The village of Mendocino may be where folks savor the scenery, but Fort Bragg is where the work gets done. This blue-collar town is home to lumber mills, fishing boats, and scores of working train tracks. It is rougher around the edges than its gentle cousin down the coast, but it has some great attractions, beautiful scenery, and tons of local color.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
The ride lets passengers see the majesty of the redwoods while giving insight into life in Northern California before the era of highways.Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (18220 N. Hwy. 1, Fort Bragg, 707/964-4352, 9am-5pm daily Mar.-Oct., 9am-4pm daily Nov.-Feb., adults $14, seniors $10, ages 6-17 $5) is an expanse of land with an astonishing variety of vegetation. Stretching 47 acres down to the sea, these gardens offer miles of paths through careful plantings and wild landscapes. The garden map is also a guide that shows visitors what’s in season. Informative labels show plant names clearly. Children can pick up their own brochure and enjoy an exploratory adventure designed just for them.
One of the famed attractions in Mendocino County is the California Western Railroad, popularly called the Skunk Train (depot at end of Laurel St., 707/964-6371, departure 10am daily, adults $54, children 2-12 $34), named for the pungent early locomotives. The restored steam locomotives pull trains from the coast at Fort Bragg 40 miles through the redwood forest to the town of Willits and back. The ride lets passengers see the majesty of the redwoods while giving insight into life in Northern California before the era of highways. The gaily painted trains appeal to children, and the historical aspects and scenery call to adults.
Guest House Museum
The Guest House Museum (343 N. Main St., 707/964-4251, 1pm-3pm Mon., 11am-2pm Tues.-Fri., 10am-4pm Sat.-Sun. May-Oct., 11am-2pm Thurs.-Sun. Nov.-May) is a pleasant trip down Fort Bragg’s memory lane. Perched just above the train yard, the large 1892 Victorian is filled with artifacts from Fort Bragg’s lumber heyday, including antique logging and woodworking tools.
MacKerricher State Park
Stretching nearly 10 miles from the northern tip of Fort Bragg, MacKerricher State Park (Hwy. 1, 707/964-9112, visitors center 707/964-8898, sunrise-sunset daily, free) offers the small duck-filled Cleone Lake, six miles of sandy ocean beaches, four miles of cliffs and crags, and camping (reservations 800/444-7275, $35). The main attraction is a gigantic, almost complete skeleton of a whale near the park entrance. Stop in to see the whale even if you don’t have time to hang out at the park. If you’re lucky, you can also spot live whales and harbor seals frolicking in the ocean.
At the park’s southern end in Fort Bragg, Glass Beach (Elm St. and Glass Beach Dr.) is the most famous beach in the area. The unpleasant origin of this fascinating beach strewn with sea glass was the Fort Bragg city dump. As the ocean rose over the landfill, the heavy glass that had been dumped there stayed put. Years of pounding surf polished and smoothed the broken edges. Beachcombers used to collect the smooth coated shards of green, blue, brown, and clear glass. Now that the beach is under the management of the state park, it’s against the rules to remove the glass.
The coast can be rough here, so don’t swim or even wade unless it’s what the locals call a “flat day”—no big waves and undertow. If the kids want to play in the water, take them to Pudding Creek Beach in the park just north of Glass Beach, where they can play in the relatively sheltered area under the trestle bridge.
Triangle Tattoo Museum
This is not your grandmother’s art museum, so enter at your own risk. The Triangle Tattoo Museum (356B N. Main St., 707/964-8814, noon-6pm daily, free) displays the implements of the trade and photos of their results. All forms of the art are represented, from those done by indigenous people to those done at carnivals and in prisons. The street-side rooms house a working tattoo parlor, and you can find intrepid artists working late into the evening on their “canvases.”
Pacific Star Winery
The only winery on the Mendocino coast, Pacific Star Winery (33000 N. Hwy. 1, 707/964-1155, 11am-5pm daily, free) makes the most of its location. Barrels of wine are left out in the salt air to age. Wines are tasty and reasonably priced. You can also visit their downtown tasting room (401 N. Main St., 707/962-9463, noon-5pm Fri.-Tues.) in the Skunk Train Depot Mall.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Northern California.