I have to admit, for this Californian, a drive to Mendocino is daunting. I live in Los Angeles. This year was my moment; my family and I made the trek…and we were not disappointed!
We camped at 4-nights at Van Damme State Park, which was an awesome campground. Other campgrounds in the area are Russian Gulch and MacKerricher State Beach. I chose Van Damme State Park because it had a beautiful fern canyon in the park, as well as pygmy forest. Russian Gulch also has a fern canyon, but the campground itself is a bit smaller. (It does, however, have an epic bridge above the beach!)
Day 1: Lush Canyon Hike
Using Van Damme as our home base, the first day we hiked the Fern Canyon trail, which took us (with stops) about 4 hours. It’s about a 5-mile round trip hike. Next to Little River, it’s gorgeous and well-shaded by redwoods. We then drove to the parking lot of the pygmy forest loop; we took a 1/4 mile (30 min) boardwalk loop around these amazing trees. Many are over 100 years old. Due to the way the land built up, the trees sit atop “staircase” soil deposits that are almost bereft of minerals. The trees are doing okay, just dwarfed!
In the late afternoon, we went to the mouth of Big River. Many people come to this area to ride canoes and kayaks, and wade in the protected waters of Big River. The beach was spectacular, with a sandspit in the middle of a cragly-protected rock cove with pine trees. The beach was loaded with beautiful, gnarled driftwood pieces. To access this area, park on the east side of the bridge, go under the bridge on foot, and behold!
Day 2: History in Mendocino Village
We hit Mendocino village, a charming town 1-mile up the road from Van Damme. Murder She Wrote, as well as East of Eden (1955) and The Majestic (2001) were filmed here. The town is Victorian in style; it’s a national historical landmark, so there are limits on tearing down or significantly changing any of the buildings. Going to the village is a step back in history.
The first place we hit — lucky for us — was the Ford House museum. I would recommend any first-timers hit this small museum first, as knowledgeable docents will point you to places you might not otherwise know about. The museum is also located at the edge of the Mendocino Headlands State Park, which is a wonderful place to hit the bluff trail.
We learned several things at this visitor center — between the time of the Gold Rush to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — the lumber to build San Francisco into a boom town — came from the Mendocino area. As you can imagine, with high bluffs and dense coastal canyons, the area was not the easiest of places to log. (Which is better for all of us visitors now!) In fact, there are 2 roads to the coast from the 101, the 128 and the 20, and these are windy and take at least an hour to traverse. The coastal areas are loaded with redwoods and low-coastal mountains. How did the sawmills get the lumber down to San Francisco?
The loggers pulled the wood down hills using oxen, and also floated logs down the rivers. A lot of work, huh? Then, they sent logs by a chute pulley to ships headed to San Francisco. Very elaborate!
The Ford House, staged in the style of the mid to late 1800s, features many relics from the logging days, as well as a historical film, native plant samples, and a small gift shop.
After getting grounded in history, we hit some interesting stores: Papa Bear’s Chocolate Haus and Village Toy Store were two favorites; if you need groceries, hit the Harvest at Mendosa’s market. One of the unique monuments in the town is the rooftop statuary Father Time and the Maiden, atop the Savings Bank of Mendocino County (a former Masonic Hall c. 1873). I found myself transfixed by it.
Day 3: Enjoyment in Fort Bragg
After going to the Ford House the day before, we headed up 15 minutes to the town of Fort Bragg. One attraction many come to the town to see is the Skunk Train, which rides from Willits to Fort Bragg. This train is fun for the whole family. We didn’t have the time to do it this trip, but next time we won’t miss it!
Right next to the Skunk Train Depot is the Guest House Museum. This Museum was in fact both a private residence and a guest house for wealthy families involved in the lumber industry. It is a lovely 2-plus story Victorian house with information about the lumber industry and other local history. Again, you will find knowledegable guides to give more information about the area.
There are various shops in town; Fort Bragg is more industrial. There is a Safeway, Starbucks, etc. The day we went into town, we found my favorite kind of shopping along highway 1, a flea market with rusty objects, antiques, old glass, etc.
After an hour spent in town, we headed north to MacKerricher State Beach. This state park has several campgrounds as well as a small nature center, sand dunes, and tidepools. As we were there at the end of June, we hit the end of the harbor seal pup season. If you should see one of these little pups on land, do not approach it or try and rescue it. Mama is close, often off swimming for her kid, and she will not return for her pup if she senses human contact has been near.
Finally, we ended our Day 3 in Fort Bragg at the International Sea Glass Museum. Sea glass in the area, interestingly, is very controversial. One beach in the Mendocino area, “Glass Beach,” has lots of glass wash up because it was a town dump until the 1960s. Years and years of glass wash up on the beach. Many will tell you collecting glass on that beach is illegal. We personally did not collect sea glass. But, we did go to the museum where we saw Captian Cass’ wonderful collection of sea glass he obtained by taking a canoe and kayak to many hard to reach areas along the coast. His glass collection is categorized and labeled. It’s an interesting place to hit and see all types of sea glass.
History, enjoyment, and awe-inspiring hikes are in abundance in the Mendocino area. For those far away, it’s well worth the drive!
If you are looking for a vacation rental, I visited one I would recommend. It’s called Whale Watch House, and it could not be in a better location. If you have kids under 7, it may not be advisable, due to sheer cliffs surrounding the edge of the property. Children must be supervised; families with older children will treasure this coastal overlook.