7 Places to Pedal, Paddle, and Hike Along the Mendocino Coast
By Mary Charlebois, August 23rd, 2018
It’s remote, wild, and fragile. The Pacific headlands hide coves, caves, and secret beaches. Grasslands give way to woodlands, woodlands become a redwood forest.
There are more pickups than Porsches. Jeans, fleece, and flannel never go out of style. The fellas have been wearing neckbeards for more than 100-years. Communities range from small to micro. Folks are welcoming. Businesses are locally owned.
They grow their own here. Farmers and ranchers raise meat, fish, fruit, veggies, and dairy. Local wine, cider, and beer are small batch, organic, and exceptional. Most of what is produced is available only in the area; one of California’s greenest agriculture regions.
Mendo is known for wildlife, waves, wilderness, and wine. Mother Nature is exuberant. Vistas are epic. The air is pristine. Hiking, biking, kayaking, and SUP are extraordinary.
From a 10-mile ex-logging road to a quarter-mile secret-beach path, Mendocino Coast trails cover an array of terrain, microclimates, wildlife, and ecosystems. Public land and parks make up most of the 100-mile Mendocino Coast.
You’ll find hundreds of places to commune with nature along the coast on foot, cycle, or on water. Try one of these very accessible places.
MacKerricher State Park
The most extensive sand dune ecosystem on the Mendocino Coast borders a paved haul-road for wheels and shoes. Explore miles of sandy beaches and hiking trails. A boardwalk crosses a grass prairie and ends at Laguna Point and a stairway to tide pools at low tide.
Canoe or kayak in Lake Cleone, a wetland area. The sunrise is captivating at the small lagoon. Wispy steam lingers over the water. As if on cue, a loon’s wakeup call brings the sun’s first rays.
Ninety bird species flourish here. Sea and shorebirds are joined by migrating geese stopping over for rest, food, and water. Cranes, osprey, and red-tailed hawks hunt for small mammals, fish, and amphibians. Songbirds, finches, larks, sparrows, and thrushes forage for insects, flowers, and seeds.
Ravens are kings of the air. During nesting season raucous sky battles break out between ravens and small birds. The Ravens are notorious nest burglars. They squawk, chirp, soar, and dive. The Ravens always win. They seem to enjoy leading the small birds on an aerial chase.
Check the park website for ranger-led hikes and talks. At the park entrance, ask a park ranger for activities that may not be listed online. All trails and facilities are available for day use and campers. Find the park entrance on Hwy 1, about six miles north of Fort Bragg.
Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail
Meandering along the edge of the Pacific, the Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail is a magnificent way to experience the fragile coastline, its many habitats, inhabitants, and historic sites. A hard-top path makes for safe walking and rolling for all abilities. Interpretive panels for nature and history dot the five-mile track. Benches offer a scenic respite, or, an unparalleled whale watching position when the giants are passing.
Nature puts on a constant show of weather, wind, waves, and wildlife. Conditions can change from hour-to-hour. High tides conceal beaches. Sub-tides reveal areas usually covered by water. Creatures abound in the ocean, tide pools, beaches, headlands, and the air. It’s a place that can be calm and peaceful with bright sun or grey and stormy with ferocious wind.
The Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail can be accessed at Main and Cypress Streets or at the north entrance 2-blocks west of Elm and Main in Fort Bragg.
Noyo River and Harbor
You might think you’re on a movie set, or a theme park’s ‘seaport adventure.’
Weathered pilings, fishing vessels, seafood markets, and packing sheds fuse with historical lodging, eateries, outfitters, and charter boats. A day in Noyo Harbor puts you in the center of a working-wharf and a way of life that is threatened by shrinking fish populations.
The harbor sits at the mouth of Noyo River. Upriver, the Noyo is calm and glassy. Osprey cries dominate the soundtrack scattered with calls from ravens, gulls, and songbirds. Harbor seals swim and dive near your boat. Otters quietly slide down the bank. The only human sound is a paddle slipping in and out of the river.
Paddling downstream towards the Pacific, the landscape changes. Commercial fishing vessels and Coast Guard boats dwarf canoes and kayaks. Folks working, eating, drinking, or just lazing, occupy docks, decks, and restaurant window-seats. Bring your own gear or rent from outfitters in the harbor. Noyo Fishing Center, 32450 N Harbor Drive, can equip you and give advice for tides and water conditions, Parking and launching are free.
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
Knee-high trees, several decades old, grow at the top of five terraces. The Ecological Staircase is a multi-terrain hiking trail. It begins at the Pacific shore, climbing 2.5-miles to the otherworldly Pygmy Forest. The Staircase is in a 769-acre Natural Reserve offering hiking, beach access, tide pools, wildlife, wetlands, and whale watching.
On the trail, you walk through geological history. Five terraces were created by tectonic plate movement at different geological periods. Each terrace represents approximately 100,000 years.
As you walk from terrace to terrace, the landscape varies dramatically. Beaches end abruptly against headlands. Atop the headlands prairies merge into brush, woodlands, creek beds, redwoods, and finally, the Pygmy Forest, where tenacious plants and trees have adapted to the low-nutrient soils. Some of the stunted trees, plants, and grey landscape are found nowhere else.
The Staircase offers more varieties of wildlife than any other coastal location. The numerous habitats shelter birds, mammals, amphibians, fish and marine mammals. It’s sometimes possible to see black bear and mountain lions that inhabit the area.
Jug Handle is on Highway 1, between Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Parking is free and trails are clearly marked. Use the trail guide available at the trailhead to learn more about the flora and fauna.
Caspar Uplands Trail
The Caspar Uplands Trail begins at the north end of Caspar State Beach. At this off-the-beaten-path hideaway, enjoy hiking, SUP, surfing, snorkeling, and picnicking.
The hiking trail winds south through the ‘southernmost stand of Sitka spruce’ in North America and you can find coastal trail connections to the north and south.
Osprey are common in the area. Keep an eye skyward when you hear their distinctive call and you might see them carrying a fish back to the nest. These powerful birds often catch and fly with fish larger than they are.
At Caspar Beach Campgrounds, across from the beach, you can rent gear for water sport, buy bait, and stock the cooler for a day on the shore.
Just south of Caspar, turn west on Point Cabrillo Drive and follow the road to the beach.
Van Damme State Park
Kayak from the beach to sea-caves or hike to waterfalls in a fern-filled forest. Van Damme is a stellar location for hiking, biking, birding, kayaking, and whale watching.
Hiking trails range from quarter-mile flat to the strenuous, 9.15-mile Fern Canyon Lollapalozza. The Van Damme Pygmy Forest Trail features a quarter-mile wheelchair-accessible boardwalk. Van Damme camping sites include nine hike-in spots in a redwood forest.
Biking is limited to a few designated paved and dirt roads. The accessible trails are perfect for a family bike ride and a game of ‘who can spot a deer.’
A beach wheelchair is available upon request for use at California State Park beaches on the Mendocino Coast. Call 707.937.9177 at least seven days in advance.
Kayaking equipment rentals and sea cave tours are available at Van Damme Beach, across Hwy 1 from the park entrance. Free parking is available in the beach lot. Kayaks are easily launched from shore. Van Damme is located on Hwy 1, between Mendocino and Little River.
Big River, Mendocino
In the 1800s, Big River was used to float redwoods from forest to mills. Milled lumber was loaded onto small ships and transported to the growing city of San Francisco.
Today, the Big River area is protected from logging or industry by California State Parks Department and Mendocino Land Trust. Big River is a celebrated site to pedal, paddle, and hike. Big River Beach is a challenging SUP and surfing locale. After a storm, driftwood sculptures and shelters begin to appear. It’s the most popular driftwood construction beach on the coast.
Hike or bike a 10-mile former logging road. The haul-road follows the river east from the beach, into a mountain forest. The first few miles are easy-to-moderate, but the trail eventually becomes a footpath and gains significant elevation.
The Pacific Ocean, Big River, and Big River Estuary are habitat to thousands of plants and animals. Historical logging remains, conifer forest, birds, seals, otters, deer, fox, skunks, raccoons, and squirrels can be spotted on the track. The trail is ideal for walking or cycling with friends and family.
Explore Big River’s water by kayak or canoe. Watch for Kingfishers leading you up-river. They will dash from branch to branch, announcing your arrival. Slipping along quietly you’ll see turtles sunning themselves on logs and otters chasing and playing along the banks and in the water. Raven’s soar on thermals, osprey hunt, and birdsong echoes in the forest.
Big River recreational area is off Hwy 1, just south of Mendocino. Rent water and trail equipment or get trail advice from Catch-A-Canoe and Bicycles Too. Their floating docks are available free of charge for all. They also can help with repairs or additions for your gear.
For more Mendocino Coast trail information visit Mendocino Land Trust’s Coastal Trail Guide.
Where to Stay on the Mendocino Coast
Bivouac at Stanford Inn by the Sea and experience pedaling, paddling, and hiking at your doorstep.
The Eco-Resort is owned and operated by the Stanford family. It’s run in a genuinely sustainable manner in every aspect of lodging, restaurant, farm, and property.
Raven’s, a vegan restaurant, is supplied by Stanford’s on-site, California Certified Organic Farm. The kitchen larder is topped-off by regional organic growers. The award-winning eatery prepares a gourmet, plant-based menu for breakfast and dinner. Lunch is available for take out and perfect for a picnic on the trail or water.
The bar recreates classic cocktails using fresh, organic ingredients. A mojito made with just picked mint, sipped while strolling in the garden, is my idea of bliss.
Tour Big River waters in wind-powered, people-powered, or solar-powered transportation options at Catch-A-Canoe and Bicycles Too. The Inn’s pedal, paddle, and hike headquarters are on Big River, a five-minute walk from the hotel. You’ll find floating docks, trail maps and guides, bicycles, kayaks, canoes, and outriggers. Expert advice for exploring Big River, Mendocino Coast, inland trails, and wildlife is freely given.
Docks for launching your personal or rented gear are provided. Hiking, biking, and paddling equipment are available for rent or purchase. Stanford’s outrigger canoes are hand carved by a local artisan, using reclaimed redwood from old buildings. They are floating art and virtually tip-proof.
Their slogan, “The Inn manifests our commitment to live mindfully so that all might live well,” is evident everywhere on the property. Family and pet-friendly, Stanford Inn is three-minutes south of Mendocino, off Hwy 1.