On New Year’s Day, after returning from the chilly Canadian winter, I was eager to seek out a quintessential California experience with lots of sunshine, good food, and amazing natural vistas. Because I was still on Eastern Time, I woke up early, pulled out a map, and checked the weather in a few different counties. Mendocino fit the bill: it is a four-hour drive from Mountain View (about the maximum amount of driving I could pull off in a day), and features Redwoods, ocean vistas, and awesome farms and vineyards. In the winter, the coast is often a good bet because the fog in the area is usually lighter and burns off by lunchtime. I packed a cooler with some food and hit the road around 8:30AM, and I was back home by 9:30PM.
- Take highway 128 through Boonville, and stop for a cheese tasting and a picnic lunch at Pennyroyal Farm.
- Hike the Fern Canyon Trail in Russian Gulch State Park to see coastal redwoods, lush, green undergrowth, and a pretty and accessible 36-foot waterfall
- Park on Heeser Drive in Mendocino and watch the sun set behind beautiful rock formations at Mendocino Headlands State Park.
Since it’s so wet up in Mendocino, I’d recommend good boots, extra socks and shoes in case you get wet, and lots of layers of clothing.
Google Maps directed me to Mendocino along highway 128, a beautiful small highway with some windy sections that take you through arches of moss-covered trees and then through towering coastal redwood forests along the Navarro River. Along this highway is Boonville, a cute little town with a few shops and farmsteads. As I was driving along, one of these farmsteads looked so inviting that I pulled over and turned around to check it out.
Pennyroyal Farm is a very unique farm-to-table experience. On the property, they have multiple award-winning wines and cheeses available for tasting. On this drive, I elected to do a tasting of six cheeses ($10). The cheeses are named after the goats and sheep that provide the milk, and range from a fresh chevre to several vintages of Tomme to a sharp, finely-veined blue. Best of all, when the weather is nice, you can enjoy the tasting on the patio, overlooking the vineyards.
Maybe you’ll even spot one of the goats that made the cheese, like I did! The farm also offers scheduled tours for a fee. If you’d like to linger in the area longer, Navarro Vineyards, the sister winery down the road, also makes amazing grape juices that are a great non-alcoholic addition to a festive dinner.
Russian Gulch State Park
After this noontime snack (supplemented by some of the food I brought), I continued up the highway to the coast, and then made a left turn on Brest Road, looping under the highway and parking at the end of the day-use parking lot at Russian Gulch State Park. There is an $8 fee to park here, or you can use the Golden Poppy Pass if you have one.
The campgrounds were closed for the winter, but the trails were open, as were several restrooms with flush toilets. I decided to take the 6.4 mile walk to the waterfall along the Fern Canyon Trail. The trail is mostly flat, so I’d allocate about 2.5 hours for the walk at a good pace and then a little extra time if you want to stop to take pictures. From the ferns to the redwoods, there were certainly plenty of opportunities for pictures along the trail.
At the end of Fern Canyon trail, you’ll reach a y-intersection with two routes to the waterfall: a shorter route to the left, and a longer one to the right. I opted for the shorter one and came right up to the waterfall 0.7 miles later. The waterfall itself is quite pretty, as are the small run-off falls to the side of it. I got up close to photograph the falls, which is very doable but requires some nimble footing over slick logs. If you are carrying a tripod, you can get some great shots of the falls by taking a long exposure with a low ISO.
Mendocino Headlands State Park
After visiting the falls, I backtracked to the car and drove back into Mendocino proper (less than a 10 minute drive). Following signs for Mendocino Headlands State Park, I ultimately turned onto Heeser Drive. There are several places to park along this road that overlook the ocean. The sunset was gorgeous on the day I visited, and you could even spot a whale off the coast if you looked closely! The rock formations seemed most beautiful to photograph just before or just after sunset, when the direct light from the sun was more obscured, but it was equally compelling to just breathe in the sea air and listen to the waves crash against the rocks.
Shortly after sunset at 5PM, I retraced my steps back home to Mountain View – be careful driving here at dusk because there are deer and other wildlife on the windy roads. If instead you’d like to spend the evening, we can recommend Viraporn’s Thai Food in nearby Fort Bragg for dinner, and we’ve heard from friends that Glendeven Inn is a fantastic place to stay the night.
What are some of your favorite hangouts in Mendocino? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below. Until next time!