Rugged, wild, and magnificent, Mendocino County’s 100-mile coastline is the subject of artists, photographers, poets, and songwriters. California Highway 1 snakes along the Pacific. One turn after another reveals incredible cliffs, offshore rocks, secret beaches, coastal prairies, trails, and one fantastic picnic spot after another.
Let’s Talk Picnics
No one needs to be told how to have a picnic. It seems to be in our DNA. Take some food and head outside to enjoy sustenance and nature. Picnics are perfect for spending time outdoors, trying local foods, enjoying a regional libation, watching the clouds roll by, and taming travel budgets.
Picnics Aren’t Just For Lunch
- Try a breakfast picnic. Keep it simple with coffee and a roll or breakfast sandwich and juice. My favorite is fruit and yogurt with a thermos of Earl Grey. If you are a morning person, take a camp stove and skillet for pancakes.
- Happy hour picnics are simple and easy. A bottle of wine, fruit, cheese, crackers, an ocean view, and all are happy no matter the time of day.
- Sunset picnics are unforgettably romantic. A roasted chicken and salad paired with sparkling wine will make it a remarkable occasion.
- A potluck picnic where everyone brings something to share is a marvelous way to get to know locals you meet while shopping or other travelers at your lodging.
- Indoor picnics are a delightful way to cheer up on a day with inclement weather. When rain changes your plans, spread a blanket on the floor and open the hamper.
The nine places I’m suggesting vary. While all are ocean views, some have picnic tables, and others will require a ground covering for an on-the-ground affair. Several locations have no tables but offer benches where you can enjoy your hamper of goodies.
Whether you’re picnicking in your luxury RV or eating a sandwich from a day pack, one of Mendocino Coast’s coastal alfresco dining spots will be your most memorable.
1. Ocean View With A River Bonus
Few views are as stunning as the Gualala River snaking its way to the Pacific Ocean. Gualala Point Regional Park is at the southern end of Mendocino County. The park entrance is just over the county line in Sonoma County. Turn west on the south side of the Gualala River Bridge. This large park has a river, beach, redwoods, trails, a visitor center, and campgrounds. You can picnic on tables, benches, and on the beach. There are restrooms, water, and sheltered picnic tables. A $7 day-use fee is collected at the entrance.
2. Salute Squadrons Buzzing The Mendocino Coast
Pelican Bluffs Trail takes you on a 2.2-mile walk to the coast’s distinctive towering white bluffs. Squadrons of low-flying pelicans frequently pass the area. These beautiful geological formations are often compared to England’s Dover. There are picnic tables and benches for picnicking. Pelican Bluffs is between mile markers 14.3 and 13.5 on Highway 1, south of Point Arena.
3. Free Your Inner Sculptor
Navarro River Beach is a place to spend the day picnicking and driftwood collecting. The Navarro River joins the Pacific at this beach, bringing with it many branches and fallen trees. Beachgoers and campers build art, shelter, and some hard-to-describe things from the driftwood that frequently covers the beach. There are picnic tables and fire rings, so don’t forget the marshmallows.
Navarro Beach Campground is at the mouth of the Navarro River on the Pacific Ocean. Cross Navarro River Bridge and take the access road on the right.
4. See A Big River On The Mendocino Coast
Big River Beach at Mendocino Headlands State Park is another place where a river empties into the Pacific. As the name suggests, it is a very big river. The ocean view here includes the river strongly affected by the Pacific tides. Also a driftwood beach, it’s a great place to make and see art made from nature’s castoffs. A few picnic tables are available here. From Highway 1, on the north side of Big River Bridge, turn east on N Big River Road.
5. Go To The Light
Plan to spend a day at Point Cabrillo Light Station. The lighthouse is still in use and welcomes visitors daily. In addition, there is a museum, walking trails, whale watching (in-season), and picnic tables for your enjoyment. Point Cabrillo is located off Highway 1 between Fort Bragg and Mendocino.
Pro Tip: The old light keeper’s cottages are available for rent. It is a spectacular location that can’t be matched by any lodging on the coast.
6. Picnic With Your Fur-Buddy On The Beach
Noyo Beach is an off-leash dog-friendly beach in Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor. The dark sand beach wraps around Noyo Bay. It’s just the place to take your fido for a picnic. There are no tables or facilities here. Follow North Harbor Drive until it ends at the mouth of the inlet. The beach is on the north side of the rock jetty.
7. The Mendocino Coast’s Crowning Jewel
Noyo Headlands Trail meanders along the Pacific on oceanfront property that was inaccessible 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 hard top 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. Picnic tables with incredible views dot the trail.
There are two entry points — on the north, at the west end of Elm Street and on the south side, the entrance is at the west end of Cypress Street north of Noyo Bridge.
8. Spot A Seal On The Beach
MacKerricher State Park is a favorite spot for mother seals and pups on Main Beach. Even when it’s not their time to hang around, picnic tables above the beach offer a panoramic view of the coast. There are restrooms but no potable water. MacKerricher is located 3 miles north of Fort Bragg on Highway 1.
9. Quick Road Trip Stop
Old Smith Ranch is our northernmost stop along the coast. Smith Ranch is perfect if you are road tripping and want a place to stop for a quick bite before heading on. After you turn into the parking lot off Highway 1, you will see signs directing you to the picnic area to the south. The tables are up a little hill that gives you a bird’s-eye view of the coast.
If you have some time, hike to a different picnic table at the trail’s end. You’ll walk north towards sand dunes and the Pacific, then u-turn and head south along the south bank of Ten-Mile River. It’s beautiful and serene. The reward at the end of the 2.1-mile trail is a solitary picnic table at the river’s edge. The Smith Ranch entrance is north of Fort Bragg, just north of Camp 2, 10 Mile Road.
What To Pack For A Mendocino Coast Picnic
Food And Drink
To make your alfresco dining an authentic taste of the Mendocino Coast, shop local markets to fill your picnic basket. Mendocino County is home to the country’s Greenest Wine Region, Anderson Valley. Award-winning pinots, bubbly, hard cider, and craft beer fill the coolers and shelves of any food market you visit on the coast. Add some cheese, fruit, charcuterie, and bread from Mendocino County producers, and you have a feast.
Harvest Market has the best produce and meat selection from Mendocino County Farmers. This community favorite has stores in Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Don’t forget water; most spots will not have potable water available.
A perfect beverage for an ocean view picnic is hard cider. Look for Gowan’s Heirloom Cider in markets or stop at the tasting orchard on the north side of Philo in Anderson Valley. From Navarro River Beach, Gowan’s is a 30-minute drive through a redwood forest, farms, and vineyards.
Dress In Layers
The notoriously changeable coastal weather isn’t a myth. Mornings and evenings on the coast can be cool and damp (40 to 55 degrees). However, the middle of the day might be sunny and warm (65 to 75 degrees). Flannel, jeans, and fleece never go out of style on the coast, and hiking boots are always the height of fashion in MendoLand.
A hat is always a good idea, but consider one with a chinstrap or find an old-fashioned hat pin to secure your chapeau. It can be very windy on the coast.
Pack It In, Pack It Out
Bring a trash bag or two. Many California state parks and other public lands have removed trash receptacles from parks. Please take your trash with you. This helps save the disposal cost and eliminates a nuisance that attracts wildlife.
Nice To Have
- Table cover for picnic tables or a damp-resistant ground cover for a spread on the ground affair.
- Binoculars for wildlife watching — especially during whale migrations.
- Camera for the most Instagramable places you’ll ever picnic.
Getting To The Mendocino Coast
- Driving: Most folks will drive or cycle once they get to the coast. California Highway 1 is one of the most scenic roads in the country. Hugging the Pacific for 100 miles of Mendocino County, the two-lane highway twists and turns, climbs and dives along the undulating Northern California Coast. Whether with two wheels or four, it’s a road trip.
- By Air: Charles M. Schulz, Sonoma County Airport (STS) is 2 hours by car from Santa Rosa. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a 4-hour drive. Sacramento International Airport (SMF) and Oakland International Airport (OAK) are about a 4-hour drive.
Pro Tip: Sonoma County Airport is the closest place to land when you come to the Mendocino Coast. The small airport is uncrowded and easy to maneuver. There are non-stops from 12 destinations. Avoid the big-city traffic and anxiety — fly to Santa Rosa.
Staying On The Mendocino Coast
The Mendocino Coast has accommodations to satisfy all styles and budgets. So whether you want to camp on the beach or recharge in a luxury beachfront hideaway, you’ll find your dream spot on the coast. For a list of coastal lodging, visit the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce Lodging and Travel page.
If you haven’t guessed by now, you know the Mendocino Coast is my home. The wild beauty here is rare and fragile. I’m proud to say the community works together to preserve this wild place. We hope you will come and enjoy an ocean view picnic along the Mendocino Coast.
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