The rich blue oceans of summer, the changing vineyard hues of autumn, the dazzling floral display of spring… we love every season here in MendoLand, but if you were to make us choose a favorite, it would have to be winter.
It’s a secret known only to the most loyal MendoLand visitors, that some of the clearest days of the year are actually in the winter months (without the over-heated valley days to suck fog in off the ocean). And when it’s not clear – it rains! You might think of rain as a dreary affair, to be avoided at all costs, but come visit us some winter weekend and we think we’ll change your mind.
The land here soaks up the rain hungrily, and the forests turn into primeval worlds of wonder, with the redwood canopy keeping you (mostly) dry, while fern-filled canyons swell with the runoff and rivers flow in a beautiful sense of abundance. Rain feeds our favorite folk, as well, and mushrooms spring up in every nook and cranny, while restaurants (ours among them!) transform their menus to highlight Golden Chanterelles, Yellowfoot, Boletes, Black Trumpets, Chicken of the Woods, and so much more!
Even if you don’t feel like getting out on the trail, we’d still recommend a winter trip. The pace of life here slows, and there’s nothing more cozy than curling up in your room near the fire with a glass of wine and the massive ocean waves crashing down below. On slightly clearer days, break out the binoculars and partake in some whale-watching!
Looking for some guidance on getting out to explore? Wine tasting in nearby Anderson Valley is a great winter activity, so plan a few hours to source some incredible wine for your enjoyment. Then make a plan to visit a few our favorite spots…
Van Damme State Park
Just down the hill from the Inn (yes, we have our own path) is one of the best State Parks in the County. Van Damme State Park wends its way through a stunning array of climes, from lush, almost tropical cloud forest up into true redwood, and even through the rare pygmy biome at the very top – where a hard soil layer has stunted tree growth such that hundred-year-old cypress may be only a few feet tall.
On the west side of the village of Mendocino you’ll find a number of weaving trails that trace the coastline, and offer some of the best views around. Make sure to layer, even if the weather looks great, because the wind can get fierce here. And always stay away from the edge of the cliffs.
For easiest access, you have two good options. Park at the west end of Main Street to explore a stretch of southern trails that give views of Big River, and paths that can take you down to Big River Beach or Portuguese Beach on the west side, and past a beautiful blowhole. Or park in one of the lots along Heeser Drive heading out of town to experience a more wild stretch of coastline, with views of the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse to the north.
One of our favorite things to do is to bring a blanket and a snack, find a nice little spot on the edge of the world here, and just sit for a while watching the waves crash against the cliffs. There’s a wildness to the coastline of MendoLand that you won’t find many other places in the lower-48, and storm watching is a relaxing and cathartic way to spend a day.
Just a few minutes north of the Little River Inn you’ll find Russian Gulch – another incredible State Park with a character all its own. The big draw here is a majestic 36’ waterfall at the end of a moderate 3.8 mile hike. During the winter this waterfall is well worth the walk, and really has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Most of the hike on the way in is through a riparian zone of nettles, ferns, and light foliage, but you’ll transition seamlessly into redwood as you approach the waterfall. You can keep going up past the waterfall and then to your right to complete a loop that will take you into a higher-altitude zone of redwood, tan oak, and oak, or up and to the left to loop back around on the North Boundary and North Trails to further extend the hike.
If you’re looking to experience the ocean a bit more, you can turn off on your drive before you descend down toward the beach, and park along the headlands here. Picnic tables here offer views back toward the scenic bridge, and the trails continue north along the headlands, and past another scenic blowhole.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
A lighthouse in summer is great, but a lighthouse truly comes alive in winter. With the wind whipping around, the rain coming in hard, and the seas surging below, it’s easy to understand why these beacons were so critical to maintaining the sea trade along our coastline.
The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is an amazing monument to the past, and a testament to preservation. More than a century old, it has been maintained and upkept over the years, and is an exceptional example of a functional fresnel lens. The more than 300 acres of untouched coastal bluffs are great to explore, as well.
The walk down from the parking lot is longer than it looks, so come ready to walk – and make sure to bring an umbrella or rain jacket if rain is a possibility, since squalls can catch you unawares here, and there’s no shelter to be had. If the museum is open, make sure to pop in to learn a bit about the history of the Frolic, the ship that crashed into the coastline in 1850 and really set off the surge of Western development in the area. Some history of the Mitom Pomo is covered as well, as well as naturalist information about life beneath the waves.
Fort Bragg Coastal Trail
The newest crown jewel of the coast, the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail runs along the coast the entire length of the city of Fort Bragg, twenty minutes north of the Little River Inn. Once a sprawling lumber mill, this land has been largely renovated and cleaned, and new walking and cycling trails have been put in.
It offers an easy, accessible way to explore the coastline, as the entirety of the trail is paved and wide enough to accommodate distancing, wheelchairs, or bicycles. The openness cuts both ways during the winter months, though, so make sure to layer up before embarking – the wind here can get icy cold, or as we prefer to call it, refreshing.
We Can’t Wait to Welcome You
These are just a few of our favorite spots to visit during the winter from your safe harbor at the Little River Inn, and there is so much more to explore – from the towering redwoods at Montgomery Woods (a 40-minute drive from the inn, but well worth the effort), to ocean kayaking with our friends at Kayak Mendocino on a calmer day, to embarking on a crabbing trip out of Noyo Harbor with our Sleep with the Crabs package… we look forward to welcoming you, and helping you to discover your perfect winter wonderland in MendoLand!