Categories: ActivitiesCamping

4 Can’t-Miss Mendocino Beach Hikes and Coastal Trails

When Bay Area couples discuss destinations for their next weekend getaway, one spot regularly makes the list: the Mendocino coast. This Northern California enclave is three hours from San Francisco and an emerging wine destination—but it’s the rugged coastlines, Pacific ocean views, and incredible hiking trails that make for time well spent outdoors.

Compared to other popular areas, Mendocino is far less crowded. The coastal county’s largest town of Fort Bragg only has 7,200 residents—not much to “bragg” about. The second-largest, Mendocino village, counts fewer than 1,000 lucky residents. Weekend visitors boost those numbers, but the region is large enough and the trails and beaches numerous enough that hikers feel they’re in another, quieter world the moment they step out of their vehicles.

Among Mendocino County’s miles of trails, the best are on the rocky, beach-freckled coast near Mendocino village and Fort Bragg, which are only 10 miles apart along Highway 1. The temperate climate makes the county an ideal destination in every season—even in rainy winters when creeks are full, as you’ll have the coastal trails to yourself. Between MacKerricher State Park to the north and Little River’s Van Damme State Park to the south, it’s hard to beat these four hikes.

Photo courtesy of Visit Mendocino County

Mendocino Headlands Trail

Route length: 4 miles roundtrip

Difficulty: Easy

When you follow this path as it traces a semicircle around Mendocino village on ocean bluffs, don’t expect a quiet hike. You might even need to raise your voice while pointing out seabirds and tide pools to your companion to be heard over the thundering waves below. But if the thrill of Insta-worthy seascapes, bracing winds, and booming surf is your idea of a perfect hike, you won’t forget this one in Mendocino Headlands State Park. Besides fellow nature lovers (and just plain lovers), you’ll likely encounter both fearless fishers who venture down to precarious perches and plein-air painters who plant their easels at the prettiest spots. The trails are dog-friendly.

What to do post-hike: Stroll through impossibly nostalgic Mendocino village, where the hike originates, to admire rows of Victorian buildings, and stop for a drink inside one of the oldest, the Mendocino Hotel (established 1878).

Photo courtesy of Visit Mendocino County

Jug Handle Ecological Staircase Trail

Route length: 5 miles roundtrip

Difficulty: Easy

If variety is the spice of life, the Ecological Staircase is an entire spice rack. You may not pick up the scent of rosemary or thyme on the trail, but you will see and smell flora ranging from rhododendrons to redwoods. That’s because this gradual, 300-foot climb just north of Mendocino passes through several distinct ecological zones as you head away from the ocean and walk through grasslands, conifers, redwood forests, and finally, pygmy trees. At the turnaround spot is the Pygmy Forest, where pygmy cypresses and pines grow just a few feet tall, a jarring contrast to the towering redwoods you’ll also see on the route. Most of the trail is in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, and it starts right from the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway One).

What to do post-hike: Kick back on peaceful Jughandle Beach where the hike began.

Photo by Mick Haupt

Big River Trail

Route length: Up to 16 miles roundtrip

Difficulty: Moderate

Connecting Big River Beach in Mendocino Headlands State Park (strolling distance from Mendocino village) with Mendocino Woodlands State Park, this former logging road follows the river as it rises gently through miles of redwoods and hardwoods before steepening. Also called the Big River Haul Road, the Mendocino Land Trust-backed area offers opportunities to see otters, harbor seals, great blue herons, and other wildlife from the trail—and fall colors or spring wildflowers during those seasons. Leashed dogs are allowed.

What to do post-hike: Just across the river from the trailhead, rent a kayak, SUP, outrigger boat, or canoe at Catch A Canoe to paddle upriver past where you just hiked, or relish a meal at Ravens Restaurant, which serves memorable vegan cuisine.

Photo courtesy of Visit Mendocino County

Russian Gulch Fern Canyon and Waterfall Trail Loop

Route length: 5-7 miles (route-dependent)

Difficulty: Moderate

Even if a 36-foot, year-round waterfall wasn’t part of this moderately hilly hike, it offers much more, with spectacular views and trails that weave through magical redwood groves and delicate ferns. The well-marked fern canyon trails are in Russian Gulch State Park, just north of Mendocino village.

What to do post-hike: Also in Russian Gulch State Park, the Devil’s Punchbowl is a 100-foot-wide, 60-foot-deep blowhole accessed on a short coastal loop trail. The best viewing time is at high tide.

Looking for the best places to go camping in Mendocino?

See all of our nearby campsites, glampsites, and cabins to start planning your next adventure.

Bob Cooper is a third-generation San Francisco-area resident who once hiked and ran the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail in four days. His travel and outdoors articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Hemispheres, American Way, Global Traveler, Backpacker, and Runner's World.

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