Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
Searching for your next memorable family vacation destination, sans airfare? You might not think Mendocino Coast, with its quaint bed-and-breakfasts and cozy white-tablecloth restaurants, is a kid-friendly destination, but if you look a little deeper, there is a bounty of family-friendly activities, restaurants and lodging to make it a memorable, world-class vacation.
Mendocino beckons with rugged beaches and breathtaking sunsets at any time of year, but spring, fall and winter are especially wonderful times. Long weekends during these times are a treat, with clear skies, no fog and no crowds. Summer is also nice, but it is traditionally the busiest and most crowded time of the year, and what is normally a three-hour drive north of the Bay Area can become a long and arduous march. When you have the littles in the car, that can make for a long day.
Little River Inn is a welcome and family-friendly respite after the drive. Fifth-generation owners Cally and Marc Dym, who are parents of younger kids, have magically set up this historic inn to be both a romantic getaway sans kids as well as a comfortable place for families and their four-legged companions. The staff is very friendly and welcoming. The grounds are beautifully maintained. And there is lots of room for the kids to work off some of their extra energy while the adults relax on the ocean-view deck, which accompanies each of the 65 rooms, with a lovely glass of Mendocino sauvignon blanc before heading down to dinner.
At first, for parents of active and boisterous kids, the cozy romantic dining room setting with white tablecloths can be a little disconcerting. But the dining room quickly filled up and we soon blended in with the rest of the patrons and the low hum of the dinner crowd. The waitstaff is terrific and was very accommodating to our needs. The extensive kids menu was a dream for our picky little eaters!
For the adults, the restaurant at Little River Inn does not disappoint. Owner/chef Marc Dym provides a perfect synergy between locally sourced delicacies and world-class preparation methods. As parents, we were able to enjoy a relaxed and elegant dinner and dessert because the kids were able to go back to our room when they were ready. The staff is so accommodating. There is even a special separate dining room where you can dine with your family and pooch and still get the full experience.
Other features of the Little River Inn include a full spa, golf course and tennis courts. It’s a terrific option for meetings and family reunions. www.LittleRiverInn.com
What to Do With the Kids in Mendocino?
There are far more options in this area than one might expect. We focused on activities that our 8-year-old and 11-year-old would be interested in. Here’s what we recommend:
The Skunk Train
(Fort Bragg and Willets)
One of the most popular attractions in the area for families is a ride on the Skunk Train, named for the old smelly historic trains. Today’s trains do not have this issue. There are two ride options: a one-hour scenic round-trip ride along the Pudding Creek Estuary, with views of wildlife, beautiful forests and several trains bridges that cross Pudding Creek, or a four-hour round trip on the Northspur Flyer out of Willits for the true train enthusiast. Trains are kid- and dog-friendly and offer a snack bar.
Mendocino Coast Model Railroad (Fort Bragg)
Hold on to your Skunk Train ticket. This will give you free access to the amazing G-scale model railroad just steps away from the Skunk Trains. Volunteers open this setup to the public when the Skunk Train is running. The layout of the model train railway depicts what the logging railroad might have looked like around 1925–1940. My children were fascinated with the inner workings, bridges, crossovers and buildings at this model. The volunteers who run the trains were very happy to discuss their work and educate the kids on the purpose and history of the logging trains.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (Fort Bragg)
One of the few botanical gardens that is situated oceanfront, this botanical garden is a must-see. With over 47 acres of botanical bliss, a beautiful stroll to the ocean’s edge for whale watching and birding, and a plethora of beautiful garden sculptures, kids, adults and dogs alike will enjoy this vast and open space. Follow the Fairy Trail to discover fairy dwellings and other surprises. Stroller friendly. www.gardenbythesea.org
Sea Glass Museum
Thousands of sea-glass shards, collected globally, are organized according to color, age and type. It’s history through beachcombing. Plan on about a 30-minute stay. www.GlassBeachJewelry.com
After visiting the Sea Glass Museum, head down the road to Glass Beach. Glass Beach, the site of a city dumpsite in the early 1900s, is rich with sea glass that was created by waves slowly pounding the trash over the years. Over the years many tourists have taken the glass, so the beach is not as bountiful as it was in prior years, but it still is worth a short visit. Best time to visit is low tide and after a storm. www.fortbragg.com/glass-beach/
CV Starr Aquatic Center
Located in Fort Bragg, this aquatic center has a water park with a lazy river, a waterslide (must be 48” tall to ride) and fountains to play in. On weekends from 1-4pm there is a kids beach swim available.
The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
On Point Cabrillo Drive off Highway One between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Explore this working aid to navigation. There is a half-mile downhill walk to get to the station (uphill on the way back), which is home to the original Chance Brothers classic third order Fresnel lens. Hike on the waterfront trails with chances to see whales, seals and dolphins, and visit the museum. Overnight accommodations are available. Dogs are welcomed on leash.
B. Bryan Preserve
Located in Point Arena, this is Africa on the Mendocino Coast. This private preserve for endangered African hoof animals hosts two-hour Jeep tours on weekends. Reservations required. Better for older children. bbryanpreserve.com
Van Damme State Beach
Located at Little River right on Highway One, this beach is a safe and shallow cove with gentle wave breaks. On windy or colder days head to the protected northern end of the beach. At low tide the tide pools at the south end are worth checking out.
This beach is located on Point Cabrillo Drive off Highway One. It is fairly well protected from wind, and the sand is soft. The large beach makes it easy to keep little ones away from the waves and is good for rock- and tide pooling during low tide.
Big River Beach
Located just north of the bridge in Mendocino, this is the most popular beach, with lots of activity, surfing, volleyball, etc. The river side is often warmer. Just be careful of potentially strong currents.
The Haul at Big River
Go past the beach parking lot and you will find a flat, straight, easy walk into the redwoods. Stroller friendly.
You will find Pygmy Forest 3 miles up Little River Airport Road. There is a wooden walkway with educational signage about Pygmy Forest. The walkway is good for little legs and strollers.
Jug Handle State Preserve
Just north of Casper on Highway One you will find one of the best examples of an ecological staircase in the Western Hemisphere. This is a great educational science hike for older kids. Be sure to pick up the guide in the parking lot, which explains everything.
More in Mendocino
Mendocino Headlands State Park: 347 acres of raw seashore surrounding Mendocino Village, studded with rugged surf and rocky protuberances and two beaches, Big River Beach and Portuguese Beach. www.Parks.Ca.gov
Russian Gulch State Park: Rugged Russian Gulch Creek Canyon is a woodsy wonderland, complete with a towering waterfall cascading down to a beach that is safe for swimming, fishing and tide pooling. www.Parks.Ca.gov
Kelley House Museum: Built in 1861 and set amid Victorian-style gardens, this historic former home of a successful Mendocino businessman is now headquarters for regional history. www.KelleyHouseMuseum.org
Kwan Tai Temple: This authentic Taoist shrine has been in continuous use since it was built by a Chinese laborer who arrived in a junk during the gold rush. www.KwanTaiTemple.org