Miles of pristine beach, lakes and rivers, mountains and forests: these are the playgrounds of Mendocino County. Holes in the rock through which surf sprays in excited plumes and enormous rock formations that resemble nothing so much as a giant’s bowling alley are found along the over 90 miles of coastline. Inland, explore the majesty of redwood forests and kayaking on lakes and rivers. These are just a few of the unique experiences one encounters when exploring Mendocino County. Far from the madding crowds you’ll find another world – where adventure comes first!
Land: Stornetta Public Lands
Covering 12 miles of stunning California coastline, the Stornetta Public Lands are technically a part of the 1,100 mile long California Coastal National Monument. The Lands offer an incredible opportunity to view the beauty of the hundreds of rocks and small islands that make up this segment of the offshore natural monument. The Lands offer great hiking, but also wonderful bird watching, wildlife viewing, and fishing. If you’re looking for a great location to photograph the beauty of the nearby Point Arena Lighthouse, this is it. On the northern end of the Lands you’ll find tiny blowholes – perforations in the rock that lead to the ocean below. Position yourself over them, and when the surf crashes in you’ll feel a jet of cool air and spray shoot out.
Water: Lake Mendocino
Located just northwest of Ukiah, Lake Mendocino offers plenty of outdoor adventure. Take a whole day to hike around the entire lake; see Ukiah Valley Trail Group for trail access info. Bring your own or rent a kayak to see the lake from a different angle. You can also head up the Russian River for a ride. The lake is formed by Coyote Dam on the Russian River and is located about five miles from Ukiah. Put in on the northern upper creek that feeds into Lake Mendocino and enjoy a paddle around the perimeter of the lake, which is about 15 miles. Or stick to the river and enjoy people and wildlife watching. The lake is used by many different kinds of watercraft so watch out while on the main body of water. If kayak fishing is your thing, then you’re in luck; striped bass, sunfish and catfish abound. Head for the coves where the fish congregate.
Experience outdoor adventure on a majestic horseback ride through the forests, or on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Both Ricochet Ridge Ranch and Ross Ranch offer exceptional horses to suit all riding abilities.
Canter along deserted ocean beaches, ride the bluffs while the Pacific crashes against rocks far below, and meander on mossy trails through the magnificent Redwood forest on this distinctive vacation on Mendocino County’s rugged Mendocino Coast. This is an area of great beauty, rich in wildlife, where time flows at its own pace; the ghosts of Russian, Spanish and English adventurers tenaciously cling to this isolated part of the world.
Water: Big River
Of all Mendocino’s many adventures, exploring the Big River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area ranks among the most amazing. It’s the longest undeveloped estuary in Northern California, bordered by Big River State Park, making for 7,000 acres of protected land. The landscape impresses – marshy edges give way to misty redwoods up impressive hillsides – and the abundance of animal life is almost unparalleled.
The river otters steal the show, of course, with their twisting, shimmying and flipping along so cute one can’t help but laugh along in delight. The harbor seals appeal, as well, all fathomless eyes and whiskers.
But the eight-mile inlet is also critical habitat for northern spotted owl, coho salmon, steelhead trout, Dungeness and shore crab, among so many more. Osprey, eagles, yellow warblers, purple martins are just a few of the 130 types of birds adding drama and beauty to the scene.
Forest: Montgomery Woods
Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, in the heart of the Coast Range, is an excellent example of both a magnificent coastal redwood grove and a beautiful fern forest. Located about 15 miles east of the town of Comptche. It can also be reached by traveling 13 miles west from Ukiah past Orr Hot Springs resort.
Enter the woods via a trail that winds up and then down to the “cathedral” groves of ancient redwood trees towering so far above, they block out the sky. The trail, about three miles long and following Montgomery Creek, is laid out in a shallow loop that takes about an hour to travel.
The reserve started with a nine-acre donation by Robert Orr in 1945, and has been enlarged to 2,743 acres by purchases and donations from the Save the Redwoods League. The park once contained the tallest tree in the world, but that record was eclipsed by a lightning strike!
While here, look for wild flowers and red-bellied newts, which look like tiny scuba divers!
Land & Sea: Mendocino Headlands
Covering 347 acres of bluffs, 8 miles of the Big River estuary, and two beautiful beaches, the Mendocino Headlands State Park is one of the gems of Mendocino County. The headlands stretch around Mendocino from the south to the west and then back north, where they nearly meet up with Russian Gulch State Park to create a seamless stretch of preserved coastline. A good hike begins at the Ford House Museum on Main Street of Mendocino, continuing west along the ocean until you get to the stairs down to Portuguese Beach, a secluded driftwood beach. At the end of the day follow the trail further west (or drive down Heeser Drive) to watch the sunset with locals and visitors alike.
Land & Sea: Russian Gulch
Although best known for its 2.5 mile trail to a 36′ waterfall, Russian Gulch has a beautiful beach and coastal camping as well. The Russian Gulch blowhole is rarely talked about, but is an incredible destination in its own right. The pounding surf has carved out the rock underneath the headlands and punched through to the air above, creating a 60′ deep, 120′ across blowhole. When the tide is high and the waves are roaring, the cacophony echoes across the hole and spray shoots out of the hole to gently mist down on you. Russian Gulch’s beach and cliffs also offer great skin diving and fishing for the more sport minded, and wonderful tidepooling at low tide for families.
Water: Albion River Adventure
First, on the north side of the iconic Albion River Bridge — the only wooden bridge still standing on Highway 1 — drive down to the Albion River Campground and check out the bridge close up by walking out to the beach.
Then head south over the bridge and follow the signs to Pacific Union College, now a retreat center. For just a few dollars, rent one of their watercraft and head up the picturesque Albion River. Here you’ll see osprey, great blue herons, egrets, river otters, seals and other wildlife. You’ll also see three floating river homes, one of which is rumored to belong to Madame Chinchilla of the Triangle Tattoo Museum in Fort Bragg. The river is navigable for about four miles. Happy paddling!
Cycling the County
Cycling in Mendocino County is hardly for the faint of heart! But if you’re willing to take on elevation gain and loss and hug the side of the road when traffic passes, you’re in for some incredible vistas and thrilling experiences. A favorite route with the “hardy bunch” is Mountain View Road, which runs between Boonville and Manchester on the coast. Stock up at the Boonville General Store before beginning the 22+ mile climb of a lifetime! A great spot to check out routes and information is here.
Every May, visit the county for the Mendocino Monster ride that takes cyclists on three different routes with varying cycling challenges!
Land & Sea: Lost Coast
Lace up your hiking boots to experience the ultimate hiking adventure in California’s Lost Coast, where the King Range plunges dramatically into the ocean.
From Fort Bragg, drive pproximately one hour north or from Leggett 15 miles west of Leggett from Highway 101. Look for mile marker 90.88 and turn north for approximately 6 miles onto unpaved, steep, narrow road. There you’ll hit the Peter Douglas Trail, a 2.3-mile extension of the Lost Coast Trail that showcases ancient redwoods shaped like candelabras by wind and salty air. Instead of growing into massive straight columns, stressors caused these trees to sprout branches near the ground that droop like velvet ropes in a theater. Then when conditions improved, the branches grew straight up. Hikers will discover dramatic views of the rugged Lost Coast, sprawling old-growth Douglas fir, majestic Roosevelt elk, and the tiny rare “secret pocket moss.” The adventurous can continue on to the primitive campsites in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park at Usal Beach Campground.
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