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Mendocino Coast, California

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Picture of Mendocino Headlands in spring Picture of sea stacks near Westport Mendocino County is roughly midway between San Francisco and the Oregon border. It includes a particularly scenic stretch of the Northern California coast that California Highway 1 links into a continuous panorama. Nineteenth-century logging towns and state parks overlook rugged bluffs, beaches with crashing waves, and sea stacks. The county’s forested inland section is noted for its wineries, and as a place where the perpetual War against a certain intoxicating plant is fought less zealously than in many other parts of the country. This Travel Photo Essay focuses on the section of the Mendocino Coast between Mendocino and Fort Bragg.

Photograph of Mendocino village from the Headlands Pics of Mendocino village from the Headlands The village of Mendocino surely qualifies as the coast’s main tourist lodestone. It started out around 1852 as the town of Meiggsville, which supported a sawmill built by San Francisco entrepreneur Henry Meiggs. After Meiggs ran into financial trouble and emigrated to South America, residents renamed their town Mendocino. (The name derives from Antonio de Mendoza, the 16th-century royal governor of New Spain, the colonial territory that included what is now Mexico, California, and much of the American Southwest.) Many of Northern California’s loggers and sawmill workers came from New England, so they built houses, stores, and churches just like the ones they had back home. Mendocino’s well-preserved and carefully whitewashed buildings make the village Hollywood’s favorite stand-in for Massachusetts or Maine.

Picture of Mendocino Headlands Photograph of Mendocino Headlands With the downturn of the logging industry in the 1940s, Mendocino became a quiet backwater. In the 1960s, artists discovered it as an ideal seaside location for their their studios. Then the owners of some of those 19th-century New England homes decided to turn them into bed-and-breakfast inns. That proved just the thing to draw tourist throngs from all over Northern California for much of the year. Those crowds— of people and their SUVs— detract significantly from Mendocino’s New England charm. The village might be at its most appealing when viewed from the trails of Mendocino Headlands State Park, on the bluffs that surround the village.

Picture of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Photo of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Photograph of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Picture of seascape at Point Cabrillo Three kilometers north of Mendocino along Highway 1, Point Cabrillo is a state park that features a working lighthouse, a nature preserve, and coastal seascapes. It was named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to explore the California coast. On commission from none other than governor Antonio de Mendoza, he sailed north from Acapulco, Mexico in June 1542. A storm in November forced him to end the expedition just north of what is now San Francisco, so he never actually visited Point Cabrillo.

When it began operation in 1909, the lighthouse had a kerosene lamp rotated by a clockwork mechanism that the the keeper and two assistants had to crank every two hours. Electricity arrived in 1935, along with a new electric lamp and motor that surely made life much easier for the keepers. The Coast Guard decommissioned the lamp in 1973, replacing it with a modern aeronautical beacon. A non-profit conservancy took over the site in 1992. With assistance (and funding) from the Coast Guard, the conservancy began an extensive restoration that returned the lighthouse and its original Fresnel lens to active automated operation in 1999. Further work restored the lighthouse to its original appearance, along with the keepers’ houses (one is a museum, another is a bed-and-breakfast inn).

Note that the parking area for Point Cabrillo is about a kilometer away from the lighthouse. The path is a smooth paved road that gets a little steep on the way back. It’s off-limits to vehicles; but those those with official Handicapped license plates or placards can park near the keeper’s house. If you’re not officially “handicapped” but still can’t manage the two-kilometer round-trip walk, you’ll probably want to forgo visiting Point Cabrillo.

Picture of Jug Handle Bay Photo of Jug Handle Bay Pic of Jug Handle Beach Photograph of Jug Handle Bay Jug Handle State Reserve is five kilometers north of Point Cabrillo, on Highway 1 near Caspar. If you look up the Reserve in a travel guidebook (or on a Web search engine), you’ll find a description of the “Ecological Staircase Trail.” The trail extends four kilometers inland from the highway, and reveals the geological processes that formed the coastline along with some unusual flora.

But the books and Web sites all seem to ignore the coastal part of the Reserve that overlooks Jug Handle Bay. I suspect that might be because the inland trail is unique; the bay is beautiful but not particularly unusual. It’s just one of the numerous places along the Mendocino coast with seascape vistas of the ocean, surf, and rock formations. Even so, those bluffs and the rocky beach below them make a beautiful place for leisurely exploration— and surely a fine place to relax after an eight-kilometer inland hike.

You won’t find anything resembling jugs or handles at the Reserve. The name comes from Jug Handle Creek, which parallels the Staircase Trail and flows into the bay.

Picture of coast from Highway 1 Photograph of coast from Highway 1 Towns along the Northern California coast have an abundance of “Victorian” houses. That’s a pretentious way of saying they were built in the nineteenth century. The owners of many of these houses have turned them into bed-and-breakfast inns, which provide most of the available accommodations in the area. Unlike the value-oriented bed-and-breakfasts and guest houses in Europe, most American “B&Bs” are pricey establishments that cater to upscale couples who want an elegant romantic atmosphere for their vacations or getaways. If four-poster beds, lace curtains, or fireplaces aren’t what you’re looking for, Fort Bragg, the largest city on the Mendocino coast, has a selection of hotels and motels (along with its own quota of romantic B&Bs). Fort Bragg makes a good “home base” for exploring the Mendocino area, with plenty of its own attractions.

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