Looking for a different way to experience California’s coastline? Head north!
The Mendocino Coast is arguably the most scenic stretch of coastline in California. Unlike the popular sandy beaches of the state’s southern region, the north coast boasts bluffs set against the backdrop of majestic California Redwoods. So while you and the kids may not spend your vacation building sand castles, you can spend it searching for jewels on Glass Beach, riding into the Redwoods on a train or climbing the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast.
Photo courtesy: Visit Mendocino County
Where to stay?
For this trip, my family and I opted for Surf and Sand Lodge in Fort Bragg located on the west side of Highway 1. We stayed in an upstairs room with two queen-sized beds and a balcony. What it lacked in frills, it more than made up for in amazing views of the coastline.
The lodge is ideally located just 150 feet from the ocean. It’s also situated near the middle of the 10-mile long Coastal Trail, giving your family the option of going south to Glass Beach or north to MacKerricher State Park. This trail is perfect for running, biking or a nice, leisurely walk (if that’s possible with kids). Bike rentals are available at the lodge’s sister property, Beachcomber Motel. Cost: $8/hour; $25/half day; $35/full day.
Surf and Sand Lodge is kid- and dog-friendly. It boasts a day spa, and if you choose to leave the kids at home, there is a room with a king-sized bed and a whirlpool tub. We went during a particularly wet spell for the region, so the hotel was slower than usual; but if you plan to go during the summer, be sure to book well in advance. Rates for a room that accommodates a family of four start at $139/night during low season.
KidTripster Tip: The Surf and Sand Lodge and the neighboring Beachcomber Motel share amenities, giving you access to the Beachcomber’s fire pits. These spots provide a nice way to enjoy the ocean while staying warm on those chilly coastal evenings.
KidTripster Tip: Dogs will cost you extra, but you’ll have access to Beachcomber’s dog park located next door. There are nearby dog-friendly beaches, as well.
What to do?
Point Arena Lighthouse
Our first stop was Point Arena Lighthouse. The folks here are very proud to tell you that this lighthouse is the tallest on the West Coast. (Some fine print from the Point Arena website: it’s actually tied for the tallest with Pigeon Point Lighthouse, though it’s the tallest that you can climb).
One cool thing about a lighthouse that’s 115-feet tall is that you can see it from a distance, building anticipation as you approach. When I told my three kids that we could climb to the top, they got even more excited.
You check in at the historic Fog Signal Building which is home to a gift shop, museum, and one of the coolest light bulbs that you’ll ever see. The original 1908 First Order Fresnel Lens is the centerpiece of the museum. Back in the day, it could project light more than 20 miles out to sea. It’s incredible and sets you up for a glorious letdown when you see the hilariously, unimpressive LED light now in use. Don’t let the looks of this light fool you, though; it can still be seen from 14 miles away.
There are 145 stairs to climb to reach the top of the Point Arena Lighthouse, but it’s not nearly as daunting as it sounds. There are landings every couple of flights with views worthy of a timeout. The kids had no problem with the hike, perhaps motivated by the idea of receiving an “I survived” badge once back on the ground. And consider this: the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear had to climb the stairs to the lens room every 75 minutes throughout the night to keep the light spinning!
There are two options when you get to the top: an outside gallery (which does have a height restriction, so no little ones allowed) or the lens room. Both offer gorgeous, 360-degree views of the surrounding area. Make sure to look at the historic photos showing the erosion of the bluff over the past one hundred years. They’ll give you a real appreciation for the destructive force of the ocean.
KidTripster Tip: The stairs aren’t hard to climb, but there’s a small ladder that you must climb to reach the lens room. My kids didn’t have a problem climbing up, but they were pretty nervous coming down. The tour guide told us that some adults have the same issue.
KidTripster Tip: The Point Arena Lighthouse also offers cottage-style accommodations if you’re looking for a truly unique family stay.
Imagine discovering a shore full of rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Now imagine those “jewels” are made of glass from old cars, appliances, and bottles. At Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, you’ll find that Mother Nature quite literally has made treasure out of trash.
This beach isn’t for building sandcastles, but your kids won’t mind. They’ll be too busy searching for glass treasures of every shape and color. The glass has spent decades rolling around in the ocean being smoothed down, so you don’t need to worry about sharp edges.
Parking at Glass Beach is free, though honestly, had we realized how close it was to our hotel, we would have just walked. There are bathrooms on location and areas to picnic along the bluff.
Last note and this is important: you can’t take the glass home. Search through it, pick it up, enjoy it, photograph it, but leave it behind.
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to take note of the benches around the walking paths. They were designed by local woodworkers.
MacKerricher State Park
One of the best places to see seals is MacKerricher State Park. This area is an outdoor lover’s paradise, covering the gamut from beach to headland to forest to wetland.
The park is also an ideal spot to go tidepooling, whale watching (if it’s the right season; December and March are peak periods) or bird watching (more than 90 different kinds of feathered friends live or visit the area). You can also camp at the park all year long.
KidTripster Tip: A beach wheelchair is available free of charge, but you need to reserve it at least seven days in advance.
Arguably the most famous attraction in Fort Bragg is the Skunk Train. The Skunk Train has been winding through the Redwoods since 1885. The name “skunk” has a curious backstory involving motorcars, gasoline-powered engines, pot-bellied stoves, and a mixture of smells - none of which linger today.
The ride is just 7 miles long and takes about an hour, weaving along Pudding Creek and into a Redwood forest. One of the unique features of this train is the open-air car that is designed for standing only. It’s the best way to see the tops of the trees, though I would recommend a light jacket, because it’s a pretty shaded ride.
KidTripster Tip: There is an on-board photographer who will take pictures of your family. He’ll bring around a photo pretty quickly, but if you want to buy it, you can only pay in cash.
The conductor narrates much of the ride, dishing out facts about Redwoods and the various forest animals. My kids were particularly fond of the on-board singing guitarist. He filled the time between the narration.
KidTripster Tip: The snack cart isn’t just for kids. It also offers a wide variety of adult beverages including Skunk Beer and mixed drinks.
One interesting note, the Skunk Train is dog-friendly. We saw plenty of dogs in both the open-air section and the traditional train cars. You do have to notify the train ahead of time if you’re planning to bring your four-legged friend.
Cost varies by season: Youth (2 and under) starts at $10.80; Youth (2-12) starts at $16.20; Adult starts at $27.
KidTripster Tip: A longer Skunk Train also runs out of the town of Willits. That one is seasonal and only operates between March and December.
Photo courtesy: Skunk Train
Where to eat?
For breakfast, we took a trip “down the yellow brick road” to Eggheads, a small breakfast and lunch spot in the heart of Fort Bragg. The restaurant's Wizard of Oz theme carries through to the decorations and menu items. Why? Your guess is as good as mine!
The eggs Benedict appears to be the specialty using various ingredients and different kinds of Hollandaise sauce including champagne and tequila. The kids' menu offered a variety of nicely-proportioned options including French toast and eggs and even Cheerios for your picky eaters.
KidTripster Tip: You may be surprised when the Eggheads staff brings your meals on what seem to be paper plates. These plates are actually made from 100% compostable sugarcane. The restaurant claims the switch cuts water use by 35% and reduces its carbon footprint.
Fort Bragg is home to North Coast Brewing Company, known for its Scrimshaw Pilsner and Old Rasputin Imperial Stout. It’s a fixture in downtown with three different buildings making up its “campus;” one of those building is a restaurant. While the menu doesn’t feature a kids’ section, it does feature several kid-friendly items. My three kids split a pepperoni pizza, and that was plenty for them. My wife enjoyed a buffalo chicken sandwich while I opted for jumbo shrimp and chips. We all agreed that the food was good but that the fries were great!
KidTripster Tip: I consider myself a craft beer enthusiast, and North Coast makes a wide variety of styles and flavor profiles to please any mommy and daddy in need of an adult beverage. Try a flight of beer. It’s the best way to sample several of the selections without having to settle on just one.
After our meal at North Coast, we headed to Cowlick’s Handmade Ice Cream. This super cute ice cream parlor offers a variety of year-round flavors and seasonal specials. You also can get classic treats like sundaes, banana splits, and root beer floats. The ice cream was delicious. The fact that it’s made with locally-sourced ingredients (whenever possible) really comes through in the flavor.
KidTripster Tip: My family enjoyed watching the hand-rolled waffle cones being made nearly as much as eating them. During the summer, the staff can make as many as 200 waffle cones per day!
Photo courtesy: Cowlick’s
Like life, getting to Mendocino County is as much about the journey as it is the destination. You really have no choice but to drive. I’m not going to lie - it’s rough. The roads between Highway 101 and Highway 1 are windy, twisty, curvy, and any other word that means the opposite of straight. Three of my four passengers got car sick.
Here’s the silver lining: if the winding roads aren’t threatening to take your lunch, the scenery will take your breath away. As you climb into the coastal range, look down on the valleys filled with emerald trees enveloped by low hanging clouds. It’s truly Mother Nature at her finest.