Rambling for 100 miles along the wild and rugged Pacific Ocean, the Mendocino Coast is a showoff. Flaunting her wildlife, waves, wilderness, and wine, the area is “California laid back,” and is home to artists, makers, farmers, and Mother Nature.
Footpaths and trails lead to windswept Pacific headlands, secret beaches, redwood forests, fern canyons, huge rivers, and thriving wetlands. On the Mendocino Coast, you’ll slow down, unplug, and immerse in nature.
Hiking the California Coastal Trail and redwood forests bring hikers and walkers from around the globe. The area is crisscrossed with trails for walkers and cyclists of every ability.
1. Ka-Kahleh Coastal Trail
Ka-Kahleh is the first footpath along the coast, established 10,000 years ago by the Pomo tribes. Known as the Noyo Headlands Park, Glass Beach, and the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail, the path meanders for 3 miles along the Pacific on property inaccessible to the public for over 100 years.
It is a magnificent way to see the rugged, wild coastline, its many habitats, inhabitants, and thought-provoking historical sites. An 8-foot-wide hardtop path makes safe walking and rolling for all ages and abilities. Interpretive panels describing nature and history are scattered along the way. Benches offer a scenic respite and unparalleled whale watching position when the breathtaking giants happen to be passing.
2. Fern Canyon Trail
Van Damme State Park’s footpath takes you from shore to forest through woodlands, redwood groves, and fern canyons. Walk along Little River, brooks, creeks, and waterfalls. Plan the day for the 9-mile roundtrip walk. Take water, a picnic, sturdy walking shoes or boots, and of course, a camera.
Fern Canyon Trail begins near the visitor center at the entrance to the park off California Highway 1. Van Damme straddles the highway and includes the shore across the road. It’s a very popular place for kayakers. Vendors are on sight to rent equipment and lead sea-cave tours.
3. Jug Handle Ecological Staircase Trail
A forest of full-grown knee-high trees and stunted shrubs grows at the top of Jug Handle Trail. The trail traverses five terraces (tectonic plates). Each terrace represents about 100 thousand years of geologic history. Each plate has different flora and fauna, beginning at the Pacific shore, crossing grasslands on the clifftops, woodlands, redwood forest, and finally, the grey and mysterious Pygmy Forest.
The Eco Stairs are in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. The 2.5-mile trail is easy to moderate and usually takes about 3 hours, one way. An ADA Pygmy Forest Trail is available. Drive south of Jug Handle to Fern Creek Road, then turn east and follow the signs to the parking lot.
4. Point Cabrillo Light Station Trail
The trail begins in the parking lot and leads to the Point Cabrillo Light Station, a working marine navigation aide. From the lighthouse, trails meander north and south along the headlands. The trail is easy and gains little, if any, elevation.
2 miles of trails skirt the shoreline and cross grasslands. Below the cliffs, you see secret beaches, caves, and coves. Whale spotting from the clifftops is very common.
5. Big River Trail
Follow the Big River Trail from the Pacific, where Big River empties into the ocean along an old logging road 10 miles east into the forest. If you can only hike one trail on the Mendocino Coast, Big River is the one. From beach to forest, you will explore all the area’s landscape variety.
Along the river, wildlife is plentiful and active most of the year. Birds, seals, otters, frogs, and fish go about their daily routines, oblivious to hikers. In addition, wildlife such as deer, bears, mountain lions, and small mammals may cross your path.
This trail is easy to moderate the first 5 miles or so. After that, it becomes a narrow footpath. It also gains significant elevation.
Hikers, cyclists, and horses are welcome on the trail. You’ll find benches and interpretive panels along the route. Also, kayak on Big River for an authentic wildlife safari.
6. Old Smith Ranch Trail
The trail begins in a parking lot just off California Highway 1, south of the Ten Mile River Bridge. A large red sign can be seen from Highway 1. The upper trail is easy-going, passing through shrubbery tunnels and open footpaths. As you begin the gentle downgrade towards Ten Mile River, you’ll see the river, its Highway 1 bridge crossing the water, and the Ten Mile Dunes to the west.
From the turning point, the trail continues along the river’s edge. You’ll see birds and amphibians in abundance. Salmon and their habitat are being restored to this protected area. Almost wiped out by logging in the early 19th century, the salmon population has increased, although fishing in Tem Mile is still prohibited.
Along the trail are several benches with outstanding views of the river and wetlands. My favorite spot is at the very end of the trail, where a picnic table is situated perfectly to watch egrets wading and feeding and above, and osprey soaring and hunting.
7. Point Arena/Stornetta Public Lands
Magnificent geological formations are plentiful on land and sea at this California Coastal National Monument. For example, looking to the east, you can see the San Andreas Fault, where it rises above the earth’s crust. Looking west, you’ll see rocks offshore. Islands in the making form blowholes and caves as the ceaseless waves pound away at the shore creating tiny islands called stacks.
The Stornetta Lands is the first “onshore” addition to a coastal monument. There are about 5 miles of trail. Most of the tracks are level and easily walked, covering headlands, cliff tops, meadows, grasslands, and woodlands. Wildlife is off the hook here. Whales, seals, sea lions, and hundreds of birds can be observed.
The parking lot is close to the Point Arena Lighthouse. There is a short trail around the working marine navigation aide and skirting the shoreline.
8. Moat Creek Trail To Bowling Ball Beach
This short trail (1.5 miles) leads to a beach with bowling ball-sized round rocks. Most of the trail is on the clifftops. It is an easy trail with spectacular views north and south. Getting to the beach where the bowling balls can be found is challenging but doable if you take your time. The trail down to the beach is prone to wash out. Wear sturdy boots.
9. Mendocino Headlands Trail
This is an urban trail, meandering along the south side of Mendocino Village and then heading north to 70-foot-high windswept cliffs. As you trek around the headlands, you can always see the village.
The 4-mile trail has some of the most stunning views of the rugged and wild shoreline on the coast. Take a picnic and look for grey whales from May through December.
10. MacKerricher State Park
MacKerricher’s trails cover 4.5 miles of paved and boardwalk paths. They are accessible by foot and wheels. The paved pathway begins in Fort Bragg on the north side of the Ka-Kahleh Coastal Trail. It continues north, crossing the Pudding Creek Tressel and following the shoreline, occasionally passing through woodlands and ending at Ten Mile Dunes.
Near the trail’s end, a boardwalk crosses over grasslands to clifftops overlooking a rocky tidepool area. Stairs lead down to the secret beach only accessible at low tide.
The beach in this area is a popular site for seals to raise their young. In spring, it’s not unusual to see pups on the beach without an adult. Don’t worry, they aren’t abandoned; Mom is out picking up some groceries from the Pacific.
The Mendocino Coast is about 3 hours from the Golden Gate Bridge. A car is essential; public transit is limited in the area. Also, I think a drive along California Highway 1 is part of the Mendocino Coast experience.
From the north or south, take Highway 101 to Willits. From Willits, take Highway 20 west toward Fort Bragg. The 33-mile trip will take about 45 minutes. Take your time and pull over to enjoy the redwood forest through which you’ll travel.
Highway 20 dead-ends at the Pacific Ocean and Highway 1. Turn north for Fort Bragg and south for Mendocino and Little River.
The Mendocino Coast is sometimes called wild and remote. The landscape, the Pacific, and Mother Nature herself shape the way of life here. It’s ruggedly beautiful, untameable, and soul-soothing. The Mendocino Coast and its trails are being protected — for you, me, and future generations. So come take a “walk on the wild side.”
- To discover more remarkable hiking trails on the Mendocino Coast, visit Mendocino Land Trust.
- For information about where to eat, sleep, and play, check out the Mendocino Coast Visitors Guide.