North of the San Francisco Bay Area, hundreds of miles of breathtaking California coastline stretch up to the Oregon border. These more remote coastal areas are often overlooked by travelers. Find out why families should venture off the beaten path and head north to the Mendocino Coast with kids for a family-friendly getaway full of trains, hikes, and beaches.
Mendocino County with kids in Northern California may not seem like the obvious choice for a family vacation. The area is best known as a couples getaway destination for active baby boomers. The quiet rugged coastline is hundreds of miles from any theme park. The road to get there is slow and winding, a source of far too many “are we there yets” from underage backseat drivers. But one look a the vast expanse of sea and sky that made even my hard-to-impress 8-year-old’s jaw drop, and we knew we had found a magical family destination.
Mendocino County abuts California’s Lost Coast, a stretch of isolated coastline in the extreme northern part of the state stretching into Humboldt County. The only population centers in the area are the “big city” of Fort Bragg and the Village of Mendocino (1980s TV watchers may recognize Mendocino as fictional Cabot Cove from Murder She Wrote). While these cities are not quite “lost” themselves, the vibe is much slower and more relaxed than elsewhere in Northern California. Mendocino County’s isolation makes it an ideal destination for a vacation of hiking, beach time, and outdoor adventures.
Getting to the Mendocino Coast
Making one’s way to the Mendocino Coast is both half the fun but also half the challenge. The region is about 3 and 1/2 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area. Traffic through Marin and Sonoma Counties on the busy Highway 101 corridor, however, can often mean slow progress. For travelers coming from the Bay Area, I would suggest leaving after evening rush hour or mid-morning on weekdays. Saturday and Sunday mornings, however, will often present serious wine country traffic.
Once travelers pass through Sonoma wine country, the drive gets interesting. Highway 128, the main route to the coast, is narrow and full of switchbacks and curves in many places. If you or your children get motion sick, take some Dramamine or use acupressure bands to handle this portion of the trip. Because we left in the evening, our kids slept through this part of the drive on the way to the coast. Luckily, they were not bothered on the return either.
For visitors looking to reach Mendocino by air, choices are slim. The closest commercial airport is in Sonoma County (STS), which means travelers still have the long and winding drive along Highway 128. Bay Area airports like OAK or SFO or even Sacramento (SMF) may also be viable alternatives with more frequent or cheaper flights.
Things to Do with Kids on the Mendocino Coast
After conquering the coastal drive, the payoff is a number of family-friendly and fairly inexpensive activities that can easily fill a long weekend or more.
The top attraction for kids in the area is undoubtedly the Skunk Train. The Skunk Train is a historic logging train that is now one of the most popular train rides on the West Coast. The name comes from the smelly exhaust from some of the vehicles used on the line over the years.
The train offers a one hour route called the Pudding Creek Express. This train leaves from downtown Fort Bragg and slowly chugs into the redwoods before heading in reverse back to the coast. A longer four-hour route is available starting inland at Willits. The railroad offers special holiday themed rides during the Halloween and Christmas seasons.
Mendocino Coast Model Railroad and Navigation Company
After hopping off the Skunk Train, train-loving kiddos need only take a few more steps to see another worthy Mendocino County attraction. A model train club has set up shop next door (admission is included with your Skunk Train ticket) with the most impressive model train display my family has ever seen. The scenes depict Northern California’s rich logging history that was the area’s main industry for many generations.
Mendocino Botanical Gardens
I’ve been to quite a few botanical gardens in my travels and know that they often are not a hit with children. Rethink all that you know about visiting botanical gardens, however, and make Mendocino’s a must stop. The gardens occupy 47 acres stretching all the way to the coast where the bluffs offer majestic views of the rocks and water below. With kids, a worthy detour on the way to the coast is the vegetable garden where they can pick and eat a fresh strawberry off the vine.
Plan for at least 2-3 hours to explore at leisure with children and make the one-mile hike to the coast. One of the paths is paved and stroller and wheelchair accessible, but a carrier may be easier for families with babies and toddlers.
One of the top tourist attractions in the area is Glass Beach, a former city dump from decades ago. The waves slowly pounded the trash over the years, rounding it into clear sea glass that gives the beach its name. Glass Beach had been on my California travel bucket list for many years after seeing photos of the bright colored sea glass online years ago.
Unfortunately, the beach turned out to be an all-too-real lesson in the damage that tourists behaving badly can wreak. Local laws prohibit the removal of sea glass, but the collection is fading fast. The beach is far less impressive than photos from even a few years ago. I saw many tourists collecting what little that was left during the ten minutes I walked around. I don’t expect there will be much for visitors to see in future years.
Russian Gulch State Park & Devil’s Punch Bowl
One of the unexpected highlights of our trip turned out to be a quick impulse visit to Russian Gulch State Park. Head towards the coastal parking area to experience the five-minute hike to Devil’s Punch Bowl, a collapsed sea cave. When the tide rushes in, it crashes into the cave’s wall in an impressive spray of waves and water. After seeing the cave, continue along the coast for a short 15-20 minute hike to view more majestic coastal scenes.
The park is also famous for its inland waterfall hike, which we didn’t have time for this trip (plan for about 2 hours). At just $10 per vehicle to enter, the park is a bargain with outdoor adventures to keep the kids busy nearly all day.
Where to Stay in Mendocino with Kids
Because it is such a hot spot for couples getaways, most of the lodging options in Mendocino are cute seaside inns and bed and breakfasts. I was certainly worried my family with our 8- and 3-year-old traveling companions would feel out of place.
We stayed at the Little River Inn in the town of Little River just south of Mendocino and found it ideal for families. The inn is made up of several small buildings on a hillside overlooking the water, each of which has several spacious mini-suites with balconies and rocking chairs to admire the view. Our room had two queen beds, a sitting area, small dining table, a mini-fridge, and an extra spacious bathroom with a shower and a jetted tub.
Naturally, the Little River Inn is pricey during the busy Mendocino summer season ($400+ on weekends). If you can travel in the shoulder season, however, prices drop to just over $200 a night. For space and service, it’s a value at that price.
Where to Eat on the Mendocino Coast
Even if you can’t stay at the Little River Inn, I’d highly recommend making reservations to dine there for dinner. It has one of the best restaurants along the entire coast while still being kid-friendly and unpretentious. We were greeted with thick activity books and crayons for the kids which kept them both busy while my husband and I enjoyed a three-course meal.
For a quick local breakfast or brunch, Eggheads in the town of Fort Bragg is a family-friendly wonderland. The walls are decorated in colorful Wizard of Oz scenes, including a yellow brick road leading to the restaurant’s “outhouse.” Arrive early to beat weekend brunch crowds. My family also enjoyed the GoodLife Cafe & Bakery in the Village of Mendocino, which makes amazing coffee and a mean breakfast burrito.
If you are hiking or spending time at the beach and want to pack a picnic, the place to stop for sandwiches is Cirino’s in Fort Bragg. The owner and sole sandwich maker talked our ear off with local lore when we stopped by for a late lunch just before closing.