Every time I explore a new destination along the Pacific Coast, I think it will be my forever favorite… And then I visit somewhere new, and it gets even tougher to choose! Mendocino County is one of those places that made my choices tougher; after spending 3 days in Mendocino in January, Mr. V and I came home keen to turn right around and go back for another weekend.
Since I live in the Bay Area, I’m always looking for small destinations I can encourage people to visit in addition to the big city (San Francisco). Add on the fact I provide a lot of suggestions about driving the Pacific Coast Highway, and I count any time I get to spend along California Highway 1 as both work and pleasure.
If you’re considering a Pacific coast getaway or road trip, and think Mendocino could work, read on. I’ve put together a Mendocino weekend itinerary that you can use whether you’re traveling up from the Bay Area or stopping along the PCH.
How to Travel to Mendocino
Depending on which route you take, it’s a 3-5 hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Mendocino County. It takes roughly three hours along US 101; if you take California Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) the whole way, it can take up to five hours.
I recommend a route that combines the two. When Mr. V and I drove up to Mendocino, we took the 101 to Highway 116 to Highway 1 – that took about four hours. On the way home, we wanted a quicker option, so we took Highway 1 to 128 to US 101 for about 3 hours of driving.
No matter which route you take, you will have to drive at least some part of the Pacific Coast Highway – and some of the spots on this post are among the best stops on the PCH!
Where to Stay in Mendocino
Mendocino County is huge – and there are loads of accommodation choices to choose from. I’m an especially big fan of the fact there are many family-run inns and small hotels.
As I can’t list them all, I’ll just tell you about the place Mr. V and I stayed on our recent trip: the Little River Inn. The Little River Inn dates back over 80 years and in addition to rooms, they have a spa, golf course, restaurant, and bar (Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, where I would literally live if they let me…).
Mr. V and I spent our weekend in Mendocino using our cozy room as a base to warm up after exploring in typical foggy, drizzly Pacific coast weather. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and had an ocean view – which we enjoyed the final morning when the clouds blew out –, and fireplace that we relished having on as much as possible while enjoying a bottle of wine in our room.
I enjoyed our stay so much that the Little River Inn immediately jumped onto my list of the best hotels along the Pacific Coast Highway!
The Little River Inn is a few minutes south of Mendocino (the town) and 20 minutes south of Fort Bragg, which is the northernmost place I recommend on this itinerary. Obviously Mendocino County is much much bigger than just Mendocino and Fort Bragg, but I’ll focus on those for the rest of this post based on my experiences.
The Best Things to Do in Mendocino
Before I launch into my suggested Mendocino weekend itinerary, I want to break down my recommendations for activities in Mendocino. As you’ll see, Mendocino County is an outdoor playground – it’s impossible to stay away from the iconic coastline whether you’re enjoying natural or cultural experiences, on land or by water.
While there are certainly whale watching tours in Mendocino County, I don’t think you need to book one unless that’s an activity you really have your heart set on. Instead, you can keep a steady eye on the horizon (as we sailor types say!) and try to spot them as you explore other parts of the coast.
I’m pretty sure I spotted a whale spout one morning at breakfast in the Little River Inn’s Whale Watch Bar – obviously the name is quite accurate!
Hiking in Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino Headlands State Park is one of the crown jewels of public coastline in Mendocino County. It’s located right near the town of Mendocino and is covered with a braid of easy walking trails with epic views.
Some of the top sights in the Mendocino Headlands include Portuguese Beach (which can be reached at low tide by a steep trail of wooden stairs), Port Mendocino Cave (which has a cool hole you can look down into; pictured below), and Big River Beach (which runs up along the nearby Big River).
The Point Mendocino Trail (0.9mi) is a good option for anyone who wants to see this area and breathe the see air.
Visiting Point Cabrillo Light Station
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is one of the main attractions along the Mendocino-Pacific coast. This lighthouse is a California State Historical Park and dates back to 1908. The Fresnel lens was first illuminated in 1909 and is one of only three such lenses still in operation across the U.S.
Today, the lighthouse is operated by the Coast Guard and houses a museum in the lower levels. You can also book overnight accommodation at the nearby lighthouse keeper’s residences if you want a remote getaway.
In addition to the lighthouse, there are miles of walking trails along Point Cabrillo; this is another great spot to watch for whales while exploring the coastline.
Exploring Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Located in Fort Bragg, Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens offers a sample of the huge number of plant species that live across Northern California – it’s actually a deceivingly huge property that can easily take 2-3 hours to explore in full.
From manicured lawns to structured gardens and even a wild forested area with access to the coast, Mr. V and I spent a while wandering around enjoying the plants and scenery before seeking out some of the Gardens’ fascinating species attractions. These include the arboreal Staghorn fern and Rhododendron collection (both pictured above), and the Cliff House and carnivorous plant collection (both pictured later in this article).
Canoeing (or Kayaking)
While I’ve just been recommending land-based experiences so far, Mendocino is a great spot to also explore by water.
Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too is the place to outfit yourself before exploring Big River on one of their hand-made outrigger canoes. These canoes offer additional stability and make it easy to explore the calm waterways of the river. For best results, time your canoe trip to the high tide so the water helps you paddle upstream before gliding back down.
As their name suggests, Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too can also rent you a bike if you’d rather cycle the 5.7-mile out-and-back trail along Big River.
Meandering in Downtown Mendocino
I haven’t even mentioned that the town of Mendocino itself has plenty to see and do! First, you can easily walk and explore downtown Mendocino on foot; picturesque seaside cottages and quirky water towers are the primary features that make the town unique.
(Yes, I know ‘picturesque,’ ‘quirky,’ and ‘unique’ are super-big writing cliches. But if you’ve been to Mendo, you know it’s true.)
There are also a number of historic house museums, including Kelley House Museum and Ford House Visitor Center & Museum which educate visitors about Mendocino’s history.
Sampling Local Food & Drink
Unsurprisingly, Mendocino County’s food and drink scene features most of what makes Northern California such a delicious place to visit (or call home, like me!): insanely fresh seafood, delicious high-end eateries and cozy cafes, and great craft beer and wine. I mention them below, but here are the places I ate during our 3 days in Mendocino weekend:
- Ole’s Whale Watch Bar at the Little River Inn – honestly, I ate here as much as possible and still want more!
- Princess Seafood – I heard this was the place for seafood in Fort Bragg, and is a brilliant lunch spot.
- Trillium Cafe – One of Mendocino’s posh and cozy dining rooms with great food and drink.
- Good Life Cafe – A hoppin’ lunch spot with tons of baked goods and sandwiches, ideal for fueling (or refueling) for a day of adventure.
Though I’ve left it until last on the list, stargazing was actually the number one reason I planned my trip to Mendocino for January’s new moon weekend. Specifically, Mendocino has some great policies around light pollution so they have great dark skies – and to help visitors enjoy that, the Little River Inn offers a stargazing package which includes a backpack with everything you need to enjoy a night under the stars (pictured above).
While Mr. V and I were unlucky – it was cloudy the whole weekend! –, I’ve since seen astrophotography from Mendocino County and am already keen to try and plan another trip.
3 Days in Mendocino: A Weekend Itinerary
With so much to do during 3 days in Mendocino, you might wonder how to fit it all in. Now let’s dive into my suggested 3-day Mendocino itinerary so you can see how Mr. V and I did it all in a weekend.
Day 1: Arrive, Settle In & Stargaze
If you’re making the trip to spend a weekend in Mendocino, you’ll probably drive up from the San Francisco Bay Area on a Friday afternoon. As it will take between 3-5 hours to make the drive, I recommend leaving by no later than 3pm so you can arrive in Mendocino for dinner (and possibly before sunset depending on the season you visit).
(If you’re stopping in Mendocino County for a few days as part of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, you’ll have a little more time on Day 1 and Day 3 to enjoy the area.)
Once you arrive and check in, it’s time for dinner. During our stay, Mr. V and I settled into our room and then enjoyed fish and chips with Guinness at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar. Even if you’re not staying at the Little River Inn, I recommend having dinner here at least one night.
If the skies are clear after dinner, I highly recommend making your way out for a little stargazing session. Even if you’re not a professional or trying to shoot photos, most people live under bright urban skies – seeing the night sky with no light pollution is a humbling experience.
As for where to go stargazing, the Little River Inn stargazing kit recommended a small turnout near an abandoned barn along Highway 1. (Here‘s a link to the pin on Google Maps.)
Once you’ve drunk your fill of the starry sky, it’s time to turn in – tomorrow’s a full day!
Day 2: Coastal Exploration by Foot & Fork
For day two of this itinerary for 3 days in Mendocino, there’s not a huge hurry to rush your morning or get up early. You certainly have time for a leisurely breakfast before heading out for a day of adventures.
(Breakfast at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar is pictured above. Mr. V had the Eggs Neptune Benedict and I had blitzes with Olallieberry sauce plus an order of fresh-made scones. It was way too much food and totally worth it.)
Depending on the timing of high tide, you may want to switch up the itinerary today – but assuming high tide is in the morning on this day, it’s time to burn off that breakfast with a bit of physical exertion. Rent an outrigger canoe from Catch a Canoe & Bycicles Too and paddle as far up the river as your arms can handle. Be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife, such as seals, otters, and plenty of birds.
Assuming you’re hungry again, the next stop is lunch in Fort Bragg. Princess Seafood is the place for it – you can order a number seafood dishes to satiate whatever appetite you have. As Mr. V and I were stuffed from breakfast, we split lobster bisque in a bread bowl, fish tacos, and a half-dozen barbecued oysters.
The afternoon is a good time for a few easy strolls. If you’ve never been to Fort Bragg Glass Beach (one of the most beautiful hidden gems in the U.S.), now’s a good time (see more here) to spend 30-60 minutes exploring the beach. Afterward, turn your wheels south back toward Mendocino town.
You can now stop at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, or both. I recommend giving yourself at least 90 minutes at the botanical gardens so you can enjoy all of the different collections and trails – and spend time in the Cliff House trying to see any passing sea life or whales.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse takes about an hour, including a loop out onto the point to try and spot the wreckage of the Frolic that lays just off the coast in the area.
It’s entirely possible to do Glass Beach, the botanical gardens, and the lighthouse in a single afternoon, especially if you head straight for dinner o the way back to your hotel.
(As I mentioned, this schedule makes sense if high tide is in the morning. If high tide is in the afternoon on your stay, start with Glass Beach and Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, followed by a later lunch, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, and then canoeing.)
For dinner on our second night, Mr. V and I got dressed up and sat down for a multi-course meal at Trillium Cafe in downtown Mendocino. The dining room is intimate and the service was spectacular; obviously our food was delicious too – both fresh and appropriate portions so we felt like we were indulging, but not too much.
If the skies are clear tonight instead of last night, now’s the time for stargazing!
Day 3: Downtown Mendocino & Departure
You’re hungry again, right? Obviously it’s very easy to eat very well during a weekend of 3 days in Mendocino. One last dish I recommend seeking out is bread pudding. A number of restaurants offer it as a dish or dessert; we (unsurprisingly!) tried it at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar.
Post-breakfast is a great time to set out and explore Mendocino town before heading home. I recommend doing a loop: start by parking downtown and setting out along Mendocino Point Trail to explore Mendocino Headlands State Park.
You’ll end up looping back up into town on this 2.5-mile loop and can stop at some of the historic museums or just stroll the streets admiring the historic homes and storefronts.
Then it’s time for lunch and heading back to the Bay Area. Mr. V and I had paninis from Good Life Cafe and took half each on the road for a snack during the drive home. While we had only been in Mendocino for about 48 hours, we obviously packed as much in as possible – and definitely want to plan a return trip to explore even more.
That’s how I recommend spending 3 days in Mendocino. Do you have questions or concerns? Let me know in the comments!