Mendocino Coast: Three Adventures in Nature in California
By Mary Charlebois
Wildlife, waves, wilderness, and wine. That’s why you go to Mendocino Coast. Rugged Pacific headlands shelter hidden coves and secret beaches.
The Noyo River snakes through a working harbor, crosses Noyo Rough Bar, and enters the Pacific.
Open grass and meadowlands give way to woodlands of conifers, deciduous trees, and shrubs. And everywhere, wildlife. Marine mammals, fish, birds, land mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
Small towns with welcoming people, locally owned businesses, and fresh locally sourced food are the norm on Mendocino Coast. Open vistas of wild, unspoiled nature and the Mediterranean climate are irresistible. It’s the ideal environment for unplugging and occupying Nature.
There are countless Nature experiences and adventures to choose from on Mendocino Coast. These three showcase three very different terrains and wildlife –shore, woodlands, and Noyo River joining the Pacific.
Row the Noyo River. The overview
Team row a 16-man, vintage Whale Boat with TSCA (Traditional Small Craft Association). TSCA is a nonprofit organization working to preserve and continue the living traditions, skills, lore, and legends of working and pleasure craft.
Trips and instruction are available for all levels of experience from first-timer to expert. All ages are welcome.
TSCA rowing trips begin roughly a mile up Noyo River in Fort Bragg California. Tranquil Dolphin Isle Marina and RV Park provide protected small-craft docks for TSCA’s Whale Boat.
Life vests are fitted, seating is arranged according to experience. Rowing techniques, commands, and safety instructions are provided for first-timers by a skilled coxswain. From a standing position, the coxswain steers the boat with a large oar and gives commands to the crew.
Wildlife along the way
Wildlife sightings begin before you leave the dock in this calm backwater. Ospreys nest in the tall trees on each side of the steep, wooded, river canyon. They soar fish, hunt, and voice their distinctive call. It’s very common to see them flying to their nests while holding in their talons, a fish their size or larger. Ospreys are masters at fishing.
After getting underway, travel continues down Noyo River as it twists its way through the waterfront. Harbor Seals glide and fish quietly in the water. Birds of all varieties call, hunt, and swim. Ravens, Seagulls, and Turkey Vultures are specialists at riding the thermal currents.
Rows of turtles often rest on logs jutting out of the river. Frogs and fish, insects, and mammals; the water and river banks are teaming with life.
A working harbor
You pass a commercial marina docking fishing vessels of all sizes. Noyo is a working harbor. Weather, tide, and season permitting, fishing vessels go out to sea daily, returning with salmon, cod, rockfish, urchins, crab, and more.
Unloading at the commercial wharf, the catch is quickly prepared for shipping locally and around the world.
The view at the water-level is a distinctive perspective of the wharf and its occupants; restaurants, RV parks, party boats, sport gear merchants, and commercial seafood operations.
The US Coast Guard has a base in Noyo River. Training exercises of all kinds take place regularly.
Under the bridge
Continuing under Noyo Bridge, the 97’ vertical clearance can make you feel pretty small in the man-powered Whale Boat. Depending on water conditions, tide, and rowers onboard, you may turn around and return to Dolphin Isle, or you may cross the Noyo Rough Bar and enter the Pacific.
In open water, vessels of many sizes pass. Buoys are resting spots for seals and sea lions. After rowing out to the channel, time may be spent drifting and bobbing, taking a little rest before returning to Dolphin Isle.
Open water can be very quiet at times or clamor with the sounds of bells, fog horns, seals, sea lions, and boats.
Setting up your row
Reservations are required for all trips. See the Whale Boat schedule for different trip times and experience levels. To make a reservation and get directions for your rowing adventure, call Dusty Dillon at 707-964- 2612. Rows for your group can also be arranged with Dusty.
The best part of it all – your first trip is absolutely free! First-timers will get a sense of what rowing is about, experts will learn the water, boat, and crew. When you decide to go rowing with TSCA again, you are asked to join the organization. An annual family membership is $25. A real bargain.
Hike to the Pygmy Forest
Knee-high trees several decades-old are at the top of five terraces on a multi-terrain hiking trail called The Ecological Staircase.
It begins at the Pacific shore, climbing 2.5 miles to the otherworldly Pygmy Forest. The ‘Staircase’ is located in a 769-acre California State Park offering day-use only; no overnight camping.
Where the trip begins
The ‘Staircase’ is located in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. Jug Handle is on Highway 1, between Fort Bragg and Mendocino.
Enter the parking area from the highway. The trail begins in the parking lot. A pamphlet with a map is available for a self-guided track but is not necessary for navigation. Information on the map coordinates to numbered signs along the trail detailing environments, flora, and fauna.
Walking geological history
The trail is 2.5-miles each way. It gains 288 feet of elevation. Rated easy to moderate, it will take about 2.5-hours roundtrip. You will walk through geological history. Five terraces were created by tectonic plate movement at different geological periods. Each terrace represents approximately 100,000 years.
As you walk from the terrace to terrace, the landscape changes. Beach stops abruptly against headlands. Prairies top the headlands and merge into the brush, woodlands, creek beds, redwoods, and finally, the Pygmy Forest.
Terraces three, four, and five have some of the world’s oldest soil. Nutrients have been depleted over the millenniums, but the tenacious plants and trees adapted. The stunted trees and grey landscape are products of evolution. The Pygmy Forest is home to dwarfed versions of trees and plants found nowhere else.
Wildlife along the way
The ‘Staircase’ offers a wider variety of wildlife viewing than any other place on the coast. The numerous habitats you pass through shelter birds, mammals, amphibians, fish, and marine mammals. It’s even possible to see Black Bear and Mountain Lions. They do inhabit this area. Listen to the Woodlands soundtrack
After reaching the eastern end of the trail, turn around and go back the way you came.
The beach below the parking lot is a perfect place to spend the afternoon, have a picnic or watch the sunset. Other park activities include; exhibits, fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, whale watching (November through April), windsurfing, surfing, and Geocaching.
Jug Handle State Nature Reserve is open from dawn till dusk. Admission is free.
Roll or Walk the Coastline
Ravens soaring, hawks hunting, cranes standing like statues. Whales spouting, seals and sea lions barking. Over 10 miles of paved trail suitable for feet or wheels, passes along headlands, beaches, through grasslands, woodlands and estuaries of Mendocino Coast.
Parts of the trail were inaccessible to the public for over 100 years. In January 2015, the dramatic Noyo Headlands Park opened granting access. The trail puts you up-close to the rugged, wild coast, its many habitats, inhabitants and thought-provoking historical sites.
The ten+ miles of paved trail referred to as the Coastal Trail is actually three trails; Fort Bragg Coastal Trail North, Fort Bragg Coastal Trail South, and Haul Road Trail (also referred to as Ten Mile Beach Trail and MacKerricher Haul Road Trail). Passing through Fort Bragg, they are generally called the Coastal Trail. The three combined are part of the 1200-mile California Coastal Trail.
Fort Bragg Coastal Trail North connects seamlessly to Haul Road Trail. It is part of, and leads to, MacKerricher State Park. Fort Bragg Coastal Trail South is currently not connected to the north section. You must exit the park and use surface streets for a few blocks to get to the north section of the path.
Nature overflows here
Along the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail is an 8’-wide, hard-top path roaming along the seaside headlands. The trail supports safe walking and rolling for all ages and abilities. Interpretive panels explaining nature and history are scattered along the way. Benches offer scenic respites and unparalleled wave or whale watching positions when the breathtaking giants happen to be passing from November through April.
Nature puts on a constant display of wildlife and waves. It’s never the same performance. Conditions will change from hour to hour. High tides conceal beaches that were just visible. Sub-tides reveal areas usually covered by water. Creatures flourish in the ocean, tide pools, beaches, headlands, and air. Native plant-life restoration provides shelter and food for Mother Nature’s lodgers.
Remnants of the logging/lumber industry
There are many historic and cultural sites along the trail. A popular area is Glass Beach, from 1906 until 1967, the city dump. Beach-combing here will easily turn-up gem-like pieces of glass and household pottery worn smooth by years of wave action. Glass Beach is only visible and accessible during low tides.
The trail is bounded on the east by a one-time Georgia Pacific mill site. Fort Bragg was a mill town from 1869 until 2002 when the mill closed. Most of the mill buildings have been removed with the ongoing work to remediate the old mill site.
One-time mill ponds are now a habitat for birds, mammals, amphibians, and fish. Deer, fox, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, ground squirrels, gophers, moles, voles, mice, and other mammals have returned and are thriving.
Soldier Bay was once busy dockage for ships moving people, lumber, and fish. Though long ago destroyed by storms, look closely to see remnants of pilings.
Birds, birds and more birds
Ninety+ bird species make their home along the trail. Sea and shorebirds are joined by migrating geese stopping over for rest, food, and water. Cranes, osprey, and other hawks hunt for small mammals, fish and amphibians. Songbirds, mockingbirds, finches, larks, sparrows, thrushes, and more feast on flowers and seeds in the prairie-like grasslands. Ravens prosper here and often provide aerial acrobatics for your entertainment. Listen to a Raven call
As you head north on the trail you pass headland prairies, dense conifer woods, creeks entering the ocean, estuaries filled with wetland inhabitants and beaches. After reaching the northern end of the trail, turn around and return the way you came.
The Coastal Trail is open from dawn to dusk, admission is free.
No matter which Nature adventure you choose on Mendocino Coast, you will have an unforgettable experience. This area is perfect for unplugging, ducking under the radar, and immersing yourself in nature.
Gear for adventure
CLOTHING – Easy-fit clothing that covers arms and legs but allows for easy movement. Multi-layers will be the best defense against the variety of conditions you may encounter. Warm and sunny can change to overcast and windy very quickly.
HAT – If you go rowing, it should be able to withstand winds (chin strap, etc.) or you’ll be waving goodbye to your head covering as you go under the Noyo Bridge.
SHOES – Hiking boots or sturdy shoes for the Ecological Staircase. For rowing, wear closed-toed shoes with soles that can grip on wet surfaces.
SHADES – Tinted glasses will minimize eye fatigue and glare from water.
For Pygmy Forest and Coastal Trail add –
INSECT DETERRENT/REPELLANT – Mosquitos may be present in wooded areas.
Getting to and around Mendocino Coast
This area is easiest to access by auto; it’s about 3-hours north of San Francisco or 3-hours south of Eureka. From the North or South take Hwy 101 to Willits California. Turn west on Highway 20. Highway 20 ends on the coast at Hwy 1 in Fort Bragg.
Walking and cycling are the best ways to get around Fort Bragg.
Local transit with county-wide connections is available and inexpensive. MTA has a trip planner online or call 800-696-4682.
These hotels are directly on the Coastal Trail with ocean view rooms available. Family and pet-friendly lodging is just steps to Coastal Trail –
Try hotels on Noyo River. On or above the water, these hotels have views of the harbor, river, bridge and Pacific –
Vacation rentals in all sizes and locations are prevalent. Camping from tent to RV is everywhere on the coast. Numerous state and private parks are available. These two are short walks to the Pacific.
MacKerricher State Park – on the Coastal Trail
Van Damme State Park – favorite kayaking spot
Eat and drink
Restaurants abound on the coast. Most tastes, budgets and dietary needs can be accommodated.
COFFEE – Headlands Coffeehouse –Casual, coffee/tea bar, soups, sandwiches, salads, wine, and beer. Very good food. Free Wi-Fi. Free live music 7-nights per week. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. 120 Laurel Street, Fort Bragg. 707-964-1987.
SEAFOOD – Django’s Rough Bar Café – in Noyo Harbor, just before Noyo Bridge, Fort Bragg. Sheltered, heated, glass-walled, deck or inside seating. Best view in the harbor. Casual surroundings with locals and visitors. Local seafood, chowders, sandwiches, small plates, craft beer, and wine are offered. Live music evenings and Sunday afternoon. Serving lunch and dinner. 707-962-0100
VEGAN – Ravens –Award-winning, fine-dining, vegan restaurant. All organic and local. They have an award-winning wine list. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At Stanford Inn, Hwy 1 & Comptche-Ukiah Road, Mendocino. 707-937-5615.
The bar includes cocktails, local craft beer, and wine. Seafood, chicken and steaks are featured on the menu. Serving dinner daily, brunch on weekends. 1011 S Main St, Fort Bragg. 707-962-3035
COOK YOUR OWN – Harvest Market – Supermarket that stocks local seafood, shellfish, meats, cheeses, fruit, veg and wine. In-house deli, bakery and butcher. Largest wine department in the area stocks local wines and other regions. Fully stocked liquor department. Perfect place to fill the cooler for the campsite or pick-up a picnic for the beach. 171 Boatyard Drive, Fort Bragg. 707 964-7000.
Farmers Markets – Mendocino County has some of the highest concentrations of organic farmers in the country. You will find fruit, veg, dairy, meat, wine, olive oil, plants, and prepared foods. Local performers are often on-hand to provide entertainment. A farmer’s market takes place somewhere each day of the week from May through October. Fort Bragg’s market is open year-round, moving indoors from November through April.
CYCLING SUPPLY AND REPAIR – Fort Bragg Cyclery – 301 N Main, Fort Bragg. 707-964-3509
CAMPING, HIKING SUPPLIES – Outdoor Store – 247 N Main, Fort Bragg. 707-964-1407
WATER SPORTS EQUIPMENT – Several locations.
FORT BRAGG-MENDOCINO COAST PACKET – The Packet is a local publication covering entertainment, festivals, food and shopping on Mendocino Coast. It includes a calendar showing all special events and entertainment happening each month. It is free on newsstands everywhere.
Skunk Train – a vintage passenger train, offers scenic rides through the giant Redwoods. Some rides include Bar-B-Ques or special stops for photographers.
Guest House Museum – a source for Fort Bragg’s, lumber and fishing industry and Pomo Indian histories.
Water sport – kayak, canoe, row, scuba dive, snorkel, surf.
Fishing, crabbing, whale watching or sunset cruises.
The visual arts -Mendocino Art Center and galleries in Fort Bragg and Mendocino.
Live theater and dance performances.
The music scene here is very lively covering all musical styles. Check local listings for live performances and concerts.