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A crisp, nearly chlorinated smell fills the air as you approach the borders of Mendocino County, proving without a doubt that you have left city life behind and have entered the wild wonderland of the natural world. While huge museums and amusement parks illustrate the draw of other regions of California, the northern coastline is personified through its giant redwood trees, jagged cliffs, and fairytale-esque Victorian mansions. Charming boutique hotels, coastal vistas, and a blissful lack of cell service envelop the senses as you willingly journey through the structured wilderness of the Golden State.
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Driving along the paved roadways from the Bay Area to the Mendocino Coast, you can legitimately feel a change in the air; smog and heaviness give way to clean, light air that tickles your skin with the slightest dew of salty mist as you draw closer to the coastline. Thickets of trees begin to line the roads, and an intense thirst for adventure takes hold along the winding pavement of Highway 101 as it passes through Willits before turning sharply westward toward Fort Bragg.
While the Pacific Coast Highway offers a more scenic excursion, we prefer to save this route for the end of the trip to take the long way home. A quick stop at the 101 Drive-In for an incredible milkshake increases the anticipation for the coastal regions and makes the last leg of the journey fly by; before you know it, the ever-changing waters of the Pacific Ocean welcome you in with a cool embrace, and the full experience begins.
As you cruise along the coast, watching the sun’s rays shine on the water’s surface and feeling the refreshing breeze flow through your hair, it is all but impossible to keep yourself from stopping the car.
What was once one of Mendocino County’s dump sites, Glass Beach has taken this rough past and literally turned broken shards of glass into smooth pebbles. Though the ground may appear treacherous, the once-dangerous sandy surface has been dulled by the power of the ocean, making it walkable. Take the time to capture the beach’s beauty, but make sure to leave all of the glass behind for others to feast their eyes upon, as it is illegal to remove it. After walking along the shores, head back to the car to drive the last few miles to the immaculate city of Mendocino—after taking a ride on the 120-plus year old Skunk Train, that is.
The small town is unique in many ways, but its Historic Preservation District designation officially makes it one of a kind; Mendocino is the only California coastal town whose entire entity is dubbed a historical landmark. Additionally, since the region was settled in the 1850s by former residents of Maine, the architecture reflects the East Coast lifestyle—especially with its numerous Victorian homes and saltbox houses—so entering Mendocino feels like stepping into another, magical world you will likely never want to leave.
With a long, gorgeous morning under your belt, a lunch of local and organic ingredients is the perfect way to ease into vacation mode. Walk out onto the patio of Trillium Cafe (weather permitting), and gaze out over the ocean as you dine. Start with an order the kale Caesar salad to start, allowing the playful flavors of candied lemon, aged Parmesan, locally grown kale, and crunchy croutons to surprise your taste buds.
Next up: Sautéed wild gulf prawns meld with savory mushrooms, bright leeks, comforting cream, fresh spinach, and juicy tomatoes to create an unforgettable culinary experience that will have you craving Mendocino for years to come. Should you have enough room, the avocado toast is a clear winner that deserves plenty of attention; bitter pink grapefruit plays off the salty tones of the burrata, zesty ginger brings out the bold flavors of Piment d’Ville Chili, and olive oil ties it all together—accentuating the creamy taste of avocado.
Though the decadent dishes make you wish the meal never had to end, the dessert menu presents the final course of the afternoon. While the avocado toast is an optional (but highly recommended) addition, there is nothing negotiable about the vanilla cheesecake. Crafted with an almond-flour crust and served alongside an indulgent strawberry balsamic sauce, the cheesecake melts in your mouth in the most luxurious way.
A long walk along the boutique-lined Main Street and into the Mendocino Headlands State Park is in order after such a filling meal. The picturesque streets provide the perfect location to walk off your food and get a feel for the Mendocino lifestyle. Once you have strolled through the quaint town and meandered around the wildflowers that line the Mendocino Headlands trails, the time has come to settle in at your home away from home.
The safari-style glamping tents of Mendocino Grove rest atop wooden platforms outfitted with all the comforts of a house. Heated beds, down comforters, and illuminating lanterns spruce up the interior, while a fire pit, butterfly chairs, and a picnic table add a whole lot of rustic charm to the exterior. Stop by a nearby market to pick up local cheeses and all the fixings for s’mores to set yourselves up for a tasty night, but don’t forget to grab some coffee for the morning, too. Mendocino Grove also offers picnic kits complete with mugs, plates, and even a Chemex, which will make you feel even further removed from the roughing-it nature of traditional camping. Snuggle up by the fire pit, watch the trees dance in the wind, and relax in the bliss that coats the environment far from civilization.
Waking up from a comfortable bed in the middle of the forest sounds entirely imaginary, and yet this is exactly what a trip to Mendocino Grove entails. Chirping birds round out the atmosphere as you brew a fresh mugful of locally roasted Black Oak coffee and emerge from the tent refreshed in an entirely new way. After a leisurely hour spent taking it all in, The Ravens Restaurant at The Stanford Inn by the Sea Eco-Resort offers the ideal solution to your oncoming hunger.
Located just down the road from the glamping site, the eatery specializes in local, organic, and plant-based cuisine that will blow your mind. Start with the garden scramble for a balanced mixture of seasonal vegetables and seasoned tofu served alongside country potatoes. Finish off the meal by sharing the scrumptious oat and buckwheat waffle topped with pure, organic maple syrup and a fresh fruit compote. Pair the decadent dish with a cup of Fair Trade coffee from Big River Coffee Company to balance the sweetness and add an extra jolt of energy for your explorations.
Fueled by the morning’s smorgasbord of delectable dishes, you are ready to conquer the trails and beaches of the surrounding landscape. Head over to Van Damme State Park to begin the day’s expedition on the hiking trails surrounding the Mendocino County town of Little River. The winding pathways take you by the river and around neighboring campgrounds, providing the perfect combination of feeling at peace in the secluded wilderness yet being comforted by the obscure presence of human life. After exhausting your desire to hike under the shaded canopies, head out to Van Damme Beach to rent kayaks and paddle around the vibrant waters. While exploring the ocean on your own is a great way to see the region, joining up with a tour group may expose you to further opportunities—such as wandering into sea caves.
Tuckered out from the physical exertion of the day’s excursions, consider heading back to the glampsite to relax or taking a bit of a drive to see some of the region’s other noteworthy destinations. Located about 55 miles northeast of Mendocino, the Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett is a fan-favorite for photo ops—and for good reason. This tree, also known as the Chandelier Tree, is over 2,000 years old, towers 300-plus feet in the air, and is nearly 70-feet wide. Alternatively, Vichy and Orr Hot Springs are both about 50 miles away and offer a wonderful way to sit back and relax in warm, healing waters.
Wherever the latter end of your adventures takes you, make it back to Mendocino in time to dine at the refined Café Beaujolais. Upon entering the yellow Victorian farmhouse, you might never guess that the chef was trained by a Michelin-starred chef at just 18 years old—or that he has worked in kitchens throughout Italy, California, and Washington—yet this is exactly the caliber of cuisine that lies in store.
The chopped herbs of the pureed summer corn soup prepare the palate for the bold flavors of the caprese salad’s organic tomatoes, fresh basil, salty burrata, and savory aged balsamic. For your entrée, consider going with the citrus-brined Mary’s organic, free-range chicken. While it may not strike you as the obvious choice, this simple-sounding dish is packed with flavor; parsnip puree complements maitake mushrooms, while roasted summer corn and sautéed greens come to life with the sauce poulet. Order the chile oil–topped grilled broccolini, bone-marrow mashed potatoes, and garlic spinach on the side for some additional indulgence that you will absolutely not regret. Finish things off with the chocolate pot de crème, featuring incredibly rich, single-origin Guatemalan chocolate and toasted hazelnuts.
Order the chef’s cheese plate to go, and take it with you as you drive south to watch the sunset at Russian Gulch State Park. The rugged beaches, collapsed sea cave, and various wildlife make it the ultimate location for outdoor enthusiasts and photographers. Enjoy your picnic of cheeses as you overlook the unreal landscape of Mendocino, and try to forget about any realities that may be looming in the near future. Sherbet colors paint the sky, bringing the surroundings to life in an entirely new way.
Though it is hard to believe, the incredible weekend must come to an end, but luckily, the memories remain. As you tuck in for a final night at Mendocino Grove, the world appears to have achieved an immense feeling of calm that only returning to nature can create.
While getaways never seem to last as long as they should, Mendocino’s close proximity to the Bay Area allows for a bit of exploration on the journey home. Wind your way down the coastal edges of Highway 1, and make pit stops at the Point Arena Lighthouse and Point Arena-Stornetta Lands. The iconic lighthouse offers tours and unparalleled views of the ocean below, while the open space provides the opportunity to roam around the geological formations of the only land-based region of the California Coastal National Monument.
Just a bit further down the road, the unusual and photo-worthy Bowling Ball Beach awaits. If you can, stick around until low tide, when the spherical boulders rise from the sand and illustrate the intense power of the ocean’s forces against the mudstone that has eroded over thousands of years.
It is certainly tempting to leave real life behind and stay in Mendocino forever, but planning another trip for an upcoming long weekend might be enough to ease the pain of leaving the county for the time being.
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…
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