Author’s Note: This article “Art and the Gray Whale: The Town of Mendocino on the California North Coast” is a chapter in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. The subject is also covered in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
In the late 1900s, whalers hunted the California gray whales almost to extinction. Fortunately in the 1930s and 1970s, politicians began to protect their population. One could say that their numbers were a kind of barometer of the historical ecological consciousness of the state. And, thanks to wise laws, they thrive in waters all along the Northern California coast. Mendocino is a good place for whale watching. This quaint town also has attracted artists whose works are shown in the town’s many art galleries.
But if there is one choice spot to ponder the whale story, it is at the Headlands west of the Mendocino. Here you can see a wide expanse of ocean and, aided by binoculars, chart the progress of whale spouts.
After a whale watch, retreat into the town. Mendocino is home to a number of artists who show their wares at this picturesque seaside community. The town, which boasts many 19th-century structures, is a charmer. It looks so much like New England that it was used as the town of Cabot Cove in the TV series Murder, She Wrote. There is also one significant museum.
The Historic Story
The infamous whaler, Charles Scammons, discovered that a certain lagoon in mid-Baja, Mexico, now known as Scammons Lagoon, was the birthing and mating point for most of the California gray whales. After bottling up the entrance, he slaughtered the whales, in an era when lamps were lit with whale oil. After a precipitous decline of the species, the California gray whales made a gradual comeback, over decades, to their current 30,000 numbers.
Seeing the whales swim south November-December at the Mendocino Headlands State Park on their annual migration is a delight. The whales are moving deliberately from their summering grounds in the Arctic to their winter abode in warm Mexican waters. In March, when the whales swim north, the Headlands is again an excellent place to spot these cetological treasures. Any day of the year, if you happen to visit the Headlands in the “off-season,” you can imagine the whales, breathe in the bracing sea air, and rejoice that this species was narrowly saved from extinction.
Saving the Whales
Saving the whales is also a metaphor for a parallel historical reality, which is the significant effort by Californians to “save” this treasured Sonoma/Mendocino coastline for public use and access, from the mouth of the Russian River to Fort Bragg.
Beyond whales, the truly picturesque town of Mendocino is a pleasure to walk. Enjoy its historic seaside Victorian structures and the works of artists who have congregated here because the visitor is often an art buyer. Several of the grand earlier homes have become B&Bs and restaurants, such as MacCallum House and the Joshua Grindle Inn. One historic house from 1861 is now a museum, known as the Kelley House Museum (45007 Albion Street, www.kelleyhousemuseum.org, 707/937-5791). The museum arranges changing exhibits on the history of the region, drawing on its large collection of early California photos. William H. Kelley arrived here in 1852 at the start of the lumbering boom.
Point Arena Lighthouse
One further historic masterwork to consider in a regional visit is the magnificent 115-foot Point Arena Lighthouse and Museum (Point Arena, http://pointarenalighthouse.com/, 707/882-2777). A light station was first constructed here in 1870. A lighthouse was needed because on a particularly disastrous night, November 20, 1865, ten vessels ran aground here in heavy storms. The Great Earthquake of 1906 destroyed the original light station.
Today’s Lighthouse, the same 115 feet height as glorious Pigeon Point Lighthouse in San Mateo County, is an architectural masterpiece. The beacon is immediately south of Manchester Beach and is worth a tour. Point Arena ranks as one of the more photogenic of the lighthouses along the California coast. Climb the 146 steps to the top of this structure and see the ingenious Fresnel lens that focused a small kerosene flame visible some 20 miles out to sea. On weekends, spirited citizens of the region act as docents at this lighthouse-museum.
It is fascinating to learn the actual stories of place names in California. How did Point Arena get its moniker? Captain George Vancouver spent the night of November 10, 1792, offshore in his ship Discover. He called the place “Punta Barro de Arena” (Point of Sandy Clay).
Van Damme State Park
Outdoor pursuits at Mendocino might mean a hike to the Pygmy Forest at Van Damme State Park, a canoe ride up Big River near Mendocino, or a bike trip into Russian Gulch State Park to a waterfall at the end of the trail.
The most direct route to Mendocino would be driving north from San Francisco on Highway 101, then west at Cloverdale on Highway 128 to the ocean, then north on Highway 1 to Mendocino.
Be Sure to See
The Headlands at Mendocino and the town are the main attractions. Begin your look at the local art scene with a stop at the Mendocino Art Center (45200 Little Lake Street, 707/937-5818), which has two galleries and is the local mecca for art efforts. The entire coastal area of Mendocino is a treat to explore, with the historic Point Arena lighthouse at the top of the list.
Best Time of Year
The whales can be seen at Mendocino going south from early November through December. The northern journey occurs in March, time of the Whale Festival (http://mendowhale.com/page/mendocino). Beyond the whale months, Mendocino is a pleasing year-round getaway destination.
One of the stately lodgings along the coast is the Stanford Inn by the Sea (Highway 1 and Comptche-Ukiah Road, Mendocino, www.stanfordinn.com, 707/937-5615 or 800/331-8884.) The inn runs a substantial organic farm.
Mendocino’s MacCallum House Restaurant (45020 Albion Street, http://www.maccallumhouse.com/, 707/937-5763) occupies one of the most historic buildings in the town. Outside, the carving of a gray whale from driftwood is a sculptural tour de force. Seasonally, starters might include grilled quail or field greens and the portabello mushroom or duck breast in tangerine sauce could be tasty entrees.
For Further Information
A primary tourism source is the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce (217 S. Main Street, Fort Bragg, www.mendocinocoast.com, 707/961-6300). When in Mendocino, you can get information at the Ford House Visitor Center and Museum (45035 Main Street, 707/937-5397).