What’s the most photographed destination in Mendocino County? You might think it’s a towering redwood tree in Montgomery Woods, the world-famous Skunk Train, or the entry arch to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas – but you’d be wrong. It’s a delightfully odd, collaborative effort between man and nature, and it’s known around the world as Glass Beach, located in Fort Bragg, California.

A quick note: State Parks makes it clear that removing glass from Glass Beach (as a cultural feature of the State Park) is prohibited – so feel free to explore, photograph, and hunt, but please do not remove glass from the beach.

In 1906 the citizens of Fort Bragg chose to deal with their waste in a relatively common manner for the era – they dumped it off the cliffs and into the ocean below. That meant everything from household garbage to automobiles, and the practice continued all the way until 1967, when the California State Water Resources Control Board (a product of growing environmental awareness in the country as a whole) shut it down. Over the years the ocean had its way with the tons and tons of garbage on the site, rusting away and breaking down metal, washing away some of the garbage, and breaking and wearing down glass bottles and fixtures until they were completely smooth.

The property was purchased in 2002 by the California Parks and Recreation Department, and was added to MacKerricher State Park. Numerous clean ups have occurred over the years, removing dangerous material, jagged metal, and hard plastics, but leaving the harmless, smooth, and beautiful sea glass behind. That glass makes up what is now called Glass Beach.

There were actually three main dump sites, and three ‘glass beaches’ – the most easily accessible is known as Site #3, and over the years has been picked almost entirely clean of glass. Just 100 yards to the south, and a bit trickier to get down to, is Site #2 (a landfill from 1943 to 1949), which has also been largely picked through, but still retains much of the signature glass, and is truly beautiful when it is covered in water and picks up the light. Site #1 is located even further south, and is visible from the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail. This was the ‘original’ Glass Beach, operating as a dump from 1906 into the early 1940s.

People are often disappointed to arrive and learn that its a misdemeanor to take glass home with them – but an amazing day can still be had at the beach. The hunt is still a great thrill – maybe searching for one of the elusive ‘little reds’ (bits of old glass brake lights from the early part of the 20th century), a sapphire gem (from early 20th-century apothecary bottles), or a specific shade of purple or green – and hours can be spent sifting through the beach and collecting, before returning the glass and heading out. We love to see the photos our visitors share of their best finds – and judging from the location’s popularity on Instagram, our visitors find plenty of joy in recording their treasures digitally, using that as their keepsake.

If you want to see the incredible range the beach has to offer, stop in to the Sea Glass Museum, just south of Fort Bragg, which has a wide selection of colors and sizes of glass found over the years. The Guest House Museum, on Main Street in Fort Bragg, also has a beautiful Glass Beach display, with more information about the history of these sites.