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With a population of 750, what Mendocino, California lacks in year-round residents, it more than makes up for with recreational opportunities, especially for families. This welcoming coastal community, three hours north of San Francisco and five hours south of Oregon, is home to ancient redwood trees and miles of rails-to-trails. There is also world-class whale watching and colorful glass beaches (don’t worry; they’re safe).

Even Mendocino’s wineries serve flights of grape juice and offer farm animal encounters. How do I know? I recently spent a few days in Mendocino with my husband TJ, and our two kids, Everett and Alena.

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Our Family’s Top Things to Do in Mendocino 

From a historic scenic train with an open-air car to a kid-friendly bookstore with a live mascot named “The Great Catsby,” here are our family’s picks for fun things to do in Mendocino.

1. Ride the Skunk Train  

The Skunk Train in Mendocino County, CA
The Skunk Train in Mendocino County, CA. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Don’t let the name fool you. Although the Skunk Train had an infamous odor when it first started running in 1885 (and was powered by crude oil), all we smelled on our 75-minute ride through the forest of towering trees was a hint of pine.

Today, the Skunk is powered by diesel and electric. And instead of transporting logs, it’s a passenger train skirting the picturesque Pudding Creek Estuary. Our seven-mile journey started in downtown Fort Bragg.

Unlike other scenic trains, The Skunk boasts an open-air car. It also stops halfway so passengers can get out and stretch their legs on a short hike. Kids will want to keep their eyes peeled for the bright yellow banana slugs. Back on board, there’s a snack cart with food and drinks and there’s no corkage fee. I.e. Adults can bust open the bottle of wine they bought in the depot. 

2. Railbikes on the Noyo

Rail Bikes on the Noyo
Rail Bikes on the Noyo. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Hands down, the highlight of our Mendocino adventure was traveling back in time on the historic Redwood Route. Once reserved for trains, today this scenic section of railroad track is best viewed from the comfort of custom-built, two-person railbikes.

My co-pilot, Alena, is just three years old, but the bikes are powered by electricity, so we had no problem finishing the 25-mile tour. Of course, it helped that halfway in we refueled by the river with refreshments and a picnic lunch. While he wasn’t quite able to reach the pedals, seven-year-old Everett got a kick out of crossing the trestles and manning the walkie-talkie.

Our guides rattled off fun facts, but also knew when to let us cycle in silence. Between the epic ride and the 20-minute hike in and out, we definitely got our redwood fix (and earned a glass of wine from Pennyroyal Farm). 

3. Grabbing a Drink: Pennyroyal Farm and Anderson Valley Brewing Company

Pennyroyal Farm
Pennyroyal Farm. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

In a state with no shortage of wineries, Pennyroyal Farm stands out because not only does it produce award-winning pinot noir, but it also has an on-site creamery. During the guided tour of the solar-powered barn, you can even meet the goats and sheep whose cheeses you’ll sample later during the pairing.

Kids and non-drinkers are treated to grape juice tastings. Meanwhile, if beer or malt cocktails are your beverage of choice, do what we did and drive half a mile down the road to Anderson Valley Brewing Company.

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One of the first 20 craft breweries in the country, this family-friendly taproom offers 34 brews including the refreshing Blood Orange Gose and the low-calorie Black Light Ale. Both Pennyroyal and Anderson Valley Brewing Company have huge lawns with yard games (well-behaved dogs are even welcome in certain areas). 

4. Hike Hendy Woods State Park

Hike Hendy Woods State Park
Hike Hendy Woods State Park. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

While Anderson Valley is known for its farms and vineyards, it’s also home to Hendy Woods State Park, a 945-acre all-natural oasis hugging the banks of the Navarro River. Because it’s so easily accessible from Highway 128, Hendy Woods is a popular place to camp. Of course, it’s also open for day use.

Here, in the shade of 1,000-year-old 250-foot-tall redwood trees, we enjoyed a picnic lunch and a short hike. There’s even the wheelchair-accessible Discovery Trail. While our kids are still learning to read, they loved pointing out the signage along the trails that shared information about their surreal surroundings. 

5. Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino Headlands State Park. Image from Canva

If you ask us, Mendocino Headlands is another shoo-in for a state parks hall of fame. It’s not massive, but this 347-acre protected playground consists of some of California’s most dramatic coastline. Think rugged cliffs, ethereal sea arches and wide, undisturbed beaches where we hunted for shells and sank our toes in the cool, soft sand.

Every view is postcard-worthy, but the real beauty of Mendocino Headlands State Park is the fact you can walk to it from historic downtown Mendocino. The historic Ford House museum on Main Street also doubles as the park’s visitor center.

Pro tip: If your kids can’t be near water without wanting to go in, it’s safe to swim in the river portion of Big River Beach (where the Big River meets the Pacific).  

6. Little River Blowhole

Mendocino California
Mendocino County is a perfect spot for a family-friendly vacation. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Meanwhile, Little River is where you want to go to see a marine geyser (fancy name for a blowhole). Although I’ve traveled all around the world, this was my first time watching the ocean literally spray up out of the ground. The kids were blown away – pun intended – and I got to check seeing a blowhole off my bucket list.

To get there, park on the road by Little River Cemetery, 3.4 miles south of downtown Mendocino, and follow the trail toward the beach. After walking for five minutes or so, you’ll come to the “punch bowl.”

Note: Plan your visit to coincide with high tide; during low tide, the ocean doesn’t reach the cave. 

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7. Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail 

Just three miles inland from Little River Blowhole we found another gnarly natural phenomenon. The Pygmy Forest is aptly named for its short trees (especially when you compare them to 300-foot-tall redwoods). Walking around here almost feels like you’re starring in “Honey, We Shrunk the Forest.”

The looped trail is just 300 yards long, and it’s on an elevated wooden boardwalk making it accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. Signs along the trail share fun facts. For example, the forest was once covered by the Pacific Ocean, and some of the trees, despite their small size, are more than 100 years old. 

8. Glass Beach

Mendocino California Glass Beach
Glass Beach. Image from Canva

Another unforgettable Mendocino-area marvel is Glass Beach. Albeit this one is technically man-made. It’s hard to believe, but in a past life, the beach’s smooth, colorful sea glass was once considered trash. The town dump has been closed for decades but it left behind these uncut gems, now mixed with the sand and rocks.

While the sea glass is pretty enough to make into jewelry, you’re not allowed to take it home. Still, we had a great time beachcombing here. The kids hunted for shells and hermit crabs (don’t take those home with you either) like it was Easter morning. TJ and I enjoyed the ocean views and free entertainment – you don’t have to pay to park or play here.

9. Point Cabrillo Light Station

Point Cabrillo Light Station
Point Cabrillo Light Station. Image from Canva

Time your visit to Point Cabrillo Light Station right, like we accidentally did, and you might be lucky enough to get some whale watching in. Every year, from December through March, pods of gray whales migrate past Point Cabrillo and can be easily seen from shore.

Sea lions are around 365 days a year, however, and the 115-year-old lighthouse isn’t going anywhere either. Naturally, the kids wanted to hit up the gift shop, but history buffs like TJ and I appreciated the two museums on site.

There’s also a separate marine science exhibit with a 240-gallon saltwater aquarium. Time your visit right there, too, and you may be able to watch a feeding.

10. Explore Downtown Village

Mendocino California
Mendocino California Image from Canva

Of course, you can’t visit Mendocino without exploring its charming Hallmark movie-worthy village. Instead of condos and high-rise hotels, we found historic Victorian homes, many of which are now bed and breakfasts.

You can also get a delicious meal downtown at a local restaurant like GoodLife Bakery and Café. It’s a popular place, but there’s a waiting area with toys that kept our kids happy, and the New York-style bagels, made from scratch, are worth the wait.

Shopping-wise, don’t sleep on Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkles Children’s Books (unless you’re allergic to cats because it’s home to a friendly black-and-white beauty, “The Great Catsby”).  

Where to Stay in Mendocino 

Little River Inn

The Little River Inn
The Little River Inn. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Highlights: Best for ocean views, golf (there’s a 9-hole course on-site), travelers with dogs.

Waking up at this 65-room waterfront property just a five-minute drive from downtown Mendocino was no problem. In fact, it was a pleasure. Although the beds were beyond comfortable, every morning we’d race each other to see who could be the first to pull back the curtains and see the ocean.

Coffee and juice were sipped on our patio, complete with rocking chairs, and one morning we ordered room service for breakfast because the view was too hard to leave. Of course, Little River Inn also has an incredible restaurant that serves dinner every night.

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TJ and Alena highly recommend the rigatoni bolognese. But if you ask me, the Brazilian seafood stew moqueca will also make you a member of the clean plate club.

If you visit in the winter like we did, request a room with a fireplace. If you have a bigger budget, why not spring for the room with the private hot tub?

MacCallum House:

The Little River Inn
MacCallum House. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Highlights: Downtown location, James Beard-worthy complimentary breakfast, travelers with electric cars (the property has chargers.) 

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Our next room had both a hot tub – on our private deck – and a gas fireplace. The 30-room MacCallum House is located one block north of Main Street, within walking distance of all the shops and restaurants as well as Headlands State Park.

Travelers can stay in rooms in the MacCallum House (Rooms 1-6), Cottages (Rooms 7-13), Historic Barn (Rooms 14-19) Oceansong Ballad House (21), and the MacCallum Suites (25-33).

Because we wanted more space, we stayed four blocks away in its Suites, also housed in a well-appointed mansion.

While we didn’t have an ocean view, every morning we looked forward to our short walk to the inn where we were treated to a cozy fire and complimentary breakfast that is a destination in itself: think house-made pork sausage huevos rancheros and whole grain pancakes topped with vanilla bean ice cream. The kids are still asking me to recreate their yogurt parfaits.

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Author Bio: Living across Europe and South America unlocked Carri’s passion for traveling. Never shying away from a new adventure whether swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas, bird watching in the Galapagos or Heli-Hiking in British Columbia, you never know where you will catch Carri next. She resides in Colorado between freelance trips with her family where they enjoy hiking, mountain biking and skiing.

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