Up the Road to Mendocino
The Gualala River forms the boundary between Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Travelers heading north will find that most Bay Area weekenders have by now tailed off, leaving this stretch of coast highway for the locals and long-haul travelers. It’s a little greener (and wetter) here than in Sonoma County, but the crescent coves and pocket beaches you appreciated along the wild Sonoma Coast continue north across the county line, one after the next, like a string of pearls.
Though people in the area generally say whatever they please, Gualala is supposedly pronounced Wah-LAH-lah, the word itself Spanish for the Pomos’ wala’li or “meeting place of the waters.” The Gualala area is also known as the north coast’s “banana belt,” due to its relatively temperate, fog-free climate. At its heart is secluded Anchor Bay, just north of Gualala, enormously popular with rumrunners during Prohibition. If you’re not just blasting through town, check out the Gualala Arts Center galleries and studios on the old state highway (follow the signs), to see what’s up. Since 1961 Gualala Arts has served up a year-round menu of art, music, and theater. The center’s Dolphin Gallery downtown is open daily 10-4 and also serves as the Gualala Visitors’ Center. Also notable in the area is onion-domed St. Orres.
Farther north is remote Point Arena, now an official city, but “discovered” by Capt. George Vancouver in 1792. Another good spot for whale-watching—and the first mainland outpost of the very new California Coastal National Monument, created in March 2014 by President Obama under the Antiquities Act. Point Arena was the busiest port between San Francisco and Eureka in the 1870s. When the local pier was wiped out by rogue waves in 1983, the already depressed local fishing and logging economy took yet another dive. But today Point Arena has a new pier—folks can fish here without a license—and a new economic boon: the sea urchin harvest, to satisfy the Japanese taste for uni. The 1908 Point Arena Lighthouse, a monument to the area’s historically impressive ship graveyard, is open to visitors (museum, tours) and also offers accommodations year-round in fully furnished former U.S. Coast Guard houses onsite. Adjacent to Point Arena is the southern part of 5,272-acre Manchester State Park, with its five miles of beaches and sand dunes plus lagoon, salmon fishing, and camping, though due to budget constraints some facilities may be closed. Things are molre excitying around here than they seem, by the way, because right here is where the San Andreas Fault leaves the mainland and plunges into the sea. Next north is tiny Elk, once a lumber-loading port known as Greenwood, hence Greenwood Creek Beach State Park across from the store, with good picnicking among the bluff pines. This is also a popular push-off point for sea kayakers.
Mendocino & Fort Bragg
People just love Mendocino. They love it for a variety of reasons. Some are smitten by the town’s Cape Cod architecture, admittedly a bit odd on the California side of the continent. The seaside saltbox look of the 19th-century wood-frame homes here, explained by the fact that the original settlers were predominantly lumbermen from Maine, is one reason the entire town is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Others love Mendocino for its openly artistic attitude. Of course, almost everyone loves the town’s spectacular setting at the mouth of Big River—and at the edge of one of the most sublime coastlines in California.
In the 1950s, when nearby forests had been logged over and the lumbermill was gone, and the once bad and bawdy doghole port of Mendocino City was fading fast, the artists arrived. Living out the idea of making this coastal backwater home were prominent San Francisco painters like Dorr Bothwell, Emmy Lou Packard, and Bill Zacha, who in 1959 founded the still-strong Mendocino Art Center. Soon all the arts were in full bloom on these blustery bluffs, and the town had come alive.
But in recent years the costs of living and doing business in Mendocino have gotten so high that most of Mendocino’s artists live and work elsewhere, including nearby Fort Bragg, which is where you need to go anyway for hardware and groceries and other practical day-to-day items. Though many fine artists, craftspeople, performers, and writers work throughout Mendocino County, most art, crafts, and consumables sold in Mendocino shops are imported from elsewhere. (There are exceptions.) During peak tourist season even finding a local place to park is nearly impossible in Mendocino, a town too beautiful for its own good. But once you parked, leave your car; you can get around fine without it. Well worth it in Mendocino is taking at look at local historic buildings; start at the Ford House interpretive center, near the public restrooms on the seaward side of Main. Another don’t-miss: a stroll out on the Mendocino Headlands, one of many wonderful natural areas protected as state parks.
Not counting Garberville, Fort Bragg north of Mendocino is the last community of any size before you get to Eureka. Mendocino’s working-class sister city to the north was named after a fort built there in 1855 for protection against hostile natives. Fort Bragg is now unpretentious home to working (and unemployed) loggers and millworkers, an active fishing fleet, and many of Mendocino’s working artists and much of their work. This friendly town offers an array of relatively urban services and amenities not found in smaller Mendocino.
Everyone loves Fort Bragg’s Skunk Train train trip to Willits and back. For the local version of redwood logging history, as told through photos, artifacts, and tree-mining memorabilia, be sure to stop by the 1892 redwood Guest House Museum on Main, an attractive mansion once used as a guest house for friends and customers of local Union Pacific Lumber execs. The only remaining fort building from the original Fort Bragg stands a block east of the Guest House on Franklin Street. Beyond the downtown galleries and shops—don’t miss the Northcoast Artists Gallery on Main—worth a visit here are the nonprofit 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens on the highway just south of town. In addition to inspiring coastal views here you’ll find native plant communities as well as formal plantings of rhododendrons, azaleas, fuchsias, and other regional favorites. Closer in, at the south end of Fort Bragg proper, is Noyo Harbor, with its surviving fishing fleet and fun fish restaurants. Just north of Fort Bragg is Glass Beach, where if you’re lucky you might find a Japanese fishing float or an occasional something from a shipwreck.
Mendocino Area State Parks
If you like getting out and about outdoors, Mendocino and vicinity will inspire you, offering kayaking, hiking, and biking possibilities as well as beachcombing and other contemplative options. The local state parks are a great place to start appreciating this place.
Mendocino Headlands State Park in Mendocino proper is a gift from William Penn Mott, the state’s former director of Parks and Recreation, who quietly acquired Mendocino’s entire coastal frontage by trading Boise Cascade some equally valuable timberlands in nearby Jackson State Forest. The impressive sea stacks here and elsewhere along this coast are all that remain of sandstone headlands after eons of ocean erosion. Curving seaward around the town from Big River to the northern end of Heeser Drive, the park includes a three-mile hiking trail, a small beach along the mouth of Big River (trailheads and parking on Hwy. 1, just north of the bridge), sandstone bluffs, the area’s notorious wave tunnels, offshore islands and narrows, and good tidepools. Great whale-watching in winter.
Small Van Damme State Park just south of Mendocino is one of the finer things about this stretch of the coast, offering excellent and convenient and a five-mile-long preserve around Little River’s watershed. Squeezed into a lush ravine of second-growth mixed redwood forest, Van Damme’s pride is its Fern Canyon Trail.
Russian Gulch State Park just north of Mendocino (good camping here too) locates another days-past doghole port. Russian Gulch is 1,200 acres of diverse redwood forests in a canyon thick with rhododendrons, azaleas, berry bushes, and ferns; coastal headlands painted in spring with wildflowers; and a broad bay with tidepools and sandy beach, perfect for scuba diving. Great bird and whale-watching, some good long hikes. Especially fabulous during a strong spring storm is the flower-lined cauldron of Devil’s Punch Bowl in the middle of a meadow on the northern headlands. A portion of this 200-foot wave tunnel collapsed, forming an inland blowhole, but the devil’s brew won’t blast through unless the sea bubbles and boils.
The Caspar Headlands and Point Cabrillo Light Station a couple miles north of Russian Gulch are hemmed in by housing. Miles of state beaches are open to the public, though, from sunrise to sunset—perfect for whale-watching. The headlands are accessible only by permit (free, available at Russian Gulch). The historic 300-acre Point Cabrillo Light Station and Preserve are open daily to pedestrians (no dogs) and even offers accommodations.
For serious naturalists, the “ecological staircase” hike at Jug Handle State Reserve just north of Caspar is well worth a few hours of wandering. The staircase itself is a series of uplifted marine terraces, each 100 feet higher than the last, crafted by nature. The fascination here is the change associated with each step up the earth ladder, expressed by distinctive plants that also slowly change the environment, starting with what was once a sand and gravel beach in its infancy, some 100,000 years ago, now home to salt-tolerant and wind-resistant wildflowers. (Underwater just offshore is an embryonic new terrace in the very slow process of being born from the sea.) A conifer forest of Sitka spruce, Bishop pine, fir, and hemlock dominates the second terrace, redwoods and Douglas fir the third. Jug Handle is an example of Mendocino’s amazing ecological place in the scheme of things, since the area is essentially a biological borderline for many tree species. Metaphorically speaking, Alaska meets Mexico when Sitka spruce and Bishop pine grow side by side. The phenomenon of the hardpan-hampered Mendocino pygmy forest starts on the third step, transitioning back into old-dune pine forests, then more pygmy forest on the fourth step. At the top of the stairs on the final half-million-year-old step, are more pygmy trees, these giving ground to redwoods.
Bordering Jug Handle on the east is Jackson State Forest, a 46,000-acre demonstration forest named after Jacob Green Jackson, founder of the Caspar Lumber Company. Extending east along the South Fork of the Noyo River and Hwy. 20, the Jackson Forest (logged since the 1850s) offers picnic and camping areas and almost unlimited trails for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. The Mendocino Woodlands State Park and Outdoor Center is entwined with Jackson State Forest. This woodsy 1930s-vintage camp facility—group camping only—is actually three separate facilities and some 200 buildings constructed of wood and stone by federal Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers. For more information about this National Historic Landmark, contact the nonprofit Mendocino Woodlands Camp Association. Directly south of Jackson State Forest and Mendocino Woodlands is the region’s newest reserve, Big River State Park, a work in progress.
MacKerricher State Park is a gorgeous stretch of ocean and forested coastal prairie that starts three miles north of Fort Bragg and continues northward for seven miles. Down on the beach, you can stroll for hours past white-sand beaches, black-sand beaches, remote dunes, sheer cliffs and headlands, offshore islands, pounding surf, rocky outcroppings, and abundant tidepools. Or you can stay up atop the low bluff paralleling the shore, where you’ll revel in great ocean views and, in spring, an abundance of delicate, butterfly-speckled wildflowers—baby blue eyes, sea pinks, buttercups, and wild iris.
The park’s usage is de facto separated into two areas: the tourist area (crowded) and the locals’ areas (desolate). Tourist usage centers around the park’s little Lake Cleone, a fishable freshwater lagoon near the campground and picnic area with a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk; waterfowl from Mono Lake often winter at the lake. Nearby are a picturesque crescent beach pounded by a thundering shore break, and the Laguna Point>day-use area (wheelchair accessible), a popular place for watching whales offshore and harbor seals onshore. (Another great local spot for whale-watching is Todd’s Point south of the Noyo Bridge, then west on Ocean View). That’s the tourist’s MacKerricher. Not bad. And most visitors to the park don’t venture far from it.
Locals and savvy passersby enjoy in blissful, meditative solitude in extensive areas to the south and north, which are connected to the lake/campground area by the walkable, bikable eight-mile-long Old Haul Road. Once used by logging trucks, the now-abandoned haul road parallels the shore from Pudding Creek Beach in the south to Ten Mile River in the north. The fine campgrounds at MacKerricher are woven into open woods of beach, Monterey, and Bishop pines.
Beyond Mendocino & Fort Bragg: Greater Mendocino
Given Mendocino’s proximity to, and dependence on, a number of nearby coastal communities, any visit to Mendocino also includes the coastline for about 10 miles in either direction. The Mendocino Coast business, arts, and entertainment communities are so intertwined that they share a single visitors bureau.
Approximately halfway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg lies the little hamlet of Caspar, which makes Mendocino look like the big city. Just north of Fort Bragg is tiny Cleone. Just a few miles south of Mendocino, near Van Damme State Park, is Little River, a burg boasting its own post office but most famous for the long-running Little River Inn that stands tall by the highway. A bit farther south is Albion, a miniscule coastal hamlet straddling the mouth of the Albion River—a natural harbor supporting a small fishing fleet. From just south of Albion and inland via Hwy. 128 is the inviting Anderson Valley and tiny town of Boonville, once known for its sleepy rural attractions and Boontling dialect, now a destination for fine wines and craft beer.
For more information about Mendocino, Fort Bragg and environs, contact Visit Mendocino County.