Mendocino County: Gateway to the Redwoods

Photo Credit: Brendan McGuigan

Before moving to San Francisco, I had never heard of Mendocino County. I quickly discovered though that the area is a popular destination for weekend getaways. It’s easy to see why once you arrive! Surrounded by beautiful views, moody cliff sides and gigantic redwood trees, Mendocino is a peaceful retreat. Whether you are looking to enjoy the area’s delicious food and wine or get a taste of the outdoors instead, Mendocino has something for everyone.

Since it takes around three hours to get there from San Francisco, I’d recommend going for a long weekend. We started our drive in the early afternoon on Friday and left before sundown on Sunday. Here’s what I suggest you absolutely make time for, and what you’d be okay skipping in Mendocino.

Note: Some tours, stays and meals were provided at no cost, but as always, opinions remain completely my own.

Day 1

My favorite kind of road trip always involves a scenic drive. The drive from San Francisco to Mendocino is full of winding paths, dramatic ocean views and redwood tree tunnels. At one point we were driving through redwood trees for what felt like an eternity, and I was reminded that we do in fact live in Northern California! After miles of trees you finally start to see an exit in the distance. Just around the corner, the tree-lined path opens up to an expansive view of jaw-dropping cliffs overlooking deep blue Pacific waters. That’s when you know you made it.

If you’ve ever seen a Series of Unfortunate Events, it kind of reminded me of Aunt Josephine’s house (in the best possible way). With only the sound of powerful waves crashing against the rocky coast, I knew we would be in for a peaceful weekend.

Checking In: Little River Inn

After a long drive, we were pretty darn excited to cozy up in our room at Little River Inn. The inn is perfectly quaint and situated on the edge of the world with unreal views of the Pacific. Every room faces the ocean and has a beautiful deck to relax on. We enjoyed a glass of wine porch-side, turned on the fireplace and got comfy! The staff was unbelievably courteous, welcoming and kind from the moment we arrived.

Photo Credit: Brendan McGuigan

Photo Credit: Brendan McGuigan

Day 2

The Skunk Train

With so much to see in the area, we got up early to ensure we didn’t miss out on anything. We started our morning with a ride on the Skunk Train, which takes you through California’s famous redwood forest. I suggest picking a window seat on the 131-year-old train as you’ll pass through tunnels of massive trees, open meadows and peaceful streams. It is a great way to kick off the day with incredible views and a warm cup of coffee.

Photo Credit: Brendan McGuigan

Glass Beach

Glass Beach is a beach in MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg that is (supposed to be) abundant in beautiful sea glass. This was our second stop on day two as we hoped to hunt for ruby reds and sapphire gems. People used to be allowed to take glass from the beach as a souvenir, but a city ordinance was put into place in 2015 to preserve the beauty of the beach. To be honest with you, we spent about 30 minutes here but didn’t find much glass! The views at Glass Beach were lovely but we could’ve done without stopping by.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are located just a quick 9 minutes from Glass Beach, so it is a natural next stop on your itinerary. The gardens rank among the best in North America, so I knew I had to check them out. I am a huge sucker for flowers! These gardens are home to begonias, roses and magnolias just to name a few. There is also an area dedicated to succulents. It ended up being one of my favorite activities of the trip because it was just so beautiful and well-maintained. If you enjoy gardens and peaceful hideaways, I highly recommend visiting.

Lunch at Sea Pal Cove

Are you ready for the best fish and chips of your life? This place was recommended to us by someone who frequents the area, so I had a feeling it would be good. I’ve talked about amazing fish and chips before (see here) but the meal we had at Sea Pal Cove was truly outstanding. I could  go for some again right now! We loved the whole nautical vibe of the place, too. We could tell we were surrounded by locals rather than tourists, and the outdoor seating and beer selection was awesome. Seriously, if you’re visiting Mendocino, be sure to have lunch at Sea Pal Cove. It’s also located just a quick six minutes from the botanical gardens.

Mendocino Headlands State Park

After lunch, we decided to head towards Mendocino Headlands State Park to walk the trails and enjoy the rugged coastline. I packed a pair of comfortable shoes in the car since I knew we’d be doing this. The views ended up being some of my favorite from the trip. Mendocino Headlands State Park is Northern California at its finest. The gorgeous spring wildflowers also added a nice touch! You’ll find endless spectacular views of sea arches and hidden grottos here, so don’t skip this one.

Mendocino Headlands

Dinner at Little River Inn

After a day of activity, we headed back to Little River Inn to relax for a bit and freshen up for dinner. Mendocino is home to a ton of great restaurants, including Little River Inn’s very own. It’s super convenient because after a long day, it’s nice to be able to just walk down to dinner. Five star Chef Marc Dym creates dishes that are both familiar and modern. The menu offers something for everyone, but I particularly recommend the calamari and New York Steak. Yum! Request a seat by the window and enjoy an amazing Mendocino sunset on your way out.


Day 3

Seaside Breakfast

Since we had such a delicious dinner at Little River Inn the night before, we ordered room service for breakfast as we figured the food would be fantastic once again. We brought our meal out on the deck, sipped on lattes and took in the stunning views. What better way to start your final day in Mendocino?


Russian Gulch State Park, Point Cabrillo Light Station & Downtown Mendocino

After checking out of our room and saying goodbye to the hospitable staff at Little River Inn, we headed straight to Russian Gulch State Park. Russian Gulch has 15 miles of trails with a satisfying mix of shady forest and open coastal hikes. It was so incredibly quiet and lovely, and we enjoyed taking in the sounds of nature which is something we don’t get much of in the city. After that, we drove over to Point Cabrillo Light Station. You’ll have to park in a lot and walk down a fairly long path to get to the light house, so that’s something to be aware of. It was really beautiful, but I may have spent more time at Russian Gulch State Park retrospectively.

On our way out of Mendocino, we drove through the downtown area and admired the gorgeous Victorian homes and quaint local shops. If you want to start your drive back home before  dark, I recommend just passing through and enjoying from the window. It really is an adorable town!

Lula Cellars

If you’re headed back to San Francisco like we were, Lula Cellars is the perfect stop on your way out of Mendocino. Located about 40 minutes from the town, it’s a great way to break up the drive. The owners at Lula were incredibly friendly, entertaining, quirky and charming. I love meeting passionate people who have great stories to tell and are excited to share what they do with you. We enjoyed a fantastic tasting, wonderful  conversation and got a quick tour of the property. Even though we are so close to world-renown wineries in Napa and Sonoma back in San Francisco, they tend to be really stuffy so this kind of experience is way more up our alley. It ended up being one of the best tasting experiences I’ve had due to the friendly staff and laid-back environment.

If you like meeting good people who want to help you discover what kind of wine you like best, you will love the tasting experience at Lula Cellars. We went home with multiple bottles and truly cherish the memories we made there.

PS: The owners have an adorable lab mix named Honey who wanders the property and is an absolute gem. She even has her own business card – ha!

Photo Credit: Brendan McGuigan

Photo Credit: Brendan McGuigan

Heading Home

Overall, you can spend your weekend in Mendocino following this exact itinerary, doing less or doing even more. However you choose to see the area, you really can’t go wrong because it is full of beauty and an abundance of peace and quiet. Enjoy your time away from the city and take advantage of the opportunity to unplug. This trip is a great way to rejuvenate and refresh your mind before heading back to work or moving on to your next destination.

So, which activity do you think you would enjoy most in Mendocino? Or, perhaps you’ve visited before! What was your favorite part? Let me know in the comments below.

18 Comments

  1. 07.09.2017 / 9:23 pm

    This hotel looks so amazing! I love that all of the rooms have balconies and a great view 🙂 I’ve never been to this area but will keep this place in mind for when I make it there!!

    • Natalie
      Natalie
      07.09.2017 / 9:27 pm

      I loved that about Little River Inn too, Leah! Mendocino is beautiful so I hope you can make it there soon 🙂

  2. kallsypage
    07.09.2017 / 9:27 pm

    Mendocino looks like such a charming place to visit. I absolutely love how quaint the Little River Inn is and that calamari looks delicious. I can’t wait to explore more of this beautiful state!

    • Natalie
      Natalie
      07.09.2017 / 9:35 pm

      Charming is the perfect word to describe Mendocino! There really is so much to explore here in California 🙂

  3. 07.10.2017 / 11:40 am

    I absolutely love that area, and spent some time there as a kid, but haven’t been back much as an adult! Clearly I need to make a return trip next time I’m home in California. I am such a sucker for the smell of the redwood groves (and had never even heard of that particular old train tour!) Little River Inn looks completely charming though, I’m definitely putting it on my list for my next trip out there. The food, the views, everything looks incredible! What a gorgeous place to stay.

    • Natalie
      Natalie
      07.10.2017 / 9:52 pm

      I’m such a sucker for the smell of redwoods too, Sierra! It’s so nice to take some time away from the city and unplug in nature 🙂 I hope you make it back to Mendocino soon! You would love Little River Inn!

  4. 07.10.2017 / 12:09 pm

    I still need to get over to Mendocino! And that hotel looks like such a lovely spot to stay!

    • Natalie
      Natalie
      07.10.2017 / 9:49 pm

      You’d love it Caroline it’s so picturesque!

  5. 07.15.2017 / 9:22 pm

    Your pictures and descriptions are just what I needed to map my trip to Mendocino next week. There are two routes the Skunk Train takes. Which one did you go on? I see where one is an hour and the other 4 hours. Thanks! ~Susan

    • Natalie
      Natalie
      07.20.2017 / 11:10 pm

      Hi Susan! I’m so happy to hear this! We did the hour long Skunk Train ride and thought it was the perfect amount of time 🙂 hope this helps!

    • Natalie
      Natalie
      07.20.2017 / 11:11 pm

      No way! I absolutely love San Diego! I hope to live there someday actually 🙂

  6. 07.22.2017 / 9:38 pm

    I have never heard of Mendocino County before, but it’s absolutely beautiful! Definitely adding this amazing place to my California bucket list 🙂

  7. 07.22.2017 / 10:24 pm

    The views at MENDOCINO HEADLANDS STATE PARK look like the highlight to me. I love exploring and taking day trips. It’s great that you have found so many spots you like near SF. I really don’t know too much of Northern California yet (being from LA), but we drove a lot through the state when we were taking family road trips. Great tips!

  8. I absolutely LOVE Mendocino! It’s one of my favorite weekend trips from SF, where we live. You actually have some stuff on here that we haven’t explored, so I’m gonna use this post for the next time we head up 🙂

  9. 07.23.2017 / 3:39 am

    I’d never heard of this place either, can’t wait to visit next time I go to the States now!

  10. 07.23.2017 / 6:17 am

    Great itinerary. I haven’t visited this area of the US yet. It look amazing.

  11. Deryl Deavenport
    08.20.2017 / 4:19 pm

    If you want to stay at a really fabulous place, look for my vacation homes on VRBO. They’re called Seaside point. Also the Glass Beach reference about not having any glass is because you went to the wrong spot. I hope you all make it back another time because there’s a lot more to see here.

    Kind regards Deryl 🙂

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