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

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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.

Kim Orlando, founder of SheBuysTravel, is a lifelong traveler, an entrepreneur and a sought-after social media and marketing consultant. She has made hundreds of appearances on TV and in digital and print media, sharing advice and tips built on decades of travel experiences. Hailing from the hills of Kentucky and taking her story to New York, Los Angeles, and beyond, Kim built an online platform, the original TravelingMom, that has reached millions of moms and empowered them to explore the world with their families. Today, TravelingMom has evolved into SheBuysTravel. Kim has been featured on “News Nation,” “Today,” “Good Morning America” and on numerous satellite media tours. She has contributed travel guidance to outlets including The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and more. (Read more about Kim’s media appearances here) Her travel mantra is simple: All travel counts. “You don’t have to go far. Leaving your home is travel,” Kim says. “Wherever you go, even just to the next town over, you can learn something new, see someone and something you haven’t seen before. “It’s good for the brain and good for the soul.” An epiphany in early parenthood started Kim on the journey that led to SheBuysTravel. She’d been a fan of a newsletter for women travelers, and she saw an opportunity. “I thought something like that for moms could be extraordinarily helpful,” she said. “I was traveling for work, traveling for fun, and I was looking for support.” That seed grew into the award-winning website TravelingMom, created as a resource for traveling families of all stripes. Today, TravelingMom has evolved into SheBuysTravel, with an expanded mission to serve women travelers at any stage of life. Millions of readers have visited the site for trip planning help, travel secrets, destination information and gear recommendations. What sets SheBuysTravel’s content apart, Kim says, is its foundation in real-world experience. “Our writers and editors have actually gone out there and done this stuff,” she says. “They’ve booked the flights, tried the tour, tested travel clothing, visited that new hot spot to see if it’s worth the hype. It’s all real.” Memorable Adventures A 2022 tour Kim guided to Bhutan was a particularly standout experience. “Bhutan sounds so exotic, of course,” she said. “But the part where my heart just glows and warms is thinking of the people we met – amazing women doing amazing things in Bhutan.” Their ranks included a former police officer whose ventures into food science helped mitigate food insecurity for residents of Bhutan’s highlands. Top Tips Planning for travel can be daunting, Kim acknowledges. “I always say: Go anyway. No trip is going to be perfect. There’s always going to be something you didn’t expect, something that doesn’t go the way you pictured or planned it. And that something is what’s going to make it a great trip.” And on a practical note: “Go early! Getting to the airport or hitting the road just an hour earlier relieves so much stress.” Kim’s Background Kim, a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, holds degrees in finance and entrepreneurship and has deep experience in developing and running businesses. Her previous work includes developing and running communications workshops and overseeing document management for corporations. SheBuysTravel hits a sweet spot where Kim’s two loves of travel and entrepreneurship meet. “The longer I work in this field, I only want to do more,” she says. “I find the travel world so exciting – not just the trips, but the whole online world of travel. There are still so many opportunities.” The World Awaits “The ‘best trip ever’ probably won’t be the same for an empty-nester or mom of three versus a single woman celebrating a bachelorette party with her friends,” Kim says. “We want to keep it real for traveling women, no matter what their age, life stage, where they came from or where they’re going. “We want to inspire women to travel in any shape or form.” In her free time, Kim enjoys visiting her adult kids, creating trips and traveling with her BFFs to explore the world. Her most recent adventures can be found on InstagramFacebook and LinkedIn.
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