Go Beyond San Francisco: Mendocino Activities for the Whole Family

May 3, 2019

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When my brother and I were kids growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, our parents would take us to Mendocino for long weekends. Back then, the craggy ocean cliffs and twisted pines of the Northern California Coast rambled on and on. We would bring a picnic lunch and sit on the beach after a morning of peering into tide pools teeming with sea life. Recently, I returned with my own kids, and was happy to see there are still plenty of Mendocino activities for the whole family.

Positioned on the Northern California Coast about 3.5 hours up the road from San Francisco, the Mendocino area possesses a special charm. It has fresh clean air with an abundance of green foliage. Forests of California redwoods made the region famous long ago, when loggers harvested the trees for their precious wood. Fortunately, those forests are regrown and carefully managed now so that towering redwoods and leafy green fern gullies flourish.

The town of Mendocino sits on a serene piece of Northern California coastline.

With that amount of nature at your fingertips, outdoor adventures are a natural part of a family visit to the Mendocino area, but there is much more to see and do as well.

Redwood Forest Mendocino California
The redwood forests of the Mendocino area are lush, green and stunningly beautiful.

Town of Mendocino

When the word “quaint” was coined, the writer must have been thinking of Mendocino. Originally settled in 1850, the town was created as a logging community. Now filled with gentle souls who enjoy peaceful lives and quiet beauty, Mendocino also attracts visitors looking for something different. Amazing restaurants with accomplished chefs are positioned on nearly every corner. There are dozens of art galleries and unique shops with handmade items. Our girls had a shopping bug, and we ended up visiting several sweet stores as they zeroed in on their needs. All the stores are independently owned by locals whose personalities add enormous charm to the shopping experience. This is a town that invites strolling, and each little house or shop has such interesting historic architecture that there is plenty to see. Make sure you walk out onto the bluffs overlooking the ocean — the views of the coastline are unparalleled. Admission is free.

downtown Mendocino California
Downtown Mendocino is filled with restaurants, galleries and sweet little shops.


Getting the kids outside in the fresh air is always a good idea, especially after a long car ride. We found several trails that were easy and entertaining. The kids were fascinated by the redwoods as we walked among them on the Old Logging Road Trail. Deep forests are covered by ferns and wildflowers, and when we visited it was so quiet you could hear the wind rustling in the tree tops. Another trail took us along the Albion River and out to the beach, where we stood under the old wooden trestles of the bridge above, walked the length of the beach in the warm sand, and dodged an occasional raindrop as we ran laughing back to the car. (The Albion River Bridge is pretty cool too — the only remaining wood bridge on State Route 1.) Admission is free.

Albion River Beach Mendocino California
Walking the beach at Albion, looking for shells – we found lots of mother of pearl!

Skunk Train

A couple of miles north of Mendocino, the Skunk Train is a fun and funky old rail car line that has been revived for visitors. Painted in a psychedelic 1960s motif, the train moves at a leisurely pace for a few miles into the redwood forest. Kids will love the locomotive engine and old-fashioned passenger cars. We stood outside on an open-air car with other families, while listening to live guitar and a rousing rendition of “King of the Road.” The conductor does a great job of narrating the history of the area, and giving a top-notch nature talk on the local flora and fauna. Tickets start at $27 for adults; $16.20 for kids 2–12, and $10.80 for kids 2 and under. Dogs are allowed for $10.80 — this is California after all.

Skunk Train Mendocino Fort Bragg
It was so much fun to ride the Skunk Train into the redwood forest near Mendocino.

Rail Bikes

On the same lines as the Skunk Train, Rail Bikes conduct tours when the train is not running. We had so much fun doing this activity, which can only be described as a cross between a buggy and an electric bike. The Rail Bike sits on the train tracks, seating two passengers side by side. Riders can either pedal to move the bike or use a throttle to power the bike forward with an electric engine. Zipping along the rails this way had us grinning from ear to ear, and at the end of the track we got off and explored the forest before turning around and heading back up the valley. This one is not for families with very little kids. Tickets are $79/bike.

Rail Bikes Mendocino Fort Bragg California
Riding the rails in Fort Bragg near Mendocino, we scooted along on our Rail Bikes.

Glass Beach

Clearly marked by signs on the road, Glass Beach is literally that — a beach of sea glass. Pieces of glass have been tumbled by the sand and surf to smooth, frosty beauty in colors of green, blue and brown. Seeing those beaches glistening in the sun is truly a sight. There are walking trails and safe ways to reach the beaches from the cliff tops, as well as many sea birds and squirrels for the kids to chase. (The squirrels are remarkably tame, and someone must be hand-feeding them). We had a blast hopping on rocks in the shallow surf to look for crabs, sea anemones, tiny fish and the occasional starfish. Admission is free.

glass sand beach Mendocino
Polished sea glass makes up the majority of the sand at Glass Beach in the Mendocino area.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

If your family likes nature, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is a must. Stretching over 47 acres from the road to the sea cliffs, the gardens feature easy hiking trails, bluff-top vistas and flowering swaths of rhododendrons, azaleas and other beauties. Toward the cliffs the terrain is landscaped with native plants and grasses. Benches are positioned throughout the gardens, and surprises like natural waterfalls and playful structures dot the scenery. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for kids (under 5 free).

rhododendrons Mendocino
Blooming in the shade created by giant redwoods, these vibrant rhododendrons come in a variety of colors.

More Family Fun

And if all that is not enough for you, check out this longer list of Mendocino activities for the whole family.

Mendocino tide pools
Exploring the tide pools in Mendocino, we spent hours spying sea life.

Where to Stay

Little River Inn

Owned by the same family for five generations, the Little River Inn perches on a gentle slope above the cliffs, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Positioned for maximum views, the original home has been expanded over the years to offer several types of accommodations. Its full-service restaurant serves three meals a day, and room service is available. There is an 18-hole golf course that winds up into the canyon at the back of the property and the grounds are planted with blooming flowers all year round. There are stunning views from every room.

Rooms start at $200/night and are often bookable on Hotels.com, which means you could earn 10 miles per dollar with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card by paying and booking through Hotels.com through Jan. 31, 2020– plus credit toward a free night with Hotels.com. This method of maximizing bookings is applicable to many of the hotels on this list.

Little River Inn Mendocino California
Like something from a storybook, Little River Inn began as a quaint family home.

Brewery Gulch Inn

The Mendocino area is dotted with quirky little enclaves with historic names like Brewery Gulch, and the Brewery Gulch Inn is located in a perfect spot with amazing ocean views. A small arts-and-crafts B&B with just 12 rooms, Brewery Gulch Inn offers a peaceful sundeck directly off a large living and dining area. Breakfast and a light dinner are included in the room price, with home-cooked meals prepared by a master chef. This place is quaint and impeccable — clearly cared for by an attentive staff.

Rooms start at $335/night.

Brewery Gulch Inn Mendocino California
The Brewery Gulch Inn in Mendocino is a charming retreat.

Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites

Positioned right in the middle of town, the Mendocino Hotel is a historic structure dating back to 1878. This boutique hotel and the buildings around it are extremely picturesque. The entire town is built on a peninsula that juts out into the sea. Weathered by wind and salty air, there is a charm to the hotel which is complemented by antique-filled guest rooms with modern amenities. Rooms start at $98/night.

Mendocino Hotel and Gardens
The Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites is bookable via the Hotels.com partnership.

Super8 by Wyndham

The Super 8 by Wyndham, in nearby Fort Bragg, is a great option for families. Located on historic Highway 1, the Super 8 is centrally located to all the activities described above, and within walking distance to Noyo Harbor, restaurants and the waterfront. An on-site restaurant makes things easy, and the hotel is also pet-friendly. Rooms start at $55/night or 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points — so cash would be the better plan unless rates were really high for your dates.

wooden trestle bridge Albion River Highway 1 Mendocino
The wooden trestle bridge near Albion River in the Mendocino area on Highway 1.

How to Get There

Once in the Bay Area, Mendocino is an easy and enjoyable car trip for the family. The road winds through Sonoma Valley wine country, snaking through vineyards, apple orchards and past old roadhouses with rusty farm equipment out front. Closer to the ocean, the redwood forest springs up from the horizon and you drive right through it. I remember that tunnel of redwoods from my childhood, and it still stands just as I remembered it.

There are plenty of places to stop along the route for food, views or leg stretching — all impossibly beautiful and postcard-worthy.

If you plan to visit, there are four airports that serve this area, with Sonoma County Airport (STS) near Santa Rosa being the closest. With more than 10 nonstop flights daily, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines and Sun Country all fly to (STS) from various locations. From Santa Rosa, the drive to Mendocino is about two hours.

Oakland Airport (OAK) is about 160 miles from Mendocino, with daily flights from a variety of carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, Hawaiian, American and more.

From Sacramento Airport (SMF) in California’s capital city, the drive to Mendocino will take about 3.5 hours. Airlines that serve this airport include all the major carriers.

Consider using a companion fare certificate or pass to lower your cost for flights. Fly 2-for-1 (with the second person paying just the ticket’s taxes) with Southwest’s Companion Pass. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card gives card holders a companion fare each year on their anniversary from $121 ($99 fare, plus taxes and fees from $22). Delta’s Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express also offers card members a companion fare on their anniversary. The companion fare is $75 for a domestic Main Cabin flight with up to four segments.

We flew into San Francisco Airport (SFO) and stayed in the city at The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel for a couple of nights before driving the 3.5 hours up to Mendocino. Interestingly, The Clift has been around since 1915 and touts its famous Redwood Room bar. A nice tie to the redwood forests of Mendocino, the expansive Redwood Room is created from the wood of a single giant California redwood tree. Rooms here start at $160/night.

Redwood Room The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel San Francisco
The Redwood Room at The Clift Hotel in San Francisco was created from a single redwood tree.

Bottom Line

If you’ve already explored Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Diego and San Francisco, Mendocino is a terrific next stop for your family. Have you stayed in this area? What did your family enjoy the most about it?

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