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Mendocino: Exploring the Historic Town

Despite its relative isolation at the end of a long, twisting road, this hamlet holds an irresistible appeal for visitors on California's north coast.

the ocean and the town of Mendocino, image
Photo caption
Mendocino, known for its fog, can also have stunningly clear and sunny days.

Mendocino began its life as a lumber town in the 1850s. The hefty logs from an unusually wide belt of coast redwood forest were hauled by ox team to Big River and slid downstream to the town’s mill. The lumber mill, on a jetty over the Pacific Ocean, closed for good in 1938, its remains long since claimed by the tides. But little Mendocino still holds its ground famously, thanks in no small part to the decay-resistant timber from which it grew.

You can learn about the local timber industry as well as the graceful transitions the north-coast village has made over the years if you make your first stop the 1854 Ford House, (707) 937-5397. One-time home of lumber superintendent Jerome B. Ford, his wife, and their six children, it’s now a state park-run visitor center and museum with docents and exhibits of the area’s natural and human history.

It’s right on Main Street at a vantage from which you can understand why Mendocino began its second life in the late ’50s as an artists’ colony. What more inspiring landscape could a painterly mind find?

The craggy coastline in full view is part of Mendocino Headlands State Park. It sculpts Mendocino into a village lapped on three sides by the Pacific. Don’t be shy—just cautious. No timid surf here, but several miles of sound trails follow the convoluted shoreline, with descents to secluded beaches (for careful walking, not swimming), close-ups of sea stacks, a blowhole, tide pools, natural bridges, arches, and hidden grottoes.

In spring, wildflowers paint the grassy bluffs. Bring a camera and binoculars. Birders lead tours along these headlands (check at Ford House), home to white-tailed kites, black oyster catchers, and many other birds. If one of town’s homey cafes doesn’t stall you, settle down to an oceanside picnic, and watch for gray whales passing near shore. They migrate north in March.

Before you set out to explore the town, the Ford House’s replica of Mendocino in 1890 can orient you. It’s also a keyhole peep into the town’s resplendent façade. (Fascinating fact: the town’s population in 1890 was about the same as today’s—1,000.) The "special character" of Mendocino, visible in its eclectic architecture, has been preserved by a 1973 designation as "Historic Preservation District."

The 1861 Kelley House, (707) 937-5791, on Albion Street is another hotspot of architecture, cultural heritage, archives, and changing exhibits.

Most of Mendocino’s structures date back to the Victorian 1870s and 1880s, a few to the 1850s. The loggers of that era, emigrants from the Northeast, brought their taste for steep gable roofs, bay windows, board-and-batten siding, and fanciful trim.

Still to be seen around town are examples of Salt Box, Cottage, Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic Revival. The builders spared no detail or refinement of millwork. Gingerbread or "carpenter’s lace" abounds. Note (with respect for private homes) the porches with wooden posts, scroll-shaped wooden brackets, stair rails, and door and window frames. Nearly three dozen of the water towers, once powered by windmills, survive.

Mendocino’s star quality never escaped Hollywood tycoons, who shot more than fifty films here, including East of Eden and Summer of ’42.

There’s so much that’s priceless—and free—to linger over in this compact town, you need never spend a cent. But if shopping’s in your blood, beware: the objects d’art, comfortable, elegant clothing, handcrafted furniture, unusual musical instruments are irresistible. Everything from hemp clothing (Environmental Center) to wearable art (Great Put-on) has the quality mark of one-of-a-kind boutiques, all within several blocks’ easy stroll. Art galleries punctuate the shopping beat.

Merchandise has gone more upscale in the past decade, but local artists and artisans dominate the scene. This is a town of rare distinction. On what other Main Street can you sample fine wine (Fetzer Tasting Room next to the Mendocino Hotel), then browse book stacks as you sip free herbal tea (Book Loft)? Oh, and you can get in a hot tub with ocean view at Sweetwater on Ukiah.

Don’t miss exhibits at the landmark Mendocino Art Center on Little Lake, (707) 937-5818. It launched the town’s artist persona in 1959. Some visitors time their stay with a seminar or workshop at the Center and leave steeped in Mendocino culture.

For a nice drive outside town, follow Comptche-Ukiah Road through a "pygmy forest." Acidic soil and a layer of hardpan, called graywacke sandstone, have a natural bonsai effect on trees and shrubs, including cypress, Bishop pine, Bolander pine, manzanita, rhododendron, and more.

Photography courtesy of Jef Poskanzer/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in March 1997. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.