Fort Bragg & Mendocino are nestled about halfway between San Francisco and the Oregon border in California. Together they are one of those beautiful coastal spots that have to be seen to be believed.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of things to do in Fort Bragg & Mendocino that revolve around the beaches and crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. But their natural beauty isn’t just confined to the beaches or the ocean.
The area is bursting with natural beauty that will make you wonder why you didn’t take a weekend road trip to Mendocino or Fort Bragg before. Even if you only have a couple of days to spend, it is well worth the trip!
Things to do in Fort Bragg & Mendocino
Fort Bragg & Mendocino are about three hours drive (without traffic) or 155 miles north of San Francisco city. You can drive the world-renowned Pacific Coast Highway and make a few pit stops on the way to break up the trip.
You don’t want to rush this road trip, especially if you’re doing the drive during the spring and summer months – the scenery along the Pacific Coast Highway is famous for a reason!
Mr M and I stayed in Fort Bragg during our honeymoon road trip that took us out to Nevada, up into Oregon, and down the Northern California coastline. I’m so glad that we planned a stop over here – it was one of my favourite spots on the whole trip.
Explore Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
If you’re looking for Instagrammable Mendocino, do not pass up the opportunity to visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Sprawling across 47 acres of land, these gardens are bursting with colourful blooms, scintillating sculpture, and succulent cacti (pun intended…sorry).
The best part is that the gardens are right on the coastline, making it a beautiful spot to wander with the breeze in your hair, or to sit and watch the waves crash against the rocky shore.
The gardens are known for its tender species of Rhododendrons, which are native to the cloud forests of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas, but thrive in Mendocino because of its foggy climate.
There are plenty of marked pathways throughout the garden, and it’s important to note that much of it is protected coastline, so you should always stay on the paths to protect the delicate wildflowers and heather that grow here.
You might also notice the “Deer Gates” to keep the wildlife away from the Dahlia and vegetable gardens. Be aware that Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are a haven for animals, and there have been occasional sightings of bears, and mountain lions along with the usual woodland creatures.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is at 18220 North Highway 1, Fort Bragg.
Visit California’s Glass Beach
Just 15 minutes drive north of Mendocino, in Fort Bragg, you’ll find the famous Glass Beach – a beach littered with hundreds of thousands of pieces of coloured glass worn smooth by the sea and sand.
I use the word “littered” purposely, because the beautiful phenomenon was actually caused by years of dumping garbage in the area. All of those broken bottles have worn away over time to create the tourist attraction.
Be careful not to mindlessly pick up the glass from this beach to take home with you, because removing any glass from Glass Beach is illegal. There’s ample parking here, but you’ll have to walk along a wide trail from the lot to the beach itself.
Glass Beach is part of MacKerricher State Marine Conservation Area, and it is definitely not a swimming beach. The coastline is particularly rocky in this area, so keep an eye on any children getting close to the water.
Glass Beach is at W. Elm Street and Glass Beach Drive, Fort Bragg.
Walk over an old train trestle
While you’re at Glass Beach, why not take one of the coastal trials north to Pudding Creek Beach? over an old train trestle that is now paved and open to pedestrians.
It’s a beautiful spot for photography, and gives you a chance to relax on the white sand beach and maybe build a few sandcastles, or eat a picnic lunch if you’ve thought ahead.
This is a great spot to get away from the crowds, and while an afternoon away. The sandy cove is surrounded by rock walls and there’s even a big tidal pool below the rocks north of the beach.
Pudding Creak Beach is at 1100 N Main Street, Fort Bragg.
Hop in a kayak and explore from the water
There are lots of business that will take you on a kayaking tour, or allow the braver and more experienced to hire a kayak and go out on the water themselves. There are so many tours available because (just quietly) Mendocino and Fort Bragg are best seen from the water.
The area also has a long fishing history, with generations of families working in Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor. The area is home to a variety of sea life, including some cheeky and playful sea lions.
You won’t just have to settle for sea kayaking in the Pacific Ocean though, the area is home to seven rivers, including Big River and the Noyo River, which are the popular spots for kayakers and canoers.
If you’d like a relaxed tour, on calm water and a taste of sea life like harbor seals, sea lions, and river otters, you might want to try the Noyo Meander, offered by Liquid Fusion Kayak. It doesn’t require you to suit up in swimming gear, is great for children since you’re in tandem kayaks, and you’re most likely to stay dry. Plus it’s a an hour and a half’s paddle, hardly enough time for your arms to get tired!
Those who are a little more adventurous can try Kayak Mendocino‘s most popular tour – the Sea Cave Nature tour. This one takes you into Van Damme State Park (yes, I am thinking of Jean Claude right now), in a sea kayak to explore the caves that dot the coastline. You might also come across some harbor seals, sea stars, shorebirds, and algaes while you glide along the water, hugging the coastal cliffs. This tour is also an hour and a half long.
If nature is your thing, you might want to consider the Catch a Canoe Lover Big River Estuary Tour because you’ll have a naturalist as your guide. Your two hour trip on Big River through Mendocino Headlands State Park takes place in a redwood outrigger canoe (powered by you). You can bring your canine companion on this tour, but be warned that they may scare the wildlife away. You’re likely to see harbor seals, river otters, great blue herons, and double crested cormorants.
All companies mentioned here, along with Kayak Noyo, offer kayak and equipment rentals.
Relax in a boat and enjoy harbor views
Not everyone wants to spend their vacation exercising, sometimes you just want to sit back, relax, and enjoy the views. So you might want to consider a boat tour of the area.
The best parts about boat tours are that there’s less chance of accidentally falling into the water, and you get to take as many photos of the coast as your camera memory can handle!
Being on the Pacific Ocean means you may get to see migrating whales if you visit at the right time of year (September and February-May). Anchor Charter Boats offers whale watching tours as the California Gray Whales make their way down the coast from Alaska to Baja, where they birth their calves. They also do fishing and crabbing tours.
You can do a one hour sunset or private Noyo Harbor Tour with Captain Dan on an 18ft electric boat. Dan Platt has worked as a commercial fisherman for 35 years, fishing in places like Alaska, so he knows a thing or two about fishing and a smooth boat ride.
Camp at Russian Gulch State Park
You don’t have to venture far to find a beautiful spot to escape from the world. Head two miles north of Mendocino to Russian Gulch State Park, it’s got a little bit of everything!
From a rugged coastline, to gorgeous beaches, and a canyon to boot, there’s bound to be a view that you’ll fall in love with. I almost forgot to mention the 36ft (11 metre) waterfall that cascades down into the redwoods below, on the Fern Canyon trail.
This is the place to visit in spring if you’re keen to admire some wildflowers along its 15 miles of trails. You can choose from shady forest hikes to open coastal jaunts, and some paths also allow bicycles.
There are a range of hikes to choose from. For an easy hike, try the Headlands Trail, which is 0.75 miles (1.2km) long and has minimal elevation change. Those who want something a little more challenging can try the 6.3 mile (10km) Fern Canyon to Falls Loop trails, which will give you a view of the waterfall.
Russian Gulch State Park is of California Highway 1, two miles north of Mendocino.
Hike the ecological staircase at Jughandle State Natural Reserve
If stairs are your thing (then we are very different people), you won’t want to miss the ecological staircase at Jughandle State Natural Reserve.
I’m kidding, the staircase actually showcases half a million years of natural history, showing how geology, soil and plants have changed over time. Don’t get scared by the word “staircase” though, the entire 2.5 mile (4km) hike out gains about 300ft (91 metres) of elevation.
You’ll need about half a day to do this hike, which is 5 miles (8km) out and back. It takes you over three wave-cut terraces that rise out of the Pacific Ocean. You’ll get to experience Bishop pine, grand fir, and redwood forests, as well as a rare pygmy forest – when trees growth is stunted because of the acidic soils they grow in.
Jughandle State Natural Reserve is halfway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, off California Highway 1.
See the coastal redwoods at California’s largest state-owned forest
I wasn’t joking when I said that Mendocino and Fort Bragg were big on natural beauty. Jackson State Forest is one of California’s largest, however, it’s history might surprise you.
It spans 50,000 acres of the old growth redwoods that California is famous for, but it is also home to a large number of second-growth redwoods because of the long history of industrial logging in the area, stretching back to 1862. The state actually bought the forest, also known as Jackson Demonstration State Forest, from the Caspar Lumber Company in 1947.
You can see monumental giant redwoods throughout California, but this is one of the only places where you’ll be able to experience coastal redwoods – the tallest living things on earth. The coastal redwood is native to the Pacific Coast from southern Oregon to central California.
If you’re not here for the redwoods, you might be interested in going mushrooming (with a permit), or bike riding along the trails. You can find the Chamberlain Creek Waterfall on a hike (see here for details) or wander on the Forest History Trail.
Jackson State Forest is at 802 N Main Street, Fort Bragg.
Hunt down some Fort Bragg street art
It seems mural-style street art is having it’s moment across the world, and Fort Bragg is not missing out!
The Alleyway Art Project is a public art initiative that aims to bring art to some of the more overlooked spaces in Fort Bragg. So wandering around the main streets and getting a bit lost is your aim here!
But if you want some hotspots to ferret out specifically, you can always start at the corner of Laurel and Harrison Streets, where Hannah Webb’s The Grey Fox graces the side of a building. It took Webb less than a day to create the mural.
On the same wall, and complimenting Webb’s fox, is Jason Godeke’s Sub Rosa. Part sea-dragon, part fantastical beast, Sub Rosa is a sight to behold.
You should always visit the local tourism office when you’re visiting a new town, and in the alley near the Visit Mendocino County office, you’ll find Bojh Parker’s mural, Matsya and the Great Deluge. It covers the entire side of the building in an aquatic scene taken from Hindu mythology, and featuring a fish named Matsya.
You can find more of Fort Bragg’s street art locations on the project’s website.
Ride the Skunk Train
The name of this train made me stop and think for a bit – but research revealed that single-unit self-propelled trains were given the nickname “skunk” back in 1925. They were powered by gasoline engines and crude oil stoves burned to keep passengers warm, creating a fairly pungent aroma.
Fear not though, advances in technology mean the trains aren’t smelly anymore, and they make for a fun ride through the redwoods. You won’t smell these trains before you see them.
You can take the Pudding Creek Express from the depot in Fort Bragg, along (you guessed it) Pudding Creek, and out into an ancient redwood forest. This was one of the first tracks ever laid by the California Western Railroad back in 1885.
Otherwise there’s the Willit’s Historic Wolf Tree Turn ride, that runs for two hours on the Willits valley floor, up to the highest point of the railway line. You’ll go through a tunnel and emerge into the Noyo River Canyon.
If you prefer to experience the rails under your own steam, as it were, why not try a Fort Bragg railbike? Think of two bicycles side-by-side, mounted on a railway-friendly frame. Take the one and a half hour round trip along the Pudding Creek Estuary to Glen Blair and get your muscles pumping at the same time.
Skunk Train is available from 100 West Laurel Street, Fort Bragg, and 299 East Commercial Street, Willits.
Drink your fill of Mendocino wine
A place that has it’s own designated “wine road” is bound to catch my eye! California is known for it’s wines and you’ve probably heard of Napa, but did you know about Highway 128 Wine Road in Mendocino?
That’s right, the 75-mile (125 km) of road is where you’ll find plenty of beautiful wineries (31 of them to be exact), so there’s bound to be at least one that specialises in your favourite tipple!
Do your research on the Highway 128 Wine Road before you go, because some of the tasting rooms are open by appointment only. Plenty of them have picnic areas and places for the kids to play while you sample a wine or two.
Visit Point Arena Lighthouse
On our way home from Mendocino and Fort Bragg, we took a little detour to Point Arena, and I’m glad we did because Point Arena is the only land-based portion of the California Coastal National Monument. You’ll want to visit this area on your way to or back from Mendocino and Fort Bragg, since it’s almost an hour’s drive south.
The national monument is made up of more than 20,000 islands, rocks and reefs dotted along the whole of the California coast. Point Arena is the spot where you’ll see seals, and sea birds from the bluffs, and maybe spot a whale or two during migration season.
Just outside the entrance to the lighthouse, pull your car off the road and hop out to spot the seals lazing about on the rocks below. If you’re keen, you can do a tour of one of the tallest lighthouses on the Pacific Coast (it is equal height to the Pigeon Point Lighthouse). It is 115ft (35 metres) to the lantern room at the top of the tower, so be ready to climb some stairs!
Point Arena Lighthouse is at 4500 Lighthouse Road, Point Arena.
Where to eat in Fort Bragg & Mendocino
Being so close to the Pacific Ocean (OK, right on the Pacific Ocean’s doorstep), you can’t visit Fort Bragg and Mendocino without sampling some fresh seafood. That’s a given.
But where should you go for the best seafood, and what else does the area have to offer to foodies? Rest assured, you’re not about to go hungry, I can guarantee you that.
Fort Bragg Farmer’s Market
If you’re visiting during the summer season (May-October), head to the spot in front of Fort Bragg’s City Hall from 3pm-6pm to experience the Fort Bragg Farmer’s Market. During the winter it’s held indoors at the Old Recreation Center Gym.
You’ll find everything from pastries to fruit and vegetables, bread, meat, and cheese. The market also sells hot food for an early dinner, and you can eat it while watching live music in the seating area.
Fort Bragg Farmer’s Market is at Laurel and Franklin, on Wednesdays between 3pm-5pm.
Mendocino Farmer’s Market
Not to be outdone, Mendocino has it’s own midday farmer’s market, and is more traditional in terms of it’s vendors of fruits and vegetables.
Since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, the market is a little smaller than usual, but you can still get your fill of meat, eggs, olive oil, and pastries.
Mendocino Farmer’s Market is at Howard and Main Street, on Fridays between midday and 2pm.
North Coast Brewing Co. Tap Room
After a long day’s driving, and some time spent hiking on Glass Beach, we were ready to kick back with some good food and couple of beers.
The garden out the front was beautiful in late June when we visited and that set the tone for our evening. We went with traditional pub fare – I got fish and chips (amazing) and Mike got a burger and fries.
We trusted our sever to recommend two beers on tap, and we were not disappointed. North Coast Brewing Company opened in 1988 and has won 110 national and international awards over the years.
I’d love to tell you which beers we tried, but we visited in 2019, and my memory is not that great. All I remember is that they were good beers. You’re welcome.
North Coast Brewing Co. Tap Room is at 444 N Main Street, Fort Bragg.
Rhody’s Garden Cafe
If you do end up visiting Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, we highly recommend stopping off at Rhody’s Garden Café on your way out for a meal or a snack. You can also just visit the café itself without paying the entrance fee for the garden.
It’s got a cute little covered seating area with floral centerpieces. The cafe’s fare includes produce from the garden’s organic vegetable patch, and they serve made-to-order sandwiches, soups, and salads. They’ve also got vegan options.
We both had grilled cheese sandwiches after our jaunt through the garden, and they were some of the best grilled cheese that I’ve ever had. The bread was delicious and we got olives on the side (the key to my heart).
Rhody’s Garden Café is at 18220 North Highway 1, Fort Bragg.
Am I disappointed that I didn’t get to go to a Wizard of Oz themed restaurant for breakfast when we were in Fort Bragg? I don’t know, why don’t you ask my husband, who’s had to hear about it every second day for the past year?
Eggheads has been serving breakfast and lunch in Fort Bragg for more than 40 years, and has all the breakfast favourites that you can imagine. What you might not have imagined though, is a variety of crepes featuring local Dungeness crab.
Eggheads Restaurant is at 326 North Main Street, Fort Bragg.
La Playa Mexican Restaurant
La Playa Mexican Restaurant is where you go when you want a satisfying meal without the fuss or frills, and with extra margaritas.
It’s kid-friendly, so bring the whole family, because who doesn’t love Mexican food?
La Playa Mexican Restaurant is at 760 Main Street, Fort Bragg.
Where to stay in Fort Bragg & Mendocino
As you can imagine, there are lots of great places to stay in Fort Bragg and Mendocino, and they cover a range of budgets and needs.
We have visited once, so we can only recommend one spot from our own personal experiences, but we’ve also included a few interesting-sounding options as well.
North Cliff Hotel
As mentioned earlier, our trip to Fort Bragg and Mendocino was part of a much bigger road trip throughout Northern California. So we were looking for mid-to-low priced accommodation options, with the occasional splurge thrown in.
The North Cliff Hotel was at the top of our mid-price range, and there are definitely room options that we would consider a “splurge” (the Superior Suite with panoramic ocean view, for example).
We went with the King Suite with a panoramic ocean view, and were not disappointed. The room was huge (it was bigger than our San Francisco apartment), had a fireplace with couches to enjoy the views of the Noyo River and Pacific Ocean, a spacious bathroom and separate dressing area, and the bed was very comfortable. It was also spotlessly clean, which made me very happy.
We also had our own balcony overlooking the water, which was a nice spot to watch the sunset. There is an accessible room available, but you have to book it specially, keep in mind that you need to climb stairs to get to most of the rooms on the property.
Some rooms on the property (including ours) was very close to the S Main Street Bridge that goes over the Noyo River, but we didn’t have any problem with traffic noise.
North Cliff Hotel is at 1005 S Main Street, Fort Bragg.
The Nye Ranch Farm
You can stay on ranch at a working farm! The ranch was built in 1905 and is great if you’ve got a bigger group of people to accommodate on your trip. But the best part is probably that it has a private path that leads right to a secluded beach in front of the property.
The beautiful, rustic ranch looks like it was pulled from another era and deposited into 2020. It used to be a 100-acre dairy farm, and it still has llamas on the property. You can also bring your dogs, for a small fee.
There’s even an ocean view deck, where you can watch the whale migration at the right time of year. The ranch is situated two miles north of Fort Bragg, and 12 miles north of Mendocino.
The Nye Ranch Farm is at 23300 California Highway 1, Fort Bragg.
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