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It might not seem like there’s much on the Pacific Coast, based on the photos you see. Craggy coastline, tremendous cliffs, and a winding highway occasionally punctuated by lighthouses… right?
In fact, California’s Pacific Coast has more emphatic punctuation too: a string of towns and cities that are far from the crowds further south in California. From Mendocino to Crescent City, I’ve been lucky to explore a lot of Northern California’s northernmost coast during my time living in the Golden State.
One such trip took me to Fort Bragg – the California one, not the one in North Carolina where my grandpa trained for World War II. It is located in Mendocino County, and despite heavy logging in California’s earlier days, the Redwoods still outnumber the residents. Fort Bragg is home to roughly 8,000 people and is a common stop for fuel and food on the Pacific Coast Highway. Though most people only stay for a short time, Fort Bragg offers a lot to discover, for visitors willing to spend a night or two.
I’ve visited Fort Bragg four times between 2014 and 2021, and most recently spent a weekend there in February. Based on my trips, I’ve decided to finally put together an itinerary for others who might want to spend a weekend in Fort Bragg.
If you’re curious about things to do in Fort Bragg, how long it takes to drive there (and which route to take), and how to fill 3 days in Fort Bragg, read on. This guide will help you have a fantastic trip to explore the coasts and groves on this stretch of the Mendocino Coast.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Northern Pomo people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Fort Bragg Travel Tips
How to Drive to Fort Bragg
Fort Bragg is a ways away from… everywhere! But that’s not a bad thing – it means you need to journey to reach Fort Bragg and we all know the journey is always worth it!
It’s a 3.5-hour drive from San Francisco to Fort Bragg on the shortest routes. But there are several routes you can take:
- The fastest and most direct route, Highway 101 and CA-128, which takes 3.5 hours
- Through Willits on Highway 101 and US-20, which also takes 3.5 hours
- Heading east from Santa Rosa to the coast, Highway 101, CA-116, and CA-1, which takes 4.5 hours
- On CA-1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) all the way up, which takes 5 hours
If you want to fly to Fort Bragg, the nearest airport is Santa Rosa, California. This is still a 2.5-hour drive from Fort Bragg – so you might as well snag a cheaper flight into SFO and drive from San Francisco instead.
Fort Bragg Weather & What to Pack
In terms of what to pack for Fort Bragg and how to prepare for the weather, my California packing list is a good place to start.
Fort Bragg is located on the Pacific Coast, and Mendocino County is far enough north that you’re as likely to encounter Northcoast weather (similar to the Pacific Northwest) as temperate Bay Area weather. The best months to visit for good weather are July, August, and September, when it’s usually clear and warmer than other times of the year. But, there are plenty of foggy, grey, overcast, or rainy days on the Pacific Coast – even during traditional summer months – so plan ahead with rain gear and layers (even if it’s just a poncho in your glove box, like we always have!).
If it helps, I’ve visited Fort Bragg four times: June (nice, clear weather), January (clear but cold and windy), January (rainy and grey), and February (clear but cold). In all cases, a jacket was nice to have or necessary.
The 11 Best Things to Do in Fort Bragg
To plan a weekend in Fort Bragg, it helps to know what there is to do in the area. I’ve now been to Fort Bragg four times while traveling and living in California, and each time I’ve done a few different things. Here’s the full list of activities and sights you should consider on your Fort Bragg weekend itinerary.
1. Fort Bragg Glass Beach
It’s possibly Fort Bragg’s most famous sight – it’s also the result of pollution… Yes, I’m talking about Fort Bragg Glass Beach! Only California can even make gross areas beautiful like this, and it’s one of my top spots to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Today it seems like a beautiful sight, where you can see countless pieces of small sea glass, rolled and tumbled into smooth little gems across the rainbow of colors. But this site was initially a trash dump so the glass remains from a time when the locals thought the coastline was a place to trash rather than protect.
You can take a short walk out to the beach and stroll among the sand and glass. Be aware though that it’s illegal to take any glass from Glass Beach; as a little magpie myself, I found it hard to resist but you can do it too.
2. The Historic Skunk Train
The Skunk Train is probably Fort Bragg’s other most well-known tourist attraction; I hadn’t heard of it before moving to California but I was always curious to try it.
The Skunk Train began in 1885 when lumber barons created the Fort Bragg Railroad to help make transporting lumber from Mendocino County’s redwood groves easier; it was eventually renamed the California Western Railroad and stretched from coastal Fort Bragg to inland Willits, California. While it breaks my heart to think that this train only exists to help destroy the old growth redwoods – I’ll comment on this more below –, the train has been transported into a tourist attraction today that helps people come out and visit the trees in a new way.
Unfortunately, a tunnel collapse in 2013 prevents you from riding the train all the way from Fort Bragg to Willits now; I can’t find any info online about plans to repair the tunnel in the future though I remember our guide saying it was an eventual hope (many years from now). From Fort Bragg, your Skunk Train option is the one-hour ride on the Pudding Creek Express.
When the train isn’t chugging along the rails through the Redwoods, they aren’t sitting empty: you can actually rent a modified “railbike” to ride and pedal the rails on the same route as the Skunk Train Pudding Creek Express. Mr. V and I did this on our most recent trip to Fort Bragg and it’s a fantastic activity that actually gets the heart pumping – even with the electric motor assist.
The Fort Bragg Railbikes is a two-hour tour that leaves from the Skunk Train depot downtown. You’ll pedal along the banks of Pudding Creek past towering Redwoods. At the turn-around point, you’ll stretch your legs on a walk or hike (and can enjoy a picnic lunch if you bring one) before pedaling back to town.
This is a great one for active folks and families (rather than historically-minded train riders) – and I personally think it’s a more intimate way to explore the Mendocino Redwoods than aboard the train.
4. Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
On our trip to Mendocino last year, we drove north to Fort Bragg to visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. I’m not saying I’m an expert in Botanical Gardens by any stretch – but I was blown away by how big and immersive the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are.
Stretching across 47 acres, there are different areas of the gardens to represent different ecosystems – including a stretch of coastline you can walk out to and stroll along. We visited on a very grey, rainy day but it was still beautiful to stroll through the Rhododendrons and past the impressive collection of carnivorous plants; don’t miss the impressive hanging Staghorn fern, one of the prize pieces in the gardens.
5. Noyo Headlands & Pomo Bluffs
As you’re out along the Mendocino Coast in Fort Bragg, you might as well explore it! There are two main park areas along the coast near Fort Bragg: Noyo Headlands and Pomo Bluffs Park.
These two rocky sections of coastline actually sit on either side of Noyo Bay, where the Noyo River flows into the Pacific Ocean. In both you’ll find rough trains to walk which follow the meandering path of the coast; be sure to stay on the trails as the cliffs and bluffs are wave-battered and can be unstable.
6. Jughandle State Reserve
Further south from Noyo Headlands and Pomo Bluffs Park, there’s another beautiful area of coastline to explore within Jughandle State Reserve – but that’s not all this natural area has to offer.
Jughandle State Reserve is an area of protected land that’s hugely fascinating for anyone who appreciates nature. In particular, the 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail is worth hiking in part or all – it climbs three wave-cut terraces which were formed by the continental glaciers, rising seas, and tectonic plates over millions of years. The trail begins at the coast and climbs inland. Along the trail, you’ll move through different ecosystems including coastal forests and inland Redwoods. Unfortunately, like many parts of the Mendocino Coast, this area was logged and you won’t see any Old Growth Redwoods anymore – there are some beautiful fairy rings formed around the stumps of many though!
You can hike the whole Ecological Staircase Trail or access different parts of the Reserve from nearby roads, including the Pygmy Forest.
7. Pygmy Forest
Aside from hiking among the Redwoods – which you know I always love – the Pygmy Forest is a highlight at the apex of the Ecological Staircase Trail. For that reason, I wanted to call it out on its own.
The Pygmy Forest is another part of the Ecological Staircase: an iron pan formed on this step of the Staircase which prevents trees from creating deep roots. The trees are all stunted as a result – some of the trees that barely stand 6 feet tall are as old as (or older than) towering ones closer to the coast.
How to Hike to the Pygmy Forest
There are some confusing directions about how to reach the Pygmy Forest online, so here’s how we did it, if you don’t want to climb the entire Ecological Staircase Trail (2.5 miles one way):
- Drive to the intersection of Old Caspar Rail Road and Gibney Lane.
- Park near the trailhead, which begins along a section of power lines.
- Hike in until the trail splits, and turn left up the Ecological Staircase Trail (there are no signs but the giveaway is that you’ll occasionally spot numbered markers along the trail).
- Continue 1.25 miles up the trail (the main trail is always the most obvious option) until you come upon a washed-out sandy road*.
- Cross that, and you’ll see the trailhead for the Pygmy Forest.
- The Pygmy Forest trail is on an elevated boardwalk to protect the fragile roots; it’s a loop that brings you back out onto the sandy road.
- Turn right and follow the sandy road back to the intersection with the Ecological Staircase Trail. From there, it’s 1.25 miles back down to the area where you parked. (We clocked 2.8 miles total for this hike.)
*This sandy road is Gibney Lane on Google Maps, but I do not think you can access it by car despite other blogs saying you can. The road conditions are questionable and there are trees trying to reclaim the land.
8. Point Cabrillo Light Station
Point Cabrillo Light Station – not lighthouse – is another spot Mr. V and I visited on our Mendocino Trip, hence the grey skies (our trip in February 2021 had glorious blue skies the entire time!). This is one of 31 lighthouses and light stations in California, and one of 16 that is open to the public.
Point Cabrillo Light Station dates back to 1909, when it was first illuminated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service – yes, that was a thing! (It was folded into the Coast Guard in 1939.) Today, most of the original buildings still stand, including three residences you can book for an overnight stay.
If you plan to visit, be sure to make a loop to the light station using the dirt trail to reach the Point and returning on the paved trail. This will give you a more interesting experience than just taking the paved trail/road both ways.
9. Noyo Harbor
On our most recent trip to Fort Bragg, we stayed in Noyo Harbor. This is a small – and easily missed – area of town south of the main historic district. It is located in the small area carved out by the Noyo River before it flows into the Pacific Ocean. It’s also possibly my favorite part of town, since it’s full of marinas, fishing boats, fresh seafood restaurants, and dodgy dive bars where those mariner types like to hang out after a long day on the water.
Noyo Harbor is worth a stop, meal, and stroll even if you don’t spend much time here. There are a few dirt parking areas, or you can drive to the end of North Harbor Drive to the Noyo Beach Parking area and walk back. Two places to grab a bite to eat are Princess Seafood – the restaurant for a fully women-owned and -run fishing company – and Sea Pal Cove. They have different menus too: Princess Seafood offers more fresh seafood; Sea Pal Cove is more fried seafood. You can also book a whale watching tour or fishing charter from Noyo Harbor (read on!).
10.-11.Whale Watching (or Fishing Charters)
A number of boat charters, especially in Noyo Harbor, offer both whale watching and fishing excursions out on the ocean. I’m partial to the whale watching one, in particular, having never spotted whales off the California coast so far. (It’s on my California bucket list!)
On our recent trip, we inquired about going out for a two-hour whale watching with All Aboard Adventures. While we couldn’t make it work, I really liked that their schedule was based on the tides, weather, and wave conditions. I also see that Telstar Charters and Noyo Harbor Tours also offer similar tours.
3 Days in Fort Bragg: A Weekend Itinerary
Now that you know all the things to do in Fort Bragg, it’s time to put it together into some itinerary you can actually follow if you only have 3 days in Fort Bragg for a weekend trip. Here’s how I suggest doing that.
Day 1: Drive to Fort Bragg, Downtown, Railbikes & Sunset at Glass Beach
On your first day, you’ll need to reach Fort Bragg. As mentioned, it’s a 3.5-hour drive from San Francisco to Fort Bragg (by the most direct route). You’ll probably arrive in time for lunch (or late lunch), so head straight to downtown Fort Bragg to seek out a bite. I haven’t been to either (due to schedule issues during my visits), but North Coast Brewing and Overtime Brewing both look awesome and have food and drink options. While you’re at lunch, choose a whale watching provider (linked above) and give them a call to see what time they’re running tours tomorrow.
After lunch, if the timing is right, head out on a Railbikes adventure. This will take a few hours, and you’ll be able to check into your accommodation after that. Once you’re settled, check the sunset time – you’ll want to be at Glass Beach for sunset so you may want to have dinner before (or after) that depending on when you visit. After sunset and dinner, it’s time to rest for a full day of adventure tomorrow.
Day 2: Hiking, Whale Watching & Noyo Harbor
For your second day in Fort Bragg, there’s a bit of flexibility. Based on the time of your whale watching tour, you may want to do that in the morning or afternoon – and spend the other part of the day out hiking along the coast or in Jughandle State Reserve (this is my vote, since you can hike along the coast, through the Redwoods, and see the Pygmy Forest all in one place!).
If your whale watching tour is in the morning, have lunch at Princess Seafood afterward; if it’s in the afternoon, have lunch there anyway and dinner at Sea Pal Cove. These are two of the best restaurants in Noyo Harbor! Depending on the timing, you can also walk around and admire the boats and read signs about historic Noyo Harbor.
Day 3: Point Cabrillo Light Station, Botanical Gardens & Drive Home
For your final day of this weekend in Fort Bragg, you can rise and shine at any time to get started exploring other sights south of Fort Bragg before driving back to San Francisco. I recommend making a stop at both the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (which generally open at 10am) and Point Cabrillo Light Station. You can probably spend 60-90 minutes at each without feeling rushed. Then it’s time for a spot of lunch before heading home.
(Pro-tip: If you’re not too hungry, make the 20-minute drive south to the Little River Inn near Mendocino. Their Whale Watch Bar is one of my favorite places to eat in California!)
If you have the time, I recommend taking the long way home – that is, the Pacific Coast Highway. It takes about 5 hours to drive instead of the 3.5 along the inland highways, but it’s way more scenic! This obviously depends on your schedule and when you need to be home though.
And that’s it – a full weekend trip to Fort Bragg, packing in many of the best things to do despite having a short time.
Where to Stay in Fort Bragg
There are plenty of options for where to stay in Fort Bragg. After our first visit to Noyo Harbor in early 2020, I knew I wanted to come back and explore the area even more, which is why I was excited that on our most recent trip, Mr. V and I were hosted at the Noyo River Inn.
As their name suggests, the Noyo Harbor Inn is located in Noyo Harbor and this gave us plenty of time to explore the area (which is definitely my favorite part of Fort Bragg aside from the Redwood forests!). The property sits on a point overlooking a big bend in the Noyo River, and most rooms look out over some part of the harbor.
Our room was east-facing and had a gorgeous view of the main marina in Noyo Harbor – I loved watching the rays of sunlight break through the treetops each morning. We especially enjoyed the fireplace and the porthole windows above the bathtub and shower (you can see a photo out the porthole by scrolling back up a bit). There’s also an on-site restaurant at Noyo Harbor Inn with a menu with classic dishes like schnitzel and lamb provencal; if you like cocktails, be sure to try the “Sunday’s Best,” the hotel’s classic cocktail.
There are also plenty of other hotels in Fort Bragg, from national chains to smaller independent inns and hotels. You can browse them all here on Booking.com.
With that, you’re all set! Now you know the best things to do in Fort Bragg and how to put them all together into a great weekend itinerary. Have any other questions about visiting Fort Bragg? Let me know in the comments!
This post was produced in partnership with the Noyo Harbor Inn & Heather at Chalkboard Communications.