13 Reasons to Drive to Mendocino County

Llamas, kayaks, wine, and more.

Kayak Mendocino
Courtesy of Kayak Mendocino

One of the best things about living in San Francisco is that there are so many magical “only in Northern California” places to visit just a short car ride away. And while we’ll never stop loving Tahoe or Yosemite or Napa, in our opinion, nowhere is more enchanting or specifically NorCal than Mendocino County: 3,800 square miles of redwood forests, beaches, and hiking trails flecked with an abundance of wineries, breweries, and farm-to-table restaurants. What more could you want?

Whether you’re looking to relax by a fireplace with ocean views, walk miles in the forest, or just try as many local wines and beers as possible, Mendocino is truly a dream come true. Sure, it helps that the county is enormous (some towns are easily an hour apart), but if you choose to go on a meandering road trip that takes you through the redwoods and up the coast, or prefer to settle into one cozy town, there’s adventure galore waiting to be had. Including, of course, all of these.

Little River Inn
Courtesy of Little River Inn

Somewhere to stay for every kind of roadtripper

Looking for a vacation from home as well as from any and all kiddos? The Glendeven Inn & Lodge is open only to adults, so you won’t bump into anyone who isn’t legally allowed to vote. In fact, you probably won’t bump into many people at all because the 152-year-old seaside inn and lodge is spread out in several buildings on 15 acres. Whether you choose to stay in a room in the historic inn, the modern lodge, or one of the other charming buildings, you’ll have the option of ocean views, a fireplace, and a porch or a deck. Unfortunately, some of the amenities (like forest bathing, the communal wine hour, and the spa/hot tubs) are on pause right now, but the inn is making up for it with bottles of wine in every room (wine hour can be any hour!) and in-room massages. Plus, the outdoor areas with llamas, chickens (their eggs make your breakfast!), gardens, and access to state park trails on three sides (with the ocean on the fourth) are accessible to everyone.

For something a bit more casual and/or pet-friendly, but still with ocean views, fireplaces, and easy access to the beach and Van Damme State Park, as well as a 9-hole golf course, outdoor dining, and the best Swedish hotcakes in Northern California, book a room at Little River Inn nestled on “the edge of the world,” but also close to local restaurants and breweries.

Want a true escape? The Inn at Newport Ranch sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean on a 2,000 acre property with 20 miles of trails, and seven microclimates, so, as always, bring layers. There are “only” nine accommodations (in four different buildings), so privacy is at a premium. Hang out and watch for whales, go on a two-hour ATV tour of the property, get a massage at the spa, or ride a horse along the cliffs and through the redwoods (at neighboring Ricochet Ridge Ranch). 

For those who prefer wine tasting within literal steps of their accommodations, The Madrones, a Mediterranean mixed-use compound that has stylish rooms with views of gardens and vineyards, a fantastic restaurant, and a relaxing spa, is the place to stay ‘cause it also has three tasting rooms on the property.

If you’re hoping to save money and don’t mind roughing it just a little, Mendocino Grove, a glamping spot along Highway 1, has fancy tents with comfy beds and redwood decks, as well as firepits and picnic tables (some even with ocean views), as well as a couple of bathhouses, hammocks, bocce, and hiking. It’s close to Mendocino Village, so there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in case you don’t want hot dogs for every meal. One thing: Because of cold weather and rain, the site is only open seasonally—first bookings are available at the end of April.

Philo Apple Farm
Philo Apple Farm | Flickr/mehunt

And, when things get back to normal, book a room at the Boonville Hotel, a modern roadhouse right in the heart of Mendocino and close to Anderson Valley Brewing Company, the Philo Apple Farm, and Penny Royal Farm (a goat dairy and winery). The rooms and cottages are all quirky and fun (get one with a hammock if you can), and almost the exact opposite (delightfully so) as the restaurant, an upscale experience (the kitchen resumes include spots like Chez Panisse, State Bird Provisions, the Shed, and more) that feels out of place (but also just right) in this old wood-framed structure built in the 1860s. 

Or check out Airbnbs here.

Trillium Cafe and Inn backyard
Courtesy of Trillium Cafe and Inn

Enjoy everything from fresh fish to a bacon-filled waffle (plus, a killer sandwich from an unassuming market)

Harbor House, a Michelin-starred restaurant with ocean views and a ethos that includes getting as many ingredients from their own land and tidepools as possible, is a splurge (the tasting menu is over $200 per person, and that’s without the wine pairings), but is a memorable spot for a special occasion. And you finally left the house to go on a trip. What’s more special than that?

Wild Fish, a seafood restaurant on the coast, can also be a little pricey (main dishes hover around $37), but you can feel good about the food you’re eating because all of the ingredients come solely and directly from local purveyors and everything is super fresh. Plus, you know, ocean views and great sunsets, which often come at a premium when it comes to dining.

It doesn’t have ocean views, but Left Coast Seafood, a modern restaurant that opened in downtown Ukian last year, makes up for it with great food. Locals and tourists alike are stoked to have a welcoming spot where they can enjoy fresh, locally caught seafood (hence its name) and creative cocktails on the heated patio.

Want fresh seafood and water views, but with a super casual vibe? The Mendocino Cafe has both and is a great spot for a leisurely lunch. The crab cake sandwich and fish tacos are tasty, but there’s also a steak and brie melt with horseradish cream that is hard to pass up. 

Another good spot for lunch (or rather brunch) is the Goodlife Cafe and Bakery. Sit on the sunny deck (with your dog, if you’d like), and enjoy a loaded breakfast burrito or a bacon waffle (with the bacon inside of the waffle). 

Trillium Cafe’s garden is another delightful spot to enjoy a meal and is open right now for lunch and dinner. The menu focuses on California cuisine (local fish, grilled pork chop, a grass-fed burger) featuring as many local products as possible (sensing a theme?), and for those who aren’t comfortable dining out, there’s also a picnic box that includes whatever dishes you’d like, plus everything you need to enjoy itt (tablecloth, wine opener, dishes, etc.). 

Patterson’s Pub is the spot for laid-back pub fare in a heated garden. There’s a huge menu with everything from a fried shrimp basket to nachos to chicken tacos, plus 28 beers on tap (including a bunch of local options). 

Of course, our favorite can’t-miss (and never have yet) place to grab some lunch is the no-nonsense Lemon’s Market in Philo where the sandwiches are enormous, delicious, and filling (get the pastrami). The market is tiny and full of locals and is also a great place to buy some fresh fish or seafood, or pick up your fishing license to catch your own.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company beer
Anderson Valley Brewing Company beer | Photo by Daisy Barringer

Drink some of the best beer you’ll find in NorCal

Mendocino is known for its beer (there’s a town called Hopland, for goodness sake), so it would be a shame to visit and not try as many as possible. The most popular is probably Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville (ask about Bootling, the local dialect) known for beers that are complex, but balanced. Right now, the taproom is only open for to-go sales, but you won’t have to look far for a place to enjoy your purchase, as the on-site disc golf course is open every day and is the perfect place to enjoy a pint or two. Bahl Hornin’! (That’s Bootling for “good drinking.”)

Another very popular brewery is North Coast Brewing Co., perhaps best known for its Old Rasputin Russian imperial stout. Drink some straight from the keg at the taproom restaurant and bar in Fort Bragg, which is currently offering outdoor seating.

Ukiah Brewing Company is the baby of the Mendocino craft brewing family, having only been founded 21 years ago, but its commitment to high-quality and organic and sustainable beer and food, has made it a go-to. In normal times, there’s live music on the weekends, but right now there’s outdoor drinking and dining and that’s good enough for us. (Have a friend who doesn’t love beer? Well, that’s strange, but either way: They’ll be stoked that this spot has cocktails.)

Roederer Estate
Courtesy of Roederer Estate

… and some of the best wine

Remember that sandwich from Lemon’s Market we told you about a little bit ago? Here’s our favorite thing to do. Load up on sandwiches and chips at the market and then head to Roederer Estate, just a few minutes away, and buy a bottle of sparkling wine to enjoy (with the sandwiches) at one of the picnic tables overlooking the valley and vineyards. Low end meets high end in the best way possible.

Goldeneye Winery in Philo is also an excellent winery to checkout. Right now there are a couple of outdoor tastings, including the essentials ($15) and, if you’re not sick of bubbles after Roederer—and are in the mood to splurt—the “Toast to Bubbles and Caviar” ($150 for two). 

A couple of other worthwhile stops: Toulouse Vineyards and Winery in Philo where you’ll find wine made with sustainable practices, redwood and oak trees, and a great pinot noir; Pacific Star Winery on the water in Fort Bragg, Nelson Family Vineyards (one of the few spots available for walk-in tastings and home to honey bees, pear trees, olive trees, and (during the holidays) Christmas trees, Phillips Hill (sit under a willow tree or above the creek in the Apple Dryer Barn) and Lula Cellars, a dog-friendly boutique winery close to Handley and Roederrer with approachable wines that you’ll want to return to again and again.

In normal times, you could pull into any tasting room that was open and have a great experience, but right now, reservations are required almost everywhere, so you have to plan ahead and/or be willing to do curbside pickup. Luckily, there are basically a million places in Mendocino to sit and enjoy a bottle of wine, whether it’s on the beach, under a redwood, sitting atop an oceanside cliff at sunset, or just in front of the fireplace at your hotel room. A few places that are great to grab and go (and visit later when their tasting rooms open) are Handley Cellars and Navarro Vineyards in Philo. 

All aboard a historic train

The Skunk Train has been carrying cargo and passengers through the Mendocino redwoods since 1885 and was vital to the logging industry (which we didn’t despise then like we do now). Now, it’s open solely for the enjoyment of riders who can travel to the highest point on the rail line, through a tunnel, into a thick redwood forest, and down into a beautiful canyon. (And yes, there’s a full bar and concessions to enjoy during the ride.) Prefer to take in the sights in a more COVID-friendly way? Skunk Train also has two-person electric railbikes (no need to steer!) that will take you through the redwoods, across trestle bridges, and along a scenic creek.

Boardwalk path through the Pygmy forest, Van Damme State Park
Boardwalk path through the Pygmy forest, Van Damme State Park | Flickr/DBerry2006

See tiny little trees that are over 100-years-old

Inside of Van Damme State Park is the Pygmy Forest, a small forest where you’ll see hundred-year-old trees that would have grown to much bigger heights if not for an ecological staircase with distinct soils that limits their ability to grow. Don’t worry—there are signs along the way that will explain this way better than we just did. This park also has year-round camping, a fern forest that looks like something straight out of “Star Wars,” beaches, canyons, and hikes for every ability.

Van Damme State Park isn’t the only hiking though...

Mendocino County has endless opportunities to see really cool things while not really noticing that you’re getting exercise (aka: hiking). The Shakota Trail is inland but you won’t miss the water views because the trail follows Lake Mendocino. There are also relics of an old winery halfway through, and who doesn’t love an abandoned building especially when it’s a winery? The Peter Douglas Trail goes through redwood and Douglas fir forests where you’ll see fantastical and giant old-growth trees that have been twisted by the salty ocean winds into shapes that are truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Montgomery Woods also has a magical trail that will take you through old growth coastal redwoods and to a 367.5-foot redwood that was once thought to be the tallest tree on earth.

Close-up view of the colored glass beads mixed in the sand at Glass Beach near Fort Bragg, CA
Close-up view of the colored glass beads mixed in the sand at Glass Beach near Fort Bragg, CA | Flickr/mlhradio

Discover a beach covered in sea glass

Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg is famous for being covered in smooth, colorful glass that used to be... garbage. Yup, this beautiful beach is the result of pollution and the fact that it was once a trash dump. But there’s more to this area than just a cool beach from which you are absolutely not allowed to take a piece of glass as a souvenir. There are trails and tide pools and tons of wildlife, including harbor seals, great blue herons, the occasional mountain lion, and, if you’re there from December to April, perhaps a migrating gray whale in the distance. Bonus points for also discovering another weird beach, this one covered in boulders that look just like perfectly round bowling balls... but only at low tide.

Pick some apples (up)

Philo Apple Farm is a working farm that in normal times doubles as a place with cottages where you can stay overnight and also participate in preparing and enjoying meals. It is also popular for its self-service farmstand, and that, at least, is open during COVID. There, you can pick up jams, chutneys, syrup, vinegar made with 80 different varieties of apples, all on the honor system.

Soak in historic hot springs 

Vichy Springs Resort is a 160-year old hot springs resort with the only naturally warm and carbonated “Vichy” mineral baths in North America. (There is a town in France called Vichy that is known for its hot mineral springs in case you’re wondering about the name.) There’s a hot pool (104 degrees), a non-heated Olympic size swimming pool, and a natural pool at the base of a waterfall that requires a small hike, as well as 700 acres of trails. These waters are known to have magical powers, so if you’re in desperate need of relaxation and tranquility, this is not a place to skip. 

Baby Llama
Baby Llama | Flickr/Ben124

Trek along the ocean bluffs... with a llama

Lodging & Llamas offers several hikes (along cliffs above the ocean, to a waterfall in the redwoods, or a more difficult hike through the redwoods), all of which you’ll do with a friendly llama by your side. Seriously, where else can you go on a llama trek in Northern California with such gorgeous views (or, um... at all)? Not convinced? What if we told you the hosts will also pack you a picnic with wine and local snacks and that the llama will carry everything? We thought so. You may have noticed the “lodging” part of the “Lodging and Llamas” moniker. That’s because it’s also a hotel of sorts with some of the cutest and kitchiest places to stay—like in a converted water tower or a tiny house right on a dock—you’ll find in Mendo.

 Preserve Giraffes
Preserve Giraffes | Courtesy of B Bryan Preserve

Say hello to a... giraffe

Oh, did you think the only somewhat strange animal you were going to see in Mendocino was a llama? Well, you thought wrong. The B. Bryan Preserve is home to zebras, giraffes, and antelope. Right now you can go on self-guided car safari, a VIP tour, or a guided tour in one of the Land Rovers. The animals are located on 110 acres, so they have plenty of space to enjoy their life, while also offering mere humans a chance to see them up close. The preserve also has several cottages where you can stay overnight, including a few with private hot tubs. 

Kayak into a sea cave

It is always eye opening to see the nature and beauty of a place while sitting right on top of the water and the folks at Kayak Mendocino will help you do just that. There are a couple of tours to choose from, but the most popular is one that will have you paddling past harbor seals and sea stars through all kinds of different sea caves. It all happens in a naturally formed channel with calm water, which means you might not even break a sweat. Unless you’re scared of the dark, of course. 

Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who dreams of one day hiking the 25-mile Lost Coast Trail in Mendocino, but always just ends up hitting up as many breweries and wineries as possible. See where she’s headed next on Instagram @daisysf.