Looking for things to do in Mendocino with kids? This jaw-dropping area features tons of opportunities for exploration, and lots of small-town charm.
There's something mystical about the coast of Northern California. Nestled at the foot of the Pacific Northwest is Mendocino's charming coastal forests and patchwork of cattle ranches. Unlike most other California destinations with extensive tourist maps, you might need a bit more help finding things to do in Mendocino county when you arrive.
Getting Lost in Mendocino History
If you love to visit California (which is pretty likely if you have kids) you're familiar with Southern California. You may have even visited the grand ol' city of San Francisco in Northern California. Either way, you were probably near a city with a population greater than that of three midwest or mountain west states together.
Seriously, if you were to travel around all the theme parks of Los Angeles County alone, you would be visiting an area with a population greater than Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Utah COMBINED. That's a crowded place to visit. And an expensive one as well!
This is why we like to go beyond the typical tourist destinations and check out the smaller, less-explored areas like the northern coast. Here are our favorite things to do in Mendocino when we go into town.
Where to Stay in Mendocino: Little River Inn
No matter where you are traveling, it's always nice to have a place to call home… at least temporarily. When we travel to the coastal region of Northern California, like when we're looking for things to do in Mendocino, a stay at The Little River Inn is the clear choice. With a straight shot view of the ocean, being surrounded by trees in a little town, and family friendly atmosphere it makes perfect sense. We enjoyed our first stay here, as well as our last, and would definitely recommend these cozy cottage style rooms to anyone looking for an authentic feel.
We've tried several vacation rentals during the many times we've visited Mendocino, but we always come back to the familiar comfort of this laid-back place. They have vacation packages that include dining options, on-site golf, pet-friendly amenities and coastal activities. The rooms are spacious, with jetted soaking tubs and warming fireplaces.
Taking a short walk in the chilled pacific air from your room to the restaurant at The Little River Inn is the perfect precursor to the dollop of whipped cream on your morning hot chocolate. Of course, hollandaise layered upon perfectly poached eggs atop spinach and a split english muffin next to crispy hashbrowns is another way to do it. More of a “dad” way, if you will.
We also recommend you hit up Little River Inn for dinner. It's a great way to warm your bones after a long day of exploration. If you feel like a ‘pick-me-up' and want to feel rich inside and out, you HAVE to try the Billionaire Bacon. These thick slabs of salty pork are like regular bacon… just bigger and way better. And if you feel like eating on the leaner side, they also have a hardcore caesar salad made from kale. This one is a heavy duty salad with chicken that easily satisfies a big guy like myself.
We honestly love this place so much that we usually wind up eating a majority of our meals here. Based on the amount of time we've spent here, it's no wonder this is top of our list of things to do in Mendocino. That said, other nearby drinks and bites that are worth checking out include Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Frankie's Pizza, and North Coast Brewing.
Top Mendocino Sights
California is a state of vast land diversity. If you love to travel and want to see a lot without visiting multiple states, California is where it's at. Which brings us to the many things to do in Mendocino. After you've hit (or avoided) the theme parks and cities of SoCal, or sharp jagged peaks of the Sierras, follow the rivers down to the sea.
Big River Beach: Where the Rivers Meet the Sea
Bring yourself to where the fresh water of Big River meets the salty brine of the Pacific Ocean in a jaw-dropping coastal trail at Mendocino Headlands State Park. This is definitely one of the most scenic things to do in Mendocino.
This is by far my favorite place to see in Mendocino with kids. Here, you will find yourself at a meeting place of things far more ancient than any city, town, or village in the Golden State. This estuary is part of the Pomo Indian tribal land and – as you and anyone who visits can learn – it is both beautiful and essential to those native people.
A Van Damme Kind of Balance
Not to be confused with one of my favorite action superstars of the early '90s, Van Damme State Park is a gorgeous little cove within walking distance of The Little River Inn. Now, I would personally say it's the perfect place to practice your round house or high kick during a beautiful sunset, but I've been informed by Chelsea that I personally am not allowed. Something about embarrassing her.
In all honesty, this is a beautiful cove and park to take pictures while the sun goes down. Parking is free and so is the sunset. If you want to explore a bit more, there are professionally-guided kayak tours of the sea caves in this area that top many guides' lists of things to do in Mendocino. If you're up for a challenge, you may also enjoy the Ecological Staircase Trail at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve.
Mendocino Village Life
I can't honestly talk about things to do in Mendocino without talking about the actual town of Mendocino. That would be insanity.
Here, you will find the magic of a small town with big character and personality. For a meal with a bit of a change up, check out our recent stop at the The Goodlife Cafe and Bakery. Coffee, cakes, gluten free things, ice cream…Chelsea and the boys were pretty happy. Don't miss Ford House Museum while you're in town, too.
Enjoy that Sinking Feeling at The Sinking Hole
Just around the corner you'll find the Sinking Hole, a natural land feature carved out by the ocean and time. This water cavern resulted in an adjoining sink hole in Russian Gulch State Park along the Headlands Trail. Also sometimes referred to as a “blowhole,” this is one of the must-see things to do in Mendocino. It's one of many great locations to closely examine how time and water shape the beautiful west coast of the United States.
Russian Gulch Bridge
Also in Russian Gulch State Park, this jaw-dropping bridge, is just around the corner from the sink hole.
It's a great stepping off point for day hikes through the woods and to the waterfront of one of the most beautiful beaches on the west coast. Add it to your list of things to do in Mendocino, especially if you're a photo buff like me!
Finding the Light and Learning at Mendocino Lighthouses
Photographically speaking, my MOST favorite place to go is the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and Museum. Sitting along the coast a little further towards Fort Bragg, this light house is not only an amazing historical backdrop, but a wonderful location to learn about shipping in the 19th and early 20th century. As you walk down the easy path from the upper parking lot, we found ourselves following a few dozen deer curiously watching us as they ate tufts of grass.
This location is kid friendly and comes with a small scientific display style museum that talks about the health and ecosystem of the Northern California Coast. When it comes to finding things to do in Mendocino, this location is a one stop shop! Fun fact: the United States Coast Guard is responsible for the glass in the top of the lighthouse tower.
There are also lots of collected sea critters to gander at as well.
Point Arena Lighthouse is also nearby, and is surrounded by water on three sides. If you're into learning experiences as you plan which things to do in Mendocino, you'll also enjoy B Bryan Preserve, Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and the drive thru tree in the towering redwood forests nearby. The Skunk Train is another opportunity that's worth checking out.
Opening hours of lots of businesses around here depend on seasonality, so don't get frustrated if things you want to see are closed. Remember the numerous outdoor options, including horseback riding, hiking trails with ocean views, and the option to simply road trip around highway 128! You may also want to stop at the visitor center to get a quick overview of the latest and greatest things to do in Mendocino.
The Beauty of Stepping on Sea Glass
The final location we recommend visiting as an absolute must-see is Glass Beach.
A long time ago, this beach was used to dispose of many glass items and other refuse. After awhile, the other refuse was taken away and the glass was pulverized by the ocean's waves into smooth pebble-like chunks. This created a uniquely colorful beach of glass and rock that's safe to walk on to this day. Please note that you should not take the sea glass, because that degrades the area so it won't be as beautiful for future visitors.
Another thing to point out is that despite its California location, this area is NOT warm all year round. Cold ocean currents bring water down from Alaska, coupled with gusty winds which never seem to stop! A jacket goes a long way here. Packing a jacket should probably be top of your list of things to do in Mendocino. Hah!
If coastal exploration is your jam, you'll also enjoy the Point Loma tide pools down in San Diego, whitewater rafting up in Hell's Canyon, the sleepy town of Pacifica (also in Northern California), Kampgrounds of America‘s Astoria location in Oregon, or Fort Myers over in Florida.
What are you favorite things to do in Mendocino?