Exploring Wine, Nature and Art: Fun Things to Do in Mendocino

Kim Orlando Avatar

Pennyroyal Farm
Lichen Winery in Booneville, Ca. Photo credit: Seth Lowe

There’s a lot to love about California. Gorgeous beaches, thriving cities and the Pacific Ocean. But when it comes to incredible landscapes, Northern California hit the jackpot. Highway 1 beckons with its miles of rugged coastline, ancient redwoods and blooming wildflowers. Start your road trip in San Francisco and end it about 3 hours north along the beautiful Mendocino Coast. There, you will find a long list of fun things to do in Mendocino.

The 3-hour drive along the 101 will take you through cute inland towns like Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. Or take the longer, windier route via Highway 1 along the coast, which will give you plenty of time to downshift into full vacation mode.

The lay of the land:

  • Mendocino Coast and Mendocino Village are in Mendocino County. There are inns, restaurants, farmers markets and shops in and around Mendo Village.
  • Fort Bragg has the nearest Safeway grocery store and better gas prices than Mendocino Village.
  • Anderson Valley, part of Mendocino County, is east of the coast and home to a majority of the wineries.

Read More: Where to Find the Best Restaurants on the Mendocino Coast.

Interior of the Temple Kwan Tai in Mendocino California
Interior of the Temple Kwan Tai. Photo credit: Kim Orlando

Check Out the Artsy Village of Mendocino

Settled by New Englanders around 1850 as a logging town, Mendocino found new life in the 1950s with the founding of the Mendocino Art Center. Today this quaint village with a Bohemian vibe still boasts colorful Victorian homes and charming wooden cottages.

Don’t miss the colorful Temple of Kwan Tai, just a couple of blocks off Main Street. It commemorates the history of the Chinese residents in Mendocino County.

Highlight Gallery in Mendocino Village is known for its interesting furniture and art gallery.

The gorgeous coast off Elk, California. Photo credit: Kim Orlando

Don’t Miss Elk, California

If you blink you could miss Elk. Seriously. This town along Highway 1 has just a few buildings and a population of only 208. But it is well worth a stop.

There is an art gallery called the Artist’s Collective where artists consign their creations; we bought a wine barrel table! Next door to that is Matson Mercantile, a very cool general store with unique home decor and hardware items.

Just beyond that is the Elk Firehouse and luckily for us, the Firehouse BBQ fundraiser was happening and we were invited. The BBQ was delish and the friendly company was even better. I miss my new friends, Spirit and Sachiko.

Climb into History at the Point Arena Lighthouse

The coastal lookout since 1908, Point Arena Lighthouse stands 115 feet high. Guided tours take visitors to the top by way of a winding staircase. The climb is worth it for the 360-degree views of the picturesque surroundings and sea lions.

Housed in an 1896 fog signal building, an onsite museum displays historical artifacts tracing the light station’s past. For a unique lodging experience, check out the vacation rentals on the property. The lighthouse keeper’s house has 3 bedrooms and 2 baths plus a full kitchen.

After the Point Arena Lighthouse climb, reward yourself with a pizza at Point Arena Pizza where the motto is “pizza for the people.” It’s VERY good (according to my Italian, East Coast husband) and worth the 30-minute drive from Elk Cove Inn. If you like ice cream, try the “It’s It” ice cream sandwich for dessert.

Kelly House Museum

Another option for history lovers is the Kelley House Museum. Founded in 1973, the museum is dedicated to “collecting, preserving, protecting and sharing the rich history of the Mendocino Coast.” It’s located in the historic district of Mendocino, California, population 1,000.

Travel Back in Time at Jug Handle Creek

In one of the most unusual beach experiences anywhere, you and the kids can literally climb through time at Jug Handle State Natural Preserve.

The park’s 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail is a geological exploration of the history of the glaciers, rising seas and tectonic plates that built the Coast Range. The Staircase is made up of five uplifted ocean terraces. You’ll climb back in time 100,000 years on each level. If you make it to the top, you’re 500,000 years in the past.

That trail, 5 miles round trip, can be strenuous. For an easier hike, take the flat, half-mile Headlands Loop trail that covers the first seven stops of the Ecological Staircase.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The ocean waves can be unpredictable. Never turn your back on the ocean. And stay back from unstable cliff edges that can crumble underfoot.

Explore the Beauty of Glass Beach

The devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused far-reaching destruction on the California coastline. As a result, massive amounts of broken glass were dumped into the ocean.

Mother Nature and the power of the ocean turned that human disregard for the environment into a thing of beauty.

Today, smooth rounded pieces of colorful sea glass lay strewn across Glass Beach, making it one of the most unusual beaches in the world. Keep the kids occupied for hours as they comb through the sandy treasures.

While you’re there, take a hike on the Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail and soak up the views.

Snap Photos in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Whether you have a green thumb or not, it’s hard not to be impressed with the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.

Here you’ll find 47 acres of idyllic situated between Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean. Showcasing more than 125 species of spring-blooming rhododendrons and a stunning array of multichromatic dahlias that appear each fall, family photos taken in the gardens are sure to be frame-worthy.

Add to that the magnificent backdrop of the coastal bluffs and you’re going to need more than one frame.

Mendocino Skunk Train
The world-famous Skunk Train in Mendocino was named for its smelly exhaust. Photo credit: Kim Orlando

Ride on the Skunk Train or Pedal a Railway Bike

Named for the smelly fumes originally emitting from the trains of the late 1800s, the world-famous Skunk Train is a coastal treasure that runs through thick old growth redwood forest, over scenic trestle bridges, through spectacular tunnels and into the breathtaking Noyo River Canyon.

Besides, who can resist a ride on an old-fashioned steam train?

There are two routes:

  • Departing from Fort Bragg, the Pudding Creek Express chugs through the Pudding Creek Estuary for a scenic 7-mile, 75-minute round trip ride.
  • The Wolf Tree Turn departs from Willits, traveling 2 hours adn 16 miles round trip from the Willits valley floor to the line’s highest point before descending into the redwood-thick Noyo River Canyon.

If you’re looking for some exercise, try the 2-person rail bikes for a ride along the Pudding Creek rail line. It’s a fun way to experience the wonder of the redwood forests using your own pedal power with a little electric assist.

Starting at $250 per bike, there are two rides to choose from:

  • A 90-minute round trip ride, with an optional hike at the end.
  • A 25-mile off-the-beaten-path excursion that includes lunch.

Drive Through a Really Big Tree

We’ve all driven through many things in our travels, but that usually doesn’t include a tree. But in Mendocino County a tree that dates back 2,000 years, stands more than 300 feet high and displays a portly 70 feet circumference awaits your arrival.

Located in Leggett, the Drive-Thru Tree continues to be a favorite vacation photo op. Often referred to as the Chandelier Tree due to its massive branches protruding from the sides of the trunk, this is one drive-thru experience you don’t want to miss.

Feed the Giraffes…Yes, in California!

Committed to the breeding and conservation of African hoofstock, wildlife conservationists Frank and Judy Mello established the B. Bryan Preserve.

Bringing a piece of the African savannah to the California coast, the Mellos harbor Greater Kudu, Sable Antelope, Roan Antelope, Grevy’s Zebra, Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra and Nubian Giraffe. Spend some time touring the preserve and you’ll have the opportunity to view and feed the animals.

Hendy Woods State Park
Hike through the redwoods at Hendy Woods State Park. Photo credit: Visit Mendocino County

Hike and Picnic in One of Mendocino’s Beautiful State Parks

The Mendocino coast is home to a number of parks, offering numerous options for experiencing the region’s natural beauty via hiking, biking, birdwatching and even horseback riding.

Whether you’re looking for coastal hiking trails along the Mendocino Coast or hushed redwood forests, these are the top parks and the best Mendocino hikes in the area.

Hendy Woods State Park

Located about 45 minutes away from Mendocino in Philo, Hendy Woods State Park is a great place to see redwood trees in the Anderson Valley. Take a short hike on Discovery Trail to see Big Hendy Grove, the park’s most impressive redwood forest.

Mendocino Headlands State Park
The rugged beauty of Mendocino Headlands State Park. Photo credit: Brendan Guigan/Visit Mendocino County

Mendocino Headlands State Park

Understandably, hiking takes center stage at the Mendocino Headlands State Park where rugged cliffs, warm ocean breezes and breathtaking ocean views come together. It’s possible to spot dolphins frolicking in the ocean below. During the fall and winter months, try whale watching from the shore.

History has a role here too. Check out old photographs and artifacts dating back to the days of the Pomo Native Americans in the Historic Ford House Museum, which also serves as the park’s Visitor Center.

When you’re ready for a break from hiking, enjoy a picnic at Big River Beach. Specializing in deli sandwiches made with fresh meats and cheeses along with custom side dishes, the charming Mendocino Market in the village packs picnic lunches to go.

If you time it right, you just might get a stellar sunset to accompany your picnic.

Van Damme State Park

Van Damme State Park is an 1,800-acre park that stretches from the beach to the forest. The park’s hiking trails, including the short and lovely Pygmy Forest Trail, meander along the fern-carpeted canyon of Little River. There is also a boardwalk for strollers, wheelchairs and bikes.

Van Damme State Park has a beautiful beach dotted with sea caves. You can explore them on a kayak.

Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge at Russian Gulch State Park Mendocino.
Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge at Russian Gulch State Park. Photo credit: Visit Mendocino County

Russian Gulch State Park

Russian Gulch State Park is where you’ll find Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge, an art deco bridge built in the late 1930s. It has beaches, a waterfall, redwood trees and miles of hiking trails.

MacKerricher State Park

MacKerricher State Park is located three miles north of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County. It stretches along nine miles of coastline and contains several types of coastal habitat, including beaches, dunes, headlands, coves, wetlands, tide pools, forest and a freshwater lake, making it a wonderful destination to experience a day outdoors enjoying nature.

Pennyroyal Farm
Visit the vineyards at Pennyroyal Farm. Photo credit: Pennyroyal Farm

Wine Tasting in Mendocino

The Mendocino Coast is a 30-minute drive from Anderson Valley, aka, Mendocino Wine Country.

Though often bypassed for the better known wineries of northern California’s Sonoma County and Napa Valley, Mendocino also has a number of vineyards and wine tasting rooms. The local wines from Anderson Valley are mostly Pinots and sparkling wines. You can sample local wines, and some offer winery tours.

Lula Cellars Winery. Photo credit: Kim Orlando

Lula Cellars in Anderson Valley

This wine tasting experience in Philo was relaxed and friendly. We felt as though we had known the managers forever and that we should have brought a dog. Lula Cellars is pet friendly and family friendly (kids love the dog at Lula’s).

The tasting room is outside on picnic tables and the pours are generous. The tasting fee is $10, which can be applied to a wine club membership or a bottle of wine. We had long conversations about the wines, daily life at the vineyard, the dog and the story of the incredible vintage car that the general manager owns.

We toured the grounds and were reluctant to leave. The wines are young and light and fun, like the people who run the place.

Pennyroyal Farm

Pennyroyal is both a creamery and winery, resulting in a unique wine tasting experience. Pennyroyal’s owner grew up in the business; her parents started Navarro Vineyards in the 1970s.

We purchased a wine and cheese pairing. The goat cheeses are amazing – all different and all equally delicious. However, at $25 per person, we thought the experience felt very rote – the slivers of cheese and the petit pours were disappointing. The staff was informative about the grapes and goats but it all felt rushed.

Fathers + Daughters Cellars in Philo

This multi-generational labor of love explores “three of the best things in life: fathers, daughters, and wine.”

Sadly, we didn’t get to have our planned wine tasting there. The owner tested positive for Covid the day before we were supposed to meet. Instead, he sent some wine to us at home and we will set up our own tasting room in our kitchen and do a Zoom tasting. This is a great way to revive a wine-tasting memory.

Want more Mendocino Coast? Check out the top-rated places to stay and hotels and where to grab great food.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *