Last Updated on April 11, 2024

It always amazes me how quickly the busy historic highways of California change into the cozy, sleepy atmosphere of Mendocino County. It’s one of the oldest counties in the Golden State and has so much history and beauty. Even more, it’s just a few miles north of San Francisco–perfect for a two-day getaway! If you’re looking for a weekend travel guide to Mendocino County, California, we’ll talk about some of the best places and what to do on your upcoming journey.

Mendocino is most well-known for its vineyards, coastal views, redwoods, and historic old town. It’s a slow county with a lot of aged northern Californian charm. That charm can also be felt by the misty weather, beachside warmth, and wide variety of activities held throughout the year. The Visit Mendocino website has a helpful calendar to look through popular activities for every month, so be sure to check it out just before your visit!

Here are some of the more notable places to visit on your next trip to Mendocino.

Weekend Travel Guide to Mendocino County, California

Mendocino Headlands State Park

Bird's eye view of the Mendocino Headlands State Park coastal cliffsides.
Mendocino Headlands State Park from a 360 camera

Situated on a shred of land above Mendocino Bay is the Mendocino Headlands State Park, a beautiful park with quiet beaches and quaint hiking trails. The park around Mendocino’s main village has a big river that goes through the state, reaching the wooded areas to the east. The weather here is breezy and mild. Further south, visitors can enjoy Big River Beach, which is right before where the bay opens up.

One of my favorite parts of this park is the rocky coastlines stick out from the edges. These massive cliffsides are home to some of the clearest, bluest waters I’ve ever seen in California, constantly crashing over the rugged rocks and blistered shores. The headlands in particular have such a fantastic, high-up view of the waves and seafoam that it’s hard not to be awestruck by the beauty of Californian nature.

Mendocino Headlands State Park headlands from the side, with the blue waters of the sea.
The headlands of the Mendocino Headlands State Park

Deep within the park, you’ll also find a vast network of trees and dense forestry that’s fit for everything from summer foraging to fall hikes. I’m fond of following along the red dirt pathways during autumn when the cool breeze rushes through the trees, the ferns brown and crowd around the base of old trees, and mushrooms sprout amidst the piles of fallen leaves.

Considering the wide variety of sights you can enjoy, here are just some of the most popular hiking trails to get a taste of what’s to come:

  1. Mendocino Headlands Trail: An easy 4.7-mile trip along the edges of the park, looking out into the sea and headlands. The path goes through beautiful beaches and has a colorful assortment of wildflowers in the summer and spring. If you’re lucky, you’ll also be able to watch some of the birds fly over the horizon during busier migration periods.

  2. Mendocino Cliffs Trail: A shorter, easier 0.8-mile loop around the southwest peninsula of the park. This trail is relatively contained but has an up-close view of the coast and cliffsides, with a gorgeous vista of the sea.

  3. Big River Trail: A moderate 15-mile trail along the park’s Big River. This trail is a good opportunity to admire the dense forest along the way, as well as the wildlife that crowds along the river.

On a smaller note, you can also visit the Historic Ford House museum just at the edge of Mendocino to learn more about the history of Headlands Park and the region as a whole. The historic house also acts as a great center for visitors to ask around and find more information on trails and notable sites in the area. 

Downtown Mendocino

Downtown Mendocino City with watermills and rolling yellow flower fields.
Downtown Mendocino

Going to the Headlands Park, you’ll have already seen the downtown area of Mendocino, which is a worthy attraction all on its own. Driving here is like being transported to a different, simpler century, where there are still old watermills and Americana architecture everywhere you turn.

You can find various art galleries, quaint eateries, and sleepy bookstores along the streets of this town. This is also the best place to stay the night while exploring the county, as most of the other local attractions are within the same proximity here. The Headlands Inn Bed and Breakfast in particular is a great place to rest after exploring the park, with an antique Victorian interior that gives a warm, homey feel to the establishment. 

Russian Gulch State Park

A couple of miles up from Mendocino is the Russian Gulch State Park, named after the foreign fur trappers who helped build the nearby settlement of Fort Ross. A fantastic variation of redwoods and ferns grows along this narrow valley, and like the Mendocino Headlands State Park, it also has an impressive coastal and headlands area with white beaches and rocky shores. 

A lush 36-foot waterfall runs down the center of the park, surrounded by the mosslands and ferns that grow from its basin. It’s especially beautiful in the spring and early summer when the water rushes down from melting snow, but the surrounding life thrums with a deep forest vitality regardless of the season.

A leafy fern from Mendocino's many state parks.
A fern on the trail in the Russian Gulch State Park

The biggest and most beautiful draw of the park is the path to the headlands in the west. As you’re hiking through the trees and past the glittering waters, you’ll see the Panhorst Bridge built over the small bay that pierces into the park. It reminds me a lot of the Bixby Bridge on Big Sur, but it’s quieter and surrounded by woodlands rather than cliffsides–though it’s just as captivating from afar.

Panhorst Bridge

Here are some trails you can enjoy the park through:

  1. Headlands Trail: Less than an hour’s hike at most, the Headlands Trail is an easy trail that loops a little under 0.4 miles around the west end where the park meets the Pacific Ocean. This trail has some of the best views of Panhorst Bridge and some of the seaside caves you’ll find by the cliffs. You’ll also get the chance to walk past the Devil’s Punchbowl, a giant sinkhole caved inward from the land.

  2. Russian Gulch Fern Canyon and Waterfall Trail: For those with around half a day to spare, you can take the 6.2-mile loop around the Russian Gulch Canyon, following the stream before circling the waterfall. It’s a beautiful look at the natural wonders of the park, and you’ll get to walk amidst the ferns or along the fallen log trees. 

These routes occasionally close during rough weather or renovations, so be sure to check the Russian Gulch State Park website for more details.   

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park

A field of grass with a woman running towards the Point Cabrillo Light Station.
Running down the path at Point Cabrillo Light Station

Mendocino started as a small coastal town meant for fishing and shipping redwood logs. You can see this history at the Point Cabrillo Light Station. Built in the early 1900s, the light station was set up after many ships wrecked along Mendocino’s rough coasts. It has continued to watch over the county long after its original purpose ended in the twentieth century.

Now, this little piece of Californian history is a museum and park with stunning views of the sea from the tall headlands. You can take self-guided and group tours to fully explore the point, and even go into the site of one of the coast’s historic shipwrecks, the Frolic Cove. 

A great highlight of this area is the wildlife living amidst the shore–it’s a great place to go birdwatching or catch a sea lion swimming along the beach! You can even catch gray whales during winter and spring or humpback whales in summer. 

Interested in reliving the life of an 18th-century lighthouse keeper? The park has unique rental units built from the old lightkeeper’s houses of the past. It’s a great way to wake up in Mendocino, and some of the houses even welcome pets.  

Skunk Train Railbikes in Fort Bragg

The Skunk Train

The Mendocino Railway is more often called the Skunk Train by residents of Fort Bragg, and the aged train track has meandered around Mendocino’s redwood for more than a century since 1885. Much of the woodlands surrounding this train track has been left untouched by human ventures, and so it’s gained a worldwide reputation as one of the most beautiful places to admire redwoods in the wild.

Trains still do run around these winding tracks, and the Skunk Train company hosts several rides at various lengths for visitors to try out. For example, the Pudding Creek Express is a short hour and fifteen minutes trip along the Pudding Creek Estuary, and it offers great views of the majestic forests and historic town.

Skunk Train Railbikes running down a train track along the forest.
The Skunk Railbike

A more modern way of exploring the area is the electric railbikes they offer along Fort Bragg. The most popular option runs along the Redwood Route, and it was an absolute delight speeding past the old trees through this open vehicle. It has room for two riders and costs around $265 to rent per bike.  

I don’t think I’d ever taken a trip through a forest quite like the one I had with a railbike. They give you pedals that you and your partner can pump while sightseeing, but the bike itself is mostly electric-powered, so you can just sit back and fully absorb the world around you. Halfway through, you can even take a break and have a nice trail walk through the forest at Glen Blair, before heading back to Fort Bragg. 

Chandelier Tree

It’s not often you get to drive through an ancient redwood, but it’s always delightful to have the opportunity. This roughly 276 to 315-foot-tall redwood tree has its dedicated road below Leggett and north of Mendocino and Fort Bragg and lies in a lovely redwood grove with short but sweet trails all around it. It costs around $10 to drive through or walk under the Chandelier Tree’s massive trunk.

The drive-thru Chandelier Tree in Mendocino County, with a red light glowing through the carved hole.
The Chandelier Tree

The tree is supposedly over twenty centuries old, but the opening of it was only cut around 1930. It’s one of the last few giant tunnel trees still standing in California, with the other tunnel trees being mostly found in Yosemite National Park. Thus, if you want to get this unique experience outside of Yosemite, here is one of your best opportunities.

Glass Beach

One of the most unique beaches in California, the Glass Beach rests along Fort Bragg and is the former site of old waste thrown during the early 1900s. While the metal and plastics of the old waste site have been properly disposed of, the waves licked and chipped broken glass from car headlights and bottles into soft, stellar seashell-like shapes. 

Smoothed out glass pieces on the Glass Beach in Mendocino County.
The Glass Beach

This beach is one of only three glass beaches in America, but its popularity has led to many tourists taking the wondrous glass bit by bit away from the shore. Despite efforts to preserve this beach’s signature luster, it doesn’t look quite as shimmery as it did a decade ago. 

However, the glow of the afternoon sun over the pretty shores is still as beautiful as it always has been. 

This county has such a sweet, old-world energy while still having the same welcoming air I’ve come to love about California. It’s one of my favorite ways to recharge after a trip to bustling San Francisco, and I’m looking forward to my next visit here. What do you think? Are you planning on visiting for your next weekend trip?

Do you love exploring California? I created an interactive map just for you! Check out my California Travel Map with over 500 pins of the best spots and hidden gems for California Travel!

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