San Francisco road trip on Highway 1: How Mendocino is going to pot


T. S. Eliot famously said that it was the journey, not the destination, that matters. Clearly, he never visited Mendocino.

The drive here from San Francisco is undoubtedly spectacular, particularly if you take Highway 1 – a twisting, buckling, sometimes hair-raising route that skirts vertiginous cliffs and sweeps through verdant farmland. But then again, so is the destination. This adorable coastal village sits perched on a headland like a jewel on a velvet pillow.

Originally established as a logging settlement in the 1850s, the town has morphed into an arts centre with a thriving community of writers and artists. Given the population is less than 900, the number of art galleries is nothing short of astonishing. Adding to its appeal is that much of its Victorian architecture has been carefully preserved, so a stroll through town is a delightful amble past pastel-coloured stores with ornate balconies and bay windows.

Mendocino's visitor centre is located in Ford House, a quaint white-washed timber cottage built in 1854. It's a good place to get your bearings and learn more about the town's timber logging origins – an industry that was fuelled by the San Francisco gold rush of the mid-1800s. Scale models show the innovative methods used to cut and transport the enormous redwood logs felled in the nearby forests. 

You could easily spend a day exploring the town's numerous art galleries, but if you visit only one, make it the Mendocino Art Centre. This spacious gallery exhibits a revolving selection of local and national artists. It also offers more than 150 retreat-style classes each year in subjects such as ceramics, jewellery and sculpture. 

The town's creative community are a liberal, bohemian crowd and their influence is reflected in the many yoga studios, tattoo parlours and food co-operatives. Together, they add a welcome alternative touch to what could otherwise feel like a Disneyfied Victorian enclave. 

A popular local hangout is the Goodlife Cafe, which serves a delicious range of homemade organic soups, sandwiches and pastries – not to mention damn fine coffee.

It's here that I discover what some are touting as Mendocino's next big visitor drawcard: "canna-tourism". According to an article in a local magazine, the region produces some of the best cannabis in California. Until recently it was only legal for medicinal reasons, but a state law passed in November 2016 gave the green light for commercial production. One local enthusiast has even produced a wine-inspired appellation map, which identifies 11 separate growing regions and their respective characteristics.

Part of Mendocino's appeal is that it's a good base for exploring this section of Northern California. Nearby attractions include Point Arena Lighthouse, the tallest on America's Pacific Coast; the diesel-powered Skunk Train, which offers trips through the redwood groves of the Noyo River Canyon; and Glass Beach, a cove in Fort Bragg that glitters with thousands of multi-coloured glass pebbles (it used to be the town's rubbish dump).

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The region also has several magnificent state parks. The closest is Mendocino Headlands State Park, which borders the town on three sides. From the end of Main Street you can pick up a meandering cliff-top trail that hugs the peninsula's rugged coastline, offering tantalising glimpses of secluded beaches and sea-worn rocky outcrops. This section of coast is famous for abalone and you can often see groups of divers bobbing in the sea with large tyre-shaped floats on their backs.

Another compelling option is Russian Gulch State Park, which combines a lush, leafy canyon with flower-strewn headlands and pristine sandy beaches. Located three kilometres north of Mendocino, the park has 24 kilometres of trails, including one that leads to an impressive 11-metre waterfall. 

Although much of the region's old-growth redwood was cut down during the gold rush, you can still see some neck-craning examples in MacKerricher State Park. Ricochet Ridge Ranch offers guided three-hour horseback rides through the forest as well as shorter outings on the beach near Fort Bragg.

For a different perspective, you can hire an outrigger canoe from Catch A Canoe and paddle up Big River Estuary, a scenic waterway just south of town. Beautifully constructed from re-purposed old-growth redwood, the canoes all have stabilising floats, making them a safe option for families. 

As if all this wasn't already enough, it turns out Mendocino is only 45 minutes from one of California's finest pinot noir producing wine regions. Anderson Valley is only 24 kilometres long by three kilometres wide, but thanks to the area's warm days and cool nights, it produces some wonderfully subtle pinots, plus decent Alsace-style chardonnays and rieslings.

Even if you're not a wine fan, I'd still recommend cutting inland from Highway 1 onto Highway 128 for the last section of the drive from San Fran to Mendocino. After passing through the Anderson Valley, the road meanders back towards the coast through a breathtaking corridor of towering redwoods. T. S. Eliot would approve.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa
visitmendocino.com
visittheusa.com.au

FLY

United flies to San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne. Upgrade to economy plus for more leg room and quicker disembarkation. See united.com.

STAY

Located on a windswept bluff near Big River Estuary, Brewery Gulch Inn is an unashamedly romantic 10-room B&B built from salvaged redwood. Most suites feature ocean views and include a lavish breakfast and complimentary early evening dinner buffet with local wines. See brewerygulchinn.com.

Rob McFarland was a guest of United, Brand USA and Visit Mendocino.
 

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