By Lee Foster
The Mendocino Coast intrigues visitors and ranks as one of California’s loveliest and most popular coastal areas. It takes a while to get there, and the road in, Highway 128, is one of California’s more pleasing back-country routes. Mendocino is several hours from a major population center, San Francisco, so only the purposeful traveler becomes aware of it. It is a getaway, and has hidden discoverability. Moreover, its nature and cultural attractions are numerous and the quality of its lodging/dining options is high.
The road in, Highway 128 west from Cloverdale, is one of California’s most interesting rural drives. You pass on a winding road through canopies of oak trees, along with madrone and bay trees on the road sides. At times, open grasslands appear, with steep hills of conifers on the coastal side and classic California oak woodlands on the drier inland side. The quirky town of Booneville, with its own code talk, known as Boontling, is a fitting rest stop on the drive. At the Mosswood Café, pause to enjoy a salad topped with the locally famous apples. Along the route, the Anderson Valley wineries produce quality Pinot Noirs, and Navarro Winery has an especially picturesque tasting deck adjacent to the vineyards. Approaching the coast, you pass through towering redwoods along the Navarro River Redwoods State Park. The redwood forest is so dense and the tree canopy over the road so complete that most drivers turn on their lights here during daylight.
The Mendocino Coast is now a story of renewal and rebirth for one of its hallowed properties, Heritage House Resort, south of the town of Mendocino. From the time automobile tourism kicked off in California, after World War II, a remarkable man named Lauren Dennen ran Heritage House. He knew every guest by name as the proprietor, from 1948 until his death in 1998. The 37-acre property, a former apple orchard with an 1877 farmhouse (still intact and used as the dining room), was known affectionately as The Jewel of the Coast. Heritage House was famous for annual repeat visitors, and the classic movie Same Time, Next Year (1978), starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, was filmed here. The movie is about a decent man and woman who happen to meet here by chance at a restaurant, experience rapport, fall in love, and turn a one-night stand into a long term annual repeat affair, with the appropriate full guilt of the era weighing upon them. After Dennen’s death, the Heritage House property changed hands several times, but the magic was gone, and Heritage House finally closed for five years. Now it has re-opened, owned by a wealthy patron who prefers to be out of the limelight but has the resources to restore it. The rooms, in no-two-alike cottages tiered down an ocean-facing hillside, are re-opening, and the new restaurant, 5200 Bistro and Lounge (named after the highway address), has a sparky menu. Good food choices include the classic Heritage Omelet for a hearty breakfast and the locally-sourced Wild Mushroom Tartine, followed by Braised Lamb Shank, for dinner.
The town of Mendocino is the cultural focus of the area. Stop in at the Kelley House Museum to see memorabilia from the local story of lumbering, farming, fishing, and shipping. Mendocino boasts a robust art scene, and you could spend a day looking through galleries after inquiring what is showing at the local show spaces. The town is situated on a cliff, strung out almost like a movie set, with a classic viewing point at a turn-out a quarter mile south of town along Highway 1. Several of the historic structures function as B&Bs/restaurants, with two good options being the Mendocino Hotel and MacCallum House. MacCallum House is easily one of the cutest B&Bs on the California coast. A whale wood carving in the front yard alerts you to the migrating fauna that can be seen immediately west of town on the Mendocino Headlands. The gray whales migrate south to Baja in December-January to give birth and mate, then return back north to Alaska in April-May for their summer feeding.
The great coastal views and parks are an immense nature allure along the Mendocino Coast, starting with the Mendocino Headlands itself. There you can gaze at the fecund kelp beds, the occasional playful sea otters, the abundance of wildflowers such as Douglas iris in spring, and the rugged seascape of incessant waves pounding the rocky cliff shoreline. Allow for an evening return to the Headlands for spectacular sunsets. Be sure to bring a bottle of Alexander Valley wine and possibly some local artisan cheese to augment the pleasure. The ocean displays many moods, from glassy calm to turbulent storms, all accessible and enjoyable with a hike along the Headlands.
The Headlands now also includes the Big River watershed, immediately south, where you can literally Catch-a-Canoe at the Stanford Inn and paddle upriver with the incoming tide. Van Damme State Park, south of Mendocino, and Russian Gulch State Park, to the north, are glorious redwood parks, each with beachfront. Both welcome hikers and campers. Both have fern canyons to peruse and miles of trails in intimate redwood forests. Van Damme has a concessionaire at its beach who can take you sea kayaking. Divers spearfish for rockfish and pry abalone from the rocks at Van Damme. Russian Gulch shows a lovely waterfall on one of its hikes and gets praise for its cozy picnic area. Both Van Damme, in an area inland from the coastal entrance, and a more northerly park, Jughandle Reserve, have unusual “pygmy” forests, where highly alkaline soil hosts stunted plants that have adapted to the restricted nutrients of the terrain. Both pygmy forests have wood boardwalks through them, and Van Damme has explanatory signage.
North from the town of Mendocino, Highway 1 proceeds to Fort Bragg, which is often portrayed as a contrasting, brawny, blue collar sibling to upscale, artsy, and somewhat precious Mendocino. The characterizations of both towns are half true. Fort Bragg has a working fishing harbor, Noyo Harbor, which sends its fleet out to capture the passing salmon and resident rockfish. The harbor is fun to explore. The landmark historic building here in the historic downtown is the Union Lumber Company Store, suggesting the gravitas of lumbering in the area’s economy yesterday and today. From the second floor of this “company store,” you can gaze out at the local scene from the Mendo Bistro Restaurant, perhaps while indulging in their seasonal menu that might emphasize fresh Sauteed Local Ling Cod bought off the boats at Noyo Harbor. Fort Bragg is also the place where you can take a scenic railroad trip, known as the “Skunk” Train (because of the former smelly engines), on a voyage through the redwoods to the inland town of Willits and back. Fort Bragg is definitely the commercial heart of the region, with all the chain stores that are the necessary presence for modern and affordable commercial survival.
But Fort Bragg also has its cultural side. Part of that culture is horticulture. The immensely popular 47-acre Mendocino Botanical Gardens is immediately south of town. There you can walk for hours through trails of begonias, dahlias, azaleas, rhododendrons, and other plants that flourish in this region. The Botanical Gardens is a fitting counterpoint to the wild parks of the region. Fort Bragg is also the home of the Mendocino Coast Photographer Gallery, 357 North Franklin, where gifted photo artists, such as John Birchard and Ron LeValley, display their work. Stop in here to see the region’s natural beauty of nature that you will discover in your personal treks. Fort Bragg also has further fine dining options, such as the Cliff House, overlooking the Noyo River, where a good choice would be the catch-of-the-day coming in off the boats that you may see crossing in front of you at Cliff House as they enter and exit Noyo Harbor.
South from the town of Mendocino, the Mendocino Coast stretches to the town of Gualala, and there is much to discover and enjoy in this southerly direction. We tend to think of the Mendocino Coast as the coast in the Mendocino County border, partly because that is how tourism is organized in California, by its county jurisdictions. The Sonoma Coast would be next going south. As you drive south from the town of Mendocino, highlights start around the town of Elk, noted for the striking “seastack” rock formations that stretch along the coast.
The main cultural and scenic attraction in this south Mendocino Coast area is the Point Arena Lighthouse, arguably the most impressive lighthouse architecturally along the entire California coast. You can visit the working lighthouse today and even lodge in the former lighthouse tender’s house. The Chowder House restaurant in Point Arena would be a good local choice for a further indulgence in California coastal seafood.
Next to Point Arena is the recently-acquired tract of land, call Stornetta Public Lands, that is a major coup in the ongoing effort of many Californians to transfer land sensitive for environmental purposes and public recreation to appropriate park entities. The Stornetta Public Lands tract is 1,600 choice acres south of the Point Arena Lighthouse. The best access point is at the yellow-wood City Hall in Point Arena, from which trails lead out to celebrate some of the most compelling bluff seascapes along the entire California coast. At Stornetta, there are also elaborate efforts to save a species, the so-called “mountain beaver,” a possibly-beneficial PR name for a humble wood-rat-like character. The mountain beaver’s fenced-in habitat is now protected (more from wandering cows than humans), as Californians embrace a vision in which all species, including some of the less photogenic, are assured a place in the can’t-we-just-all-get-along inclusive future.
The Mendocino Coast: If You Go
The tourism entity managing the region is Visit Mendocino at http://www.visitmendocino.com.
The re-born Heritage House Resort lodging and dining option is at http://www.heritagehouseresort.com.
(This article will appear in one of Lee Foster’s new books for Spring 2016, which will be The 100 Top San Francisco/Bay Area Travel Experiences and The 100 Top Northern California Travel Experiences (Beyond the San Francisco/Bay Area). These projects will appear as printed books, ebooks, websites, articles, photos, and videos.)