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Exploring the Mendocino Coast:

beyond San Francisco

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 forests 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.

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 former US President Obama. Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands became part of the 1,100-mile California Coastal National Monument in 2014. 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 to try and spot migrating Humpback or Gray Whales (with the period from late March to early May the best time for possible sightings).

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 plumb this stretch of the ocean. Those less inclined to free dive can explore the Gualala River with a kayak from Adventure Rents, and paddle alongside redwood forests and other magnificent scenery.

Point Arena is petite in population but packs in a lot of things to see. It has a fishing pier (no licence 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.

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 the Point Arena Lighthouse. 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, that is. There’s also a companion museum, which displays old photographs and other maritime artefacts, like ship records.

Of the dozen state beaches in Mendo County, Manchester Beach is the only one where you can go horse riding. It’s also part of the 760-acre Manchester State Park.

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. Be sure to see the picture-perfect steeple church, made of local redwood.

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 prior to the American Civil War, and is the departure point for the historic Skunk Train.


Written by Christine Ciarmello

Image credits:

Mendocino Skunk train © Monica Lancaster

Fort Bragg Glass Beach © Brendan McGuigan

Port Arena Lighthouse © iStock