This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (2024)

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (1)

Approximately 165 miles north of San Francisco, Fort Bragg is a remote coastal city in California, beloved for its native redwoods, beguiling bluffs and beaches, and overall sense of tranquility. The second most populous city in Mendocino County, Fort Bragg is home to just about 7,000 residents, so if avoiding a crowd is your aim, you’d do well to make your way here — it’s likely you’ll find yourself alone on a trail, beach, or in the woods, especially if you forgo a summer stay.

I’ve explored Fort Bragg and its surroundings a number of times over the years, but a local’s perspective is always nice to have. To be sure our list of where to stay, eat, and play really reflects the destination, we spoke with two longtime residents with deep roots in the hospitality scene: Jennifer Owen, CEO of Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewing Company, and John Sverko, former wine buyer and sommelier of Little River Inn.

Here’s how to get to know the off-the-beaten-path destination that is Fort Bragg.

Top 5 Can’t Miss

  • Trash has become sea glass at Glass Beach, which was long used as a dump site for unwitting locals — stop by and see what you discover.
  • Coastal redwoods are simply magnificent, so spending time in their mighty presence is a must. Do so in nearby preserves like Jackson Demonstration State Forest, Russian Gulch State Park, and Otis R. Johnson Wilderness Park, a local favorite smack dab in the middle of town.
  • If you don’t want to walk through redwoods, you can ride past them via the Skunk Train, a historic engine originally used for logging that now carries passengers through the forest on slow, scenic rides, themed adventures, and even to a hidden bar in the woods.
  • Fort Bragg has a bubbly craft beer scene; head to The Pub at North Coast Brewing (get the fish and chips here, too), Tall Guy Brewing, and Overtime Brewing to try what the local brands are brewing.
  • Getting out onto the water is a good idea when in Fort Bragg, so head to Noyo Harbor for a chill tour or a fishing, whale-watching or kayaking excursion. There’s lots of seafood nearby, too.

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (2)

Best Hotels and Resorts

The Inn at Newport Ranch

Set on more than 2,000 acres and about 11 miles north of central Fort Bragg, The Inn at Newport Ranch is rustic luxury at its best. With just 10 rooms, the seaside hotel is ideal for a quiet, romantic escape, one in which you can relish the abundance of beauty around you — there are plenty of picnic spots on the bluffs and even a mixed fir and redwood forest within the property's bounds. Guests can hike miles of trails or book a two-hour UTV tour of the spectacular property; a picnic lunch can be added. Seasonal mushroom foraging excursions are also a sought-after option. A full breakfast is included in the stay, as are co*cktail hour drinks and snacks. Reserve a table for dinner to see what the chef is cooking up with local ingredients and items grown in the on-site gardens.

Noyo Harbor Inn

For a historic stay, book a room at Noyo Harbor Inn, which dates back to the 1850s and is set on the Noyo River. The inn has been meticulously restored with wooden Arts and Crafts details, and it offers 15 rooms, a restaurant with a deck overlooking the Noyo River, and a spa. From here, you're minutes away from Noyo Headlands Park, Glass Beach, and shopping in downtown Fort Bragg.

Little River Inn

It’s perfectly reasonable to stay a bit outside of Fort Bragg's city limits in the name of a good hotel, and to that end, I’d recommend Little River Inn, which has welcomed guests since 1939. The Victorian inn overlooks the Pacific and is located about 13 miles south of Fort Bragg, just past the adorable town of Mendocino. Cozy up next to your in-room wood-burning stove and have a drink at the iconic Whale Watch Bar, and you’re on your way to a perfect stay.

Mendocino Grove

Another one worth the drive is Mendocino Grove, a top California glamping resort that lies about 11 miles south of Fort Bragg. The camp has dozens of furnished safari-style canvas tents, complete with down comforters on beds and leather butterfly chairs on the wooden front decks. You’re still roughing it a bit with limited electricity in tents, but you get your own fire ring (ask for the campfire valet if you’re struggling to get things started) and a picnic table, plus two modern, shared bathhouses for a hot shower, daily yoga, and hammocks and bocce ball on the grounds.

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Best Things to Do

Visit Glass Beach.

The story of Glass Beach is hard to believe — Owen calls it “an interesting oddity” — but the proof is in the sand. For more than 60 years (approximately 1906 to 1967), three beaches in Fort Bragg were used as dump sites, with people tossing household goods, glass, and more into the sea without much thought about the environmental consequences. Sverko remembers using slingshots to zing his trash over the cliff when he was a kid, and that one day his stepfather even used momentum to slide a piano into the site off of his truck bed.

“It was thrilling for us to go to the dump,” Sverko told Travel + Leisure. “I still go down to Glass Beach, and who knows, I might find things I threw out there. We didn’t have any clue about how environmentally unsafe it was. Now, there’s more awareness, and we know to preserve what we have left, including the redwoods.”

Take a hike.

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (3)

There are countless trails in this area, in the woods or overlooking the sea, so don’t leave before trekking a few of them. Sverko recommends roaming in Jackson Demonstration State Forest, where numerous paths await. Van Damme State Park is home to the beloved Fern Canyon Scenic Trail, though it’s sometimes closed after a good storm, and Jug Handle State Natural Reserve and Russian Gulch State Park are ideal for ramblers. I love the bluffside trails of Mendocino Headlands State Park, where wildflowers and grasses sway in the wind. Or, Fort Bragg visitors can stay close to town and stroll Noyo Headlands Trail, a newer segment that you can hop on right near Glass Beach. Owen also suggests checking out Otis R. Johnson Wilderness Park, a bit of a local secret that hides in plain sight in the middle of town.

“This park has one of the few views of Pudding Creek, so I love taking people here,” said Owen. “It’s great for kids, with short walks, and you can walk here from downtown. Then, MacKerricher State Park, just north of us, is one of the most visited state parks in California . Our town’s population is 7,000, but the visitors that come through MacKerricher are in the hundreds of thousands every summer.”

Ride the Skunk Train.

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (4)

Established in 1885, the Skunk Train — which got its nickname from the stinky exhaust the engines left in their wake — used to haul passengers and sawed-down redwoods until we smartened up and protected what was left of the giant coastal trees. A 75-minute Pudding Creek Express trip offers a glimpse of this history, but there are longer routes as well, plus holiday train rides to “the world’s largest living Christmas tree” and weekend evening trips out to the under-the-stars Glen Blair Bar. There are rail bikes, too, if that better fits your interests.

“I live right by the tracks in Pudding Creek. It's near where I grew up, so I’ve heard the Skunk Train’s whistles my whole life,” said Sverko. “I love it — going three or four miles on it, then coming back, is a good time. I’m glad they’re keeping it going.”

Get on the water.

The Mendocino Coast is a bustling place in terms of wildlife — think California sea lions, whales and birds of all sorts, and plenty more. For a better chance of spotting any of these, or simply to enjoy the lull of being on the water, step onto a boat of your choice. For a short, slow jaunt in an 18-foot Duffy boat, try Noyo Harbor Tours With Captain Dan; this little electric vessel tops out at six miles an hour, but you’ll likely see harbor seals and sea lions during the tour. If you don’t mind doing some of the work yourself, head to Kayak Noyo and paddle around in search of some adorably speckled harbor seals. For fishing or whale watching, contact Telstar Charters.

“You can get a fishing license for the day at the harbor, too,” said Sverko. “Or, book a tour or party boat, which people love. And there are whales visible all year long, if you’d like to go whale watching.”

Visit Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (5)

This local nonprofit has welcomed floral-loving guests since the ‘60s, and visitors can expect to see collections of rhododendrons, heathers, camellia, begonias, magnolias, fuchsias, and even wild mushrooms, depending on the season. There’s an annual Festival of Lights in the winter, and bird-watching here is great year-round; check the calendar for docent-led birding walks.

“This is always on my list for visitors,” said Owen. “It's gorgeous all year round. I go to see what I should be able to grow in my yard, and they have an amazing gift store.”

Best Restaurants

Princess Seafood

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (6)

When I read about Princess Seafood, a giant grin spread across my face. An all-women fishing operation? I can’t think of many things as wonderful as that. There’s a fish market on North Harbor Drive for those who want to take goods home to cook. Then, just below the Noyo River Bridge, the Princess Seafood restaurant serves all kinds of amazing things, from seasonal fish plates (rock cod, sablefish, salmon) to burgers to hot prawn po’boys.

HarborView Bistro & Bar

Perched right above the Noyo River, this is Noyo Harbor Inn’s on-site restaurant, and it’s hard to beat a meal here on the patio on a sunny day. If you’re short on time, stop in for happy hour and try the wild mushroom bruschetta (locally foraged, of course, and my favorite dish here). There are also draught beers by Mendocino breweries and soft pretzels with beer cheese. The brunch menu is eye-catching, too, with bananas Foster French toast, a rock cod sandwich, and a seafood platter, among other options.

The Pub at North Coast Brewing

When you’re hanging out in a fishing community like Fort Bragg, you can bet there’s a running argument on where to find the best order of fish and chips. I believe in forming your own opinion, and to do that, start at The Pub at North Coast Brewing, where they batter the fish (local rock cod) in their own Scrimshaw beer batter. The chowder fries are also worthy of a nod, and it’s best to pair your order with any of the brand’s beers.

Sea Pal Cove Restaurant

Should you want to continue your hunt for Fort Bragg’s best seafood, head to Sea Pal, an eatery that pretty much defines “hole in the wall,” though in this case it’s a “hole in the pier.” Have some chowder, a cod sandwich, or an order of fish and chips, and enjoy as you watch the boats cruise in the harbor in front of you.

Gowan’s Heirloom Ciders

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (7)

If you’ve ever wanted to sip cider in an apple orchard, this is the spot for you. This family farm in Philo dates back to the late 1800s, and guests are welcome for tastings. It’s a beautiful place to stretch your legs, and as it’s a bit of a trek at 40 miles south of Fort Bragg, I’d recommend stopping by on your way in or out of town.

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (8)

Best Time to Visit

Like so many coastal destinations, Fort Bragg has moderate weather year-round, making it lovely any month of the year. It may be misty and overcast some days, but temperatures don’t often fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In December, the average high is 55 degrees, and in August, it’s 67 degrees. Layers are a good idea, so you can peel things off or add them back on as the fog rolls in or burns off.

“We have mild weather,” said Owen. “It’s rare that you can’t get outside. People from snow country come here in the winter because they can go out and take hikes and walk on the beach. And in the summer, those sweltering inlanders come to cool off.”

Sverko says that summer draws the largest number of tourists, many of them families with kids out of school. If you’re looking for a couples getaway, he suggests visiting in the fall or spring — pack a few sweaters and a rain jacket, in case a drizzly afternoon arrives. In the winter, or any non-summer months, really, Sverko says you’ll get a good sense of the quietude of the place.

“I like to say, if you’ve read 'The Hobbit,' we’re kind of like the Shire up here,” said Sverko. “We’re kind of secluded and protected. The world goes about its business; sometimes, a few of us raise our heads to look out and see what’s going on. But it’s good that people come to experience this [place] because that helps preserve it. We are a delicate ecosystem, so please be mindful.”

Nearby Cities to Visit

The village of Mendocino is a must — it’s charming and unbelievably scenic, set on a bluff and lined with restaurants and little shops to peruse. And since the town is just 10 miles south of Fort Bragg and home to a few of the recommendations in this guide, it’s best to think of it as the sibling city you wouldn’t dare leave out of your itinerary.

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (9)

How to Get There

Your closest major airports are Sonoma County Airport (about 105 miles from Fort Bragg) and San Francisco International Airport (about 180 miles from Fort Bragg), so this is usually a road trip destination. The good news is that from either of these airports, your route will be a gorgeous one.

From Sonoma, take Highway 128 and stop at Hendy Woods State Park, Navarro River Redwoods State Park, and the aforementioned Gowan’s Heirloom Ciders or Philo Apple Farm on your way to Fort Bragg. Or, take Highway 101 through Hopland and Ukiah to Highway 20, which weaves through stunning forests on its way west toward the coast and Fort Bragg. If you’re starting in San Francisco, you can make your way to that last route, or opt for the longer way via the Pacific Coast Highway (about 4.5 hours), which brings you through coastal towns like Bodega Bay, Jenner, and Sea Ranch.

How to Get Around

Like so much of California, you must have a car to get around Fort Bragg. You’ll drive up to a dozen miles to beaches and trailheads within Fort Bragg's bounds, and further if you want to see the nearby cities named above — which I suggest you do. A car gives you the freedom you need to explore this gorgeous region at your own pace.

This Coastal California Town Is Off the Beaten Path — With Scenic Hiking Trails, a Sea Glass Beach, and a Historic Train Through the Redwoods (2024)

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