Mendocino County is known for its scenic shoreline, quaint towns, Victorian bed and breakfast lodgings, and well-regarded wineries. With pristine beaches, rugged ocean bluffs, ancient redwoods and peaceful streams, it’s also one of the best places in the state to enjoy a hike or a beach walk.
Although it’s a 41/2 hour drive from home, it’s more than worth the trip if you have a long weekend or part of a week. During the warmer months, the Mendocino Coast is a great place to escape the heat.
Mendocino County stretches from the coast almost all the way inland to Clear Lake, though most of the best hiking trails are within 15 miles of the coast. This column focuses on the coastal part, with hiking highlights from a trip last fall. With many trails and beach walks to choose from, we did a lot of pre-trip research to select the ones that sounded the most enticing. None of them disappointed us, and there are plenty more that we hope to return to and explore in the future. Most of the trails are easy and nearly level – perfect hiking routes for any ability level.
Starting at the south end of the county, we followed coastal Highway 1 north – one of the best drives in the state.
There are dozens of places where you will probably feel inclined to look for a parking spot and get out of your vehicle to enjoy the outstanding views.
The Point Arena Lighthouse – featured last fall – is one of the most unique and scenic places to stay in the entire state.
On top of that, it’s surprisingly affordable. The bluffs around the lighthouse ( www.pointarenalighthouse.com, (707) 822-2809) and the adjacent BLM-managed Stornetta Public Lands ( www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/ukiah/stornetta.html, (707) 468-4000) offer some easy and scenic coastal walking.
Manchester State Park is situated just to the north of the lighthouse. It has a 5-mile beach with plenty of room to get out and walk ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=437, (707) 882-2463).
Located in the small town of Elk, Greenwood State Beach ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=447, (707) 937-5804) is a short hike downhill from Highway 1. Large offshore rocks are carved with natural tunnels. We saw kayakers navigating them during our time there. The fog, a frequent visitor to this coastline, drifted in and out while we were on the beach.
Six miles further north, Navarro River Redwoods State Park ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=435, (707) 937-5804) also offers excellent – though very popular – beach access.
A few miles beyond, Van Damme State Park ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=433, (707) 937-5804) boasts a beautiful and easy trail through Fern Canyon along Little River. We spotted a lot of tiny Coho salmon from the bridges that cross the trail. This Fern Canyon is often confused with the equally impressive location with the same name in nearby Russian Gulch State Park and another in Humboldt County’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. If you are up for an 8-mile round-trip hike, you can walk all the way to the unusual stunted trees of the Pygmy Forest. You can also access them via a half-mile loop from a parking area located off Airport Road if you want a shorter walk.
The Mendocino Headlands are coastal bluffs that stretch out on three sides of the town of Mendocino between the buildings and the ocean. Today part of Mendocino Headlands State Park ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=442, (707) 937-5804), they offer excellent trails with outstanding views.
Between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, the historic Point Cabrillo Lighthouse sits on the ocean bluffs. Now a State Historic Park, the restored lighthouse is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=22276, (707) 937-6122). It’s a 15-minute walk from the parking area and there are additional trails along the bluffs to explore. Like Point Arena, the former lighthouse keepers’ quarters are available for rent.
North of Fort Bragg, much of the coastline is part of MacKerricher State Park ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=436, (707) 964-9112). Laguna Point is an easy, enjoyable coastal walk. Pretty Lake Cleone is an excellent picnic spot where you can watch ducks while you eat.
Further north, Bruhel Point offers excellent tide pools and Westport-Union Landing State Beach ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=440, (707) 937-5804) is one of the last good beach access points before Highway 1 turns east to avoid the steep, roadless section of the coastline known as the “Lost Coast.” The southernmost part of the Lost Coast – featured here a couple of years ago – lies within Mendocino County. I’ll write about it again someday after I get the chance to backpack the entire route.
While the weather is rarely cold in this part of the state, wind and fog are common. Wear layered clothing and be prepared for rain in the fall, winter and spring.