It is the Cinderella of California, the less-recognized sister to the state’s more glamorous starlets.
Except in Mendocino County, the slipper is always in place and the clock never strikes midnight. For Mendocino is perpetually beautiful.
And no matter where one is – be it on the coast, driving through the redwoods or at a winery or brewpub – it’s a ball all the time.
Mendocino County is a “coastal combination” destination about two hours north of San Francisco and the Bay Area. This is to say it is home to some of the most spectacular coastal vistas in all of California. But with giant redwoods, mountains and a lush valley full of wineries, it also has dramatic scenery inland. It is as diverse as it is dynamic, as refined as it is rustic.
This is a guide to Mendocino County, a look at its extensive wine country, its coastline and the roads that lead to those places. More detailed articles look at the Scenic Drives of Mendocino County; the towns of Hopland, Mendocino and Fort Bragg and, in the land of wineries, the Brewpubs of Mendocino County.
The area is busiest in the summer months. The weather is still spectacular in the shoulder seasons (warm days, cool nights) and in the slower winter, it’s not bad, either; the days are fairly warm and sunny with cooler nights (mid 60s and low 40s). Hotel rates rise and fall with the tourist demand like the surf at high and low tide.
• TRAVELING TO MENDOCINO COUNTY, CA
Part – a large part, in fact – of Mendocino’s charm is its relatively remote location. Relative to getting to Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Diego, anyway. Mendocino is up Highway 101, a mostly four-lane well-traveled road. The 101 runs through the heart of Mendocino’s wine country, while veering off to the west and heading to California Highway 1 – the famous Pacific Coast Highway – provides stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and goes through the coastal communities of Mendocino County.
There are a couple of airport choices. The closest is Santa Rosa, home of Charles Shultz; it has statues of Peanuts characters downtown. PubClub.com calls Santa Rosa the “Charlie Brown town.” The Charles M. Shultz Sonoma County Airport is a small landing spot served by Frontier Airlines. It’s about an hour to Mendocino.
Another option is Oakland. It is served by more airlines than Santa Rosa and is closer to Mendocino (and the Sonoma and Napa wine regions, as well) with considerably cheaper rental cars than SFO. The trick is navigating the confusing Caltrans-designed freeway system to get out of the Oakland area and to the 101 North. It’s a maze of “the 80s” – the 80N to the 80E to the 580W. Much of this happens within a matter of a few miles, often in heavy traffic. Even getting to the 880N from the rental car area takes quite a bit of trial-and-error driving.
Still, it’s a better option than SFO and the eventual reward is worth the initial hassle. And keep in mind that attitude is the difference in an ordeal and an adventure. Be sure to acknowledge Caltrans often during this adventure.
• DRIVING IN MENDOCINO – PCH AND THE 101
As previously mentioned, there are two north-south routes in Mendocino, the coastal Highway 1 and the 101 through the heart of the wineries. Experience them both by driving up one way and back through the other.
The coastal route is slightly more spectacular from south to north. Mendocino County begins at Gualala Point Regional State Park when Sonoma County gives way to Mendocino. This goes to the coastal village of Mendocino, the small city of Fort Bragg and onto Westport.
It also passes through the former logging villages of Gualala, Anchor Bay and Point Arena, through spectacular Little River and past the Point Arena Lighthouse and Point Cabrillo Lighthouse State Park.
Embark on this journey in full daylight and build in plenty of stopping time, for there are many turnouts, paths to the beach and views that challenge even the most loquacious person’s descriptions. The travel time to Fort Bragg is 2-5 hours, depending on one’s propensity to pull over at every scenic stop or just to admire much of the view from the car window.
The best access to the 1 from the 101 is along Tomales Petaluma Road in Petaluma. Exit Petaluma Blvd. South, to Bodoga Ave., to Tomales Petaluma Road.
Continuing north on the 101 is also a rewarding option. The first stop is the four-block town of Hopland. And, despite the fact it could be easily overlooked as just another of this country’s countless roadside towns, it is the gateway to Mendocino’s Wine Country. There are a half-dozen tasting rooms here and several wineries are just up the highway. It is also where California’s first microbrewery, the Mendocino Brewing Company, was born.
The 101 passes by the county seat of Ukiah, which has an organic brewpub and is a central location to stay for visiting the wineries.
The 101 eventually connects with the 1 in north Mendocino County, but a little diversion through Boonville is well worth the drive. Home of the annual Boonville Beer Festival and the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, it leads to the rich Anderson Valley Wine Country. Then, almost without warning, it runs smack into the Navarro River Redwoods, tall trees on either side of a suddenly-winding road that slows speeds to a pleasurable crawl.
To get to Boonville and the Anderson Valley Wine Country, take the 253W to the 128 North. After the wineries and the redwoods, this merges with California 1. Taking it north leads to Little River, Mendocino and Fort Bragg. To the south leads to the Point Arena Lighthouse and Mendocino’s stunning southern coast.
For more details, click on the article featuring The Scenic Drives of Mendocino County.
• MENDICINO COUNTY WINE COUNTRY
While the wine countries of Napa and Sonoma an hour to the south are, deservedly so, highly regarded around the world, it’s worth sampling what the vineyards of Mendocino produce.
There are more than 60 wineries in Mendocino. The primary areas are along Highway 128 between Boonville and Navarro, and the 101 on either side of Ukiah. The latter is where wine making in Mendocino originated around the turn of the last century and it is home to the region’s largest and oldest wineries.
Most offer tastings of four selections, along with a small amount of cheese, crackers and nuts, for $5. One of the most scenic is Goldeneye, five miles north of Boonville, which has a patio overlooking its vineyards.
On warm and sunny days – and that’s most days here – touring the wineries is a truly Northern California lifestyle experience.
• MENDOCINIO’S MICROBREWERIES
California’s first brewery was established in Hopland, the Mendocino Brewing Company. It has a tasting room in Hopland, much like that of a winery.
It is one of four microbreweries in Mendocino. The others are the Anderson Valley Brewing Campany in Boonville, the North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg and the Ukiah Brewing Company in downtown Ukiah. Mendocinio Brewing and Anderson Valley are tasting rooms while North Coast and Ukiah are restaurants serving their beers on tap.
• Anderson Valley Brewing Company. 17700 Hwy 253. (707) 895-BEER. AVBC.com.
• Mendocino Brewing Company, 13351 So. Hwy 101. (707) 744-1381. MendocinoBrew.com.
• North Coast Brewing Company, 455 North Main Street. (707) 964-2739. NorthCoastBrewing.com.
• Ukiah Brewing Company, 102. S. State Street. (707) 468-9194.
• MENDOCINO ACCOMMODATIONS & HOTELS
• Grey Whale Inn, Fort Bragg. A friendly B&B located a few blocks from downtown and just down from the North Coast Brewing Company. Its large rooms are suites with a microwave, refrigerator and couch. The walls are filled with historic photos and there is an organic garden in the front, which comes into play in the breakfast part of the B&B. Check-in times are between 2-6 p.m.
615 North Main Street. (800) 382-7422. GreyWhaleInn.com.
• Super 8, Ukiah. This is no run-down hotel off the highway. It’s clean and modern and has rooms at bargain rates run by a manager who caters to guests’ needs and arranges wine tours. The rooms are large and there is free wireless Internet. It is approximately 40 minutes from the Anderson Valley wineries and just a few miles from several wineries on the 101.
693 South Orchard Way. (707) 468-8181. Super8Ukiah.com.
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