Fort Bragg: Northern California Coastal Escape

One of our favorite side trips from San Francisco is a drive up the coast to Fort Bragg along the Mendocino Coast. If you’re in the Bay area or anywhere within driving distance, this is a great way to escape the city for a weekend, enjoy the outdoors, and simply relax.

Although we live in a beach town, we always enjoy walking along the rugged Fort Bragg coastline to watch the waves crash over the rocks and see the seals play in the tide pools.

Not too much is happening in Fort Bragg if you’re looking for nightlife, except maybe the live music at Headlands Coffeehouse. But you’ll find plenty to do during the day.

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg

You might enjoy a walk along the coastal bluffs, plan a picnic, rent a bike, or head over to Glass Beach to view the colored sea glass. Depending on when you go, you’ll see more or less glass. The photo above was taken a while ago on our first visit. The second time is seemed like all the glass had been collected by tourists (a big no-no, locals say, but we see people doing it all the time.) It’s still worth a look though because storms and tides often alter what you’ll find there. You may get lucky!

The Thing About Sea Glass Beach

That’s not the only reason people seem to disagree about how much sea glass you’ll find on Glass Beach, or where exactly it is. Turns out there are actually three beaches called Glass Beach in Fort Bragg.

While it may seem glamorous in photos, all are actually former city trash dump sites where people pushed things over the cliffs onto the beach. The sea glass is simply what nature did with all the discarded apothecary bottles, tail lights, milk jugs, and other tossed glass.

The Glass Beach at Fort Bragg’s MacKerricher State Park is the one I recommend visiting to see the most sea glass (the northern-most of the three beaches).

I’d like to think a few messages in bottles made it into the mix.

MacKerricher State Park Boardwalk

It’s actually illegal to take sea glass off this beach because it’s state park property, although I’ve seen many people do it.

While there’s not as much sea glass on the beach as their used to be, how much you see depends on the tide — low tide is the best time to go.

If people tell you they were there and saw almost no glass, they probably went at high tide. The tide brings in sand that covers the glass.

Ten Mile Haul Road Fort Bragg

To get to Glass Beach in Fort Bragg from Highway 1: turn west on Elm Street and park at the intersection of Elm and Glass Beach Drive, a few blocks away.

Then you can walk down to the beach. And if you’re feeling a little sea glass deficient, you can always visit Sea Glass Museum, the world’s biggest permanent sea glass exhibit.

If it’s your first time in Fort Bragg and you like old trains, take a ride on the old Skunk Train through the Redwoods.

Historic Railroad: The Skunk Train, popular Fort Bragg CA Attraction

If that triggers an urge to see even more massive redwoods, drive an hour to Montgomery Woods State Reserve and stroll along magical paths through trees as tall as 378 feet. A hike can take you an hour or half a day, depending on which trail you choose.

Another popular attraction in Fort Bragg is the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Well-located on 47 acres in between HWY1 and the ocean, the garden is a great place to stroll coastal bluffs, and also the canyons, wetlands, and pine forest. Bird watchers will find plenty to enjoy here, too.

Mendocino Botanical Gardens Fort Bragg CA

When we go to Fort Bragg, we like to walk the trail that starts at Noyo Headlands State Park (west side of Elm Street). The trail takes you along the recently restored coastal bluffs, with some nice ocean views and beach access, including Glass Beach.

This is an 8-foot wide paved trail (so it’s stroller and wheelchair accessible) with a dedicated footpath for running and bicycling, picnic tables, benches, and info signs.

Sometimes we rent bikes (or use the hotel bikes) and ride along Ten Mile Beach Trail over Pudding Creek Trestle, the historic redwood bridge built for trains back in 1916.

Pudding Creek Trestle is a pedestrian bridge (for walking/cycling only) that goes through MacKerricher State Park, connecting Glass Beach to Ten Mile Beach, all part of the Ten Mile Trail.

Pudding Creek Trestle

Afternoons are the best time to visit the working fishing village on the south side of Fort Bragg called Noyo Harbor. This is where we go when we want to book a kayaking, fishing, or whale watching tour.

Often we just walk around and sample the fresh, local seafood, and walk on the beach.

Whatever you do on your Fort Bragg escape, take a moment to chill out, recalibrate, and renew your spirit before heading back to the bustle of the city. You’ll be glad you did.

Things to Do in Fort Bragg California

So that’s enough about our Fort Bragg getaways. Here’s some info to help you plan yours.

Walking / Hiking

Fort Bragg has lots of coastal paths for walking.  Noyo Headlands Park, Glass Beach, Pomo Bluffs, and Mackerricher are several with views of areas where we may be paddling.

You can’t go wrong hiking the beautiful Russian Gulch State Park which is my favorite no matter how many times I go there.

Biking

Old Haul Road is a good place for cruising. Jackson State Forest is the place to go for Mountain biking  Some hotels in Fort Bragg have loner bikes, or you can rent bikes at Fort Bragg Cyclery.

Tidepooling

Check the tide chart to find out when it’s low tide. Then head to the beach at Mackerricher State Park to find tide pools.

Historic Railroad

Play tourist and take the Skunk Train through the redwoods. Find it just off Highway 1 (100 W Laurel St., Fort Bragg, CA).

Botanical Gardens

The beautiful Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are a good place for a family walk a picnic, especially in the spring.

Shop

Just north of the botanical gardens, you’ll find a shop called Glass Fire where you can watch the owners blow glass in their studio. We love their glass jellyfish chandeliers.

For more coastal kitsch, I like Lunar Tide (in the Depot Mall Museum by Laurel Deli). And for succulent addicts — you know who you are — see Simply Succulent (31250 Highway 20. 1.8 miles east of HWY 1).

Whale Watching

During gray whale migration season (December – April), look for whales from the bluffs, from a kayak or book a whale-watching cruise via All Aboard Adventures.

Harbor Cruise

For a fun cruise in the Noyo Harbor, check out Noyo Harbor Boat Tours.

Photo courtesy of Liquid Fusion Kayak, Fort Bragg

Kayaking

I like the Noyo Meander, but you can book something more adventurous. Liquid Fusion Kayaking is happy to accommodate.

Surfing

You can rent surf gear at The Lost Surf Shack and ask them about the local surf spots.

Horseback Riding

I’d just book an hour ride on the beach, but the folks at Ricochet Ridge Ranch offer a few more options for avid riders, including full-on riding vacations.

Diving

For diving gear to rent, and anything else you need at Subsurface Progression.

MacKerricher State Park Tide Pool

Fishing

For salmon, Dungeness crab, rock cod, and albacore fishing along the Mendocino Coast, check regulations with CADFW. For charter boat fishing, see All Aboard Adventures.

Birding

Not my area, but I’ve been told to look for belted kingfishers, acorn woodpeckers, and red-shouldered hawks. Mendocino Coast Audubon Society has lots of info on fantastic birds and where to find them.

Fort Bragg CA Hotels

Beachcomber Motel and Spa on the Beach

Where to Stay in Fort Bragg

Every time we go we stay at a different hotel and haven’t had a bad experience yet (Does that make me savvy or easy?) Here are a few to check out.

You can find user reviews and booking info on this Tripadvisor Fort Bragg hotels page.

1. Beachcomber Motel

Affordable with great views and trails to the beach. I’ve stayed at this place, twice, with Two and the savvy dog.

Not all rooms are dog friendly, but if you’re bringing yours, check out their dog-friendly suites with dog amenities and even a dog park, with lots of trails to the beach.

2. the Lodge at Noyo River

On the bluff above Noyo Harbor. This is a Historic home converted into a bed and breakfast lodge.

3. Beach House Inn

Nice inn on the river, with a nice pond with ducks and swans. Not close enough to the ocean for an easy walk, though.

4. Surf & San Lodge

Simple lodging with ocean views and beach trail access. Some say the decor is dated, but it’s clean and well-located.

5. Quality Inn & Suites Tradewinds

A mile to the beach, and within walking distance to shops, art galleries, museums, Skunk Train, and restaurants. Pet friendly.

6. Pine Beach Inn

Super cheap, this is the only inn with a private beach and cove. Located just north of Jug Handle State Reserve just outside of Fort Bragg, Paved walkway to the beach. Pet friendly.

Fort Bragg Restaurants

Fort Bragg, California is a great place to kick back, and that means lingering over a meal or two. Here are a few places we like:

1. Rhody’s Garden Café

Fresh sandwiches with organic bread, fresh-made soups, and green salads with homemade dressings. Produce is sourced locally and from the Botanical Gardens’ own vegetable garden and from local providers,

Rhody’s is the place for a quick lunch or a lingering picnic in the Gardens. Open April – September. Dog Access: Dogs are allowed on the patio.

Address: 18220 CA-1, Fort Bragg.

2. The Q

Grab some ribs or a wild bore burger at The Q on Main Street. If you love barbecue, this is the place. Address: 1064 S. Main Street, Highway 1, Fort Bragg.


3. Eggheads

A diner with a Wizard of Oz theme, this is a good spot for breakfast (Dungeness crab omelettes) or lunch (I like the Wicked Witch burger).

Address: 326 N Main St, Fort Bragg.

4. Cowlick’s Handmade Ice Cream

Desert first? It’s gotta be Cowlicks. The family-owned ice cream parlor makes fresh ice cream daily in flavors both favorite (Black Forest, Pralines & Cream) and unusual (Yellow Cake Batter, Candy Store Floor).

Address: 250 N Main St, Fort Bragg.

5. North Coast Brewing Co.

Just thirsty? Go here, just for the beer. One of the pioneers in the Craft Beer movement, the brewery has won more than 110 awards in national and international competitions.

Address: 455 North Main Street, Fort Bragg.

6. Headlands Coffeehouse

Frittatas, vegan bagels, BLTs. They brew their own chai from Fog Harbour black tea and spices. And of course coffee. Live music, too, Every Sunday afternoon from 2 pm – 4:45 pm, Monday through Saturday 7 pm – 9:45 pm.

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