One of my favorite things about camp hosting is helping people discover the local gems wherever we're staying. We've been moving around the Mendocino state parks for a few months, and all of them have unique features that are sure to make your visit to Fort Bragg memorable. If you're planning a trip up north and want to know where to start, this is for you!
For ADA Accessibility, Tide Pools, and Free Parking: Mackerricher State Park
Mackerricher is a beautiful piece of land that was actually donated tot he state parks system. It was originally owned by the Mackerricher family and sued as an apple orchard for many years. In fact, in some locations around the park, apple trees still grow! They're assimilated into the native flora now, so you'll have to look hard to spot them. The one condition that the family gave was that use of this land must always be free and easily accessible, so it is the only state park in the area with no day use fees attached. Parking can be limited in the winter when the tides overtake the main lot, and the beach is seasonally closed to vehicle traffic for this reason, but you can always walk down from the visitor center to enjoy a short hike before your beach day.
In the non-winter months when the road is open, there is a large lot next to the boardwalk that was installed specifically to make this area ADA accessible. It offers great views of the rugged coastline and is a good spot for birders to find some gulls, cormorants, turkey vultures, and ravens flying overhead. At the far lookout point you can find seals most of the year, and even migrating whales at certain times! Benches along the way make a pleasant place to sit and watch for wildlife. The boardwalk is smooth and well maintained, and features frequent educational markers so visitors can learn about the indigenous population, the whale migrations, and the tide pools!
There are tide pools at the bottom of a set of stairs for able bodied visitors to explore. You'll want to check the tide charts to make sure the tide is going out so that you'll have the best view. The ultimate time to venture out there is during a negative tide, which usually happens for a few days every month. The water could be as far as seven meters beyond its normal edge, so this is a great time to see rare critters who hang out where tourists can't normally see. We've found plenty of anemones, sea stars, sea urchins, snails and slugs, and even on octopus on a particularly lucky day. Be careful on the rocks, they're slippery! You'll want to wear shoes with good tread that you don't mind getting wet.
For Hikers and Bikers: Van Damme State Park
Van Damme State Park contains over ten miles of hiking trails on its property, and most of these allow bikers as well. One of these is the Fern Canyon Trail that loops around the park and the Pygmy Forest. A hike we do often has an uneven loop of 2.3 miles one direction, and 1.2 miles the other. We recommend taking the 1.2 uphill, so that you can enjoy an easy 2.3 miles going back down. Waterfalls and creeks, as well as plenty of old growth forest and fresh growing mushrooms make this landscape one not to miss. Just steps off of Highway 1, you'll feel like you've entered another world when you get underneath the canopy and follow the water into the fern canyon. Watch for birds, snails, and mushrooms along the way!
Van Damme also has a slice of coastline, accessible to anyone for a small day use fee. The water offshore is part of the Van Damme nature reserve and home to all kinds of Pacific life. The beach offers spectacular sunset views all year round. In March and April it is the sight of seal pupping grounds, and while you should keep a far distance from the animals so you don't disturb them in this delicate time, you can get a good view of moms and their little ones during the spring time. Don't approach any seals, even if you see a pup left by themselves. Moms often go into the ocean to feed so that they can keep up with the demands of their fast growing young ones. It's illegal, and dangerous, to interfere with marine mammals in any way. Bring a good camera so you can spectate discreetly!
For a Picnic: Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino Headlands is situated right on the coastline shouldering the center of the town of Mendocino. Located along the bluffs is the Ford House Museum, the actual residence of one of Fort Bragg's first logging barons. The home has been well maintained and is staffed daily by guides who are happy and able to answer all your questions about the history of the area. Fort Bragg is one of the only places along the coast that does not have redwood trees because of its history. Here you can see dioramas and pictures explaining how they went about felling these ancient giants and loading them onto their ships below the cliffs. many of their techniques, through trial and error, dropped a significant amount of lumber into the sea, which you can find on nearly every beach washing up as driftwood.
Because of how close the Ford House is to the town, we love to go to the market or a local deli to pick up some food to go and take it to one of the many picnic tables scattered along the coast. For a longer visit try stopping by one of the many independently owned bookstores for a beach read!
For Taking Kids to the Beach: Big River Beach
The Pacific Ocean is not always friendly and can be dangerous for little ones, so Big River is the perfect spot for them to splash in the salt water without the danger of those big waves. Big River is a long arm of the ocean that stretches through a narrow channel of sand to meet up with creeks flowing out of the Jackson National Demonstration Forest. The shallow water gets warmer than the ocean, but it is still pretty chilly for long bouts of swimming, so make sure to take breaks in the sun.
Public restrooms, free parking, and picnic spots make this park a great place to spend the day. The water is smooth and the sand is soft. Being from the Atlantic coast, I was missing chill swimming beaches when I moved out west, but this is exactly what I needed. Around twilight we've seen seals and sea lions swimming down the channel to rest on the rocks overnight. During the day we've seen kayakers and stand up paddleboarders cruising in the stream. For swimming, its your best option.
For Stunning Views: Russian Gulch State Park
Russian Gulch has the "wow" factor. All of the places I've mentioned are beautiful and will give you great photos and a good time. Russian Gulch, though, has the gnarliest waves and sprays I've seen on the Mendo coast so far. It has features like "The Devil's Punch Bowl" that sprays salt water twenty feet in the air when the waves hit it just right. Some tide pools can be found on their shoreline, and hiking trails take you up to a waterfall that gets bigger if you visit just after a heavy rain.
Be very careful on the edges of the bluffs as they do succumb to erosion and added stress, like the weight of a person, can cause them to give way. There are beautiful photo opportunities if you stay on the trail where you can keep yourself out of harms way. Look for whale spouts past the spray, they migrate through in the fall and spring. Any trail you take will give you breathtaking views. The salt air and earthy footpaths make this park one of the most beautiful places I've visited in Northern California.
There are so many options when you visit the Fort Bragg area. Give yourself enough time to experience them all! Most of the parks offer camping for tents and RVs so you can stay in the middle of all the action (or, lack of action, I should say). After six months on the coast I don't feel like we've experienced everything yet. Let us know what you loved about your Mendo vacation!