For us, the biggest draw of Mendocino was the State Parks: Russian Gulch, Mendocino Headlands, and Van Damme. The entire coastline is gorgeous and we loved the quaint downtown area. This town deserves much more than a day!
Russian Gulch State Park
We spent most of our time along the Headlands Trail in Russian Gulch State Park because we could not get enough of the views! Panhorst Bridge, more commonly referred to as Russian Gulch Bridge, reminds me a lot of Bixby Bridge in Big Sur which we also visited this summer. But I honestly enjoyed this one more as there was much easier access, more viewing points, no crowds, and we got to drive across it multiple times a day!
After passing through the Entrance Station and paying an $8 fee, we took the first right towards the Headlands Trail and parked in the first dirt lot. This let us out right by the bridge viewing point below.
From there we followed the Headlands Trail along the bluff to the west.
We wound along the path next to an extremely steep edge. Our kids are all older and know to walk cautiously and stay away from the edges, but even so my heart was pumping. If you’ve got little kids make sure they are in carriers or hold tightly onto their hands because while those bluffs are stunning they are also dangerous and unforgiving.
One highlight of the trail is this sinkhole overlook! The entire perimeter is fenced off so you can’t get too close to the edge. You can see the scale by noting how tiny the people across the way are! From that opposite side we could see the tunnel entrance to the sinkhole from the ocean.
- We rated this trail Very Easy
- .4 mile loop
- Gorgeous Views
- $8 entrance fee to the park
- Highly Recommend!
The beach beneath the bridge looked too appealing not to check out! We had such great weather while we there in late September – high 70s – so there were quite a few people hanging out at the beach, but it was far from crowded. The water was SO cold I could barely put my toe in. We brought a frisbee and football to toss around and then just explored the water and all the treasures on the beach.
There were a couple of people out in the water – one kid fishing and another out snorkeling in a full wetsuit, or it could have been a drysuit, I couldn’t really tell from where I was warm & dry on the beach.
Fern Canyon to Falls Trail Loop
The only disappointment of our trip was that Fern Canyon Trail was closed. We were so excited to hike the beautiful Fern Canyon to Falls Loop Trail, but as of August 2020, Fern Canyon trail was closed for renovation until further notice. There is still an option to get to the falls via the North Trail, but we read the real draw was hiking along the creek that Fern Canyon Trail parallels and crosses over multiple times. This hike will be top of list when we return to Mendocino!
- Rated Moderate
- 6.2 mile loop
- $8 park entrance fee
Van Damme State Park
When you’re near a Pygmy Forest you have to go check it out – even if you have no idea what it is. It’s located just off Little River Airport Road about 3 miles from Highway 1. There’s a quarter-mile loop trail all on an elevated boardwalk which makes it a very easy walk, even for little ones. We didn’t see anyone else when we were there though we did hear voices through the trees!
Truth be told, I would have had no idea this was a pygmy forest without all the signs. This area was once under the Pacific Ocean. Geologic uplift and changes in sea level exposed this land and created a series of terraces. Each terrace is about 100 feet taller and 100-200 thousand years older than the one below.
Though most of the trees are over 100 years old, most are no taller than 8-9 feet. This is due to the extremely poor soil that covers the terraces. The bog-like conditions have depleted the area of it’s nutrients leaving less than ideal conditions for the trees to prosper resulting in stunted growth.
There are signs throughout the walk pointing out different kinds of trees and shrubs which helped us understand the significance of what we were looking at. We all thought this forest was definitely worth a stop.
Sea Cave Kayaking
We had so much fun on our sea cave kayak tour on our trip to La Jolla this summer so I was thrilled when I saw the option to do it again in Mendocino! Kayak Mendocino offers the tour and I reached out to them for availability. Before confirming a reservation, they wanted me to touch base a few days before the tour as it would be dependent on the water conditions. While everyone in our family seemed on board with the tour, as our trip approached I decided it might be trying to pack too much into a short weekend trip. So, we decided to skip it this time.
- Kayak Mendocino Sea Kayak Tour
- 3 tour times: 9AM, 11:30AM, 2PM
- $70/person; $40 (kids 12 and under)
Where to Eat
GoodLife Cafe & Bakery
We had brunch at GoodLife Cafe & Bakery on our first morning. The kids loved it so much they insisted we go back a second time! We waited in line outside for about 20 minutes and then ordered at the counter and found a table outside. The menu was extensive! Between the 5 of us, we got breakfast burritos, bagel & egg sandwiches and the breakfast plate (with eggs, bacon, toast & potatoes). All the food was delicious, including the coffee. We all got the same thing the second time around though I made some modifications to my breakfast burrito adding chorizo & avocado as I thought the meat-free version contained too many potatoes, but my daughter thought the egg to potato was just right.
Luna Trattoria was open though they only had two seatings per night: 5pm and 7pm. I called a week or so beforehand and was able to get a 7pm reservation on our second night. We ate in the backyard adorned with string lights and cute patio tables. We all ordered some form of pasta from mushroom ravioli to lasagna. We all agreed everything was delicious – especially the cannoli for dessert!
Where to Shop
Mendocino Jams & Preserves
We didn’t do a lot of shopping in Mendocino, but we did make sure to stop at Mendocino Jams & Preserves. The boys & I love jam (major sweet tooth here!) so we were in heaven. Their signature jam is Olallieberry so we made sure to get that and we also picked up some local honey, hot fudge sauce, and dog treats (made by the owner’s wife). Everything is made locally in Fort Bragg.
They have been in the same location facing the ocean on Main Street for 46 years! We also learned we can order online when we run out of jam!