or talk to park rangers about wildlife sightings, visit the Mendocino Headlands State Park Visitor Center located in the historic Ford House on Mendocino Main Street.

Big River Beach

Big River Beach, located inside Mendocino Headlands State Park, is the most popular beach near Mendocino. Nestled under the charming historic buildings of Mendocino, Big River Beach is located exactly where the Big River meets the Mendocino Bay. 

On a sunny day, visitors can dip their toes in the cool Pacific Water and build a sandcastle on the beach. Or kayak up the waters of the Big River, put up a hammock and read a book, spot wildlife, and admire the surroundings. In spite of being such a beautiful place, the beach is too big to be crowded.

You can also walk or hike up the trails located along the Big River Estuary. You can access over 7,400 acres of the watershed and the woods along its edge by using the Big River Haul Road. You can spot several birds, unique flora and fauna, and marine life along the Big River. 

To reach the beach, take the trail starting behind Mendocino’s historic Presbyterian Church on Main Street. Go down the wooden staircase which takes you straight to the river and follow the trail to the beach. The park rangers can also help you with the directions.

Russian Gulch State Park

Mendocino’s other highlight is the picturesque Russian Gulch State Park which is home to the photogenic Panhorst bridge. This beautiful coastal reserve extends for a mile and a half along the shores. 

Totaling over 7,630 acres, the park has a diverse environment of beaches, wooded forests, and headlands. It also has over 100 feet wide collapsed sea cave, known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. Resembling a similar wonder along the Oregon Coast, the geological feature is a favorite with photographers due to its foaming waves. 

The state park is often compared to Point Lobos near Monterey and has endless opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. Visitors can go camping, horseback riding, and cycling, hiking, and kayaking in the park. The park is also home to Mendocino’s highest waterfall.

One of the popular hiking trails is the 2.5-mile trail through the Fern Canyon. The trail starts east of the campground and goes under majestic redwood trees and through the fern-lined walls of the canyon. While this is not the famous Jurassic Park filming locale, it is nevertheless a beautiful and exciting adventure. 

The Russian Gulch State Park has coastal marshes, mudflats, coastal scrubs, forests of pines and fir, and coastal redwoods, and is a truly wonderful place. On a visit, you can spot marine life, mammals, and lots of birds. 

Van Damme State Park

The list of things to do in Mendocino is not complete without mentioning the area’s 3rd state park: Van Damme State Park. This is another great place to pack a picnic, grab your camera, and put on your hiking shoes. The Van Damme State Park covers over 1800 acres and is located near the Little River town in Mendocino County.

The park attracts visitors year-round to its attractions. Check out the water trails starting at Little River Beach on your kayak. Tour the spectacular sea cave around the coast on a guided tour. Dive, snorkel, and swim in the waters or go beachcombing. 

The park is also great for hikers. Check out the many hiking trails along the Little River or put up a campsite for the night. Hike the Fern Canyon Trail or walk through the Pygmy Forest. The state park is located three miles out of the town on Pacific Coast Highway and the views along the road to the park are also beautiful.

Pygmy Forest

The Pygmy Forest located inside Van Damme State Park deserves a special mention. After all its not every day, that you can walk through a forest full of stunted trees! Exploring the Pygmy Forest is a unique almost experience.

The forest is known for its stunted miniature trees including pine, cypress, and other conifers. Many of the trees are over one hundred years old however they all have grown only two or three feet high. This is due to the low level of micronutrients in the underlying soil which stunted the growth of trees and created a bonsai effect. Walking on the boardwalk over the treetops instead of walking in their tall shadows is certainly unsettling. 

The Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail is a ¼ mile long short, accessible boardwalk trail. The hike is one of the more unique hikes along the Pacific Coast Highway. There are interpretative exhibits along the trail which explain how the forest and its unique geology came to be. 

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, located near Mendocino, protects the lighthouse, 3 keeper’s houses, outbuildings, and the headlands. Visitors can reach the light from a half-mile long access path connecting the parking lot and the buildings over the headlands. The trail crosses through the grasslands and is pretty.

The lighthouse itself is situated on the far end of the point where it juts out into the Pacific. Originally built-in 1909, the building has been restored and is open to visitors year-round. Inside you can see the original third-order Fresnel lens. The park also conducts special Lighthouse tours to the lens several times a year. These tours are highly recommended as the views from the top of the lighthouse are unbeatable with 365-degree views of Mendocino and the Pacific.

The surrounding buildings have also been lovingly restored. The blacksmith and carpentry shop now holds a 240-gallon saltwater aquarium and the first lightkeepers house has been turned into a museum and has many artifacts about the area’s history. The other two houses have been turned into lodging for overnight stays. 

Skunk Train Rides

Don’t worry, the smelly fuels which gave these rails their name are long gone but the nickname remains! These trains have a pretty interesting history. 

The Skunk Trains were originally built in the 1880s to make transporting lumber from the redwood forests easier. The trains would transport families, cargo, and lumber to the remote logging camps and were the main route for industrialization of the area. The fumes of the gas-powered engines produced a pungent odor, hence the train came to be called the Skunk.

Today, two routes are still running, though their main purpose is to bring sightseers through the splendor of the redwood forest and Noyo River Canyon. You can either chose the one-hour long excursion from Fort Bragg to Glen Blair via Pudding Creek Estuary or the two-hour-long ride through the Noyo River Canyon. Both trips are dog-friendly for an extra charge.

Another option for getting up close and personal with these lines are the specially designed railbikes. These bikes are created for two people to peddle side-by-side (though they can be used by a single person as well) and run on the train tracks themselves! The one-and-a-half-hour trip offers a stopover at the Glen Blair Junction for a rest among the trees and is a fun family excursion. 

Point Arena Lighthouse

Point Arena Lighthouse near Mendocino is a must visit.

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

This beautiful and rugged coastal park has thousands of reasons to visit from its wildlife to the beautiful Pacific views, but the thing that most sets it apart is the two-and-a-half-mile Ecological Staircase Trail. 

The staircase gets its name from the three distinct wave-cut terraces it explores. The first terrace is a coastal headland full of grasses, creeks, and the bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. 

The second terrace is made up of a forested stroll through redwoods, pines, and fir.  The final leg of the trail is the most interesting one for several visitors. The third terrace is a forest in miniature made up of pygmy cypress, a species not found naturally in many other areas. Similar to the pygmy forest at Van Damme State Park, the trees are stunted and grow only few feet tall.

For visitors not looking to spend the day hiking, the park also offers beaches and bluffs with panoramic vistas over the Pacific Ocean. While at the park, stop by the information center to see hands-on exhibits and learn about the unique ecology of the park. 

Big River Estuary

Big River is the longest undeveloped estuary in Northern California with 7,000-acres of protected wetlands and redwood forest. The most popular way to explore the estuary is on the water, either by kayak or stand-up paddleboard. 

Across Highway 1, Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too offer year-round rentals of kayaks and traditional redwood outrigger canoes. In the summer months, the shop also offers daily guided tours through the area to point out the abundance of wildlife like ospreys, owls, fish, otters, and more. 

For groups going on their own without a guide, keep the tide timings in mind. An incoming tide is a major boon when paddling upriver or groups will end up battling both the river and the tide which makes for a much more challenging trip.

Horseback riding at Ross Ranch

Owner, operator, and lifelong Mendocino resident Tobi Ross offers two trail rides that are welcome to riders of all skill sets. When groups get to the ranch each rider is paired with a horse that is suitable for their ability and temperament. 

From there, groups head out for a half-hour ride. The first option is to go along the coast of Manchester Beach and soak in the serenity of the Pacific lapping gently on the sand. The second option is to go through the coastal redwoods, meadows, and canyons of the ranch’s acreage. 

Rides are $60 per person and the ranch can accommodate groups up to 13, though smaller groups are welcome too. Couples can go for a romantic sunset beach ride, one of the most romantic things to do in Mendocino.

Road trip the Wine Road aka Highway 128

The 23-mile stretch of Highway 128 between Highway 1 and Highway 101 is known as the Wine Road. There are several wineries, vineyards & wine destinations located along the road. Mendocino Wine County is one of the northernmost winegrowing regions in the state. 

The region is a leader in organic grapes. Almost a quarter of the grapes grown in the area are entirely organic and the country as a whole voted to become entirely GMO-free. There Wine Road has many stops for every kind of visitor. For adults-only trips, consider Maple Creek Winery which offers tastings of their chardonnay and merlot or Scharffenberger Cellars which specializes in sparkling wines. 

For more family-oriented outings pack a picnic and head for Meyer Family Cellars for a tour of the vineyards, a quick tasting, and then an afternoon lounging in the sun and overlooking the rolling vineyards. Another family-friendly option can be found in Boonville. At the Pennyroyal Farm visitors can meet the farm goats and sample goat cheeses with complimentary wine or juice for those under the age of 21. 

Go kayaking off the coast

Kayak Mendocino in Little River offers one of the most exciting sea kayaking adventures on the coast. The sea cave tour takes groups of any skill level out of Van Damme State Park, one of the most tranquil and protected coastal areas in Mendocino. 

The sea caves can only be reached by the water and offer exciting adventure. For an hour and a half, visitors can explore the sea caves and spot starfish, seals, and otters in the waters of the caves. 

Further north, by Fort Bragg, Liquid Fusion Kayaking offers a mix of sea and white water kayaking. Their guides handcraft every tour based on the skill level of the kayakers, but every group is guaranteed three hours of adrenaline-fueled fun splashing through waves and rock gardens.

Go Tidepooling 

Mendocino Coast has a vast intertidal zone and is one of the most popular tidepooling locations along the West Coast. Popular spots in Mendocino County to go tidepooling include Mendocino headlands, Russian Gulch, Jug Handle, Point Arena, and MacKerricher State Park.

The beaches here offer a strong mix of different intertidal plants and animal life including crabs, sea urchins, vividly colored algae, and starfish. One of the most exciting finds is the Aeolid Nudibranch, a sea slug known for its bright colors and the long, soft, anemone-like spikes. Octopi are not commonly found, but occasionally one washes into a tidepool a high tide and can be spotted by visitors. 

Tide pooling is a great way to spend an afternoon at the beach, especially on days that aren’t quite nice enough to hit the waves or lounge in the sun. Kids especially love searching for the low tide creatures. 

Tidepooling requires you to walk over rocks, so wear water shoes. Also, keep in mind that the waves in this area, though not as aggressive as Big Sur, can still be powerful so keep an eye to the ocean.

Boonville day trip

Boonville, located less than an hour away from Mendocino, is a small town with a big history. The town has been known for its progressive ideals for generations like the Unificationist Creative Community Project and the early adoption and support of organic produce. 

The most interesting detail has to be the creation of Boontling, a language created and only spoken in Boonville!

Today, less than 100 people speak the language and the town is better known for the Anderson Valley Brewing Company and the numerous annual festivals that take place there. The best time to stop by depends on your interests. 

February sees a celebration of the local wineries and May hosts a festival specifically for Pinot Noir. The Sierra Nevada World Music Festival is held here every June and attracts the world’s biggest reggae stars to this little hamlet. 

Visit B. Bryan Preserve

This privately-run preserve offers something you will seldom find anywhere else in California, African hoofed animals! The park is home to sable, roan, and kudu antelopes, giraffes, and two kinds of zebra. 

Visitors can tour the preserve in their own cars in a self-guided safari or opt for the VIP tour. This tour takes groups of up to eight in open-topped range rovers through the park and offers opportunities to learn about these majestic animals while watching herds move across the open spaces of the preserve. 

After touring the grounds, visitors get to meet some of the animals up close. Kids can feed the giraffes at the giraffe house on weekends between 10:30 am and 3:30 pm.

See redwoods at Montgomery Woods Natural State Reserve

Until recently, a 367.5-foot redwood in the park was thought to be the tallest tree in the world. Taller ones have since been found, but the Montgomery Woods Natural State Reserve is still known for the cathedral-like height of its redwoods. 

The 2,743-acre reserve is tucked 30 miles inland from the town of Mendocino in the heart of the Coastal Range. The best way to explore the park’s natural beauty is to plan a half-day hike along the two-mile Montgomery Trail. 

The trail starts off steeply but evens out as the hike continues bringing hikers through the Kellieowen Grove and along the Montgomery Creek which offers plenty of opportunities to stop for a scenic picnic. The second part fo the trail continues through the forest and fern fields. 

Orr Hot Springs

The Orr Hot Springs are situated between Montgomery State Reserve and Big River on 27-acres of lush forest. It is located midway between Mendocino and Ukiah.

The history of the springs is older than California, with the spot functioning like a truce zone for the different tribes of the area during times of unrest. Later, the springs became a stop along the stagecoach line and became a favored vacation spot for coastal city-dwellers. 

Today the Orr Hot Springs Resort is still one of California’s favorite getaways, with many seeking out the solitude and silence found alongside the hot springs and massages. However, the resort is clothing optional, so it may not be everyone’s cup of tea!

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg’s Glass beach is pretty world-famous and certainly one of its kind!

The southernmost beach in MacKerricher State Park, this area was used as a dumping ground for the debris and rubble left over from the Great Earthquake in 1906. For years trash was added to the piles on the beach, a common practice at the time. 

In the 90s, most of the refuse was either cleaned up or deteriorated but the endless glass leftover from headlights, windowpanes, and windshields remained. It was tumbled smooth by the sea and the sand to form colorful sea glass pebbles. 

The beach remained mostly a local secret until social media thrust the destination into the spotlight. Now nearly tens of thousands of visitors flock to the site to walk through the multi-colored beach and snap photos every year. 

Much of the glass has been removed by tourists as souvenirs and the beach no longer looks as beautiful as it once did. However, it is still worth a visit! Though remember: removing the sea glass is now forbidden. Because of its popularity, it’s best to get into the park as early as possible to secure a spot.

Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Planner
Pacific Coast Highway 4 day Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 5 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 Day itinerary
All PCH Itineraries
Best Places to Stay along the Pacific Coast Highway
Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops

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