Miles of pristine beach. Holes in the rock through which surf sprays in excited plumes. Enormous rock formations that resemble nothing so much as a giant’s bowling alley. Highway One sloughing off into the ocean in a broken reminder of the power of the sea. These are just a few of the unique experiences one encounters when exploring the coastal parks of Mendocino County. Far from the madding crowds you’ll find another world – of tidepools, black rock beaches, and natural playgrounds. These are a few of our favorites, heading up the coast from the south to the north in a 70 mile stretch that spans most of the county.

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Bowling Ball Beach

Part of Schooner Gulch State Beach, the northern section of the beach is affectionately – and more widely – known as Bowling Ball Beach. Come during high tide and you probably won’t understand the name – most of the time it looks like a fairly unremarkable (though still beautiful) stretch of beach. Come during low tide, however, and you’ll find a completely different landscape. Sandstone concretions, where the ocean has worn away the surrounding softer material, litter the beach below the high tide line. When exposed these spherical boulders make for a beautiful sight – and a fantastic photo op.

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Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands

Covering 12 miles of stunning California coastline, the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands are technically a part of the 1,100 mile long California Coastal National Monument. The Lands offer an incredible opportunity to view the beauty of the hundreds of rocks and small islands that make up this segment of the offshore natural monument. The Lands offer great hiking, but also wonderful bird watching, wildlife viewing, and fishing. If you’re looking for a great location to photograph the beauty of the nearby Point Arena Lighthouse, this is it. On the northern end of the Lands you’ll find tiny blowholes – perforations in the rock that lead to the ocean below. Position yourself over them, and when the surf crashes in you’ll feel a jet of cool air and spray shoot out.

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Mendocino Headlands

Covering 347 acres of bluffs, 8 miles of the Big River estuary, and two beautiful beaches, the Mendocino Headlands State Park is one of the gems of Mendocino County. The headlands stretch around Mendocino from the south to the west and then back north, where they nearly meet up with Russian Gulch State Park to create a seamless stretch of preserved coastline. A good hike begins at the Ford House Museum on Main Street of Mendocino, continuing west along the ocean until you get to the stairs down to Portuguese Beach, a secluded driftwood beach. At the end of the day follow the trail further west (or drive down Heeser Drive) to watch the sunset with locals and visitors alike.

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Russian Gulch

Although best known for its 2.5 mile trail to a 36′ waterfall, Russian Gulch has a beautiful beach and coastal camping as well. The Russian Gulch blowhole is rarely talked about, but is an incredible destination in its own right. The pounding surf has carved out the rock underneath the headlands and punched through to the air above, creating a 60′ deep, 120′ across blowhole. When the tide is high and the waves are roaring, the cacophony echoes across the hole and spray shoots out of the hole to gently mist down on you. Russian Gulch’s beach and cliffs also offer great skin diving and fishing for the more sport minded, and wonderful tidepooling at low tide for families.

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MacKerricher State Park

MacKerricher is a beautiful beach with plenty to do, but its high point is the wildlife viewing. Cleone Lake is home to nearly 100 species of birds. The rocks at the end of the elevated boardwalk path are home to dozens of fun-loving seals. Whales can be seen passing by during their annual migration. And of course, there are the tidepools. MacKerricher is a favorite spot among locals for exploring the intertidal zone, with easy access (wooden stairs) down to the rocks, and plenty of relatively safe (as always, exercise caution around waves, which can be unpredictable) spots to pick your way among the rocks to peer into the pools. You’ll find starfish, sea anemones, hermit crabs, rock fish, mussels, nudibranchs, and the occasional octopus in these miniature worlds.

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Westport-Union Landing

One of the most remote and tranquil beaches in Mendocino County, Westport-Union Landing is a place few locals have even visited. Located just north of the small seaside town of Westport (for which it is named, along with the now non-existent town of Union Landing), the beach is at the southern end of the State Park. Although the campsites are located on the cliffs above, and are scenic in their own right (with the old Highway 1 tumbling down into the ocean below), the beach at the mouth of Howard Creek is a remarkably beautiful place. Locals can often be found on the beach with large nets, catching the smelt that spawn here, but other than that you’re likely to find yourself alone amidst the beauty.