Looking to add a kid and parent-friendly destination to your California road trip bucket list this year? Mendocino County is the spot! Miles of gorgeous coastline, redwood forests galore and even some wine tasting for the grown ups make it the ideal spot for your next long weekend. We checked it out for you and have tons of recs—scroll down for some major Mendocino motivation!
Just over three hours north of San Francisco, the drive to Mendocino County can definitely be part of the adventure. A less windy route takes you from 101 to exit at Railroad Avenue where you head to toward Bodega Bay on the coast. Cows, horses and goats will keep the kids entertained along the way. Stop at Bodega Bay Oyster Company for some local shellfish. If you time your arrival for Saturday or Sunday noon-4 p.m., they will be serving up barbecued oysters!
Bodega Bay is another great stop along your drive. Bribe the kids with taffy from Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy (pink building on the coastal side of Highway 1 in Bodega Bay) and then grab some fried artichokes with a gorgeous view at The Birds Cafe.
Stock up for your Mendocino visit with a stop at Surf Market in Gualala. In addition to picnic staples like local cheese, bread and sandwich fixings, you can purchase some fresh fish or sausage from their extensive meat counter to cook up for your dinner.
B. Bryan Preserve – Point Arena
Did you know that Mendocino County is home to giraffes, antelopes and zebras? Around 100 of these majestic animals live at B. Bryan Preserve in Point Arena and you can bring the kids there for a visit. Tour the preserve aboard a 1974 open-air Land Rover and learn how they breed critically endangered and endangered African hoof stock. End your tour with the opportunity to feed and even “kiss” the giraffes! Tours are offered at 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., daily, and are $35/adult and $20/child 10 and under. You can even spend the night in one of the on-site cottages.
Point Arena Lighthouse – Point Arena
Get a bit of a history lesson along with a gorgeous view of the coastline when you visit the Point Arena Lighthouse. This non-profit that is completely dependent on visitors is a great place to spend the afternoon. Begin your visit at the museum where you can learn the history of the lighthouse and see the original 1908 First Order Fresnel lens that was removed from the lighthouse in 2009. Learn how the lighthouse keepers were responsible for keeping the light going and cleaning every nook and cranny of the lens. Head to the whale watch room where you can borrow some binoculars to try and spot a gray whale offshore.
After your museum visit, climb the 145 steps to the top of the tallest lighthouse tower on the West Coast where you will get a 360 degree view of the coastline along with an informative lesson from the tour guide there. Tours are $7.50 for adults, $1 for kids 5-12 and free for the under 5 crew and go towards keeping this historic location open for future visitors. Night tours are also offered when there is a full moon. Make the most of your visit and stay in one of the recently-renovated on-site cottages and spend the afternoon walking the miles of trails along the cliffs.
Skunk Train – Fort Bragg
All aboard! Fort Bragg is where you can catch the Skunk Train for a ride through the redwoods along Pudding Creek. This train (so named because oldsters claimed that you could smell it coming before you’d see it) has both indoor cars and an outdoor car so that you can walk around and make the most of your ride. The Pudding Creek Express is a one-hour, 7-mile round trip tour that takes you over the first tracks laid down by the California Western Railroad. Snacks and beverages (including beer and wine) are available for purchase on the train. Tickets: $25/age 13 and up, $15/ages 2-12, $10/infants and dogs.
After your ride, check to see if the Mendocino Coast Model Railroad is open for visitors. Your Skunk Train ticket will get you in to check out over 1,300 feet of track that document the area’s logging history. You may have trouble getting the little LEGO lovers past the kid-level train table out front (strategically placed to let them touch the LEGO trains and not the model trains inside). If you visit without going on the Skunk Train, admission is $5/adult and $3/child.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens – Fort Bragg
Even in the winter months, color is everywhere at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. The succulent garden offers colorful cactus and spots to sit and enjoy your afternoon. March and April bring the fragrant rhododendrons that thrive in this coastal climate. Come in the summer and the vegetable garden will be full of life. Stop by to see if any strawberries are ripe and try one for yourself.
The gardens include stroller-friendly trails that go all the way out to the ocean. Even your pooch can enjoy a day taking in the flora and fauna. Admission is $15 for age 15 and older, $8 ages 6-14 and under 6 are free.
photo: Rick Hemmings
Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too – Mendocino
Nestled in a small cove on Big River Estuary, just before it flows into Mendocino Bay, is the adventure destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Established in 1982, Catch a Canoe and Bicycles Too offers ultra-stable redwood outriggers, kayaks, canoes, SUP and bicycle rentals for anyone who wants to explore beautiful Big River and beyond. Cruise down the water to see seal or otters on shore and plenty of birds catching fish. You can even bring Fido along on the Canine Cruiser, a specially-designed rig that allows dogs to see all the action.
Pennyroyal Farm – Boonville
Take your trip home via Highway 128 so that you can pass through Boonville, home to Pennyroyal Farm. This farmstead creamery and winery offers daily tours of the barn where you can meet the goats and sheep that live there. Learn all of their names (yes, each one has a name!), how these animals are raised and how their milk is turned into cheese. Time your visit with lambing season in the spring for an extra-special treat!
Your tour ends with a wine and cheese tasting for the parents and a grape juice and cheese tasting for the kids. Extend you visit with some lunch from the kitchen while the kids visit the resident bunny. Tours: $20/adult, $10/ages 5-20, under 5 are free.
Ford House Museum – Mendocino
If you’ve got some history buffs in your crew, definitely plan to stop at the Ford House Museum in Mendocino. Here you can take a look at a huge diorama depicting the town as it stood in 1890 (count how many water towers you can find!). Check out the whale bones and learn how whales use baleen to filter feed in the waters off Mendocino.
Russian Gulch State Park – Mendocino
There are tons of state park options to get your redwood fix in Mendocino County. Russian Gulch State Park offers a view of a collapsed sea cave called Devil’s Punchbowl just a short walk from the parking lot (high tide provides the most drama). If you have more time to spend in the park, hike the Fern Canyon Loop Trail to check out the waterfall.
Beaches and Tide Pools
Bowling Ball Beach – Point Arena
Bowling Ball Beach is so named because of the massive bowling ball-shaped formations that line the beach when the tide is low. These are concretions—sedimentary rock formed when mineral cements bind grains of sand or stone into larger formations.
You can access the trail to Bowling Ball Beach at mile marker 11.41 where the sign reads “Park facing south only.” Here, take the northern path across the bluffs and follow the stairs down. At the bottom, you will likely have to scramble across downed logs to access the beach. Just take it slow and the adventure will be worth it!
Glass Beach – Fort Bragg
Treasure hunters flock to Glass Beach to search the sands for glass made smooth by years of riding the waves offshore. From 1906 to 1967, everything from cars to batteries to bottles, cans and appliances were unceremoniously pushed over the cliffs into the ocean. Mother Nature turned this trash into treasure of tiny sea glass.
Get the kids to search for colors from clear to the more rare reds and blues. Just make sure that all treasures get left behind for the next visitor to enjoy. As with all California State Parks, the glass found at Glass Beach is protected and should not be taken home.
MacKerricher State Park – Fort Bragg
A prime spot for tide pools, MacKerricher State Park is just three miles from downtown Fort Bragg. Stop in at the visitors center when you arrive to feel pelts from animals that live in the area and see how your size compares to that of a whale. Then follow the map to the boardwalk and seal watching station. If you arrive when the tide is low, the area has a massive tide pool that will keep the kids busy for hours. Look for colorful sea stars and speedy sand crabs. Then venture on down the boardwalk to look for seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
Where to Eat
Mendocino has no shortage of great spots to grab a bite for the road or to enjoy a meal with a view. Frankie’s offers the kid-favorite combo of pizza and ice cream. The thin crust cheese satisfies any kid appetite and the candy cap mushroom ice cream is a sweet treat for adventurous eaters. When the sun is out and the fog stays away, pick a spot on the deck at Flow Restaurant where the view is gorgeous and the fish tacos are a favorite.
The quaint town of Point Arena has a tiny coffee shop, Little Green Bean, that offers tons of area recommendations while you wait for your beans to be ground and your pour-over drip coffee to brew. Head across the street to Franny’s Cup and Saucer to satisfy your sweet tooth. Open Wednesday-Saturday, favorites at Franny’s are the macarons, giant gingersnaps and not-to-be-missed Friday donuts. The Point Arena Wharf has a pizza joint, coffee shop and the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room (get the chowder and the sweet potato fries!). After you eat, walk the pier, climb some rocks and look for sea creatures in the tide pools.
North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg is great option if you are up that way. They offer pizza by the slice, burgers, wings and other standard bar fare. If the lines out front are any indication, Eggheads is THE spot to be in Fort Bragg for breakfast or lunch. Their menu will take you back to the Land of Oz with delicacies like the Wicked Witch Burger, the Cowardly Lion Eggs Benedict and the Red Shoe Scramble.
photo: Kate Loweth
Where to Stay
Mendocino Grove – Mendocino
Even though Mendocino Grove has only been open for two years, they have glamping down. Safari tents on wooden platforms welcome you to this gorgeous area just five minutes from downtown Mendocino. There are two family tent options, queen bed with two twin beds (sleeps 4) and queen bed with four bunk beds that comfortably sleeps six. You’ll be cozy for the night as they have bed warmers for all your campers. Each campsite has its own fire ring for campfires and you can purchase wood and s’mores kits on site.
Mendocino Grove has bocce ball, hammocks, hiking trails and a volleyball court to keep the kiddies busy. For some on-the-water time, walk down the hill to Catch-a-Canoe to rent a kayak or outrigger canoe for the morning.
Amenities that you’ll love include spa-quality bathrooms and hot showers. Wake up to coffee, yogurt, fig bars and fruit at the community area in the center of the camp. Stay for a while—if you book a mid-week stay, your fourth night is free!
The Little River Inn – Little River
Located right in the middle of all the Mendocino County action, the Little River Inn knows what keeps families happy when they are away from home. Each room on this property has rocking chairs with a view of the coast and if you are lucky, some amazing sunsets. Rooms are equipped with a small fridge, Keurig coffee maker, TV and WiFi. Borrow a game or movie from the front desk to keep the kids entertained, or hike down the trail to the nearby beach. Golf, tennis and spa services are also available on site. Definitely pick up a box of their fudge and a bag of their cookies when you check in.
The hotel’s restaurant offers both breakfast and dinner with a view of the crashing waves or the hotel’s beautiful garden. Breakfast choices include Ole’s Swedish Hotcakes (the short stack is still big enough to share), Little River Inn scones and loads of egg options. If you are there for Sunday brunch, make sure you ask for your complimentary glass of champagne. For dinner, kids can choose from options like the monster burger (which really is quite large) or fish and chips. Give yourself a few extra minutes of peaceful dining and ask for their coloring packet—a dozen-page booklet that gives the history of Mendocino County and area highlights, all for you to color!
7901 N. Highway One
Little River, CA
Mar Vista Cottages – Gualala
Families looking for a home-away-from-home experience should book some time at Mar Vista Cottages. With twelve 1930s-era cottages to choose from, Mar Vista is a great spot for multiple families to gather for some Mendocino fun. Four of the cottages have two bedrooms and can accommodate two adults and three children each. Each cottage has its own small kitchen and bathroom, and is warmed by a gas fireplace. The cottages are blissfully free of electronics but have WiFi if you must connect to the outside world.
Kids will love gathering eggs in the chicken coop, visiting with the bunnies and feeding the goats. Collect some veggies and herbs from the garden to cook up with your scrambled eggs for breakfast. Enjoy time on the hammock as the deer walk by. Need information on how to find the best beach or where to eat dinner? Chat with your Mar Vista hosts, Renata and Tom, as they are full of local recommendations.
35101 South Highway One
Point Arena Lighthouse Vacation Cottages – Point Arena
For a truly coastal experience, you can stay right at the Point Arena Lighthouse in one of their six vacation cottages. Three of them comfortably sleep six people with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. They come with a well-equipped kitchen, satellite TV, wood-burning fireplace and the most gorgeous coastal views. Wake up to hear the waves crashing against the rocks and spend your days exploring the 23 acres of land adjacent to the lighthouse. One of the three family suites was recently updated to include a gourmet chef’s kitchen, custom tiled baths and unique artwork.
All lighthouse quarters include unlimited visits to the museum and climbs up the lighthouse tower (a sure-fire way to tire out the kiddos). You will also enjoy a welcome bottle of Husch Vineyards wine and chocolates from Mendocino Chocolate Company upon arrival. Check for seasonal specials like their current offer of a third night free when you stay through the end of February. Bonus: you can feel good knowing you are supporting this non-profit in its goal of keeping the light on for visitors for generations to come. Check the calendar for the next Night Tour for an extra-fun adventure!
4550 Lighthouse Road
Point Arena, CA
A road trip to Mendocino County is guaranteed be full of gorgeous coastal views and family adventure. For more ideas of what to do, where to eat and where to stay, check out the Visit Mendocino County website. It’s your one-stop shop to find out about all the special seasonal activities that bring visitors to the area.
—story and photos by Kate Loweth
Note: This trip was paid for by Visit Mendocino County, Little River Inn, Skunk Train and Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.