25 Things to do in Mendocino County

Jennifer Hubbert,  Canadian Traveller
Used by permission

I just got back from Mendocino County, California and, if you’ll allow me a moment, I want to tell you something about yourself; something you don’t already know…

You want to go to Mendocino.

It’s possible that the first time you’ve heard of Mendocino was two sentences ago, and you probably can’t point to it on a map, but trust me, you want to go.

Truth be told, I didn’t know that I wanted to go to Mendocino County until I got there. But that’s kind of the thing about hidden gems, isn’t it? They surprise and delight you.

If all you know of California is beaches, blondes, and surf, Mendocino is the waves, wine and woodsy side of the Golden State. Life here is conscious, curated and deliberate. There’s nary a fast-food franchise or hotel chain to be found on this blissful coast. You’ll get to know the local characters – and their dogs. You’ll dine on farm-fresh produce, pulled same-day from the Earth. And among the hypnotic swells of an angry ocean or thousand-year-old towering Redwoods, the loudest sound you hear might just be your own heartbeat.

Here are 25 ways to fall in love with California’s cozy coast.

Drive Highway 128

There’s no better introduction to Mendocino County than arriving via Highway 128. Keep an eye out for the intermittent water troughs, relics that nod to this road’s stage coach roots. This scenic and winding byway evokes childhood: gnarled trees beg to be climbed and voluptuous hills invite a dizzying downhill roll. The adult in you will appreciate that Highway 128 deposits you into the County’s first AVA: Yorkville Highlands. Bring on the Wine.

Sip organic wine at Yorkville CellarsNeighbouring Anderson Valley AVA may be famous for pinot noir, but I was pleased to find the Yorkville Highlands wineries blushing for rosé.

Toasting to Yorkville Cellars is easy. What’s not to love about a small-lot winery that has been certified organic since 1986? Take a glass of their 2016 rosé of petit verdot to the deck and witness a quintessential Mendo postcard: sheep mowing between the rows of vines. If you meet Kevin, ask how he became ‘the rockin’ shepherd.’

Tasting room open daily, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Wine taste at Meyer Family Cellars

Meyer Cellars

Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Six miles up Highway 128 lies Meyer Family Cellars, whose wines speak with French accents. The 2016 sauvignon blanc, 2016 dry rosé of Syrah, and 2013 High Ground Syrah all boast local Yorkville grapes, but it’s the 2013 Le Bon Bon cabernet that undeniably tastes best – and has the price tag to prove it.

Shop in quaint Boonville


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Boonville is a one-horse kind of town, but don’t call in backwards. In fact, the businesses I perused were quite bespoke. The Boonville Hotel is painfully hip without even trying, while the curated homewares at Farmhouse 128 rival the likes of Anthropologie.

Indulge your sweet tooth


Boonville’s Paysanne has some seriously darling old-fashioned charm. Colourful candies and bonbons wrapped in wax paper fill mason jars that live in a wooden cabinet; ginger snaps sit upon floral-print china plates, and fresh-brewed hibiscus tea is as pretty as it is punchy.

Get social at the Boonville Hotel

June through mid-October, Sunday afternoons mean paella patio parties at the Boonville Hotel. It’s string lights, blankets and good vibes in the backyard of this self-described ‘modern roadhouse’.

Toast to romance at Seebass Vineyards


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Scott Willoughby is pouring me a glass of Seebass Vineyard’s Fantasie Grenache rosé. Rosé, with its pinkish hue, is romantic by nature. But Seebass’ Fantasie is rooted in romance.

“We started making this wine because it gets bottled very close to my wife Michelle’s birthday.” Her birthday just happens to be Valentines Day. “She was born on the day of love in the year of love.”

How sweet.

The comfortably furnished Seebass tasting room is open daily, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Wine & cheese at Pennyroyal Farm


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

You won’t get deep into Mendocino County before encountering Pennyroyal cheeses. They feature in the tasting rooms of many local wineries, and a visit to the County demands a visit to where they are made.

A farm tour will personally introduce you to the adorable goats and sheep that call this happy farmstead home. Small batch cheeses are made daily in the creamery, where a cheesemaker oversees the artful process. Paying homage to the area’s colourful history, each cheese is named after a Boontling word. (Boontling is Boonville’s near-extinct local jargon.)

A Pennyroyal Farm tour and wine and cheese tasting runs 60-90 minutes and costs $20 per person; reservations are required.

Take a 100-foot wine tour at The Madrones

Endeavor on what might be the world’s most efficient wine trail at The Madrones in Philo. Three tasting rooms mean you can sample the entire Anderson Valley without starting the car.

Read our hotel review of The Madrones

Get fired up at Stone & Embers

Stone and Ember

Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Dine alfresco on fire-roasted fare at Stone & Embers. As a cherub-faced fountain babbled in the background, I nibbled the fumée blanc (panna sauce, smoked prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, charred onion and fresh oregano) and the pomme de terre pizzas (panna sauce, smoked prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, apple, potato, and grana padano). But truly, there isn’t a bad pie on this menu.

Pig out at The Bewildered Pig

Bewildered Pig

Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

You probably didn’t expect to find rustic-refined dining on a rural backroad, did you? Chef Janelle Jennifer Hubbert Weaver dishes up the unexpected (stinging nettle and smoked herring mousse) to artisan comfort (cast iron Fontinela mac & cheese). There are no missteps on The Bewildered Pig menu; the only mistake you risk is not dining in.

Read more about my meal here.

Bite into the Philo Apple Farm


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Stay, play, eat or simply shop at the self-serve farm stand at The Apple Farm in Philo. Four guest cottages are nestled in the orchard where guests can turn up and tune out. Rooms are television and telephone-free safe spaces. Participate in an informal cooking class and then eat the evidence.

Crane your head back in Hendy Woods State Park

Hendy Woods

Photo: Mendocino County Tourism Commission

Stretch your legs at Hendy Woods State Park. This park protects two handsome groves of towering redwoods. Five miles of trails wander through a forest blanketed with ferns. Hendy Woods is also one of Mendocino County’s best opportunities to camp.

Get back to nature in Van Damme State Park

The Van Damme Pygmy Forest is more than just gnarled trees stunted by poor soil and a shallow hardpan. An outing here can be as ambitious a half-day hike or as leisurely as a lap around the quarter-mile boardwalk loop.

At one time, the ground beneath hikers’ feet lay deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. Gradual uplift exposed the land in five distinct terraces, and each fosters a unique habitat. Travelling down the 2.3-mile Fern Canyon Scenic Trail is the best way to experience the Park’s biodiversity. The trail starts in the upland forest, drops 300 feet through the canyon and ends at a campground.

Get charmed in Mendocino Village

Mendocino Village

Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Follow your feet in any direction for quaint shopping, dining, artist galleries and windy ocean Jennifer Hubbert views. There’s no mistaking the distinct New England infuences of this darling town. If it looks familiar, you might recognize it from the television series Murder, She Wrote.

Sample mushroom ice cream

Ice Cream

Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Of the 3,000 mushrooms that grow in Mendocino County, only 500 are edible. How many of those would you want to make into ice cream? Likely just one. Candy cap mushrooms have a distinctly maple flavor that makes for lip-smacking treats. Find candy cap imbued ice cream at Frankie’s in Mendocino Village.

Get hypnotized at Mendocino Headlands State Park


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Sitting atop the Mendocino Headlands, it’s hard not to be taken by the hypnotic and violet swells that crash against the cliffs. If you’re observant (and patient) you might even spot a gopher staring back at you from a hole in the ground. Mendocino Headlands State Park is located in Mendocino Village.

Dine in at Little River Inn

The first thing I notice when I enter the dining room of the Little River Inn is the windows. They frame the Inn’s handsome gardens with such clarity that I mistake them for being open.

Navigating Chef Marc Dym’s menu is tough, only because I’m compelled to equally consider each plate before ordering. I settle on confit pork, but it’s the billionaire’s bacon that really steals the meal. Diners shouldn’t miss the warm olallie cobbler, a local favorite.

Paddle with seals: Catch-a-Canoe

Big adventure awaits paddlers on Big River. Slip into a stable outrigger canoe, built locally from salvaged redwoods, and head up the river for a leisurely paddle on this gentle waterway. If you time it right, the tides will do most of the hard work. Paddlers are likely to see river otters, harbor seals, great blue herons and an array of bird life.

Perhaps most enticing are Catch-A-Canoe & Bicycles, Too‘s Sunset ‘Til Dark Bioluminescence Tours on offer in summer. On a good night, pulling your paddle through the water will provoke blooms of glowing plankton.

Take a ride through the woods aboard the Skunk Train

Stepping aboard the Skunk Train is like journeying through history. This 130-year-old rail line weaves among giant, old-growth redwoods, through emerald deep woods, over wooden trestle bridges and through stone tunnels. Trains depart from both Fort Bragg and Willits. Check the schedule in advance of planning a visit.

Point Arena Lighthouse


Flickr/Joel Henner (CC)

If your stomach can handle the winding, white-knuckle ride to Point Arena, it’s worth peeping the iconic Point Arena Lighthouse. The 35-metre white sentinel stands atop a bluff that dramatically drops into the white-capped Pacific Ocean. It’s a classic American Pacific Coast portrait and we’re not the only ones to consider it postcard-perfect. In 2014, President Obama expanded the California Coastal National Monument to include Point Arena-Stornetta Public lands.

Kiss a giraffe at B. Bryan Preserve


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Who knew you could go on safari in California?

B. Bryan Preserve is home to two species of zebra, African hoofstock, and endangered Roan antelope. But undeniably, the real stars of the show are five Rothschild giraffes. A visit to the preserve includes a safari jeep tour of the property, and an opportunity to feed – and kiss! – the giraffes.

Tours run twice a day at 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. and last 60-90 minutes. USD $35 per adult and $20 per child; reservations are required.

Walk among gentle giants in Montgomery Woods


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Walking among the towering redwoods of Montgomery Woods Natural State Reserve is a pleasantly humbling feeling. These gentle giants are more than a thousand years old and stretch some 350 feet to the sky.

Montgomery Woods is located on a winding, wooded back road, 30.8 miles from Mendocino and 13 miles from Ukiah. Chances are, you might just get them all to yourself.

Shed your inhibitions at Orr Hot Springs

Nestled deep in Mendocino County are Orr Hot Springs. The geothermal waters give bathers an opportunity to soak up the great outdoors, au natural.

Shed your inhibitions in the public, clothing-optional pools and ‘stargazing’ tubs of the upper deck. Modest guests can hide away in the privacy of a creekside clawfoot tub.

If low-key nudity sounds more anxiety-inducing than relaxing, it’s not. Don a robe for modesty and relax already; it’s Mendo. These waters are mostly frequented by body-positive hippies, anyway.

Tiptoe your wine through Campovida’s gardens


Photo: Jennifer Hubbert

Sustainable, bio-dynamic fruit grown on 50 acres of certified organic farmland: the grounds of Campovida are as pretty as they are wholesome.

Head for Hopland to swirl, sip and savor a tasting fight before padding through their gardens. Columns, low stone walls, and cypress trees lend a European feel to the property.

Campovida wine tastings are available between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. but are by appointment only.