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Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands Trail

2 to 5 miles round trip

Few coastal locales are as photographed as the town of Mendocino and its bold headlands. The town itself, which lies just north of the mouth of Big River, resembles a New England village, no doubt by design of its Yankee founders. Mendocino may be familiar to fans of the once-popular television series “Murder She Wrote”; it served as the fictional Cabot Cove, sleuth Jessica Fletcher’s hometown. Now protected by a state park, the headlands are laced with paths that offer postcard views of wave tunnels and tidepools, beaches and blowholes.

Once the most cosmopolitan of little ports, Mendocino declined in economic and cultural importance as the logging industry came to a halt in the 1930s. The town revived in the 1950s when a number of San Francisco artists established the Mendocino Art Center. What was bohemian and cheap in the 1950s and 1960s is now upscale and pricey, but the town’s Maine village look has been preserved.

Mendocino’s citizenry not only preserved the town in a historical district, but succeeded in placing a portion of the majestic bluffs, threatened with a modern subdivision, under the protection of Mendocino Headlands State Park in 1972.

Mendocino is a great town for the walker to explore. Grand Victorian houses and simple New England saltboxes mingle with a downtown that includes several fascinating nineteenth-century buildings. Among the architectural gems are the Masonic Hall, built in 1866 and topped with a redwood sculpture of Father Time, the Mendocino Hotel with its antique decor and the Presbyterian Church, constructed in 1867 and now a state historical landmark.

Be sure to check out the historic Ford House perched above the bay on the south side of town. Inside the house are exhibits interpreting the human and natural history of the Mendocino coast, as well as the state park visitor center.

A summer or weekend walk onto the headlands allows you to escape the crowds, while a winter walk, perhaps when a storm is brewing offshore, is a special experience indeed. From the end of town you can walk down-coast to Big River or up-coast to a blowhole.

Directions to trailhead: From “downtown” Mendocino, follow Main Street up-coast past the Mendocino Hotel to Heeser Street. Park wherever you can find a space.

The hike: The unsigned trail leads southwest through a fence and soon forks; the route down-coast to Big River Beach is described first.

Heading east, the trail delivers you to some blufftop benches and a coastal accessway leading down to Portuguese Beach, known as Point Beach by locals. Wooden steps cross a gully and the trail soon forks again—offering both a route along the edge of the bluffs and another heading on a straighter course toward Big River.

Notice the cross-ties, remains of the old oxen-powered railway that hauled lumber to the bluff edge, where it was then sent by chute to waiting ships.

Wildflowers seasonally brightening the grassy headlands include lupine and Mendocino Coast paintbrush. More noticeable are non-native species gone wild—nasturtiums, calla lilies, hedge rose—as well as Scotch broom, an unwelcome pest that thrives along the north coast.

After meandering past some Bishop pine, the path descends moderately to steeply to the beach where Big River empties into Mendocino Bay. The quarter mile long beach is also part of Mendocino Headlands State Park. Upriver is a marsh, Big River Estuary, a winter stopover for ducks and geese. Salmon and steelhead spawn upriver.

Return the same way or detour through town to admire some of Mendocino’s historical buildings.

To the Blowhole and beyond: Bearing right at the first trail junction from the trailhead, leads to the blowhole. While no aqueous Vesuvius, the blowhole can at times be a frothy and picturesque cauldron.

The path continues north along the edge of the headlands for another mile. You’ll pass a plaque dedicated by the sister cities of Mendocino and Miasa, Japan, “to the peaceful pursuit of the peoples of the Pacific and to the protection of the environment that all living things therein may exist in perpetual harmony.”

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at