**Updated March 2023
Mendocino, California is tucked away among the redwoods on Northern California’s rugged coast just 3 hours north of San Francisco. Mendocino is known for its art scene, restaurants, bed & breakfasts, & wineries. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a destination for adults. Mendocino is an amazing destination for families as well! From the jaw-dropping scenery to outdoor adventures like hiking, kayaking, biking, and beachcombing, Mendocino with kids is amazing! This amazing list of things to do with kids & teens will help you plan an epic Mendocino vacation!
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Best Things To Do in Mendocino With Kids
Mendocino is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. The biggest draw for us was the Mendocino County State Parks and outdoor activities. The list of things to do in Mendocino with kids is surprisingly long. These Mendocino activities will let you experience the best of what Mendocino has to offer.
Russian Gulch State Park
Russian Gulch State Park is the crown jewel of Mendocino. Russian Gulch lies 2 miles north of downtown Mendocino and encompasses 1100 acres including nearly a mile and a half of pristine ocean coastline. There are multiple hikes both along the coast and through the redwoods, a 60′ deep “blow hole”, a beach at the mouth of Russian Gulch Creek, Russian Gulch Bridge, and stunning views everywhere.
There is an $8 entrance fee to the park (as of 3/2023)
Walking along the Headlands Trail is a great way to explore Russian Gulch State Park. The park is simply stunning and the Headlands Trail is an easy way to see many highlights.
- The trail is very easy with no elevation gain
- .4 mile loop
- Gorgeous Views
- Highly Recommend!
After passing through the Entrance Station, take the first right towards the Headlands Trail and park in the first dirt lot. This lot is right next to the viewing point for the Panhorst Bridge, more commonly referred to as Russian Gulch Bridge. From there follow the Headlands Trail along the bluff to the west.
Along the ocean, the trail runs next to an extremely steep edge. While these bluffs are stunning they are also dangerous and unforgiving so be cautious and keep kids close.
One highlight of the Headlands Trail is Devil’s Punchbowl, a 100-foot wide, 60-foot deep sinkhole! The entire perimeter is fenced off preventing anyone from getting too close to the edge. You can see the scale by noting how tiny the people across the way are! From the opposite side, you can see the entrance to the 200-foot tunnel that leads from the ocean to the sinkhole filling it with water.
Russian Gulch Beach
Russian Gulch Beach which lies below the Russian Gulch Bridge is a very scenic spot to check out! We had such great weather when we visited 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 still SO cold I could barely put my toe in. I liked how calm and protected the water was – a great spot for little kids if you want to avoid the big surf of the ocean. 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.
Skunk Train Rail Bikes (Fort Bragg)
Riding the Skunk Train Rail Bikes through the redwoods was our family’s favorite activity and is one of the most popular things to do in Fort Bragg. These rail bikes follow the famous Skunk Train tracks for a 7 mile out-and-back adventure. The bikes have motor-assisted pedals so we didn’t have to work too hard and could spend most of our time enjoying the views. It was a new and fun way to see the area! If you have smaller kids or riding a rail bike just isn’t your thing, you can simply ride the Skunk Train, or even hike along the trail that parallels the tracks.
Both the train and the rail bikes disembark at Glen Blair Junction for a 50-minute layover. This layover is a great time to hang out and enjoy the scenery, have a picnic lunch, or follow a 1-mile Skunk Trail that winds through the redwoods.
Book your rail bike adventure here!
Hikes in Mendocino With Kids
There are abundant hikes in Mendocino catering to a variety of abilities. Since we wanted to fit in several different Mendocino hikes during our stay, we chose hikes that were easy to moderate so our kids wouldn’t get too tired. For a short hike try the Headlands Trail (above) or the Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park. For slightly longer, but still very engaging hikes, try Fern Canyon or the Waterfall Loop Trail in Russian Gulch State Park or Montgomery Grove Trail in Montgomery Woods Park.
Russian Gulch Waterfall Loop Trail (4 miles) – Russian Gulch State Park
Fern Canyon Trail in Russian Gulch State Park is exactly what I imagined hiking in Mendocino would be like: tall redwoods, soft ground absorbing the sound of our footsteps, damp air, ferns, greenery, winding along a creek crossing back and forth over wooden bridges with a stunning 36-foot tall waterfall as the highlight! We did this hike shortly after some heavy rains and the waterfall was magnificent!
There are several different trails of different distances & difficulty leading through Fern Canyon. We did the 4-mile Russian Gulch Waterfall Loop Trail. This trail starts from Caspar Little Lake Road and avoids the park entrance fee. Alternatively, you can start from inside the park and take Fern Canyon Trail or the North Trail which both lead to the waterfall and are a little bit longer (6 miles). Fern Canyon which follows the creek was our preferred trail, but it was closed at the time (and is still closed as of March 2023). So we chose to do the loop trail which is shorter and took us to the waterfall. We loved this trail!
Pygmy Forest (~.25 miles) – Van Damme State Park
I had no idea what a Pygmy Forest was which was all the more reason to check it out. The trailhead is 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!
Honestly, 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 its 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.
Montgomery Grove Trail (1.8 miles) – Montgomery Woods State Park – Ukiah
Montgomery Grove Trail was not even on our radar when the manager of The Brewery Gulch Inn recommended it to us. I’m so glad he did because Montgomery Grove Trail truly was an exceptional hike through an old-growth redwood forest. The ground was soft and we could barely hear our footsteps – it felt surreal.
This trail is an easy 1.8-mile loop good for all skill levels. With the exception of a short steep incline at the very start, it’s mostly flat and easy. Once we reached a little redwood grove at the top of the climb, we could go left or right to begin the loop. We first chose to go right, I recommend going left. Going left, you will immediately encounter a massive fallen redwood with exposed roots and then cross some bridges which I think immediately engages kids.
The highlight of this trail for my 11yo was the water accumulation from all the recent rains. Parts of the trail had running water and everything was very damp. After several hundred yards, we finally reached a part of the trail that was impassable and we began to parkour our way through – rock-hopping across the flooded trail, balancing across fallen redwoods. We finally reached a point in the trail where I wasn’t even sure where the trail was anymore and I didn’t feel like getting lost an hour from our hotel. So we hiked back to the grove and then went left and followed the loop from the other direction. While this trail was only marked as 1.8 miles we hiked nearly 4 miles. It was also really interesting to see the redwoods sitting in standing water which we learned is good for them – who knew?
Point Arena Lighthouse
Even if lighthouses aren’t your thing, I highly recommend a stop at the Point Arena Lighthouse because the scenery is just so gorgeous!
- $5 admission fee for all visitors ages 12+. This fee allows admission to the Light Station Store, Fog Signal Building Museum (which provides the history of the lighthouse, information on the area, and a huge Fresnel lens), and the 23-acre Outdoor Museum.
- The lighthouse tower is open for daily tours to all visitors who are at least 6 years old. Tower tours are an additional $5 and run approximately every 20 minutes.
Some fun facts about the Lighthouse:
- Standing 115 feet tall, this is the tallest lighthouse in California
- This point is the closest piece of land to the Hawaiian islands in the Continental US
- You can actually stay in the Keeper’s house right on the property!
B Bryan Preserve
A visit to B Bryan Preserve is one of the most unique things to do in Mendocino County. This private preserve is committed to the breeding and preservation of African hoof Stock. They have several different tour options to see the animals. We chose a Guided Tour in an open air Land Rover. They also have a private VIP tour as well as a self-guided tour in your own vehicle.
There were 4-5 other groups with us, but we were all split up into 4 different Land Rovers. The land rovers would drive up next to the animals and then everyone got out of the cars and one guide would tell all of us about the animal: the species, where it lived in Africa, if it was endangered & why, and measures being taken to grow or stabilize the population.
Initially, I was worried that this tour might feel too young for my older kids (ages 15, 13, and 10), but I think it was just right. The guide did a lot of talking and I think younger kids might be bored, not listen, or just watch the animals. Our kids were engaged and learned a lot about the animals and even asked some great questions.
We learned about the 3 species of zebra: Mountain, Plains, and Grevy’s, and how to tell them apart based on their stripes and other features, like the Grevy’s Mickey Mouse ears! The Grevy’s zebra is critically endangered with only 2000-2500 living in the wild.
The last stop on the tour was the giraffes and we all got to feed them! Our kids had fed giraffes at the Living Desert in Palm Springs so they had a been-there-done-that attitude at first. But the experience at B Bryan Preserve was much more intimate and special. Every person on the tour got a huge handful of sweet potato shavings to feed the giraffes. So instead of standing in a long line, feeding one carrot and then getting rushed along, we got a lot of time with the animals, and the giraffes actually engaged with us since there wasn’t a constant stream of people feeding them.
Kayak Mendocino With Kids
Kayaking in Mendocino is another great way to explore the area with kids. Older kids can navigate in their own kayaks and younger ones are always happy to get paddled around while they try to spot birds, fish, and maybe even an otter.
Big River Estuary – Rent a canoe, outrigger, kayak, or Stand up paddle board from Catch a Canoe & Bicycles too at the Stanford Inn and take it out into the calm waters of Big River. Big River is a tidal estuary and a gentle class 1 waterway. You may be lucky enough to see Harbor seals and river otters! Catch a Canoe also rents bikes which you can ride on miles of Mendocino bike trails along the river and through the redwoods.
Sea Kayak – Feeling more adventurous? Try Kayak Mendocino‘s Sea Cave Nature Tour or go kayak surfing! The kayak tour is offered all year and has no age minimum.
Explore Mendocino County Beaches
With over 90 miles of coastline, there are many Mendocino county beaches to explore. The Mendocino coastline is rugged which makes the beaches an amazing playground for kids – think tons of driftwood for building forts, rocks for climbing & jumping, seaweed, and other treasures washed up on the beach for collecting (of course leave the treasures when you’re done!)
Bowling Ball Beach – Point Arena
Bowling Ball Beach gets its name from the many perfectly round rocks exposed during low tide. This beach is located at the Northern end of Schooner Beach State Park south of Point Arena.
Parking is located at the trailhead along Highway 1 across from Schooner Gulch Road. The trail winds about half a mile to the southern end of the beach with a ton of driftwood, some of which had been formed into little huts! Once on the beach, walk north along the beach to get to the rocks.
The rocks are only exposed at low-tide so be sure to check the tide charts before you go! We had a hard time finding the beach and arrived as the tide was already coming in so we didn’t get as good of a look as we had hoped for!
Russian Gulch Beach – Mendocino
Russian Gulch Beach is a calm spot great for kids (see Russian Gulch State Park above)
Glass Beach – Fort Bragg
Glass Beach had been on my list of places to visit for years before we finally visited. This popular Mendocino beach is full of tiny colorful glass pieces mixed in with pebbles. It’s another unique beach and lots of fun for kids to hunt for and collect the tiny pieces. We visited in 2020 and while there was still a decent amount of glass left on the beach, we were stunned by the number of visitors filling bags with colorful pieces to take home.
Besides the glass, there is a whole other section of the beach for tidepooling and exploring. And if you have more time, walk or bike a little further to explore Pudding Creek Trestle Bridge and the beach below.
This bridge has been recently restored and is part of the Ten Mile hiking trail which is great for hiking or biking. Our kids were done by the time I suggested we explore this area so we’ll save it for the next time we visit!
Bike Ten Mile Hiking Trail to Pudding Creek Trestle Bridge
From Glass Beach, bike north along the oceanside Ten Mile Hiking Trail to MacKerricher State Park, or all the way to the massive sand dunes ten miles north of town. This trail was originally a railroad used for logging and was then converted into a road for logging trucks. Now the trail is used by joggers, walkers, and cyclists and crosses over the iconic Pudding Creek Trestle Bridge, built in 1915.
Walk Around Downtown Mendocino
After a few of our meals in downtown Mendocino, we spent some time walking around looking at all the cute shops. We really liked Mendocino Jams & Preserves where everything is made locally in Fort Bragg. We picked up their signature olallieberry jam as well as some local honey, hot fudge sauce, and dog treats (made by the owner’s wife). We also couldn’t walk by Papa Bear’s Chocolate Haus without stopping in for fudge and other chocolate treats.
Best places to stay in Mendocino with kids
There are some really amazing places to stay in Mendocino, from quaint bed & breakfasts and Airbnbs to boutique and family-friendly hotels with plenty of charm. Both times we’ve looked for accommodations in Mendocino there has been low inventory. So I recommend booking as far in advance as possible to secure your preferred hotel or have several options in mind. We’ve stayed in both Fort Bragg and Mendocino and enjoyed both
Brewery Gulch Inn – This family-friendly bed & breakfast is nestled on the east side of Highway 1 with stunning views of the Pacific. We had two rooms which included a sitting area with chairs and a fireplace. There was also a family room which wasn’t available when we were there. Downstairs is a large area with tables where we ate breakfast each morning as well as a light dinner & dessert which were all included in our rate. We would linger after dinner to play some of the many board games available to guests. The staff was extremely friendly, always making sure we had everything we needed, and happy to make suggestions about things to do or places to eat.
Some other options close to downtown Mendocino: Little River Inn and Stanford Inn. We’ll try to stay at one of these places next time!
Noyo Harbor Inn – This hotel is located at the end of the road overlooking the Noyo River. It’s adorable and is within walking distance of several restaurants, including Silvers at the Wharf and Noyo Fish Company. Our rooms were in a separate building just a short walk from the main hotel. Both of our rooms were spacious and had balconies looking out towards the Noyo River Bridge and overlooking the restaurants below on the river. I would definitely stay here again.
Best Places to Eat in Mendocino with Kids
There are some really amazing places to eat in Mendocino! While there might be some fancy restaurants tucked away here and there, we’ve found Mendocino dining to be extremely casual and great for kids (and often dog-friendly too). We made one advance dinner reservation, but otherwise just walked in and never had much of a wait except at one place.
Mendocino Breakfast & Brunch
GoodLife Cafe & Bakery was definitely our favorite spot to eat! We had brunch here our first morning and our kids loved it so much that they insisted we go back the next day! 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.
Drop In Donut – This local donut shop in Fort Bragg makes donuts from scratch daily using local seasonal ingredients – donut flavors vary month-to-month. We were so excited to try this place but sadly went on a day they were closed. Open Thursday – Monday 7:30am until Sold Out. The early bird gets the donut!
Headlands Coffee House – When Drop In Donut was closed, we went to Headlands Coffee House (also in Fort Bragg) instead. For breakfast, they serve coffee, bagels, muffins, breakfast sandwiches & burritos, waffles, and more. We got our food to go and ate it while we waited to ride the Skunk Train rail bikes.
Mendocino Lunch & Dinner
Mendocino Cafe – We ate at the Mendocino Cafe for a late lunch after a hike. We did not have a reservation and waited in line for about 15 minutes before we were seated outside on the covered patio. There were a variety of options from nachos & quesadillas to soup & salad, sandwiches, burgers, and more hearty dishes like pastas & pot roast.
Frankie’s Pizza Mendocino – A great family-friendly restaurant serving pizza & ice cream!
Luna Trattoria – This was our “nice dinner out”. They have 2 seating times for dinner: 5pm and 7pm. I called about a week in advance and was able to get a 7pm reservation on our preferred 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!
The Pub and North Coast Brewing Co – We stopped by for lunch after riding the railbikes. They don’t take reservations, but we were seated right away in a large covered outdoor dining area. Lots of beers on tap as well as an extensive selection of burgers, sandwiches, soups & salads – pretty much what you’d expect at a brewing co.
Piaci Pub & Pizzeria – We’ve been to this small pizzeria both times we’ve been to Mendocino. The pizza is fantastic! I would definitely go back a third time! Inside seating is fairly limited, but there’s an outside area with tables & heat lamps. They are located at 120 W Redwood Ave in Fort Bragg. Their website goes to a pizza oven site which I found confusing and at first thought they may have closed. But the restaurant is open!
Silver’s on the Wharf – We ate Silver’s on the Wharf which is right on the water in Fort Bragg. We liked the location, and it was an easy walk from the Noyo Harbor Inn, but the wait here was really long and we thought the food was just OK.
Mendocino Desserts & Treats
Garden Bakery – We stopped here for dessert after eating at the Mendocino Cafe. Lots of great baked goods, but also tacos, burritos & quesadillas! Cash only.
Cowlicks Ice Cream – We got ice cream at Cowlicks on North Main Street in Fort Bragg twice! They have sundaes and milkshakes too! Our family favorite was Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
Mendocino Cookie Company – At the Mendocino Cookie Company, they bake their cookies from scratch every morning! We picked up a variety of flavors plus delicious coffee and saltwater taffy!
Franny’s Cup & Saucer – There are not a lot of restaurant options in Point Arena. Franny’s Cup & Saucer is an adorable spot to grab a pastry, cookie, or treat! I really talked this place up and then we arrived about 30 minutes after they had closed for the day! Check the hours before you go because they are only open Weds – Sun 8am – 2pm (12pm on Sundays!).
What to Pack for Mendocino
Mendocino county weather doesn’t vary too much. Along the coast, there is a constant cool ocean breeze that keeps the weather mild even in the summer. Expect temperatures ranging from the 50s – 60’s during the winter & spring to 60s – 70s in the summer & fall. The farther inland you go away from the ocean breeze, the warmer it gets.
- Bring a fleece any time of year
- Warm jacket in the winter – we love Patagonia’s Nanopuff jacket for the whole family. They keep us plenty warm but also pack down small.
- Rain jacket
- Hiking pants
- Hiking boots and/or sturdy shoes
- Hat (beanie for the winter, baseball cap for the summer)
- Camelbak – we love this one that holds 85 oz of water and fits some essentials like layers & snacks
- Water bottles – we think Hydroflask is the best for its durability, fun colors, and variety of sizes. We usually prefer to hike with Camelbaks, but always bring reusable water bottles for the plane or car ride and to keep in the hotel.
- Extra towels or blankets to keep in your car for a picnic or beach stop. We have been loving these awesome Rumpl blankets which pack down super small for easy travel.
- Sand toys
- Bathing Suits – for the beach or hot tub or spa
- Binoculars – we keep these in our hiking backpack so we always have them with us.
You can also check out our comprehensive list of the best hiking gear for kids.
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Thank you, Mary!!