Discovering the Charm of Mendocino: A Weekend Getaway Road Trip Guide from the San Francisco Bay Area up to the Majestic Mendocino Coast
Nestled along the rugged coastline of Northern California, Mendocino offers tranquility and charm, inviting weary city dwellers from San Francisco to discover its many treasures. Just a three-hour drive from the hustle and bustle of the city, this picturesque destination seems a world away, offering stunning natural beauty. With its Victorian architecture, lush redwood forests, and panoramic ocean views, Mendocino provides the perfect backdrop for a rejuvenating weekend road trip.
If you've been following us for a while, you know we tend to travel internationally for the most part, so we'd actually never been to Northern California. We always say we will explore our own country more extensively when we're older and unable to fly easily around the world. However, we instantly fell in love with this area, and Indy still can't stop talking about the massive Pacific Ocean waves, the big tall redwoods, canoeing up the Big River, the Skunk Train ride, and eating all the fresh seafood.
In this comprehensive guide, we will unveil the best that Mendocino and Northern California have to offer, helping you plan a seamless and memorable road trip from San Francisco. So, pack your bags, set your out-of-office reply, and get ready to hit the open road up the Pacific Coast Highway. The enchanting world of the Mendocino Coast awaits, promising a weekend of exploration, relaxation, and awe-inspiring moments that you’ll treasure for years to come.
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Where to Stay in San Francisco
If you're flying or driving into the Bay Area, chances are you're going to need to spend at least one night in San Francisco. We set aside one night in San Francisco on the way out of California and spent an entire day just walking around and hopping on and off the cable car trying to see as many San Francisco landmarks as possible.
When looking for the best hotel to stay in San Francisco, we wanted a hotel that would offer a quintessential San Francisco experience, was centrally located amongst all the landmarks, and was in a safe neighborhood. Indy's only request was that we could see the cable car from our room!
The InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco in the Nob Hill neighborhood was the perfect choice and checked all of those boxes.
Originally, in the late 1800s, the property was purchased by one of the big four train moguls coming off the gold mining boom. Mark Hopkins moved forward with building a 40-room mansion on the plot of land, but he unfortunately died before the project was finished. Then in 1906, the Great San Francisco Earthquake caused the mansion to burn to the ground. In 1925, the land was purchased by a mining engineer and hotel investor who built the hotel that is now the InterContinental Mark Hopkins.
The hotel today feels like you're on a movie set -- simultaneously walking through the Golden Era time period but with the modern touches of a luxurious stay. The rooms are stunning, unique, and clean and the staff is so friendly, adding personal touches to your experience along the way. Also, because the hotel is so uniquely situated at the very top of Nob Hill, the 360 views of the San Francisco Bay and skyline are absolutely jaw-dropping!
In the evening, we headed up to the top floor of the hotel, which is now known as the "Top of the Mark". It's a cocktail lounge that serves delicious appetizers and fancy cocktails. The Top of the Mark is the absolute best way to have an intimate San Francisco experience and marvel at the city skyline.
The next day, we walked out of the front doors of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins for a day packed full of sightseeing. We hopped right on the cable car, which took us to Chinatown, Pier 39, Lombard Street, Fisherman's Wharf, and the newly renovated Ferry Building.
Our stay at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins far exceeded our expectations. If you're going to spend time in San Francisco, this hotel truly is the best way to experience this beautiful city.
Traveling to the Mendocino Coast from San Francisco
Being that we are from Colorado we flew into San Francisco International Airport (SFO), rented a car, and made the 3.5 to 4-hour trek up to the Mendocino Coast. There are several international airports in this area, so any of them would get you within a few hours of your destination.
We drove north to Mendocino using the quickest route our phones suggested, and then we drove south back to San Francisco using the longer, more scenic route. Both are beautiful and offer diverse activities and landscapes, so we recommend taking both if you can!
Option 01: Drive North on Highway 101 and Road 128 Through the Anderson Valley
Begin your journey at SFO and head north on Highway 101. You will pass through some parts of Downtown San Francisco before finding your way to the infamous Golden Gate Bridge. It is free to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, but there is a toll cost associated with crossing back into San Francisco on your return trip.
Tips: The rental car companies will try to convince you to prepay for fuel -- stating gas anywhere else is more expensive. This is incorrect, as we found plenty of cheaper gas options in North San Francisco.
Secondly, they will try to sell you a pre-paid toll package which is generally a lot more expensive and unnecessary.
Go to the FasTrak website and prepay your toll the day you plan to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. We paid $9.00 for our return trip across the bridge.
Once you reach Road 128, which cuts over to the coast, you'll find yourself winding through the vineyards of the Anderson Valley and Navarro River Redwoods State Park before reaching the Pacific Coast Highway. It's only a short drive from here before you find yourself on the rocky coastline of the Mendocino Coast. Be sure to stop in the redwoods to get a smell of that fresh forest air!
Option 02: Take a Scenic Drive North on Highway 1 Along the Rocky Coastline
The drive north on Highway 1 is iconic and just how you'd picture the Northern California coastline, only more jaw-dropping in person. It may not be for those with a fear of heights, as some of the sections are pretty narrow roads with giant drops to the Pacific Ocean. The day we drove on Highway 1, the fog was in and out, which created a moody vibe but lowered visibility at times.
While driving up Highway 1, there are many stops and activities that you shouldn't miss so you will want to set aside a little extra time in the drive.
Here are 4 stops we recommend along the Highway 1:
Golden Gate Viewpoint - this stop will offer you stunning views of the infamous Golden Gate Bridge on the north side after crossing. This was the first time we had ever been to San Francisco and we were shocked at how large the bridge is. Definitely worth a stop to marvel at it from the viewpoint!
Point Reyes National Seashore - we actually didn't have enough time to stop here, but it's rated as one of the top spots to admire the rocky, moody, and majestic Northern California coastline along Highway 1. If you're looking for several activities in the area, there's the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Point Reyes National Shipwreck, Tomales Bay, Tomales Point Trail, and the famous cypress tree tunnel. The town of Point Reyes was very charming and appeared to have lots of little trendy shops, breweries, and eateries.
The Marshall Store - at this point in the journey, you should be feeling very hungry and ready for some fresh and delicious seafood. The Marshall Store is right off Highway 1 and offers fresh oysters, clam chowder, fish tacos, crab, and delicious fresh baked sourdough bread. Highly recommend this stop! Your foodie heart will thank us later.
The Sea Ranch Lodge - our last recommended stop along the way is in the quaint town of Sea Ranch. The town is famous for its unique unpainted wood and minimalistic architecture homes. The Sea Ranch Lodge was restored and renovated in 2021 and now leans even more into minimalistic modern architecture and design. At the lodge, there is a delicious coffee shop, a general store, a restaurant, and a nice scenic walk down to the rocky ocean coastline.
A Short History of Mendocino
Mendocino’s striking coastline, known today for its natural beauty and artistic communities, has a rich and varied past. Originally, the Pomo people inhabited this region, living sustainably off the land and sea, and becoming well-known for their intricate basketry. In the 16th century, European explorers ventured to this land, though it was not until the 19th century that European settlers truly began to make their mark. The lure of dense redwood forests brought about a logging boom, transforming the quiet coastline into a bustling hub.
However, as the logging industry waned, Mendocino found new life as a haven for artists, writers, and those seeking a peaceful retreat. Today, while the mills have long since closed, Mendocino’s commitment to preserving its unique landscapes and historic structures remains strong.
We spoke with several young locals who now call the area home. During these conversations, we gained some interesting perspectives on how there is a real opportunity for young entrepreneurs to start businesses and plant roots on the rocky coastline. Fort Bragg is where most newcomers base themselves, but they are starting businesses all along the coastline and in the Anderson Valley. Wine bars, restaurants, breweries, and artistic ventures are the primary new businesses that are popping up -- which is slowly transforming this area into a young, hip haven.
Although there are no National Parks along the Mendocino Coastline, there are massive conservation efforts through all of the local State Parks. Those include Van Damme State Park, Mendocino Headlands State Park, Russian Gulch State Park, Point Cabrillo Light Station State Park, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, MacKerricher State Park, and Navarro River Redwoods State Park all within 25 miles of each other.
It's safe to say, this area is the perfect getaway for nature enthusiasts!
More Than a Place to Sleep: Historic Hotels
For our time on the Mendocino Coast, we were looking for two different types of lodging experiences that would give us various perspectives on the area, a historical background, and great locations to see all of the area's wonders.
Little River Inn & Ole's Whale Watch Bar
For our first stay, we searched for a secluded, peaceful hotel with jaw-dropping views of the rocky coastline. At home in Colorado, we were dreaming of waking up to freshly brewed coffee and marveling at the waves rolling in and out. We checked in to the Little River Inn, just a couple miles outside of Mendocino, and experienced just that.
Each morning and evening, we would sit outside on the balcony of our room, or inside in front of the fireplace, and just stare at the waves crashing into the Pacific Ocean coastline. The rooms were well-kept and spacious, which was perfect for our little family. There are sixty rooms available at Little River Inn, all with stunning views.
The on-site restaurant and Ole's Whale Watch Bar, are both must-try spots for travelers and locals alike. We were blown away by our dinner experience here. The menu, which is curated by well-known five-star chef Marc Dymchef, features unique dishes crafted with locally sourced goods and wines. Our cocktails were unique and creatively crafted and our dinner was as beautiful as it was tasty. We set out to try all of the seafood in northern California, which meant indulging in a whole fried rock cod fish!
The Little River Inn truly provides one of the best hotel experiences in this region. Whether you are an adventurer looking for a peaceful hub to explore the area, or you're a San Francisco city dweller craving nature and peace, this hotel has it all.
MacCallum House Inn and Restaurant
For our second stay, we wanted to get a little more acquainted with the town of Mendocino and experience the coastal town right outside the doorsteps of our room. There is no better place than The MacCallum House Inn and Restaurant to experience Mendocino firsthand.
The MacCallum House was built in 1882 and is now an iconic staple to the community. It was built as a wedding present to a young local by a famous architect of the area using long-lasting redwood material in a New England Victorian style and design. The hotel almost feels as though it hasn't changed much since its opening in 1882 -- in the best way possible.
One of the main allures of the MacCallum House, as mentioned above, is that it's located smack dab in the center of the Gothic Victorian town of Mendocino. We were shocked to learn that Mendocino is uniquely situated on a peninsula that juts out over the Pacific Ocean. Each side of town features steep rocky drops down to ocean waves crashing with immense force. The town has many local eateries and watering holes, shops with local goods, a couple of grocery stores, and fantastic hiking trails and beaches within walking distance.
We chose to eat dinner one night at the MacCallum House Restaurant, which offers a diverse seasonal menu of elevated pub cuisine. The restaurant itself is situated on the first floor of the iconic hotel and has a very cozy, quaint, and romantic feel. We enjoyed a couple of cocktails with creative flavor combinations and some fresh seared ahi tuna as our main course. A lot of people around us were raving about the Mac Burger Royale, but being pescatarian, we obviously didn't try it. Although the restaurant may appear more formal, they were super accommodating and friendly to our toddler.
Within a couple of miles of the MacCallum House, there are state parks, hikes, beaches, and canoeing with Catch a Canoe (see below). If you are looking to drive to a lot of nearby attractions, it's perfectly located on the coastline between Fort Bragg and the Anderson Wine Valley -- which provides you the best access to all the area has to offer.
Top 10 Places to Eat: Seafood, Seafood, and More Seafood (!) Paired with Delicious Wine from The Anderson Valley
Ole's Whale Watch Bar & Restaurant at Little River Inn, Little River, CA - a cozy fine dining experience curated by a five-star chef. Cocktails with local ingredients and local wines.
MacCallum House Inn & Restaurant, Mendocino, CA - another fine dining experience inside a historic house right in the heart of Mendocino. Great place for a date night!
Fog Eater Cafe & Fog Bottle Shop & Wine Bar, Mendocino, CA - we are always looking for the best vegetarian spots and stumbled upon this place. The vegetarian cafe and wine bar are owned by the same sweet couple. We had a wonderful experience here and spent time getting to know the owner Nathan and his family.
Princess Seafood, Fort Bragg, CA - one of the best and most reasonably-priced seafood choices in the area that came highly recommended. We indulged in delicious seafood and a craft beer for lunch one day. The environment is low-key and just our style. The restaurant sits right on the bay where the fisherman brings in their catch of the day.
Headlands Coffee House, Fort Bragg, CA - a charming breakfast cafe in downtown Fort Brass. It's cash only but has an ATM inside. The prices are far lower than other cafes and it's frequented by locals. We loved the lox bagel and people-watching!
Tall Guy Brewing, Fort Bragg, CA - craving a good local craft beer? This place has a delicious hazy IPA and lots of games to keep you entertained.
Good Life Cafe & Bakery, Mendocino, CA - we didn't get a chance to visit this little coffee shop and bakery right in Mendocino, but it came highly recommended. There's constantly a line outside, so arrive early.
Frankie's Pizzeria (and Ice Cream), Mendocino, CA - a local recommended the ice cream here, so we stopped by for a unique, sweet treat. We even ended up coming back another evening for pizza.
Patterson's Pub, Mendocino, CA - a festive patio that frequently has live music on the patio. Unfortunately, the pub is 21+ at all times, so we couldn't try it out this time.
Gnar Bar, Mendocino, CA - this place seems like a new establishment, but we heard good reviews about it. Quick and casual!
Things to Do: Hike Through a State Park, Canoe on Big River, Ride the Famous Skunk Train, and so Much More
Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too, Mendocino, CA
If you're anything like us and crave outdoor adventure, look no further than Catch a Canoe. This rental company offers redwood outriggers, kayaks, SUPs, canoes, and bicycles. The outriggers were incredibly stable and family-friendly. From their website:
The stars of the show at the Stanford Inn’s Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too are the locally handcrafted redwood outrigger canoes. Ultra stable, yet narrow and efficient, each one has an intuitive foot controlled rudder for ease of steering. Designed in house, and constructed by local artisan Bob Cummings from re-purposed redwood barns, these unique boats are only available here in Mendocino. Several configurations are available which can accommodate families and friends from 2 to 7 persons. The pet friendly Canine series are the only canoes worldwide that are designed for both humans and dogs.
We spent a couple of hours canoeing up Big River Canyon in absolute silence and peace. The entire canyon remains undeveloped, so the only distractions will be the adorable harbor seals swimming alongside your canoe. Indy sat right below our feet, on a comfortable mat, eating snacks the entire time. It was a hit amongst us all!
Skunk Train & Rail Bikes, Fort Bragg, CA
As you can imagine, this activity was high on Indy's wish list for the Mendocino Coast, but it's not only for the kids.
The train, known as Pudding Creek Express, departs out of an old train depot right in downtown Fort Bragg. The whole process feels like you've stepped back in time when the conductor yells out, "allllll aboard!" Tickets tend to sell out, so be sure to purchase well in advance. Check their website for the days that the train is running. Some months it only runs 2-3 days a week and during their busier tourist months, it runs every day.
You have a couple of options when booking. You can opt for a round-trip ticket which takes you on a twenty-five-minute ride out to Glen Blair Junction -- where you will hang out for 30 minutes and then ride the train back. The other option is riding one way out to Glen Blair Junction and then walk back to Fort Bragg through a forested 3.5-mile-long path. At Glen Blair Junction, you can grab a drink at their popular outdoor bar and take a brief walk through the forest.
The train has been operating since 1885 and is an old diesel locomotive. The history of the train and the route will be provided over the loudspeaker as you ride through the redwood forest. There are snacks and adult beverages for sale on the train!
Husch Vineyards, Navaro, CA
The Anderson Valley is well-known among wine enthusiasts -- but definitely not wine snobs. It's more laid-back than Napa and uncrowded, primarily owner operated, and approachable. The valley is only fifteen miles long, but it has a plethora of small vineyards and wineries. From Mendocino, the Anderson Valley is roughly a 40-minute drive southeast.
We chose to visit Husch Vineyards one afternoon and had such a lovely time! This winery is owned by 3rd generation family members and produces 22 different wines. The tasting room is housed in an impossibly cute old pony barn that was built in the 1800s. It's friendly, charming, kid-friendly, and a perfect spot to stop after a day of hiking.
Enjoy A Nature Walk or Two
The Mendocino coast is begging to be explored by foot. There are state parks, natural areas, and hiking trails around every bend. Spend some time getting those steps in and deepening your breath. A few of the areas we visited were Hendy Woods State Park, Noyo Headlands Park, and Van Damme State Park.
If you ever find yourself in Northern California, we hope our suggestions serve you well!
For the love and adventure,
Bre + Daniel