What to Do Outdoors in Mendocino, California
One of the foremost reasons I love to travel around California (and frankly, why I live in California) is because of the bounty of outdoor adventure pursuits. Yet as proven by my most recent California road trip, to California’s North Coast in partnership with Visit Mendocino, the standout of a place like Mendocino is less the quantity of experiences and more the uniqueness of the destination. I mean it’s not just anywhere that you can drive your car completely through a tree, which you can do in Mendocino County in Leggett (I’m serious: https://visitmendocino.com/listing/open-550/).
So in my latest post from my trip to Mendocino, I’m sharing some of the best things to do outdoors in Mendocino, California.
Backpack, or simply hike, the Lost Coast Trail
Before this recent Mendocino trip, I was actually at the tip-top of Mendocino County at the end of last summer, backpacking the Lost Coast Trail. In my post a few months ago, I called the Lost Coast Trail “one of the most unique, extraordinary places on the entire West Coast of America.” That’s because it’s a 25-mile stretch of the West Coast that is entirely undeveloped. I’m talking no restaurants, no gas stations, no buildings, no roads, no homes, and not even a freakin’ toilet. What you take in, you have to take out. But while the 25-mile trail isn’t for everyone, even if you just have the day, it’s worth driving to. Though most of the trail is north of Mendocino, Visit Mendocino recommends the Peter Douglas Trail, which is an extension of the Lost Coast Trail, featuring views of the Lost Coast in the distance, and up-close encounters with Mendocino’s redwoods. Access is from Highway 1, near Rockport, heading toward Usal Beach.
Note: Being so far north in Mendocino, and very rugged, I would recommend this on a return trip, or if you have more than just a weekend.
Explore Mendocino’s redwood groves
While I mentioned Mendocino’s redwood forests above, they really deserve their own section. Truthfully, it’s hard to visit Mendocino and not see redwoods, as redwood trees dot the county. If you drive on Highway 128, toward the Pacific Ocean and the town of Mendocino you’ll actually drive right through the middle of a corridor of redwoods in Navarro River Redwoods State Park. However, one of the best places for viewing redwoods is a few miles prior to the state park, just off Highway 128 in Philo at Hendy Woods State Park.
While Navarro State Park is a corridor of second-growth redwoods, Hendy is known for its old-growth redwoods located in two separate groves. I recommend giving yourself an hour or two to explore the trails throughout the park, such as the Upper Loop Trail, which passes by the Big Hendy grove, as well as a series of "hermit huts" that were once home to a Russian immigrant for two decades (yes, really). Additionally, the Navarro River runs through Hendy Woods, where in the summer you can swim here, and in late winter and early spring, even kayak, canoe or paddleboard.
But wait, there’s more! One of California’s most remote redwood forests is also in Mendocino County, Montgomery Woods State Reserve. Montgomery Woods State Reserve, like Hendy, has its own trails, albeit with a little more elevation gain. What’s most unique about Montgomery Woods, however, is that it’s home to a 367-foot redwood tree, which was once thought to be the tallest tree in the world. 367 feet!
Although you can kayak or go paddleboarding throughout California, Mendocino County has some interesting spots unique to California. My favorite spot is Hendy Woods State Park and Navarro River Redwoods State Park, although some of the areas along the Navarro River are season-dependent (typically best in late winter or early spring). Further north is the Albion River, where you can put in around the Albion River Campground. Both of these locations are rather calm, so you’re not battling waves or choppy water like you may in the ocean.
Additionally, there are a number of kayak outfitters if you don’t have your own board or kayak. This includes Liquid Fusion Kayaking, which has several tours that range in adventure, from a calm paddle of Noyo River Estuary to whitewater sea kayaking (yes, really).
Go chasin’ waterfalls in Russian Gulch State Park
Unlike the TLC song, chasing waterfalls are totally acceptable in Russian Gulch State Park. While the California North Coast is filled with state parks, Russian Gulch State Park is one of the most fascinating to me, for a number of reasons. First, it’s one of a few parks that has both coastal and forest sections, making it the best of both worlds. However, among its most unique features is a “blow hole,” which is less geyser and more of a sinkhole, yet unique in and of itself. Russian Gulch State Park also has 15 miles of hiking trails, which include encounters with redwoods and a 35-foot waterfall.
Take a guided hike of Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands
If you drive up or down the Mendocino Coastline on Highway 1, you very well could pass by Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands and completely miss the place that The New York Times featured in its 2014 edition of the “52 Places to Go.” While you can hike it solo (albeit it’s more of just a flat walk), I can’t imagine having hiked it with anyone other than Margaret Lindgren, owner and guide of Unbeaten Path Tours. Margaret's tours offer local history, geology and oceanography intel that I otherwise would never have known. Plus, this corner of Northern California is just stunningly beautiful. On the day I visited, the waves were about 30 feet tall. You know it’s a rough surf day when one of the world’s most renown big wave surf competitions is canceled just a little ways down the coast.
Furthermore, nearby is the Point Arena Lighthouse, which is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast, and which is open to the public to climb. Tours are offered daily, and on select weekend nights during the year, full moon night tours are offered. View more details on the Point Arena Lighthouse website.
Point Cabrillo Light Station
On the other end of Mendocino County is Point Cabrillo Light Station, which may just be the most photogenic lighthouse in all of California. But you’ll have to work for it a little bit. That’s because the closest you can park from the lighthouse is a half-mile away, before making the 10- to 15-minute walk to the 110-year-old lighthouse. A California state historic park, Point Cabrillo has trails that meander along the coastal bluff, as well as the lighthouse (and museum) and Marine Science Exhibit that are open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Take a vineyard tour
Mendocino County’s wine region may not boast the number of wineries as nearby Napa or Sonoma, yet you’ll find history, wines and unique experiences that can hang with the best of them. Roederer Estate, for example, is the California outpost of the famous Champagne Louis Roederer, and certainly one of America’s best sparkling wine producers. Not to mention, it’s as good, and reasonably priced, of a sparkling wine as you’ll find.
Mendocino County’s highest concentration of wineries are along Highway 128 between Boonville and Navarro (including Roederer), in the Anderson Valley appellation, although a number of wineries are just off Highway 101, like Rivino, which I visited in Ukiah. You could spend an entire weekend in Mendocino County and just barely scratch the surface of all the county’s wineries.
Among my recommendations is Goldeneye, specializing in Pinor Noir, which Anderson Valley is known for. Grab a seat on the patio, overlooking the vineyard, for the Essentials Tasting, although my personal recommendation is the Estate Tasting, which is a private, guided wine and cheese pairing featuring some of their best Pinot Noirs. Elsewhere, Anderson Valley wineries like Handley Cellars and Navarro Vineyards offer vineyard tours.
For the best of all worlds, I recommend Pennyroyal Farm, which is part winery, part creamery and part farmstead. You could quite literally spend the entire day here, from touring the farm (because goats) to enjoying wine flights to sampling cheese they make right here. If you do nothing else, at least pick up some cheese from one of my favorite California cheese makers.
Go hot tubbin’ at Orr Hot Springs Resort
Finally, if you’ve made it as deep into Mendocino County as Montgomery Woods, then you might as well continue just another mile down the road to Orr Hot Springs Resort. Orr Hot Springs Resort, as I alluded to in my last Mendocino travel post, feels as unique, and very much “Mendocino” as anywhere, thanks to its location next to a redwood forest and clothing-optional policy (there’s not many clothes being worn here). I highly recommend making a reservation, and making at least a half day of it, enjoying the many baths, hot and cold pools, steam room and dry sauna. Additionally, a number of massage treatments are also offered. Before you go, however, make sure to visit this page of their website, which has info you’ll want to know before you go.