Mendocino Coast Vacation With Kids–My Travelogue

This year, I decided to take my 7 1/2 year old son Jacob on a one-on-one bonding trip. I’ll take my daughter Dina on a similar trip when she gets a little older. In California, we are blessed with many top-notch kid-friendly tourist destinations. I chose the Mendocino coast, one of my favorite destinations anywhere, because I was pleasantly surprised how many good kid options it offered.

Let’s start with the downsides as a kid’s destination. A minor downside is that it’s a 4+ hour drive from our house in Mountain View. There are closer destinations that don’t require a half-day in the car. A more serious downside is that all of the roads getting to the Mendocino coast are twisty and not kid-friendly. We had to take a break on the way back after the Navarro River stretch of the 128 nauseated Jacob. Jacob ranked the twisty roads as his least favorite part of the trip. Another major downside is that fog is a constant fact of life along the coast, especially in July when the Pacific water is cold and it’s in the 90s inland. So temperatures remained cool all day long right along the coast (and cold in the mornings), and we didn’t get a lot of sun–even though it was a beautiful sunny day a few miles inland.

With that caveat, I’ll narrate some of the things Jacob and I did in our 2 1/2 day trip. You can also see the photo album at Flickr.

Point Arena Lighthouse. Grade: A

Jacob has not previously shown interest in lighthouses, but frankly, who doesn’t like lighthouses? The Point Arena lighthouse has a number of advantages, but the biggest attraction was climbing 125 stairs to the top of the 115 foot concrete cylinder. Jacob scrambled up the stairs like a mountain goat, reaching the top before all of the adults (many of whom huffed and puffed their way up). Note that the staircase is pretty narrow, so we had to stop a number of times to let opposite-direction traffic pass.

The old Fresnel lens is now on display in the small museum, so it’s possible to get a good look at it too. Now, all of the work is done by a tiny light on the lighthouse top’s exterior. At the top, a docent provided some good color commentary; we then got to walk along the catwalk (I think he called it the “gallery”) right below the lighthouse room for some excellent unobstructed views of the coastline. (The lighthouse room has the same views, but the windows were dirty). From the top, we watched a sea lion rookery just offshore and birds of prey (mostly turkey vultures) riding the wind currents over a nearby punchbowl. Overall, the tour within the lighthouse column took about 20-30 minutes, perfect for curious boys with typical attention spans of 7 year olds. We also poked around the museum a bit and the grounds as well. As a bonus, from the cliffs I easily spotted a whale within a few hundred yards of shore!

Admission was a little high for adults ($7.50 per) and a bargain for kids ($1 per). For the two of us, the $8.50 admission was an excellent value. For a larger group with multiple adults, the economics may be less favorable. Their hours aren’t entirely predictable. Their website said they close at 3:30, but they were open to 4:30 on a weekday in July.

Overall, the lighthouse was a big hit. Jacob ranked this as one of his “highlights” of the trip.

B. Bryan Preserve in Point Arena. Grade: B+

In the middle of nowhere–Point Arena (population around 500)–and in the cool fogbelt along the Mendocino coast, is a globally important African game preserve, including 3 types of antelopes (kudu, sable and roan) and two types of zebras (Grevy’s zebras and mountain zebras). Giraffes are coming next. The proprietors, Frank and Judy Mello, appear to be passionate African animal lovers with the time, money and curiosity to devote their lives to living a fantasy. Admit it–when you were young, you thought: wouldn’t it be cool if I could live on a ranch with several dozen amazing African animals? For the Mellos, that dream is their reality.

Even better, the proprietors share the experience with all of us. They run daily tours at 4:30 to coincide with feeding time. Space is limited–they can only take as many people as they can fit in their Land Rover and truck–so reservations are essential.

The “tour” itself is a bit of a misnomer. This is a preserve, not a zoo, and it’s run like a true mom-and-pop operation. There is no road signage or welcoming booth. You drive up the driveway, park next to the barn, and try to figure out where to go next.

The tour starts in the barn, where Judy gave us some background information on the preserve and each of the animals we would see. As props, she used taxidermied heads of the various animals. We then walked around the barn to see some mountain zebras, then climbed into the antiquated open-air Land Rover to drive around the preserve and see the other animals.

The result is like a bargain African safari. We had an up-close-and-personal encounter with dozens of majestic animals without having to travel 6,000 miles to Africa. The animals were just a few feet away, drawn closer to us by their dinner. The animals aren’t tame, so for the most part they were behind fences, but this was still an intimate interaction. Judy let the kids toss some apples into some of the pens; Jacob gave several good tosses.

I downgraded the tour’s grade as a kid-friendly destination for a couple of reasons. First, although Judy did OK as a tour guide, this was not a professional-quality tour. Rather, the Mellos are hobbyists sharing their hobby. Second, at an hour-and-a-half, the tour stretched Jacob’s attention span. For him, I think once he saw one zebra, the marginal utility of the next zebra diminished rapidly. By the end, he was more interested in playing with the other kids on the tour than checking out the animals. As a result, Jacob surprisingly did not rank this tour as a highlight.

I should add that as an adult destination, I would grade this an A. Despite the tour’s casualness, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and loved watching the animals. Zebras are too cool, and the antelope were pretty nifty too. The proprietors have two really lovely cottages that they rent out, and what a delicious destination for an adult getaway.

The tour is almost exclusively outdoors, so no matter how warm you feel waiting for the tour to start, bundle up tightly for the inevitable chilling wind that will blast you. The tour cost $20 per adult and $10 per kid, a decent value for being immersed in the unexpected Point Arena savannah.

Kayaking. Grade: A

The Mendocino coast offers several kayaking options, including sea tours, river float trips and (in season) river whitewater trips. I think a tour of the sea caves or coastline usually will be more interesting than the river tours, but Jacob has never kayaked before, so I chose a less complicated river float trip.

We took a Noyo River tour from Liquid Fusion kayaking. This proved to be an excellent choice for three reasons. First, the tour was easy paddling even for novices. Second, we were the only customers on a Wednesday morning tour, so we customized the trip to our specific interests. The tour wasn’t the cheapest, but having a private session for 90 minutes turned out to be an excellent value. Third, the proprietor Cate is a former schoolteacher, so she did a great job engaging Jacob.

We kayaked from Dolphin Isle harbor down to the main harbor and back on our 90 minute tour. Along the way, we saw a couple seals in the river, many birds (osprey, kingfisher, woodpecker, ducks, swallows and a beautiful Great Blue Heron) and evidence of river otters (but no otters themselves). Jacob initially loved the opportunity to paddle, but eventually he got distracted by the surprisingly fascinating (to him) floating seaweed in the river.

Jacob ranked the kayaking as a trip highlight. It was a great way to whet his appetite for more.

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. Grade: A

Glass Beach is a triple play as a kid’s destination. First, the beach is covered in seaglass washed up from when the area was a dump. It may be my poor memory, but it seemed like there was less seaglass than I saw in previous visits. Don’t expect a mile-long carpet of multi-hued seaglass; instead, the densest parts now are just small patches. Still, the colorful mixture of seaglass, shells and rocks was fun to poke around.

Second, Glass Beach has some of the better tidepools in the area. Jacob spent nearly 2 hours running from pool to pool, watching the tide flow in and out. We didn’t find many critters, but their absence wasn’t a dealbreaker.

Third, the bluffs are covered in wild blackberries, and we spent a little time looking for a snack. Most weren’t ripe in mid-July (too early in the season), but the quest was fun. Lots of flowers too.

Glass Beach is convenient and free, and our visit enjoyably consumed a few hours of time. An excellent destination.

Pt. Cabrillo State Historic Park in Caspar. The official state website. Grade: C

After the success at the Point Arena Lighthouse, Jacob enthusiastically responded when I proposed visiting another lighthouse. However, this one was a mostly a bust for him. I think he expected we would climb to the top of the lighthouse, but that wasn’t allowed. The park includes several 100 year old buildings that represent a complete lighthouse installation, including the lightkeepers houses and various other buildings. The tiny museum in the picturesque lighthouse building was not interesting to kids. One of the keeper’s restored houses was open for inspection but Jacob was only mildly interested.

We walked around the headlands as well. The “South” trail started out strong, but when we turned inland, the trail petered out into a bunch of game trails. We didn’t get lost (it would be impossible to do so), but I hate it when trails are that confusing. I assume the lack of trail maintenance is due to the state budget crisis (the visitor center was closed due to budget cuts).

Despite all those strikes against the park, the visit was saved by a seal colony right by the lighthouse that we could watch easily without binoculars (binoculars did help). We counted at least 22 seals at one point, and we spent a half-hour watching seals trying to get out of the pounding surf and then blubbering up the steep slopes to avoid the splash zone.

Entrance into the park is free, but they request a small donation to access the tiny museum. Parking is about 1/2 mile away from the lighthouse. It’s possible to rent one of the keeper’s homes for a vacation stay; that looked like an interesting choice.

Van Damme State Park in Little River. Grade: B.

The Mendocino coast is blessed with several excellent state parks. Russian Gulch State Park is my favorite. It has the most interesting hikes, and the headlands are amazing.

Van Damme State Park has a lot to recommend it, but it suffers from a few obvious limitations. The biggest limitation is that its centerpiece attraction, Fern Canyon, remains partially closed to hiking due to storm damage from over a decade ago. You can hike about 1.5 miles in (further than the trailhead signage misleadingly indicates), but even getting that far requires scrambling over a few massive downed redwood trees blocking the trail. However, not being able to complete the hike feels somehow like the park is cut in two. Even so, the Fern Canyon hike is very nice, although my favorite Fern Canyon is in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park north of Eureka. The hike is best in the rainy season, so the canyon was not at peak fern-iness during our mid-July visit.

Jacob enjoyed the Fern Canyon hike. The trail is level, wide and well-marked. Ferns and redwoods are everywhere. Most exciting to him was a tree growing out of a downed redwood at an angle that made it look like a “J.” All around, this is a very kid-friendly hike.

There are two other hikes in the park: a short hike to a bog, and a loop around the Pygmy forest. We didn’t do either on this trip, but on a previous trip I didn’t find the Pygmy forest all that interesting. Due to the soil conditions, the trees’ growth is stunted, so very old trees look like they are young saplings. But to the untrained eye, it just looks like a young forest. (The forests in the Yukon close to the treeline all look like this). Van Damme also has a small beach (with a kayaker concession) at the coast, but no headlands comparable to Russian Gulch’s.

The campground has about 75 camping spots spread out over a mile or two. The layout is very typical for California state parks. Some sites are very close together; but even the more spread-out sites offer little aural or visual privacy. Fortunately, during mid-week, the campground wasn’t too rowdy, but nevertheless you’re likely to hear your neighbors for as long as they are awake. The campground “host” was invisible.

Each site has a park bench, a firepit and a food locker. Our site (#38) was shaded by a stand of evergreens (unfortunately not redwoods) on a sloping hillside, with two level tent sites. The bathrooms were a brief walk away. They were in OK condition but bring your own soap. The bathroom lights automatically turned on after dark, but we needed our flashlights inside the bathrooms at sunset/dusk before the lights turned on. We didn’t take advantage of the various ranger-led activities (which were thin mid-week) but they were fairly typical for the state park system; most of them cater to kids. Firewood is sold at the visitor center, and the website advertises wi-fi at the visitor center too (I didn’t try it).

In mid-July, we had virtually no bugs and it was light until about 8:45 pm, but temperature were cool–a damp high 40s with a light wind at breakfast-time that required us to put on jackets and use the car as a windbreak.

One of Van Damme’s many advantages is its proximity to Mendocino town–3 miles and less than a 5 minute drive away. We paid $35/night plus the online reservation fee. I found a few sites still available for our mid-week stay with less than 2 weeks advance notice (Russian Gulch and other nearby state parks were all sold out by then). It was a good value for a prime sleeping spot on the Mendocino coast.

Other Things

Some other things we did:

* Golden Gate Bridge vista point. I believe this was Jacob’s first time over the Golden Gate Bridge, so we stopped at the vista point on the Marin side of northbound 101. I had faint hopes that we might be able to walk across the bridge, but at 10:30 am on an otherwise lovely summer morning, it was uncomfortably cold and completely foggy (i.e., couldn’t see the tops of the bridge or across the Bay to San Francisco).

* picnic lunch at Sonoma Coast State Beach. Hard to go wrong with this. Jacob ranked this as one of his highlights.

* hike at a nameless (?) vista point in Sonoma County. There was a nice <1 mile loop that was perfect for stretching legs, seeing flowers and getting some views–though the fog blocked most of the panoramas.

* lunch at Cafe 1 in Fort Bragg. Jacob rejected the Living Light raw food storefront for lunch, which screwed up my meal plans. Instead, we tried Cafe 1, a few blocks up Highway 1 and recommended by the Living Light folks. In an old-style diner, the restaurant served a mix of old diner favorites and modern vegetarian cuisine–all organic. I wish more restaurants were like this. We heartily devoured everything we ordered.

* dinner at Lu’s Kitchen in Mendocino. I have a love/hate relationship with Lu’s Kitchen! It has erratic hours and only serves lunch, so more often than not, it’s going to be closed when you visit. And it has only outdoor seating–a chancey proposition with the fickle coastal weather, and no table service. But the wonderful food–and the lovely flowers in the garden–makes it worth tolerating the many quirks. We got lucky and arrived just before it closed. Jacob ranked his Golden Tofu dinner with peanut sauce as a highlight.