Last Updated on January 19, 2023
Renowned as a nature lovers’ nirvana, Northern California’s Mendocino County is filled with a myriad of activities for those who love the outdoors and adventure. And outdoors is exactly where you want to be to experience the wild, rugged beauty of this Pacific Coast treasure. Its one of the many reasons so many visitors from the Bay Area come here to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. Looking for things to do in Mendocino California, here are my favorites.
What to do in Mendocino CA
Strolling Historic Downtown Mendocino
As one of the most picturesque towns in California, the Victorian village of Mendocino is perched on an oceanside bluff, surrounded on three sides by the Mendocino Headlands State Park.
This easily walkable town is filled with historic buildings, art galleries, quaint eateries and one-of-a-kind boutique shops. Highlights Gallery is one of our favorites, located in a restored building overlooking the Pacific. Impressive works of art include handmade furniture, wall art, sculptures, jewelry and other creations by Northern California artists.
Hiking Mendocino Headlands State Park
If you’re into sea caves, this hike is a must-do. Miles of easy trails along the bluffs feature gorgeous water vistas. Picturesque Big River Beach can be accessed from a cliff trail with steps leading down to the sand. The wide beach is ideal for a picnic, and at low tide, you can access the arches and caves. But take precautions by checking the tide schedule and definitely gauge the ocean swells before entering any sea cave.
Exploring a Secret Blowhole and Sinkhole
Leave it to the locals to always be a great source of insider information when looking for things to do in Mendocino California. One of my husband and my favorite Mendocino experiences was finding the Little River Blowhole and its punchbowl/sinkhole.
We parked outside Little River Cemetery which in itself is an interesting place. Opening the unlocked gate, we found a path leading through the historic cemetery to the sinkhole. The massive and impressive crater was formed by constant ocean waves crashing in through a rock tunnel and hollowing out a deep depression in the middle of a pine forest. With time, the sinkhole has grown significantly, waves still rushing in at high tide.
Because it had recently rained, the path down to the impressive blowhole was extremely slippery making for a dangerous hike. However, if you can get a local guide as we did to take you out by boat, you can view this geological wonder and enjoy the impressive Mendocino coastline by sea.
Visiting Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
It was well-worth the almost two-mile round-trip hike to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse located on the California State Historic Park headland. The Mendocino Coast is known for its dense fog, especially during the summer when the land begins to warm. And that’s exactly what we experienced on our morning hike. A thick blanket of heavy fog eventually lifted exposing the craggy picturesque coastline.
Rail Biking Through the Redwoods
Northern California is known for its massive redwoods and one of the best ways to see them is by guided rail bike from the nearby town of Fort Bragg.
These two-person rail bikes take passengers roundtrip along the stunningly picturesque Pudding Creek Estuary. Bikes have geared electric-assist motors so riders can choose their difficulty level based on how much effort they want to put into the journey.
If you’re wondering what to do in Mendocino CA that you can’t do anywhere else, this is it!
Riding the Skunk Train
Since 1885, the historic steam-powered Skunk Train has carried cargo and passengers for thousands of miles through picturesque redwood groves, over rustic trestle bridges, and along scenic Pudding Creek and the lush Noyo River Canyon. The California Western Railroad became known as the Skunk Train in 1925 when the motorcars’ gasoline-powered engine fumes and smoke from pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil for heat created a pungent odor the old timers swore resembled the scent of a skunk.
Today passengers can take a step back in time and enjoy the ride without the smell as the historic train boards in Fort Bragg and takes passengers along part of the old route through the towering groves of second-growth redwoods. Following the same tracks as the rail bikes, the train ride is like traveling through the past, and it’s quite a lovely journey.
Checking Out the Pygmy Forest
Mendocino’s Van Damme State Park has it all. Located within a lush fern-filled forest with a scenic beach, the park also offers year-round camping and plenty of places and trails for nature lovers.
The biggest surprise of all the things to do in Mendocino California can be found in this massive state park and its weird and wonderful Pygmy Forest. While Mendocino is known for its towering stately redwoods, this fascinating soil-poor forest holds only low, stunted trees and shrubs, drawing sharp contrast to the mighty redwoods and fir trees in the background. The meandering boardwalk Pygmy Discovery Trail is the best way to explore this unique and fascinating forest with its many varieties of local shrubs and plants.
Waterfalls of Russian Gulch State Park
This magnificent park, part of the Mendocino Land Trust, offers some of the best views of the Mendocino Coast. A beach with a towering overhead bridge, redwood forests, creeks and a waterfall can all be seen throughout on its 15 miles of scenic trails.
In the summer, the Gulch is known for its kayaking, diving and snorkeling opportunities, and its protected cove is home to sea stars, crabs, mussels, oysters, fish and seasonable harbor seals.
We were here to check out the park’s waterfall. A 2.5-mile trail through a fern-lined canyon filled with towering redwoods led to an impressive 35-foot cascade. Benches at the base of the falls provides a perfect place to relax, take photos, and have a lunch before heading back.
If you’re wondering where to stay in Mendocino, check out our three favorites: Brewery Gulch Inn, Elk Cove Inn and Little River Inn. They offer ideal locations, top-notch service, and a much more boutique feel than staying in a hotel.