Exploring the Mendocino Coast: Beyond San Francisco

By: Christine Ciarmello

April 25, 2014

A three hour-drive north of San Francisco, the Mendocino Coast is a wild stretch of headlands and bluffs known for marine life, outstanding seaside drives, and stands of giant redwoods. Yet the best part of this haven is the patchy mobile service and laidback evenings with nothing to distract you but the ocean surf.

Mendocino | Waves crash against the rocks

Waves crashing against the rocks © IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Thinkstock

Designated drivers, or DDs, are pretty common when in wine-country. But DDs are also helpful when viewing this coast; eyes tend to wander when on Highway 1. In fact it’s so pretty that the area has received the official stamp of approval from President Obama. Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands became part of the 1,100-mile California Coastal National Monument earlier this year. Hikers have new vantage points to look out at sea rocks and walk along cliffs bursting with spring wildflowers of purple, yellow and orange hues. While on a hike, or visiting the various bays, keep your eyes westward for migrating Humpback or Gray Whales (with late March to early May the best time).

Mendocino Village

Mendocino village © Robert-Laundau

Mendocino Village may be the most photographed and best known town on the coast, but other seaside outposts are worthwhile detours. Before reaching Mendo Village from San Francisco along Highway 1, you’ll find (from south to north), Gualala, Point Arena, Elk, Albion and Little River. Gualala is an abalone-fishing hotspot. Divers who want to catch some prize shellfish submerge in the ocean here. Those less inclined to free dive can hit the Gualala River, which flows into the Pacific, with a kayak from Adventure Rents and paddle alongside redwood forests.

Mendocino Coast | Bakery and shops

Dungeness crab cakes and a Point Arena bakery © Brendan McGuigan

Point Arena is petite in population but packs in a lot of things to see. It has a fishing pier (no license required) and a restored vaudeville theatre, as well as a bakery and a few restaurants. The biggest find here is the slice of Africa at the 110-acre B. Bryan Preserve; here giraffes, zebras and antelopes roam freely. You can also stay overnight at one of the eco-friendly cottages.

Mendocino Coast | B. Bryan Preserve

Exotic animals at the B.Bryan Preserve © Brendan McGuigan

The other towns, Elk, Albion and Little River, are timber towns, and Albion still has a wooden bridge, which was built in 1944.

Expect fog and wind along this coast, especially at Point Arena Lighthouse “” the westernmost point in the lower 48 United States. Stairs lead to the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse with views of the ocean and (possibly) migrating Gray whales””unless it’s foggy. There’s also a museum displaying old photos and other maritime artifacts, like ship records.

Of the dozen state beaches in Mendo County, Manchester Beach is the only one where you can horseback ride. It’s a driftwood collector’s dream swath of sand, and part of the 760-acre Manchester State Park.

Mendocino Coast | Glass Beach

Glass beach at Fort Bragg © Brendan McGuigan

Mendocino Village is located on a bluff, with pounding ocean surf on three sides. Wine tasting rooms, restaurants and shops are in Victorian gingerbread cottages. This is a sweets and tea sort of place, with a picture-perfect Gothic steeple church made of redwood.

Mendocino coast | Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg © Eric Lindberg

In contrast, Fort Bragg is the largest town on the coast. Here you’ll find a terrific brewery, North Coast Brewing Co., and a beach littered with polished sea glass, otherwise known as Glass Beach. The town was founded in pre-American Civil War and is the departure point for the historic Skunk Train that crosses trestles on a vintage locomotive.

Mendocino | Skunk Train

Skunk Train © Monica Lancaster

For further info about Mendocino visit

Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow. Book your flight today.

Header image: Mendocino’s scenic coastline © James-Kerrick

Have you visited the Mendocino Coast? Which was your favourite town? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Written by Christine Ciarmello


Christine Ciarmello

A San Francisco-based freelancer and now fog aficionado, Christine Ciarmello was editor-in-chief of Islands, then deputy editor of one of the largest circ lifestyle magazines, Sunset, where she created the culture blog Westphoria. She left her hometown of New Orleans after a nearly lifetime stint, three hurricane evacuations, and too much seafood gumbo. She covers the hedonistic sports of traveling, eating, drinking, and design-hunting. Places that require a ferry to get there, plus modern-vintage hotels and the tropics are her weaknesses.

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