Are you considering a weekend escape on the West Coast? Mendocino offers an array of scenic wonders and unique experiences, making it a top destination. There's plenty to discover, from its breathtaking shoreline to the vibrant, artsy corners. Are you wondering what the best things to do in Mendocino County are? This guide dives into 14 must-visit spots that will enrich your visit. Whether passionate about nature or intrigued by history, there's something here for every traveler. Dive in and see what things to do in Mendocino you fancy visiting.
1. The Ford House Museum
The Ford House Visitor Center and Museum is an absolute must-visit if you're looking to dive deep into a significant chapter of America's automotive history. Initially the cherished home of Edsel Ford, Henry Ford's only son, and his wife Eleanor, this stunning estate sits on the picturesque shores of Lake St. Clair. As you explore the vast 87 acres, you'll be stepping back in time to when the Ford family lived, laughed, and created lasting memories here.
Today, the Ford Museum House is a National Historic Landmark, attracting visitors worldwide to soak in its rich legacy and architectural beauty. With its expansive gardens, historic residence, and an array of exhibits, the estate promises an enlightening and enchanting experience. Whether you're here for a simple walk or a deep dive into history, every corner holds a captivating story.
2. Whale Watching
From November to April, the Mendocino Coast becomes a spectacular stage for one of nature's most awe-inspiring performances: the migration of the California gray whales. The whales migrate from the cold waters of Alaska to the warm lagoons of Baja, Mexico, to breed and give birth. Mendocino whale watching is one of the best experiences during this period.
The coastline offers several high points like the Mendocino Headlands State Park and Point Arena Lighthouse, which are perfect to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures. For those keen on a closer encounter, Mendocino whale watching tours are available. You can hop on a charter or rent kayaks if the sea is calm and you're up for adventure. If you are wondering what the best time to whale watch in Mendocino is, then its March, when the towns celebrate these majestic mammals with special events and festivities.
3. Hike Russian Gulch State Park
Russian Gulch State Park is a treasure on the Mendocino Coast and is very popular among locals and tourists. It blends everything you'd want in a coastal park: a scenic beach with an iconic bridge above, unique features like the “Devil’s Punchbowl” formed by years of ocean waves, and a grassy headland that hides a blowhole. You can explore 15 miles of trails, including a 2.5-mile path through a fern-filled canyon leading to a stunning 35-foot waterfall. Perfect for snapping photos!
If you're into marine life, the park's protected cove is a haven for creatures like abalone, sea stars, and even harbor seals. And if you visit during the fall or spring, remember to check out the whales from the park's picnic areas. Russian Gulch offers kayaking, diving, and snorkeling for those who love water activities. It's truly an all-in-one destination for nature enthusiasts!
4. Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is between Mendocino and Fort Bragg on Highway 1. It's a great place to visit with lots to do as there is a sandy beach near the creek that is good for picnics, and it's kid and dog-friendly. The beach has white sand, tall cliffs, and clear green water. If you're up for a walk, trails on the cliffs give awesome views. One cool thing to look for is a rock shaped like a handle called the “Jughandle”. This reserve is good for a chill beach day or a nice walk.
5. The Mendocino Bay Viewpoint
Mendocino Bay Viewpoint Trail is a straightforward escape from urban hustle. Situated on Brewery Gulch Road, this free trail, also known as the Mendocino Overlook, provides a laid-back walk with scenic coastal views.
The pathway is divided: one side offers expansive ocean views surrounded by trees, while the other highlights the rugged cliffs with waves crashing below. An open field alongside the trail and some benches offer spots for a break. It's a popular place for both relaxation and occasional events. At the trail's conclusion, there's a distant view of downtown Mendocino. This trail is a top pick for those searching for free things to do in Mendocino.
6. Stroll Downtown Mendocino
Downtown Mendocino is such a vibrant and diverse spot that it could easily fill an entire article alone. Let’s take a quick look at a few things we recommend you try.
Downtown has some great eats. Wanting French food? Think about stopping by Café Beaujolais. On the other hand, those craving Italian can head straight to Luna Trattoria. With numerous restaurants in downtown Mendocino, there is something for everyone's tastes.
Independent shops dot the streets for those looking to take back a piece of Mendocino. A must-visit is Rubaiyat Beads. They offer exquisite jewelry, making for a perfect souvenir or gift.
Alternatively, you could step back, observe, grab a coffee, and settle down at a cozy spot. Downtown Mendocino is a fantastic place for people-watching and taking in the local atmosphere and culture.
7. Hike The Big River Haul Road
If you're looking for dog friendly things to do in Mendocino, check out the Big River Haul Road. In 2002, the Mendocino Land Trust made this great path available to everyone. It's a long 10-mile trail that connects Big River Beach to Mendocino Woodlands State Park.
You can walk, bike, or ride a horse on The Big River Haul Road. It's not just for people; dogs are welcome too. You'll see the Big River and many animals like birds, seals, and otters as you go along.
It's a simple, nice place to walk with friends, family, or your pet and enjoy the outdoors.
8. Kayak Big River
Looking for fun things to do in Mendocino? How about kayaking on Big River? This unique spot allows you to experience where the fresh river waters meet the vast ocean while being nestled between towering Redwoods. As you glide, watch for playful river otters and curious harbor seals. Need a kayak? No worries. There are convenient and easy Mendocino kayak rentals available. Whether you're a first-timer or a seasoned paddler, Big River offers a memorable kayaking adventure. Dive in and embrace the natural beauty of kayaking in Mendocino.
9. Wine Tasting
Mendocino County is famous for its wines, making it a top spot for enthusiasts. While there's a lot to explore, and we could dedicate a whole article to it, here are a few places we recommend wine lovers try.
- Pennyroyal Farm – This spot offers more than just wine. Along with tasting their unique wines, you can also enjoy handmade cheeses from their farm. It's a real taste of Mendocino's countryside.
- Roederer Estate – A local favorite, Roederer is recognized for making top-notch bubbly wines.
Whether you're seeking the best wine tasting in Mendocino or looking into Mendocino wine tasting tours, there's something for every wine lover here.
10. Mendocino Art Center
Mendocino Art Center sits right by the ocean and opened its doors in 1959. It's a welcoming space for art lovers. Whether you're just getting into art or crafting masterpieces for years, this center offers a relaxing environment where individuals can join, engage in artistic activities, learn new skills, and meet new friends. Situated in the heart of Mendocino, the center primarily focuses on drawing, painting, and live performances. It's a cool place to see local art and pick up a new skill if you're nearby.
One cool thing about the center is its Gallery & Shop. It's open every day from 11am – 4pm. Here, visitors can see local art and even buy some.
The center offers classes for people wanting to try something new or improve their craft. They have classes in ceramics and also ones for kids. If you just want to see some art, they have regular art shows that show off the talent in the area.
You should check out the Mendocino Art Center. It's a great spot to see local art and try your hand at making something.
11. Explore Mendocino Headlands State Park
Nestled close to downtown Mendocino, the Mendocino Headlands State Park is one of the top things to do in Mendocino for its captivating coastal views. The park boasts unique rock formations, sea foam sights, and easy-to-access overlook paths.
Those seeking more adventure can tread along the park's rocky edges or tackle uneven stairs leading down to a serene sandy beach. Multiple parking spots make it convenient for visitors, and the dog-friendly policy means your furry companion can enjoy the stunning scenery with you. It's a delightful spot for all, a blend of easy walks and challenging terrains.
12. The Temple Of Kwan Tai
Looking for unique things to do in Mendocino? Check out the Temple of Kwan Tai. It's over 100 years old and tells the story of Chinese people who came to Mendocino during the Gold Rush. If you go there, you might run into people related to the ones who started the temple. They'll tell you stories about their family from way back. Some have even put these stories in books. It's a good place to hear about what happened here a long time ago.
13. Visit Point Cabrillo Light Station Historic Park
Constructed between 1908 and 1909, the Point Cabrillo Light Station is a testament to maritime history. After parking, visitors can embark on a scenic half-mile walk to the station, greeted by the fully operational Lighthouse, boasting its original, historic lens. Nearby, restored Lightkeeper homes showcase life from earlier times, and a marine science exhibit featuring a saltwater aquarium adds a touch of aquatic wonder.
Entry is free for these main attractions, which remain open from 11 am to 4 pm daily. This well-preserved gem is a must-visit as you delve into things to do in Mendocino County. While there's no mandatory charge, kindly consider leaving a donation.
14. Van Damme State Park
Van Damme State Park offers a serene beach, spacious campgrounds, and diverse trails. The Van Damme State Park campsites are generously sized with the tranquil sounds of a nearby creek. Just across the road, the beach awaits, ensuring visitors are only moments away from shoreline relaxation.
For those who love the outdoors, Van Damme State Park Hikes are a top pick. The Fern Valley Trail is a gentle stroll through a canyon, while the trail leading to the Pygmy Forest presents a rewarding uphill challenge of 1.2 miles. This unique forest, an essential stop, features a boardwalk that educates visitors about its slow-growing plants. The Little River further enhances the hiking experience, meandering under ten scenic bridges, surrounded by ferns, blossoms, and towering trees.
Before exploring, stop by the Van Damme State Park Visitor Center for valuable insights, and remember that beach parking can help avoid the entrance fee. Whether camping, hiking or just taking in nature, this park offers a rich blend of Mendocino's best.
Mendocino offers a range of cool spots and activities. From kayaking in Big River to checking out art at the Mendocino Art Center, there's a lot to see and do. The Mendocino Headlands State Park is a must-visit for nature lovers, while history buffs might find the Temple of Kwan Tai intriguing. The Point Cabrillo Light Station adds a touch of history to your trip, and Van Damme State Park is great for hikes and camping.
Do you have a favorite spot in Mendocino County? Been to any of the places we've listed? If you think we missed a cool place, drop a comment. We want to keep this guide fresh and helpful, and your input can guide future visitors as well.
I’m Steve. I’m an English Teacher, traveler, and an avid outdoorsman. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@thefrugalexpat1). Many of my posts have been written to help those in their journey to financial independence. I am on my journey, and as I learn more I hope to share more. And as always, thanks for reading The Frugal Expat.