Mendocino, California

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Tell people you’re traveling the northern coast of California, and someone is sure to say, “You’ve gotta visit Mendocino”.  They’ll go on and on about the town’s quaint and picture-perfect characteristics, and you’ll smile politely.

Then you get here, and you realize it’s all true.

You’re going to want to spend a little time walking around, so find yourself a nice parking spot, and say goodbye to your car for a while.  I started my exploration on Lansing Street (pictured above).  The great thing about Lansing Street is, if you look toward the end of the street, you see the ocean.

But Lansing Street has nothing on Main Street, which marks the southern end of town.  Here, small businesses line one side of the street, while on the other side, there’s a grassy area, and then, the crashing Pacific.

As you walk around Mendocino, you can’t help but notice that almost every house has its own water tower.  This one’s pretty big, while others are much smaller.  The water towers have become one of the town’s trademark features, even though many of the originals (built around the town’s founding in 1850) are long gone.

While Mendocino doesn’t have the usual chain motels, there are plenty of B&B’s, including the Joshua Grindle Inn, which gives you the unique opportunity to spend the night in one of the town’s old water towers. Just be ready to pay as much as $279 a night for the experience.

Be sure to seek out Blair House on Little Lake Street.  You’ll likely recognize it as Jessica Fletcher’s home, on the TV series Murder She Wrote.  Some episodes were taped here (I’ve read that “nine episodes” and “all but nine episodes” were shot in Mendocino, so I guess it’s either one or the other).  At any rate, the town was featured extensively in the show, as were some locals.  Nowadays, you can spend the night in Blair House–it’s a B&B. 

Only about half of Mendocino’s tiny peninsula is used by roads and homes.  The northern half is almost all unused grassland.  Take the road that circles around the empty field, and you can stop at one of several parking areas…

… which allow you to enjoy rocky outcroppings like this one, that jut out into the Pacific.  Fortunately, you’re high enough here to avoid a spray from any sneaky waves.  This is the kind of place that you could spend a long time, just sitting, walking, and wandering.

If the rocky Mendocino coastline looks inexplicably familiar, there’s a good reason.  In 2007, you probably saw a commercial for Caduet, a prescription medication that helps control cholesterol and high blood pressure.  It featured a woman who splits in two, because after all, she has those two problems.  Lo and behold, she can solve both problems by taking just one pill!  But the point of all this is, as she ponders her HDL levels and hypertension, she’s walking along the paths that line the Mendocino coast.  Parts of the commercial were also filmed at Pudding Creek Beach, in Fort Bragg (see above).

The waves do come crashing in, on the outer rocks.  You can’t get there from shore, unless you’re a seagull…

… and yes, there are plenty of those around.

Once you’re done exploring, hit the road again, heading south.  There aren’t many towns for a while, just a long, winding road.

On my way out of town, I spun the radio dial in my car, and landed upon KMFB, Mendocino’s radio station.  It was playing some easy-listening music that normally I’d never listen to.  But there wasn’t much else I could receive.  Before long, they had a live remote from a store in downtown Mendocino.  The announcer talked forever to the owner of the business, about small town topics like the weather and the construction being done on the street out front.  Instead of being completely bored out of my mind, I was instantly captivated by it all.  I felt like I had wandered into that store, and became a part of that conversation.  Suddenly, I was longing to live in a simpler place from a time gone by, where people actually have conversations like that.  Maybe it’s a bit ironic that I didn’t really appreciate Mendocino on that level, until I was far enough from town that the station started fading.

If you’re running ahead of schedule, consider a stop at Van Damme State Park, south of Mendocino.  In addition to coastal access, you can also explore miles of inland trails.  Perhaps the park’s most interesting attraction is the Pygmy Forest, where mature cypress and pine trees stand as short as six inches tall.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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