Mendocino Coast, CA
The Mendocino Coast is about 3 hours North of San Francisco, and was a perfect stop along our Pacific Northwest road trip. We only spent a few hours here, so we were only able to choose a few things to do and see.
We wanted to do things that were educational as well as fun, since we homeschool and consider our road trips hands-on learning adventures.
We enjoyed our time here so much that we wished we would have stayed overnight so we could have also ridden the skunk train through the Redwoods, explored the botanical gardens and spent some more time tide pooling.
California’s Coastal Highway
While gorgeous, California’s Coastal Highway (Highway 1) twists and winds and goes up and down so much (it follows the coastline, duh!) that it’s a really inefficient way to get anywhere. Just consider it a destination itself, so you won’t be frustrated about how slow the going is.
We left San Francisco driving North on the Coastal Highway because we didn’t mind trading some time for some scenery, and we weren’t disappointed! We saw picturesque little farms and towns, seals on the side of the highway, sea birds, and we drove through several low areas with warning signs stating, “Tsunami Hazard Zone”! That was exciting!
We had the kiddos listen to a podcast (Mars Patel) while we drove, because we wanted them to take in all the wondrous beauty of the Mendocino Coast instead of having their eyeballs glued to a movie screen. It was perfect!
Bowling Ball Beach
Bowling Ball Beach is named after the huge, spherical concretions (formed when mineral cements bind sand or stone into larger formations, loosed by erosion) that line the beach. The geology is incredibly interesting!
It’s mandatory that you visit Bowling Ball Beach at low tide, or the bowling balls will be under the water. Google ‘low tide in Mendocino County, CA for a chart of the exact times on the dates you want to visit. It’s a great opportunity to teach your kiddos about tides.
When you park at Schooner Gulch Beach, be sure to take the trail at the north end of the the carpark. This trail is the easiest way down to the beach. Walk the path, descend the wooden steps, and walk North along the beach until you see the bowling balls. You can’t miss them if the tide is out.
You’ll find sea glass and abalone shells all over this beach. And your kiddos will have a ball playing on all the fallen logs.
Point Arena Lighthouse
Our next stop for the day was Point Arena Lighthouse, not too far north of Bowling Ball Beach. We’ve seen countless lighthouses, both on the Atlantic and on the Pacific sides of the US, but we’d always been in too big a hurry to stop and tour any. I’d read that Point Arena Lighthouse had a particularly interesting tour, so we made it a point to visit.
As a family, we had previously experimented with a fresnel lens we had removed from an old big-screen TV someone gave us. We used it as part of a science fair project, studying light. We actually built a cool, mobile frame for our huge fresnel lens and used it to boil water in under a minute in February (which is dead cold winter for us!).
So we were excited to see the old fresnel lens at the lighthouse.
Again, we weren’t disappointed. Point Arena isn’t just another lighthouse. It’s the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast! And it’s the westernmost point in the entire United States. A non-profit group runs the small, informative museum/gift store that houses the incredibly beautiful, 5000 lb, original fresnel lens.
When the original owner decided to replace it with LED, the lens was painstakingly dismantled and carried down 145 steps, then reassembled in the museum. It is now surrounded by hundreds of fascinating, old, black and white, historic photos of the original lighthouse keepers and their families, along with the history of the area.
Every half hour (more often if they’re busy) you can join a group and climb the 145 narrow, iron, spiral steps to the top of the lighthouse. It wasn’t difficult at all.
On a clear day, you can see miles in every direction along the Mendocino Coast from the top of the lighthouse. You can see seals loitering on the beach along the coast in both directions. The tour guide at the top of the lighthouse will give you more information about the area and it’s history. You can also use their binoculars to try to spot a gray whale!
Our tour guide told us they made a movie called ‘Forever Young’ about Mel Gibson, using the lighthouse, back in the 90’s. He also showed us several sinkholes in the area, one of which was right under the original keeper’s house, necessitating an emergency move.
Sinkholes are common where the rock below the land surface is limestone, carbonate rock, salt beds, or rocks that can naturally be dissolved by the sea water. As the rock dissolves, spaces and caverns develop underground, and the top falls in.
You’ll also have a chance to walk around the outside of the lighthouse at the top, on a narrow, fenced ledge. The wind was blowing, and it was cold but exhilarating! It’s pretty amazing to experience.
This promontory sits right on the continental shelf, w/the long San Andreas fault line running north by northwest right into the Pacific there. The geology was especially interesting to my two high-schoolers who had recently finished a geology unit.
Not only is the museum enjoyable, but you can actually rent the keeper’s house, or thelittle cottages alone the shoreline! If you stay in one of the cottages, unlimited visits to the lighthouse are free. I think we paid $25 admission for a family pass.
As long as you’re there, take a short hike and enjoy the Stornetta Unit of the California Coastal National Monument. As you leave the Point Arenas Lighthouse, the entrance to the Coastal National Monument is just 100 yards down the road. Just let yourself in the gate and walk out onto the peninsulas for incredible coastline views with the lighthouse in the background. You’ll see see sea lions in the cove, wildflowers in May.
Point Arena lighthouse was a fun and very worthwhile stop! We continued north along the Mendocino Coast, and our next stop was the glass beach near Fort Bragg.
Fort Bragg Glass Beach
Along the Mendocino coast of California, near Fort Bragg, is this gorgeous beach completely covered in tiny pieces of brightly colored glass, smoothed by the ocean.
From 1906 to 1967, garbage (including everything from glass bottles to vehicles and appliances) was disposed of over the cliffs into the ocean. It was a common practice of seaside communities.
To find Glass Beach from Highway 1, turn west on Elm Street and drive a few blocks to Glass Beach Drive. Our GPS got us there perfectly. Park at the intersection and walk down to the beach.
Before going, I read a few reviews on tripadvisor that said the glass was gone — it had all been taken by tourists. But when we were there, the beaches were just covered in colorful sea glass. You can see from our photos that there is no shortage, although the blue glass is rare.
The large, rock outcroppings at the beach also make great tide pools, full of little creatures, when the tide is out. We hunted and hunted for starfish, but only found anemones, little crabs and fish.
Be sure to visit the Sea Glass Museum, owned and operated by a retired sea captain. There you’ll discover the world’s largest permanent sea glass exhibit. The museum is now a must see for all visitors to the Mendocino coast.
Join us as we explore some more of the Pacific Northwest, from San Francisco to Seattle.
I hope you have as much fun exploring the Mendocino Coast as we did!
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