Sandwiched between ancient redwoods and the Pacific Ocean, Mendocino’s wild and rugged landscape gives it a secluded feel. And yet, its unconventional and adventurous spirit is a draw for visitors of all ages. In this post, we share the best things to do with kids on the Mendocino coast.
If you’re thinking about a visit to Mendocino, read on for kid-friendly activities plus some great places to stay and eat. I’ve also added a four-day itinerary to show how all these activities can blend for an amazing family adventure!
Things are changing fast – make sure to double-check what’s open before your trip. And be sure to follow all local guidelines to keep yourself and others safe!
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HOW TO ENJOY A VISIT TO MENDOCINO WITH KIDS
Downtown Mendocino feels out of another time and place, with quaint storefronts overlooking the ocean. Some of California’s most scenic state parks are only a few minutes away in any direction. Short drives north and south lead to the seaside towns of Fort Bragg and Little River, each with its own character and unique places to explore.
At Mendocino County’s northern end, kids love driving through one of the area’s famous giant redwoods. To the southeast, indulge in Anderson Valley’s excellent wineries and rich produce. While there is plenty to keep you busy in every direction, the area invites you to slow down, relax, and enjoy the beauty of your surroundings.
All the places and activities mentioned can be found on the post map.
IN THIS POST
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN MENDOCINO WITH KIDS
1. Explore Historic Downtown Mendocino
Downtown Mendocino is a picturesque village surrounded by the gorgeous Marin Headlands on three sides. The town’s “backyard” is Big River and towering coastal redwoods.
The seaside town has a unique character. It is full of restaurants, shops, and inns that feel like they are from another time and place. Perhaps that’s why it was chosen as a film location for shows like “The Majestic,” set in the 1950s, and “Murder She Wrote,” set in a small coastal town in Maine.
Downtown Mendocino is a great spot for a stroll. Park your car and head to the beach, try some restaurants, and check out a variety of unique shops. The following are some notable stops the whole family can enjoy.
OUT OF THIS WORLD SHOP
My six-year-old JJ is a shopper, and it was hard to get him to leave the Out of This World Shop. This little store has a wonderful selection of educational and science-themed toys, games, puzzles, kits, and more. The front window faces the Pacific Ocean and is lined with telescopes that you can peek through. It’s also known to be the largest binocular retailer in Central and Northern California, should you want to get a closer look at the amazing shorebirds that live just down the road.
Founded in 1962, Gallery Bookshop is a great find. The book-loving staff is happy to help you find your next perfect read, and families love the Bookwinkle’s children’s section. The resident cat is a store mascot. Give him a pet while browsing.
VILLAGE TOY STORE
If you’re looking for a fun souvenir of your trip, this charming toy store specializes in handcrafted, old-fashioned toys. Instead of the latest plastic transformer, you can find a great selection of books, puzzles, and stuffed animals.
2. Paddle Big River
A unique way to get on the water can be found at Catch-a-Canoe & Bicycles Too. If you’ve ever wanted to pilot a redwood outrigger canoe, this is your chance!
There are several varieties for rent, including the Canine Cruiser and family-sized boats that can accommodate up to 8 people. Each has a foot-operated rudder for easier control and twin hulls that provide greater stability than kayaks and canoes. Safety, control, and beauty come together to make your voyage on the Big River an experience to remember.
If you want a bit more help or the perspective of a naturalist, they also offer guided tours on the Mendoléa, a voyaging canoe that uses a sail when conditions are favorable. Relax and watch for harbor seals, otters, and great blue herons along the Big River. It’s a beautiful way to explore Mendocino with the kids.
While the outrigger boats are the biggest draw here, you can also rent canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and – of course – bicycles.
3. Discover the Area’s Natural Wonders at California State Parks
Given the natural beauty of Mendocino, it’s no surprise that it’s surrounded by some of California’s most scenic state parks!
MENDOCINO HEADLANDS STATE PARK
You can’t miss Mendocino Headlands State Park when visiting downtown Mendocino. It surrounds the town and then goes south to encompass Big River Beach. Grab some coffee and cocoa and enjoy a stroll from town. There are endless vantage points to take in the gorgeous site of the Pacific Ocean all around you.
It’s an easy walk from town to Point Mendocino with views of sea caves and arches below. While we stayed on the bluffs during our visit, we noticed families splashing on Portuguese Beach below. The area seemed protected from large waves, but make sure to time your beach time to low tide and always watch for those sneaker waves.
Big River Beach is most often used for a day of playing and picnicking on the beach.
You can find public bathrooms on the north side of the park, near Cypress Grove.
VAN DAMME STATE PARK
South of downtown Mendocino in Little River, Van Damme State Park is a great option for hiking, biking, birding, and kayaking. Take a walk along the park’s 0.25-mile boardwalk to view the pygmy forest. It’s weird, wonderful, and has interpretive signs to help you understand what you’re viewing!
Van Damme is also home to the popular Fern Canyon Scenic Trail, considered one of the county’s best hikes. This mostly flat trail follows the river and connects with the Pygmy Forest Trail should you want to take a longer loop around.
Kayak Mendocino offers guided sea cave tours for kayakers of all ages and abilities. Join local seals, sea stars, and shorebirds while exploring the rich marine habitat. Because of Van Damme’s protected channels, the tour is beginner-friendly … a rare find for sea caves!
RUSSIAN GULCH STATE PARK
About 3 miles north of downtown Mendocino is Russian Gulch State Park. Another favorite of both locals and tourists, visitors to Russian Gulch enjoy the park’s 15 miles of trails.
The park’s beaches, coves, and tide pools can be accessed from the Headlands Trail. This trail also leads to one of the park’s most popular sites, a notorious sinkhole called Devil’s Punchbowl.
Devil’s Punch Bowl is a 100-foot wide, 60-foot deep partially-collapsed sea cave. Investigate this curious natural wonder by walking the easy 0.75-mile out and back Headlands Trail that loops around it. During high tide the waves churn within the rocky formation, sometimes spraying into the air.
Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge is located near the trailhead. Built in 1940, the lovely art deco bridge makes a great photo op while the family plays along the shore near Russian Gulch Creek.
Russian Gulch also has its own popular Fern Canyon trail that connects with the park’s waterfall trail. At the time of writing a key section is closed for trail repair until further notice.
4. Wander through the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Though many don’t think of Botanical Gardens as kid-friendly spaces, we love exploring the Bay Area’s many fantastic gardens. As one of only a few public gardens with trails that reach the coast, Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are considered by many to be among the state’s best. They are a highlight for many visitors’ experiences of Mendocino with kids.
The gardens cover 47 beautiful acres. Families enjoy the one-mile hike to the coast. Make a detour to the fruit and vegetable garden where you can pick and eat strawberries off the vine.
Visitors with kids enjoy the Sprouts program which offers self-guided activities for families to do together. Themes include colors, adaptations in nature, birdwatching, nature therapy, whale watching, and more. Materials are available in English and Spanish.
5. Take a Ride on the Skunk Train or Cruise on Railbikes
Located 10 miles north of downtown Mendocino, Fort Bragg is a bit larger and offers plenty of family-friendly things to do.
The biggest attraction for a visit to Mendocino with kids is Fort Bragg’s historic Skunk Train. Since 1885, the Skunk Train has wound its way through old-growth redwood groves and into the Noyo River canyon. Riders enjoy the same gorgeous views that have welcomed passengers for over 100 years.
Seasonal and holiday rides take place around Easter, fall harvest, and Christmas.
One of the Skunk Train’s newest attractions is the Rail Bikes. The electric-powered rail bikes send you and a buddy breezing along Pudding Creek and into the heart of Mendocino County’s redwood groves. These guided journeys include a stopover at Glen Blair Junction for a picnic or walk in the woods.
Children who are 3-5 years old must ride with a provided harness or their own car seat. Dog trailers can be added at an additional cost.
6. Try Out Deep Sea Fishing
Get out on the high seas with a charter like All Aboard Adventures. Book a family-friendly fishing, crabbing, or whale watching expedition. It’s sure to be an adventure and an opportunity to create lasting family memories.
7. Play on the Beaches
With all that coastline, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of good places to play on the beach in and around Mendocino. This is a must for any visit to Mendocino with kids. The following are some of the area’s many places to relax and play near the ocean.
PUDDING CREEK BEACH
This little beach was right near our hotel in Fort Bragg, and quickly became one of the boys’ favorites. I often talk about JJ’s fears of the ocean. He was knocked down by a wave at 3, we both overreacted, and we’ve been struggling with beachgoing ever since. A big part of the problem is that I want him to enjoy a day at the beach like a normal kid, but I have my own fears about those northern California sneaker waves.
Well, Pudding Creek Beach was a happy turning point for us. The beach is at the point where Pudding Creek reaches the Pacific Ocean. This means there is plenty of calm water to play a short distance away from the ocean. It made for fun and easy beach trips for everyone. The boys could have stayed here the whole time and been happy.
THE GLASS BEACHES
You can’t write about visiting the Mendocino area without at least mentioning Glass Beach. Many moons ago, trash was dumped on beaches in the Fort Bragg area. Over the next 100 years, it was transformed into sea glass by the natural forces of the ocean.
We visited what I now know to be the most popular of the three Glass Beaches, parking in the small lot at the end of Elm Street. I had read that there wasn’t much sea glass left, and signs beg people to leave the pieces they find behind. But they don’t.
When we got to the stairway that leads down to the beach, we found that the whole area was closed. There were signs about protecting a seal habitat. When we looked down from the cliffs though, a person had found their way in and was eagerly looking for any sign of glass. And from where we were standing, it looked like he was pocketing what he found. He seemed not to notice or care about the seals resting nearby.
So, my advice would be to give this Glass Beach a pass. There are two other glass beaches that are open and might have more to see. The beach to the north was incorporated into MacKerricher State Park, thus making sea glass collection illegal. The other is near a place known as Treasure Cove, about 0.25-miles south of the Glass Beach we visited.
All that said, the Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail that links the Glass Beaches is awesome to explore on its own. Once the property of the Georgia Pacific mill, it is now a public trail that takes you along a beautiful stretch of coastline. Enjoy a magical sunset walk here. Any sea glass sightings are simply a bonus.
8. Check Out Fort Bragg’s Quirky Shops and Museums
There are some pretty quirky museums to explore in and around Mendocino. The following are just a few that caught my attention.
LARRY SPRING MUSEUM OF COMMON SENSE PHYSICS
This museum space is dedicated to the life work of self-taught physicist, experimenter, and folk artist Larry Spring. The museum celebrates his “DIY Spirit of Amateur Inquiry” and opens up his collection to new creative possibilities in that spirit.
This is a place after my own heart. I find it wonderful to simply celebrate creativity and curiosity in all its forms. Visitors can explore Spring’s cabinet of curiosities or embrace his hands-on approach through a public program.
SEA GLASS MUSEUM
So you ventured down to one of the Glass Beaches and didn’t see a thing? All is not lost. This little museum has a big display of jewelry created from glass picked from the local beaches (I suppose from the time before that was a no no).
Visitors can also learn more about the history and continued evolution of Glass Beach.
MENDOCINO COAST MODEL RAILROAD & HISTORICAL SOCIETY
If you have a little (or big) train lover with you, make time to stop by the Model Railroad Museum. Located right behind the Skunk Train depot, this is a great place to wait for your train or to cap off a fun ride.
This space is not only dedicated to the trains though, it shares the history of the logging industry on the Mendocino Coast. The goal was to create a “living history” of the era in the form of a model railroad layout. The resulting display shows what a logging railroad might have looked like in the first half of the 20th century.
I’m not one to view the logging industry through a romantic lens, but I am always open to hearing stories from the past. And my kids love trains.
While not a Museum in the strictest sense of the word, this fascinating shop displays geodes, meteorites, fossils, and more. The idea is not just to shop, but to learn the story behind every stone.
Visitors here are encouraged to touch, ask questions, and explore the shop as long as they’d like. Owner Gary Mason encourages visitors to look in drawers and may even give a scientific demonstration for the inquisitive few.
9. Celebrate Migrating Whales
If you’re visiting the Mendocino area in November through April, don’t miss a chance to see gray whales migrating from Alaska to Mexico. They swim by the Mendocino Coast on their way, offering lucky visitors a chance to see them spouting, breaching, and diving.
Mendocino Headlands State Park and the Point Arena Lighthouse are two favorite places to spot whales from land. You can also book a whale-watching charter for a closer look.
Another fun option is to time your visit to coincide with one of the local whale festivals in the spring. Whale season is a big deal here. The towns of Westport, Fort Bragg, Mendocino, and Little River each have a festival to celebrate!
10. Have a Horseback Riding Adventure
No matter where you are in California, you’re sure to find a fun horseback riding experience nearby. And the Mendocino Coast is no exception to that rule.
Whether you love to ride or are just starting, Ricochet Ridge Ranch is sure to have the right experience for you. Their most popular tours are one-hour private trail and beach rides in MacKerricher State Park, but there are many more options to choose from.
For beginner horse lovers and family groups, Ricochet Ridge even plans custom riding vacations that are the perfect combination of adventure and relaxation.
Riders must be at least six years old. All experience levels are welcome, from first-timers to competitors.
THINGS TO DO WITH KIDS AWAY FROM THE MENDOCINO COAST
The Mendocino activities listed above are all on the coast. Outside the coastal area, there is plenty of fun to be had before getting to the adjacent counties of Humboldt and Sonoma.
One word of warning: though the mileage might not be far, all the roads that lead to Mendocino are winding! The 40 mile stretch between Fort Bragg and the Chandelier Drive-Through Tree was a full hour and a half of twists and turns. And while I love a good drive, the kids in the backseat had a more difficult time. Come prepared with ginger and limes to ease any tummy troubles. You can read more on our approach to car sickness in this Road Trip Essentials post.
A fun road trip stop while heading north through Mendocino with kids, Confusion Hill has been full of mystery and family fun since 1949. Check out their famous Gravity House, Shoe House, and unique mini Mountain Train Ride. There’s also a playground if your kids need somewhere to run and play for a bit.
Chandelier Drive-Through Tree
If you’re driving near big tree country, you might be tempted to stop at one of the drive-through tree attractions. The Chandelier is the southernmost drive-through tree and the biggest. People have been driving through this tree since 1937.
I was sure that our car wouldn’t fit, but we were told that all standard-sized SUVs could make it…depending on the skill of the driver. I’ve put enough dents in the car, so John took the wheel while I snapped photos.
This place exceeded our expectations. While I thought it would be a fun experience, I didn’t expect the huge property that we found there. There was a large duck pond surrounded by bullfrogs and no shortage of room to run around the grounds. Plan to stay awhile and enjoy a picnic here on your next northern California road trip. It’s sure to be a hit when visiting the Mendocino area with kids.
Gowan’s Oak Tree
Driving southeast of the Mendocino Coast, Philo is a great stop for farm-fresh foods. Gowan’s Oak Tree has been selling fruit at this family-owned farm stand in the Anderson Valley for almost 100 years. They grow over 60 varieties of apples and other fresh locally-grown produce.
Make a stop and enjoy the family picnic area and ice cold apple cider straight from the orchard. A picnic here is a major upgrade from the usual road trip fast food!
Interested in family-friendly wine tasting? Pennyroyal Farm is a great option. Children are welcome on a tour of the farm’s creamery and vineyard, which includes a chance to meet the resident animals. Your tour ends with a cheese tasting experience that includes wine and grape juice for kids or non-drinkers.
Pennyroyal has suspended tours for now due to COVID, but hopefully, they will be up and running again soon.
B. Bryan Preserve
On the coast south of downtown Mendocino, B. Bryan Preserve is a fun stop animal lovers will enjoy.
B. Bryan is not a zoo, it’s a private preserve that houses endangered zebra, giraffe, and antelopes. You can explore the grounds through a self-guided tour in your own car. Follow the map that you get at the tour barn and stop at different enclosures along the way. The tour should take about 30 minutes and end with a giraffe feeding.
There are also options to book guided tours in B. Bryan’s Land Rovers, and even to stay in one of their onsite cottages.
KID-FRIENDLY EATS NEAR MENDOCINO
Noyo Fish Company
We chose to stay in Fort Bragg, so we headed to the harbor for some fish and chips on our first night. Noyo Fish Company’s comfortable patio was right on the water. The fish and chips were delicious, and the people were super friendly. It was the perfect casual spot for our first night in town.
Further down the road, popular Princess Seafood was relocating to its new location when we visited. The new space has a spacious outdoor deck right under the Noyo Bridge. It looks like a great spot to enjoy a seafood dinner! I know my boys would love the salmon plate offered on their kid’s menu.
Good Life Cafe & Bakery
This comfortable friendly spot in downtown Mendocino serves organic food, desserts, and snacks. They bake delicious pastries fresh each morning to be enjoyed on the cafe’s sunny deck. Another option is to take them to go and enjoy overlooking the ocean, a short walk away. Gluten-free options are available here.
Frankie’s Pizza and Ice Cream
How can a place called Frankie’s Pizza and Ice Cream not make it on a list of kid-friendly eats? Frankie’s is a family-run restaurant where you can relax and hang out over pizza, falafel, and delicious ice cream. They also have dairy-free cheese options for those with allergies.
Cowlick’s Ice Cream
Seaside towns and ice cream go hand in hand. Cowlick’s Ice Cream is an iconic Fort Bragg ice cream shop and a landmark for tourists and locals alike. Lines for their classic and seasonal flavors are not uncommon, but most agree that it’s well worth the wait!
Mendocino Farmers Markets
Farmers Markets are one of my favorite options for fresh food and people watching. Mendocino has a market downtown on Fridays from 12 pm – 2 pm from May – October. Fort Bragg’s is year-round on Wednesday from 3 pm – 5:30 pm. The Fort Bragg market is conveniently located near Main Street between Cowlick’s and North Coast Brewing Company’s Taproom.
PLACES TO STAY IN MENDOCINO WITH KIDS
The Mendocino Coast has a wide range of places to stay, from glamping to cottages to upscale resorts. During our visit, we chose to stay in Fort Bragg. It has a grittier atmosphere than idyllic Mendocino, but we also found a few more family-friendly options that worked for us. On a future stay, I’d love to spend a few nights at the Little River Inn!
The following selections are some unique lodging options in an area with many to choose from.
Little River Inn
Just 5-minutes south of Mendocino, this is a gorgeous property on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is within walking distance to Van Damme State Park and Beach. Many of the rooms have ocean views. You can also book one of their fabulous cottages with ocean views from the hot tub on the deck. Learn more here.
This is where we stayed in Fort Bragg. Half the visitors seemed to be from Redding and half from San Francisco, making for some great people-watching.
Our room was basic, but it was clean and had amazing views from the little patio area. I enjoyed having a place to relax and watch the sunset at the end of the day. It was also an easy walk from the room to Pudding Creek Beach, which we loved. Learn more here.
Main Street Mendocino Vacation Rental
Walking distance to everything in downtown Mendocino with views right out to the ocean, this is a perfect location for a getaway on the coast. Park the car and walk to all the shops and restaurants in town. And the beach too! Learn more here.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Rentals
If you’re looking to have a unique lodging experience, consider a stay in the historic Keeper’s Quarters at the Point Cabrillo Light Station, a California State Historic Park. Enjoy spectacular ocean views and explore 300 acres of Nature Preserve. The location is conveniently located between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, meaning easy access to the best things to do on the coast. Properties range from the spectacular 4-bedroom Head Lightkeeper’s House to smaller 1-bedroom cottages. Learn more here.
WHEN TO VISIT MENDOCINO
Mendocino offers something for visitors year-round. Because of its location on the coast, temperatures are pleasant but on the cooler side all year. Daytime highs don’t get much hotter than 70 in the summer and are in the 50s in winter.
No matter when you visit, you’ll want to pack layers. Bring rain gear if you visit in the winter.
Every season has its pros and cons. In late spring, expect to see wildflower blooms and plenty of green. Summer mornings are often foggy on the coast, with clearer skies in the afternoon. Fall is warmer and clearer with fewer crowds but carries the risk of California’s fire season. Winter has the most rain but also has plenty of bright, clear, sunny days.
The Mendocino Coast also has several fun festivals throughout the year. The whale festivals are in March, a film festival in May, music and Independence Day celebrations are in July, and food and wine festivals in the fall. Check to see what’s going on before you go!
GETTING TO MENDOCINO
Most visitors will arrive in Mendocino by road. The coastal towns are located along beautiful Highway 1. When driving north, you can take the coastal route the entire way from San Francisco, but the most direct route is via 101 and 128. Highway 128 takes you through Anderson Valley wine country.
Driving south, you’ll get on Highway 1 at the point where it begins at the intersection with 101 at the northern end of Mendocino County.
While all ways of getting to and from Mendocino are indeed beautiful, it is quite a journey with winding roads in every direction. These add minutes to the miles and can be a challenge for families with kids in the backseat. Be prepared to stop along the way to give them a breather, and prepare for possible motion sickness. My kids sucked on limes almost the entire 40 miles between 101 and Fort Bragg. I wasn’t as prepared for the twists and turns as I should have been, but luckily we had a bag of them left from camping!
Limes and ginger are a great help on road trips. You can read more on our approach to car sickness in this Road Trip Essentials post.
Another thing to note is that gas in Mendocino is often the most expensive in the country! Try to fill up outside of town if you can.
ITINERARY: MENDOCINO FAMILY ACTIVITIES FOR A 4-DAY WEEKEND
Sometimes there are just too many options to sort through! I put together this sample itinerary to help you imagine the possibilities for a 4-day weekend in Mendocino with kids.
On the Road
Mendocino is about a three-hour drive north from San Francisco if you go through Anderson Valley. It can be as long as 4.5 hours along the coast depending on your route. Both options are scenic drives but have lots of twists and turns. Plan on making some stops along the way so everyone gets plenty of breaks and fresh air.
Day 1: Get Settled and Unwind
On Day 1, we almost always try to take it easy. It’s likely been a long week topped off by a long drive, so we focus on switching to the getaway mindset and finding some places for the kids to run around.
- Check in to your vacation rental or hotel and get settled.
- Find a good meal and a sweet treat nearby. Consider Noyo Fish Company and Cowlick’s Ice Cream in Fort Bragg or Frankie’s Pizza and Ice Cream in Mendocino.
- Take a beach walk to stretch your legs and get a lay of the land. Find a spot to watch the gorgeous coastal sunset.
Day 2: Mendocino and Fort Bragg Highlights
- Stop by the Good Life Cafe & Bakery to start your day out right. Enjoy fresh pastries and coffee on the patio, or stroll to the trails off Main Street and enjoy the views from Mendocino Headlands State Park.
- Browse fun Mendocino shops like Out of This World and the Gallery Bookshop.
- After lunch, head 15 minutes north to Fort Bragg to catch a ride on the Skunk Train. The Pudding Creek Express has daily excursions at 2 pm.
- Head over to Pudding Creek Beach for some late afternoon playtime on the sand. This is a great wide sandy beach that marks the point where Pudding Creek almost meets the Pacific Ocean. The creek makes a shallow lagoon that is safe for young children to splash around.
- Enjoy another perfect sunset from the beach or the nearby Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail.
Day 3: Have an Adventure
- Kick-off day 3 with an adventure. There’s plenty to choose from depending on your interests. Explore the pygmy trees and sea caves in Van Damme State Park, paddle Big River in a redwood outrigger canoe, or enjoy a family horseback ride on the beach. There’s a fun way for every family to get out and make some lasting vacation memories together.
- Stretch out and relax on one of the local beaches. Take in the scene while you relive the morning’s adventures.
Day 4: Explore More of Mendocino County
- Check out and get ready to explore more of Mendocino on your journey home.
- Head south to B. Bryan Preserve for a self-guided tour of the zebras, antelopes, and giraffes.
- Soak in one last gorgeous view of the coast at Point Arena Lighthouse before heading inland.
- Cutover to Highway 128 which runs through Anderson Valley. Enjoy a farm tour at Pennyroyal Farms topped off by a family-friendly cheese, wine, and grape juice tasting.
- Raise your glasses to an unforgettable long weekend on the Mendocino Coast.