Mendocino is a small unincorporated area on the northern California Pacific coast. Mendocino is known for its natural beauty, including redwood forests, glass-bottom beaches, and the only oceanfront botanical gardens in the USA. The community is a few hours north of San Francisco and is a favorite place for us to visit
While it is neither a town nor a city, we will refer to it as a town for simplicity. The lovely town and its headlands have been designated a National Historic Area and are well worth spending some time exploring. But the area is also filled with places to hike and enjoy nature. Here are some places to check out.
The Mendocino Headlands State Park has miles of trails that wind along the beautiful Mendocino cliffs around the Mendocino Village. Enjoy the views of the ocean, beaches, and the rugged heavily eroded shoreline cliffs that are pocked with coves and tunnels that have been worn through the rock and above tidal pools.
On Highway 128 approximately 15 miles south of Mendocino and at the west end of Anderson Valley is a redwood forest along the Navarro River. It is populated primarily by smaller hundred-foot tall redwoods and stumps of trees that were cut before the area.
The park is 3 miles south of Mendocino on Highway 1. We like walking through the highland meadows, majestic redwood and Sitka spruce forests, and in contrast, a pygmy forest formed by highly alkaline water and soil. You can hike the interior of the park as well as a section along the coast which has been greatly extended with the addition of the Spring Ranch property. After a hike through a pine forest, grassy meadow and finally, sand and scrub, you reach a lovely bluff which we followed a few miles past overlooking scenic coves, sea stacks, caves, arches, and crashing waves. Parts of the trail pass through lovely, old-growth pine forests with tangles of bare branches stretching across the forest floor and in one, large baskets of fallen pine needles nested in crotches of tree branches. A lovely shoreline hike.
Jug Handle is approximately 6 miles north of Mendocino. We walked the lovely, five-mile (round trip) interpretive trail through a veritable geological time capsule. It takes one across five distinct, geological epochs from the still-forming beach, through the meadows of the headlands and three, older, forested terraces, each of which has different soils, plants, and hydrological conditions. Each terrace is about 100 feet above that of the previous one and was formed in separate geological periods (approximately 100,000 years from the previous terrace). They were formed by a combination of tectonic plate movements, uplifting, and continual fluctuations in sea levels over periods of global warming (higher sea levels) and ice ages (lower levels). Numbered post, which corresponds to an online document, describes the soil, drainage, and plants in each of the five zones, including the fir, redwood, and pygmy forests. In the pygmy forest, the trees (especially Bolander pines), grow to only about ten percent of their normal height due to the zone’s soil. Due to half a million years of leeching, the soils here are 1,000 times more acidic than in the slightly younger redwood zone. This increased acidity has dissolved much of the soil’s iron, which combines with bedrock to create a hardpan that retains acid and reduces drainage.
We also took a shorter hike was along the dramatic coastal headlands overlooking both sand and pebble beaches, deep coves, dramatically eroded coastline, sea rocks, and crashing waves.
The park is in Fort Bragg, about 18 miles north of Mendocino. The entry is marked with whale skeletons (an adult Grey and a baby Humpback) and a visitor center that provides background on the park’s history (as a timber mill and loading station), its geology (cliffs, tidal pools, and sand dunes) and its biology (especially sea mammals, such as whales, harbor seals, and sea lions). The coastline varies greatly from the southern to the northern ends of the park. The south is dominated by sandstone cliffs and shoreline tidal pools: the north is by vegetation-covered sand dunes and long, flat sandy beaches.
Interpretive panels give information about the creatures that sometimes occupy tide pools (mussels, anemones, sea stars, sea urchins, crabs, and so forth). We saw a few of these plus a somewhat rubbery, translucent blue organism that was totally unlike anything we had seen or read about. A park ranger told us they were velella velellas: small, blue, jellyfish-like creatures (with the blue platform, sail, tentacles, and digestive system) that are carried to shore by currents. Later on, we saw many more. Some were still in the water, and some washed up on the beach that were in various stages of drying, ranging from a bluish slime to dry white flakes that covered the beach.
Glass Beach is a southern beach in the park that has beautiful cliffs. It is named from the glass that was dumped in the beach area as trash for many years. The so-called “sea glass” is now a collector’s item. So much so that the beach no longer has the abundant sea glass just lying around. While you can still find pieces here, or on several beaches outside of the park area, visitors are strongly encouraged to leave the sea glass in place so that others can enjoy seeing it. The nearby Sea Glass Museum explains the history of the beach and the glass and displays various pieces. You can also walk along the beautiful cliffs that were formed by the subduction of the Pacific plate under the North American plate on the San Andreas fault. Then nature eroded them to form a dramatic backdrop to the magical beach.
Tem miles north of Fort Bragg is the 19th-century Pudding Creek Trestle lumber railroad bridge. It has been converted into a stretch of the city’s Coastal Walking Trail.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens evolved from a collection of more than 1,000 Rhododendron bushes of 124 different varieties from all corners of the globe. The colors reflect this diversity: from white, to pink, red and purple.
They are just part of a combination of planted and wild gardens and landscapes that include miles of trails through coastal forests, meadows and highlands to acres of land devoted to planted and tended gardens. There are, for example, gardens dedicated to perennials, roses, dahlias, heather, and one to vegetables. This beautiful produce, which a volunteer gardener will happily explain, goes to the city’s food bank.) And where else would we see a Euphorbia (aka, Gopher Plant) which is quite poisonous but very pretty in spring.
Eight miles north of Mendocino is Russian Gulch State Park and the historic Cabrillo Lighthouse. The fully restored 1910-era lighthouse has a small museum and three fully restored lighthouse master (and assistant) houses, two of which are available for rental and one restored to 1910 live-in state, complete with its stove and telephone.
Russian Gulch, meanwhile, is all about nature, from its inland Fern Canyon, to its craggy headlands, with its sand beach spanned by a graceful bridge and a 60-foot deep sinkhole formed by a collapsed sea cave.
Exploring Sea Caves
OK, it is not a hike but it is nice to see the Mendocino areas’ sea caves from the inside. We visited Kayak Mendocino for an ocean-level sea cave tour. We spent a fun 1.5 hours paddling leisurely along the coast (pocked with caves and topped by luxury homes), weaving our way through three caves and positioning ourselves next to a dramatic blowhole and around a cormorant rookery. We had the option to, but decided against, kayaking out to a buoy which is home to a lave seal colony. We preferred to spend our time along and under the shoreside cliffs.
The tour also included a bit of a nature lesson, with discussions of the growth cycle of kelp, the reasons that kelp beds form, and a description of how to dive for, identify, and harvest abalone. We also had an opportunity to hold and feel the slimy, jello-y texture of washed in jellyfish to get a taste of an edible form of brown algae. Overall, a very fun trip which we heartily recommend.