Taking in a stretch of dramatic Pacific coast and stately redwood forests, Mendocino County clearly has natural setting in its favor. Though you may have seen this county - which sits north of San Francisco Bay but east of the busy central valley - in the news for its relaxed approach to marijuana growing, it's rather the ocean vistas, migrating whales, quaint seaside communities, wineries and microbreweries that draw travelers to this neck of the California woods.
Prettily perched above the ocean roughly midway down the county's coast is the town of Mendocino. Home to scarcely more than a thousand year-round residents, this community is one of the choicest spots to base this side of the Bay Area. Garnished with art galleries, close to good kayaking spots, hiking trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park and sights of interest like Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and the history oriented Kelly House Museum, Mendocino offers a pleasant assortment of outdoor pleasures and cultural pursuits. With a day or more to spare in the region, embark upon a whale-watching cruise or charter fishing trip from Fort Bragg, a quick drive up the coast, then book yourself a seat on the Skunk train, the region's historic railway excursion that steams along on a sight-seeing run through forest-flocked mountains and along meandering river. Fort Bragg's other claim to fame is Glass Beach, named for the water worn glass pieces (Mother Nature's recycling work) that pebble its beach.
If you're driving up to Mendocino from San Francisco, break up the four-hour roadtrip with a stay in Gualala. Birders will spot osprey, egret, and heron on the banks of the Gualala River. The gentle river provides the perfect opportunity for novices and families to try kayaking - watch for the otters at home in these waters as you enjoy fresh perspective on county attractions . Gualala, like Mendocino, has a reputation as an artist's hideaway, so be sure to browse local galleries.
Inland, the county's seat, Ukiah (population 15, 500 or so), is less touristy than coastal communities, and though it lacks for Pacific Ocean panoramas it has other assets to its credit. Surrounded by fertile farmland, Ukiah boasts a respectable clutch of local wineries, but it's a town also of note for its proximity to historic Vichy Hot Springs Resort, in a former life the haunt of literary greats like Jack London and Mark Twain. Mere mortals share steaming pool space these days, and with Bureau of Land Management turf next door, it's easy enough to while away several days here, between leisurely hikes and long massage sessions.
Mendocino County begins about 2 hours north of San Francisco on the renowned Pacific Coast Highway, Route 1. The Village of Mendocino is situated half way between San Francisco and Eureka.