From US-101 at Leggett, a narrow stretch of Hwy-1 twists up and over the rugged coastal mountains before hugging the coast through the weather-beaten logging and fishing community of Westport.
The tiny town has more than you might expect, including a cozy 1970s motel and deli on the ocean side of Hwy-1, called the Westport Inn (707/964-5135, $80 and up), and the newer and more upscale Westport Hotel & Old Abalone Pub (707/964-3688 or 877/964-3688, Feb.-Nov.) two blocks south, which has a sauna and a restaurant and welcoming pub with frequent live music. (Be warned: when the restaurant is closed, it’s a half-hour drive to the nearest places to eat, in Fort Bragg.)
The small and informal Howard Creek Ranch Inn (707/964-6725, $90 and up), three miles north of Westport, offers comfortable B&B rooms, an outdoor hot tub, and easy access to the driftwood-laden beach. Like Westport Hotel, it’s a half-hour drive to the nearest restaurants.
Farther south, MacKerricher State Park protects seven miles of rocky coast and waterfront pine forest. An old logging railroad right-of-way, called Ten-Mile Haul Road, has been brought back into use as a hiking and cycling path that covers most of the eight miles between the north end of MacKerricher and the town of Fort Bragg, crossing over Pudding Creek on a recently renovated railroad trestle. The park offers the chance to see harbor seals and migrating gray whales (in winter). Ongoing efforts are reclaiming the remnants of the old North Coast logging industry by reconstructing natural dunes and removing nonnative plantlife. There’s also a nice campground (800/444-7275).
Cruising south along Hwy-1, 40 miles from Leggett and US-101, the first real town you come to is Fort Bragg (pop. 7,273), whose burly, blue-collar edge comes as something of a shock on the otherwise undeveloped and touristy Mendocino coast. Formerly home to a large Georgia-Pacific lumber mill (plans to redevelop it are still in the works and may include ecofriendly housing and a shopping and light industrial complex), and still home to the region’s largest commercial fishing fleet, Fort Bragg takes a mostly no-frills approach to the tourist trade, leaving the dainty B&B scene to its upscale neighbor, Mendocino.
However, the coastline is lovely, and there are a few down-to-earth places to eat, starting with the good omelets and other eggy dishes at the appropriately named Egghead’s Restaurant (326 N. Main St., 707/964-5005). Perhaps the most popular place in town is North Coast Brewing Co. (455 N. Main St., 707/964-2739), which serves good food and fine pints of its tasty Red Seal Ale among at least a dozen top-notch brews. As you might expect, Fort Bragg has a number of timeworn bars and taverns, like the Golden West Saloon (128 E. Redwood Ave.), two blocks south of the brewery. The town also boasts some unexpected treats: Cowlick’s Ice Cream Café (250 N. Main St., 707/962-9271) and the best pizza for miles at D’Aurelio & Son (438 S. Franklin St., 707/964-4227), a block east of Hwy-1.
Fort Bragg also has at least one exemplar of that rare species, the inexpensive (by Mendocino coast standards, at least) motel: the Beachcomber Motel (1111 N. Main St., 707/964-2402, $109 and up). Handy for the Ten-Mile Haul Road path, this is pretty much the coast’s only beachfront accommodation option (apart from camping).
At the south edge of Fort Bragg, near the Hwy-20 junction and eight miles north of the town of Mendocino, 47 acres of intensely landscaped coastal hillsides tumble down between Hwy-1 and the ocean to form the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (707/964-4352, daily, $15 adults), a nonprofit public space showing off the abundance of plantlife that thrives in this mild, lush environment. Cultivated varieties like camellias, azaleas, roses, irises, fuchsias, and dahlias share space with native ferns, pines, redwoods, wildflowers, and wetland plants. It’s also the only public garden in the continental USA that fronts right onto the ocean, so you can enjoy crashing waves and maybe even watch a gray whale spout offshore. The garden fronts the ocean, so you can enjoy crashing waves and maybe even watch a gray whale spout offshore.
From Fort Bragg, the California Western Railroad (707/964-6371, $25 and up) runs a number of historic steam- and diesel-powered “Skunk Trains” over the mountains to Willits and back. Half-day and full-day trips run year-round.