Far too many visitors to Northern California halt their travels somewhere in the middle of Napa or Sonoma County wine country. After living in Northern California for more than a decade, I highly recommend venturing farther north. There are so many amazing NorCal destinations for more adventurous travelers willing to drive just a little farther. Mendocino County, a coastal county just north of Sonoma, has become one of our family’s favorite Northern California destinations over the years.
Mendocino has a mix of different climates and topographies to explore. There is everything from the vineyards of wine country along the Russian River to sweeping majestic coastal views of the Lost Coast. And of course, who can forget the redwood forests with trees big enough to drive through.
Here is what you need to know about visiting Mendocino County with kids and why it is a worthy destination for families in their Northern California travels.
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Mendocino County Basics
The most important thing to know about Mendocino before visiting is just how vast it is. It stretches nearly 100 miles south to north. It’s possible to drive for hours and hours and never leave the county. Plan accordingly.
There are two major north/south thoroughfares through the county: Highway 1 on the coast and Highway 101 inland. Most visitors come into the county by driving 101 from the Bay Area through Sonoma County, before veering off on the more local byways.
Highway 101 and Highway 1 are connected east to west by two major roads. Highway 128 runs from Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County through Boonville and hits the coast a bit south of the Village of Mendocino. The more northern east-west route is Highway 20. Although these roads are all called “highways,” don’t be fooled. They are quite windy in many places and not always well-marked or well lit. Pack the Dramamine and plan for plenty of time to slow down and get to your destination. The drive is half the adventure when it comes to Mendocino County travels.
Mendocino has a number of different regions family travelers can target. Because the vast size of the county, it isn’t exactly easy to pick a single home base and drive to the county’s various attractions every day. You’ll be on the winding roads far too long.
My family has most-often visited Mendocino as as weekend trip from our home in the Bay Area. We have found that on shorter two night trips, targeting one area of the county to stay and explore is the best plan. If you have more than just a day or two, I’d recommend hotel-hopping and setting up a home base in a few different places to see all the different areas of the county.
For visitors flying in to the area, be aware than Mendocino is a bit remote. But it’s worth the work to get there! The closest commercial airport is in Sonoma County (STS) in the south or Arcata-Eureka (ACV) to the north. Bay Area airports like OAK or SFO or Sacramento (SMF) are also viable alternatives with more frequent and cheaper flights.
What to do in Mendocino County with Kids
So what are the best things for families to do in Mendocino County? Here are our many tried and true recommendations in Mendocino County with kids:
1. Skunk Train (Fort Bragg and Willits)
The biggest draw in Mendocino County for family travelers is undoubtedly the Skunk Train, named for the smelly exhaust on the trains of old. For little train lovers, this historic former logging train is a must-ride. For families with younger kids, I recommend the shorter coastal redwoods trip (Pudding Creek Express) that departs from Fort Bragg on the coast. True railroad superfans might want to do the longer four hour ride from Willits on the Northspur Flyer.
2. Mendocino Coast Model Railroad (Fort Bragg)
After riding the rails on the Skunk Train, this model railroad museum in Fort Bragg is just steps away. Admission is free with your Skunk Train ticket, so be sure to save it! In this museum, model train enthusiasts have constructed an impressive scale display of the historic trains that have been the lifeblood of the county’s economy for generations.
3. Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (Fort Bragg)
Botanical gardens aren’t always the most kid-friendly of destinations, but Mendocino’s are a must-do for families. The gardens occupy 47 acres, stretching all the way to the coast with a major payoff: majestic views of the rocks and water below. Plan for at least 2-3 hours to make the one-mile hike to the coast and explore the various gardens. One of the paths is paved and stroller and wheelchair accessible, but a baby carrier or hiking backpack may be easier for families with little ones. A worthy detour on the way to the coast is the vegetable garden where kids can pick and eat a fresh strawberry off the vine.
4. Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree (Leggett)
Mendocino County’s redwoods are a major tourist draw for many families. But none are as famous as the redwood so big you can drive a car through it. The Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree is not far off of Highway 101 in the northernmost part of the county. Weekend visitors should plan on an early morning arrival to beat the crowds than line up for this drive.
5. Confusion Hill (Piercy)
Just a few minutes away from the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree is Confusion Hill, one of several “gravity houses” where balls roll uphill and objects appear to defy gravity. Like the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, it’s a chance to teach your kids a little science while they are marveling at the mysteries. During the summer, a small mountain train also runs from Confusion Hill through the redwoods.
6. Point Arena Lighthouse (Point Arena)
The West Coast’s tallest working lighthouse is worthy of a stop for families visiting the southern coastal area of the county. Visitors can climb 115 feet to the top, or enjoy the museum at the base where the lighthouse and county’s history are on display.
7. Russian Gulch State Park (Mendocino)
For a budget-friendly outdoor adventure (just $10 entry per car), head to Russian Gulch State Park along the coast just minutes from the Village of Mendocino. A very easy hike for young kids is the coastal trek to Devil’s Punch Bowl, a collapsed sea cave where waves rush in and churn and froth against the cliffs. For families with about a half-day to spend in the park, continue to the inland portion of the state park where a 2 hour waterfall hike is a major highlight.
8. Anderson Valley Brewing Company (Boonville)
Anderson Valley is one of Northern California’s most well-known breweries. And yes, it is kid-friendly! The tasting room allows kids so parents can sample Boont Amber Ale without hiring a babysitter. There’s a disc golf course outside for the chance to try a new sport with your family too.
9. Glass Beach (Fort Bragg)
One of the most-well known tourist sites in Mendocino County is Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. It’s a former city dump where waves slowly pounded the trash, rounding it into clear sea glass that gives the beach its name. Unfortunately, the many tourists have made their mark, removing much of the sea glass which is against local law. As a result, it doesn’t quite have the wow factor that it did in years past, but it’s still worthy of a quick visit for families.
10. Pudding Creek Beach & MacKerricher State Park (Fort Bragg)
After a visit to Glass Beach, walk a bit farther north to cross the Pudding Creek Trestle into MacKerricher State Park for more outdoor beach adventures. Pudding Creek Beach right below the trestle is a beautiful flat and sandy stretch of beach perfect for kids who will love wading in the creek as it meets the sea. You’ll need to drive a bit farther north to explore the rest of the state park, but you can’t go wrong with views just about anywhere.
Where to Stay in Mendocino County with Kids
So where are the best places to stay for exploring the varied attractions and regions of Mendocino County? Here are a few of our family’s recommendations.
Accommodations on the Coast
The accommodations on the Mendocino Coast are plentiful. If you are in search of luxury, this is where the higher-end options can be found within the county. The Mendocino coast is a haven for couples travelers, so be aware that not all of the lodging options are ideal for families as a result.
But never fear – many places are great for kids too! We found a gem for travelers with kids on our last Mendocino vacation: the Little River Inn just south of the Village of Mendocino. With incredibly spacious rooms, decks with magnificent coastal views, and a gourmet restaurant that welcomes children, it is definitely the place to stay for families on a more luxury budget. My kids took full advantage of the jetted tub in the bathroom for a swim break too.
Farther up the coast in the city of Fort Bragg are more budget-friendly accommodations, including several chain hotels. For a local favorite that won’t break the bank, try the Surf & Sand Lodge adjacent to the Pudding Creek Trestle with excellent coastal views of MacKerricher State Park and direct beach access.
Lodging in Central Mendocino County
The historic Boonville Hotel is pretty much the place to stay in the central part of the county between Highway 101 and Highway 1. It’s the kind of place where you’ll know everyone within a half hour of checking in. It’s the perfect jumping off place for travelers looking to visit the Anderson Valley Brewing Company or a number of Mendocino wineries. Just be aware that it doesn’t have air conditioning, so I’d plan carefully for visits during hot summer months! (Bonus: while in town, find a local who can speak a little Boontling to your kids.)
For travelers along Highway 101, the largest city with the most accommodations in the county is Ukiah. There are few fancy lodging options, but there are plenty of clean and utilitarian hotel choices in town. The Hampton Inn Ukiah is consistently the best rated in the city, although I can personally vouch for the Fairfield Inn Ukiah as a reliable choice too – especially for travelers who prefer Marriott points.
Although technically in Humboldt County just to the north of the county line, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the historic Benbow Inn in Garberville as another amazing place to stay. It’s the perfect jumping off point for exploring the redwoods, including the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree south in Leggett or the Avenue of the Giants farther north. Stop in for brunch even if you don’t stay overnight.
Have you been to Mendocino County on your family’s travels? Leave your recommendations in the comments.
Disclosure: I was hosted by the Little River Inn, Skunk Train, and Mendocino Botanical Gardens on a recent visit. All of our other travels to the county have been at our own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.