Three hours north along the coast from San Francisco, Mendocino County is often overlooked in favor of more famous stops in Northern California, such as Big Sur, Monterey, and Napa Valley. But this quaint coastal community anchored by the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg has everything its better-known counterparts do and then some—towering redwoods, stunning oceanside cliffs, hillside vineyards, and sea view hotels—plus it's significantly cheaper. Here’s how to plan a budget-friendly trip to Mendocino.
Many of Mendocino’s main attractions—rugged beaches, redwood groves, and quiet hiking trails—are totally free or located in state parks, where admission is usually $8 per car. Russian Gulch State Park is a favorite of locals and visitors for attractions like a 36-foot waterfall, a sea cave, and pristine beaches.
Another spectacular beach is located 15 minutes north of the town of Mendocino in Fort Bragg. Glass Beach was once the site of a town dump, and though the beach has long since been cleaned up, it’s still dotted with small pieces of colorful glass that have been worn smooth by the Pacific.
To learn about the area’s history while taking in more great seaside views, head to Point Cabrillo lighthouse. In addition to beautiful coastal vistas, visitors can learn about the shipwrecks that have occurred off the coast, and view photographs and memorabilia from the many lighthouse keepers who kept the coast safe over the years.
For more active adventures, climb into a kayak, canoe or standup paddleboard for a leisurely self-guided ride down part of the 40-mile-long Big River (starting at $35) where you might spot salmon, beavers, and river otters. Or, take a guided sea kayaking excursion ($60) along the coast. Horseback is another popular way to see the coastline on a one-hour beach ride ($60) or a two-hour ride through the mountains and forests.
Mendocino is also just 30 miles from the 30 wineries of the Anderson Valley wine region, which is known for its small producers of award-winning pinot noirs and Alsatian wines like Gewürztraminer and Riesling. At small wineries like Toulouse and Lula Cellars it costs just $5 for tastings, most bottles are under $30, and the wines are often poured by the winemakers themselves. Navarro Vineyards, the oldest family-run winery in the valley, also offers tours of their 1,000 acre estate.
Worth the splurge: If you plan to taste and buy at more than one or two wineries, it’s worthwhile to spring for a private tour, such as the Glendeven Inn’s full-day customized tour. Not only will you not have to worry about designating a sober driver, many wineries also offer discounts to tasters who aren’t driving themselves.
Fresh, Local Dining on a Budget
Mendocino County has no shortage of candlelit restaurants serving refined California cuisine overlooking the ocean, but the best values are to be found in the area’s more casual dining spots. In the town of Mendocino, Patterson’s Pub is part gathering place, part casual dining spot, with excellent fish and chips, friendly services, and a wide selection of local beer and wine.
For something a bit more upscale, head down the street to Cafe Beaujolais for European fare with a California twist in dishes like locally foraged mushroom risotto or roasted local black cod. Or, make a reservation at the MacCallum House, a former Victorian home built in 1882 that now serves the area’s best fried chicken, along with dishes like roast pork chops and wild mushroom gnocchi.
Worth the splurge: The Shared Table restaurant at the Glendeven Inn is only open on Thursdays and Saturdays with a set four-course menu for $65 per person (and $25 pp wine pairing) but it’s worth planning your schedule around snagging a reservation at this intimate 12-seat table for locally-sourced dishes like creamy jerusalem artichoke soup or tender mendocino county beef paired with local wines.
Accommodation with Big Perks and Low Prices
The towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg have option in a range of budgets and make excellent bases for exploring the region. For those who want the convenience of access to town but a more secluded feel, the twin properties of Glendeven Inn and the Inn at the Cobbler’s Walk are a perfect compromise. The inns are located next to one another and just four minutes from the town of Mendocino.
Room rates start at $150 per night and include complimentary WiFi, coffee and tea, cookies, sherry, wine hour with hors d’oeuvres, and a daily three-course breakfast delivered to the room. Both properties have access to several walking trails, and guests can meet the resident chickens and llamas. Most rooms have gas or wood-burning fireplaces, soaking tubs or jetted tubs, and many have views of the ocean in the distance.
Worth the splurge: The Glendeven Inn also offers an afternoon tea on Saturdays at 3pm. For $25 per person ($35 with a glass of sparkling wine), guests can indulge in a bottomless cup of tea and a selection of finger sandwiches, scones with lemon curd and clotted cream, and assorted petit fours and macarons.