10 Remarkable Hiking Trails on California’s Mendocino Coast

Wandering 100 miles along the wild and rugged Pacific Ocean, the Mendocino Coast is a sight. Flaunting its wildlife, waves, wilderness, and wine, the area is “laid back California” and home to artists, makers, farmers, and Mother Nature.

Trails and trails lead to windswept Pacific headlands, secret beaches, redwood forests, fern canyons, huge rivers and thriving wetlands. On the Mendocino Coast, you’ll slow down, unplug, and immerse yourself in nature.

The California Coastal Trail hiking and redwood forests attract hikers and walkers from around the world. The area is crisscrossed with trails for walkers and cyclists of all levels.

Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

1. Ka-Kahleh Coastal Trail

Ka-Kahleh is the first trail along the coast, established 10,000 years ago by the Pomo tribes. Known as Noyo Headlands Park, Glass Beach and Fort Bragg Coastal Trail, the path meanders 3 miles along the Pacific on property that has been inaccessible to the public for over 100 years.

It’s a gorgeous way to see the rugged and rugged coastline, its many habitats, people and thought-provoking historical sites. An 8-foot-wide hardtop path provides safe walking and riding for all ages and abilities. Interpretive panels describing nature and history are scattered along the route. The shoals provide scenic respite and an unparalleled whale-watching position as the jaw-dropping giants pass by.

Fern Canyon Trail on the Mendocino Coast
Photo credit: Kevin Scanlon

2. Fern Canyon Trail

The Van Damme State Park Trail takes you from the shore to the forest through woods, redwood groves, and fern canyons. Walk along the small river, streams, streams and waterfalls. Plan the day for the 9 mile round trip walk. Take water, a picnic, sturdy walking shoes or boots and, of course, a camera.

Fern Canyon Trail begins near the Visitor Center at the park entrance near California Highway 1. Van Damme straddles the highway and includes the shoreline across the road. It is a very popular place for kayakers. Vendors are on hand to rent equipment and organize sea cave tours.

An ADA walk through a pygmy forest on the Mendocino Coast
Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

3. Jug Handle Ecological Staircase Trail

A forest of knee-high mature trees and stunted shrubs grows atop the Jug Handle Trail. The trail crosses five terraces (tectonic plates). Each terrace represents approximately 100,000 years of geological history. Each slab has different flora and fauna, starting with the Pacific Coast, moving through clifftop grasslands, woodlands, redwood forest, and finally the gray and mysterious Pygmy Forest.

The Eco-Stairs are in the Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. The 2.5 mile trail is easy to moderate and usually takes about 3 hours one way. An ADA pygmy forest trail is available. Travel south from Jug Handle to Fern Creek Road, then turn east and follow the signs to the parking lot.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse on the Mendocino Coast
Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

4. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail

The trail begins in the parking lot and leads to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, a working marine aid to navigation. From the lighthouse, trails wind north and south along the headlands. The trail is easy and gains little, if any, elevation.

2 miles of trails run along the shore and through meadows. Under the cliffs you see secret beaches, caves and coves. Whale watching from the cliffs is very common.

Driftwood structure at the Big River Trail on the Mendocino Coast
Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

5. Big River Trail

Follow the Big River Trail from the Pacific, where Big River empties into the ocean along an old logging road 10 miles east into the forest. If you can only hike one trail on the Mendocino Coast, Big River is the one. From the beach to the forest, you will explore all the variety of landscapes in the region.

Along the river, wildlife is abundant and active most of the year. Birds, seals, otters, frogs and fish go about their daily business, oblivious to hikers. Additionally, wild animals such as deer, bears, cougars and small mammals may cross your path.

This trail is easy to moderate the first 5 miles or so. After that it becomes a narrow trail. It also gains significant elevation.

Hikers, cyclists and horses are welcome on the trail. You will find benches and interpretive panels along the route. Also, kayak the Big River for an authentic wildlife safari.

Picnic table at the Old Smith Ranch Trail on the Mendocino Coast
Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

6. Old Smith Ranch Trail

The trail begins in a parking lot just off California Highway 1, south of the Ten Mile River Bridge. A large red sign can be seen from Hwy 1. The upper trail is easygoing, going through shrub tunnels and open trails. As you begin the gentle descent to the Ten Mile River, you will see the river, its Highway 1 bridge crossing the water, and the Ten Mile Dunes to the west.

From the bend, the trail continues along the edge of the river. You will see birds and amphibians in abundance. Salmon and their habitat are being restored in this protected area. Nearly wiped out by logging in the early 19th century, the salmon population grew, although fishing at Tem Mile is still prohibited.

Along the trail, several benches provide exceptional views of the river and wetlands. My favorite spot is at the very end of the trail, where a picnic table is perfectly situated to watch egrets wade and feed and overhead, and osprey fish soar and hunt.

Sea Cave on Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands
Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

7. Point Arena/Stornetta Public Lands

Magnificent geological formations abound on land and sea in this coastal California national monument. For example, looking east you can see the San Andreas Fault, where it rises above the earth’s crust. Looking west you will see rocks offshore. The forming islands form blowholes and caves as the relentless waves crash onto the shore, creating tiny islands called stacks.

The Stornetta Grounds are the first “on land” addition to a coastal monument. There are about 5 miles of trail. Most of the tracks are level and easy to navigate, covering headlands, cliffs, meadows, meadows and woodland. Wildlife is off the hook here. Whales, seals, sea lions and hundreds of birds can be observed.

The parking lot is near the Point Arena Lighthouse. There is a short trail around the working marine aid to navigation and along the shore.

Bowling Ball Beach on the Mendocino Coast in California
Photo credit: Marie Charlebois

8. Moat Creek Trail to Bowling Ball Beach

This short trail (1.5 miles) leads to a beach with round bowling ball sized rocks. Most of the trail is on top of the cliffs. This is an easy trail with spectacular views to the north and south. Getting to the beach where the bowling balls are is difficult but doable if you take your time. The trail to the beach is susceptible to washout. Wear sturdy boots.

Mendocino Village on the California coast
Village of Mendocino (picchu productions / Shutterstock.com)

9. Mendocino Headlands Trail

This is an urban trail that meanders along the south side of the village of Mendocino, then heads north to 70-foot-tall windswept cliffs. Walking through the headlands you can still see the village.

The 4 mile trail offers some of the most breathtaking views of the rugged and rugged coastline of the coast. Take a picnic and look for gray whales from May to December.

Walk at MacKerricher State Park
Lucy Autrey Wilson / Shutterstock.com

10. MacKerricher State Park

The MacKerricher Trails cover 4.5 miles of paved trails and boardwalks. They are accessible on foot and on wheels. The paved trail begins at Fort Bragg on the north side of the Ka-Kahleh Coastal Trail. It continues north, crossing the Pudding Creek Tressel and following the shoreline, sometimes crossing woods and ending at Ten Mile Dunes.

Near the end of the trail, a boardwalk crosses the meadows to the top of the cliffs overlooking a rocky tidal area. Stairs lead to the secret beach accessible only at low tide.

The beach in this area is a popular site for seals to raise their young. In the spring, it is not uncommon to see puppies on the beach without an adult. Don’t worry, they aren’t abandoned; Mom went out shopping in the Pacific.

Getting There

The Mendocino Coast is about 3 hours from the Golden Gate Bridge. A car is essential; public transit is limited in the area. Also, I think a drive along California Highway 1 is part of the Mendocino Coast experience.

From North or South, take Highway 101 to Willits. From Willits, take Highway 20 West towards Fort Bragg. The 33 mile journey will take approximately 45 minutes. Take your time and stop to enjoy the redwood forest you will travel through.

Highway 20 terminates at the Pacific Ocean and Highway 1. Turn north for Fort Bragg and south for Mendocino and Little River.

The Mendocino coast is sometimes described as wild and remote. The landscape, the Pacific and Mother Nature herself shape the way of life here. It is wildly beautiful, indomitable and soothing. The Mendocino Coast and its trails are protected – for you, me and future generations. So come take a “Wild Side Walk”.

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