Mendocino County is a naturalist paradise with historic charm and plenty of cozy inns
By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
It was always on our radar, but even as Californians, we’d never made it to Mendocino. That is until recently. And were we ever surprised and delighted.
This wild, untamed outdoor paradise is filled with so much natural wonder. My spouse and I had our typical “must-do” list completed long before we headed north on our trip from San Diego.
But what we didn’t expect were the hidden treasures we’d found in a county that’s a three-hour’s drive from San Francisco or Sacramento.
Thanks to a few adventurous locals we met in Mendocino who gave us the ‘inside scoop’ on the area, we were treated to some astonishing sights and adventures many people don’t know about.
The Charming Inns of Mendocino
One of the aspects we love most about Mendocino County is its host of quaint and charming inns and bed and breakfasts.
It makes visiting this area even more special.
It should come as no surprise that these are locally owned venues, many with multiple generations of family who have been their loving caretakers.
It all fits with the unique entrepreneurial spirit here coupled with the passion and commitment to the place they call home.
Guests should bypass any idea of a hotel and bask in an amazing coastal lodging experience.
We got to stay in two lovely inns during our couple’s adventure getaway and we fell in love with them both.
Brewery Gulch Inn
Brewery Gulch Inn is designed in the California craftsman style paying homage to the area’s stunning redwoods.
The 11 rooms of this two-floor boutique bed and breakfast each has their own name.
Our Smuggler’s Cove loft room accessed by a private staircase featured a comfy king bed with down bedding, a sitting area, and gas fireplace.
And the ocean views were spectacular, both from our room and the inn itself.
Breakfast included with the stay is an absolute gourmet treat, served in the main lobby area.
Or guests may dine on the back porch facing the gulch and the Pacific.
Every afternoon, the inn hosts a wine and light food offering.
Staff here is incredibly friendly making guests feel like old and dear friends.
Another jewel in the area, Little River Inn sits high on a bluff with sweeping ocean views. The original house which includes the lobby and check in area was built in 1853.
Five generations of family have owned and managed the multi-building property since it was converted to an inn in 1939.
We love the history and legacy of the 66-room inn, along with its delightful accommodations.
Our king room featured a fireplace, seating area along with our favorite, a deck overlooking the countryside and Pacific Ocean furnished with Adirondack rocking chairs.
It was a perfect place to enjoy the sunset with our bottle of wine. And we loved dining in their romantic outdoor lighted tent area.
Surprising Blowhole and Sinkhole
One of our favorite experiences in Mendocino was finding the Little River Blowhole and its punchbowl/sinkhole. We had to park outside Little River Cemetery then open the unlocked gate to enter and follow a path through the historic cemetery to the sinkhole.
The massive and impressive hole was formed by constant ocean waves crashing in through a rock tunnel and a creating depression in the middle of a pine forest.
With time, the sinkhole has grown significantly, and waves still rush in at high tide.
Compressed air from the cave then forces water blasting out on the Pacific Side, hence the blowhole.
The Blowhole Trail
The Mendocino Land Trust built a short dirt path called the Blowhole Trail that begins outside the northeast corner of the cemetery.
Another trail begins inside the cemetery on the south side.
Climbing down to the bottom is dangerous with warning signs posted as even full-grown trees have collapsed into the abyss.
However, it was interesting to see that adventure lovers (or risk takers) had built a rope swing leading down to the bottom of the sinkhole.
Getting down would be challenging enough. But getting back up? That would take some serious and dangerous efforts.
Walk to the Bluff Edge
Adventurers can also take the ½-mile path down to a bluff edge providing views of the coast, ocean, and offshore islands.
As it had recently rained, the path was extremely slippery making it dangerous to hike down. And hikers should be aware of the poison oak around the trail.
But we did get to see the impressive blowhole side of the geologic wander safely from a friend’s boat. We would have never discovered this phenomenon were it not for our local friends.
Point Cabrillo Light Station- a Sentinel on the Coast
This California State Historic Park occupies a spectacular headland that extends out into the Pacific with a lighthouse standing sentinel over the craggy coastline.
And it’s well worth the almost-two-mile round-trip paved hike or taking the more meandering trail surrounded by grassland and coastal prairie. Both paths lead to this stunning point.
The Mendocino Coast is known for its extreme foggy days especially in the summer months as the land continues to warm.
On the day of our visit, a heavy fog blanketed the area in eerie fashion before lifting to expose the magnificent coast before our eyes.
On the lighthouse grounds, three historic lightkeeper homes have been beautifully restored and are available as vacation rentals in addition to smaller onsite cabins.
We both agreed that on our next trip, this would be a fabulous experience.
Visiting Van Damme Pygmy Forest Natural Preserve
Three miles south of Mendocino on Highway One, Van Damme State Park has it all.
Located within a lush fern-filled forest with a scenic beach, the park also offers year-round camping and plenty of places and trails for nature lovers.
But the biggest surprise of all in this massive state park is the weird and wonderful Pygmy Forest.
While Mendocino is known for its towering stately redwoods, this fascinating forest holds only low, stunted trees and shrubs, drawing sharp contrast to the mighty redwoods and fir trees nearby.
Poor Soil for Pygmy Trees
These pygmy trees are the result of wet, poor-quality soil that deprives them of nutrients, restricting the growth of vegetation, inducing a unique dwarf condition in many of the plants. Though they are small, many are over 100 years old.
We took the meandering boardwalk Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail that introduced us to many of the plants in this small-scale natural phenomenon.
Wandering The Charming Town of Mendocino
It’s quaint, it’s charming, and well-worth a visit to this tucked-away seaside village. While the larger town of Fort Bragg to the north is quite lovely, Mendocino, established in the 1850s, is the only town on the California coast designated as a historic landmark.
We parked our car and wandered delightfully about this easily walkable town lined with irresistibly unique boutiques, stunning art galleries featuring local artists, quaint bed and breakfasts, and locally-owned eateries.
Surrounded on three sides by the scenic Mendocino Headlands coastal bluffs, the village is full of stunning views, fascinating history, and interesting architecture including lovingly restored Victorian homes.
Finding the Temple of Kwan Tai
This was a surprise, because who knew Mendocino actually had a Chinese temple?
In the mid-1800s, the Taoist structure, a symbol of turmoil, change, and peace was constructed in the historic district of the village.
Mendocino was home to a significant Chinese population in the 19th century that worked or supported the local lumber industry. They even had a Chinatown section here.
The temple is the first Chinese Joss House (folk temple) in rural California, and offers a keen insight into the Chinese community while still serving as a place of ritual and worship.
The small brightly painted red and green redwood building with two doors, three windows, and a gable roof was restored in 2001.
Nine steps lead from the street level to the front door, a number that is believed to fend off evil spirits.
Rail Biking Through the Redwoods
Since 1885, the historic steam-powered Skunk Train has carried cargo and passengers for thousands of miles through picturesque redwood groves, over rustic trestle bridges, and along scenic Pudding Creek and the lush Noyo River Canyon.
The California Western Railroad became known as the Skunk Train in 1925, when motorcars (also known as railbuses) were introduced.
These single unit, self-propelled motorcars had gasoline-powered engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep the passengers warm.
The combination of these fumes however created a very pungent odor the old timers said resembled the scent of skunks.
No Smell, Great Ride
Today passengers can take a step back in time and enjoy the ride without the smell.
This historic train boards in Fort Bragg and takes passengers along part of the old route through the towering groves of second-growth redwoods.
We could only imagine the majesty of the century-old giants that were over-harvested by the logging camps.
But on our Mendocino trip, we also got to do something totally different and that was to experience the immense beauty of the redwood groves by guided rail bike as well.
These two-person rail bikes take passengers on a roundtrip on the same train rails alongside the Pudding Creek Estuary.
Electric Bikes for the Win
Bikes have geared electric-assist motors so riders can choose the difficulty level based on how much effort they want to put in the journey.
We pedaled along historic tracks, basked in dappled rays of sunlight a light accompanying breeze.
Without the need to steer, we could truly enjoy the wondrous views of this enchanting stretch of nature.
We spotted osprey, squirrels, and deer along the route before arriving at our scheduled stop in Glen Blair Junction.
Here we hiked a beautiful one-mile looped trail past massive tree stumps with new redwood growth soaring into the skies.
Returning to the rail cars as hungry hikers, we enjoyed a flash of childhood, finding a huge patch of ripe blackberries. Of course, couldn’t resist the temptation. We feasted.
Heading back to the station, we reveled in the delightful day we’d spent exploring the Mendocino redwood forests.
Exploring Elk Cove
It’s one of the most spectacular views on the Mendocino Coast. Perhaps one of the best we’ve seen on the entire Pacific California Coast.
Yes, we’ve been to many jaw-dropping awe-inspiring places including the Big Sur coast.
But along the 30-minute drive south of Mendocino, we had many ‘honey, stop the car moments’ we needed to capture.
When we arrived at SIBO at the historic Elk Cove Inn for our sunset dinner, our host escorted us to our table and my eyes welled up with tears. Views of the incredibly picturesque boutique property perched on a bluff were stunning in themselves, but the Pacific coastline was breathtaking beyond words.
The fading light turned the waters of the Pacific into a deep startling blue while the fog rolled in over the rugged towering bluffs. Add in the remoteness of its driftwood-strewn beach and it became a scene created by the brushstrokes of Mother Nature’s guiding hand.
Our Final Thoughts on the Treasures of Mendocino
French poet Anatole France once said “Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.”
We can’t think of a better place to find that sense of harmony and balance than in the wild and wonderful places we explored in Mendocino County.
With its spectacular scenery, sense of peaceful isolation, and host of surprises just lying in wait, this ended up being one of our top-shelf vacation destinations. It’s really that special.