Checklist: Mendocino, California

Travel Lists Checklist
Checklist: Mendocino, California

With its historic, New England style buildings set on a headland splayed out into the Pacific, Mendocino is one of the California coast’s most picturesque villages. Its historic saltbox cottages surrounded by blossoming plants house B&Bs, fine dining establishments, and shops, while its unique water towers, which were used to hold water brought up from an aquifer under the village, give this Northern California community an even more distinct look.

The founding of Mendocino can be traced back to an 1850 shipwreck involving the Frolic, a clipper ship that used to transport opium. The vessel slammed onto a reef just north of the current-day town prompting a group of men to head north from San Francisco in an attempt to salvage the Frolic’s valuables. Instead of locating its treasure, which apparently included among other things silks and over 6,000 bottles of ale, the search party found a pristine redwood forest and was prompted to construct a sawmill and logging town on the area’s ocean bluffs.

Artists moved to the area in the late 1950s as a result of the formation of the Mendocino Art Center. Hippies discovered the area in the 1970s, and from 1984 to 1996, it starred in the CBS mystery series Murder She Wrote as the fictional Cabot Cove, Maine.

1. Get an Overview of Mendocino

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Photo by Stuart Thornton

Why does Mendocino look different from other coastal California cities? What’s up with that creepy statue perched atop the town’s bank? Get the answers to these questions and more at the Kelley House Museum and the Ford House Museum. The Kelley House is a yellow Victorian perched on an acre of land that is home to a research facility and a museum (only open Friday through Monday). While visitors can learn about the Frolic shipwreck and the region’s Native Americans inside, we recommend that newcomers to Mendocino take the two hour guided walking tours that begin at the museum on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. Just a block away, the Ford House serves as the visitor center for Mendocino Headlands State Park and has a diorama of the town in 1890 along with information about the area’s logging industry.

2. Hit the Water

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Photo by Stuart Thornton

There are many paddling possibilities around Mendocino. The adventurous can head two and a half miles south to Van Damme State Park, where the headlands offshore are riddled with sea caves and short tunnels. Kayak Mendocino has a bus parked on the beach that rents out sit-on-top ocean kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. They also lead popular hour and a half sea cave tours. For a gentler paddle up the Big River estuary, rent a canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or redwood outrigger from Catch a Canoe. The Big River Estuary is a tidal river where you’ll be able to spot a mix of river animals, like river otters and beavers, and marine mammals like harbor seals. Just remember to save some energy for the paddle back because you’ll be paddling against the wind on your return journey.

3. Hike to the Fern Creek Waterfall

A favorite hike for locals and visitors is the 6.5-mile round-trip walk to the Fern Canyon Waterfall in Russian Gulch State Park. The coastline of the park is known for its giant sinkhole, but head inland along Russian Gulch Creek for a pleasant, redwood shaded hike to the 36-foot high falls. The waterfall is pretty in an unassuming way with two strands of water draped down over a dark rock face, while ferns frame the whole scene.

4. Picnic in Mendocino Headlands State Park

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Photo by Stuart Thornton

Surrounding the village on three sides, the 347-acre Mendocino Headlands State Park is ideal for a picnic. Right in town, the Tote Fête Deli is a tiny takeout place with tasty wraps, sandwiches, rice bowls, and salads that can be packed up for a picnic. Two and a half miles south of town, the Little River Market, located at a gas station, sells superb sandwiches including a pesto veggie and avocado number. After grabbing your goods, head to one of the picnic tables in the state park beside the Ford House for views of the town and the Big River estuary. Post picnic, walk off lunch on the park’s gentle trails that head to beaches, a blowhole, and a sinkhole with aqua blue water that looks like a jewel embedded in the headlands.

5. Shop Mendocino

Mendocino Village is easy to walk around and full of art galleries, boutiques, and specialty stores for browsing and shopping. Satisfy your sweet tooth at the Mendocino Chocolate Company with toffee, truffles, or milk chocolate seashells, or purchase some binoculars, spotting scopes, or telescopes to magnify Mendocino’s beauty at Out of This World. The Gallery Bookshop is a fine independent bookstore that feels like it could be in a big city. Along with the latest releases, the Gallery has a strong collection of books about Mendocino and puts on frequent events ranging from book signings to Harry Potter pajama parties.

6. Fine Dine in Mendocino

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Photo by Stuart Thornton

For a town of less than a thousand residents, Mendocino has an impressive dining scene. Maybe it’s due to all of the local produce, fresh seafood, and wines made in the nearby Anderson Valley. Café Beaujolais has long been the star of the dining scene and one of California’s most popular restaurants serving California-French cuisine. The MacCallum House serves items including a pan roasted duck breast and a steamed manila clam chowder in the former library and on the porch of a building dating back to 1882. Filled with flowers in the garden outside, flowers on the table, and paintings of flowers on the walls, the Trillium Cafe has warm service and a terrific house smoked salmon salad.

7. Cap off the Night at Dick’s Place

A dive bar with a resort worthy view of the coast, Dick’s Place has been serving drinks since 1934. The service might be a bit gruff, but the pours are generous. Enjoy your beer or spirits by taking in the historic photos on the walls or by staring at the utterly strange mural of a mermaid feeding a whale.

Stuart Thornton lives in coastal California and is the author of the Moon Coastal California Handbook, the Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast Handbook, Moon California Road Trip, and the recently released Moon Monterey & Carmel Handbook.

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