Friday, March 12, 2021

Point Mendocino

Sea cave at the Mendocino Headlands State Park
2 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Just outside the town of Mendocino on the North Coast of California, the Pacific Ocean crashes against the dramatic headlands that mark the edge of the North American continent. Point Mendocino is within a stone's throw of the art galleries, restaurants, and inns of Mendocino but is still a wild, raw landscape where visitors can observe the land meet the sea. Preserved in a state park, the headlands are criss-crossed by a network of hiking trails. The headlands' proximity to Mendocino means that hikers won't have to drive anywhere to start their hike after having brunch in town. This is one of many beautiful spots along the Mendocino Coast, but the idyllic views of the New England-like town of Mendocino recommend this hike a bit above others along this stretch of coast.

I visited the Mendocino Headlands during an October trip to the Mendocino Coast with Anna. The trail literally starts in town: park along the western stretches of Main Street in Mendocino for easiest access to the hike. There are two trailheads from which to access Point Mendocino: the first is from a large parking lot off of Little Lake Street just outside of town, while the other trailhead is on Main Street itself. From Main Street, you can hike the trail along the coastal headlands out to the other trailhead and back, or you can walk along streets in the town to reach the Little Lake Street trailhead and then follow the Point Mendocino Trail back to the Main Street trailhead for a loop. We did the loop, so I'll describe that here.

To reach the trailhead on Little Lake Street from Main Street, we walked four blocks north on Hesser Street up to Little Lake Street, making a brief detour along the way to check out the Temple of Kwan Tai. The Temple of Kwan Tai- dedicated to the deified Chinese historial figure Guan Yu- is one of the few surviving Chinese temples in California from the 1850s and is a reminder of the important role that early Chinese immigrants played in building modern California, not only in San Francisco but in rural communities all over the state. Once we reached Little Lake Street, we turned left and followed the street west for about a fifth of a mile, where the road made a turn to the right. Here, we followed a gravel road on the left to the Point Mendocino Trailhead and started following the trail that traced the edge of the coastal bluffs. 

Coastal views kicked off right away: we started the hike with the only northerly views, which encompassed nearby Goat Island as well as the Point Cabrillo Light Station further to the north.

Looking north along the rocky Mendocino Coast to the Point Cabrillo Light Station
As the trail wrapped around the bluffs of Point Mendocino, gradually heading south and east, the views transitioned to the coast to the south. The extremely rocky coast here was very dramatic and we enjoyed the frequent explosions of saltwater surf as the waves crashed on jagged islets.

View south along the Mendocino Coast
The trail stuck closely to the coastal bluffs, hugging the curves of the coast through headlands and coves. There were multiple unmarked trail junctions with the other social paths in the area; at each, we took whichever fork kept us closer to the coast, within reason. Flat throughout, the trail mainly passed through the grassy coastal prairies common on the Mendocino Coast. However, in some areas, the green and red blades of the succulent ice plant coated the ground. Ice plants are extremely common on the California coast and their yellow and pink flowers are both beautiful and distinctive; however, the plant is not native to the state. 

Ice plants growing on the Mendocino Headlands
Midway through the hike, as the trail wrapped around a cove in between two headlands, a sea cave came into view. This particular cave had effectively become a tunnel, connecting to the sea on two ends.

Sea cave at the Mendocino Headlands
In total, the trail visited three separate headlands over the course of hugging the coast for one mile, with the most protruberant of these headlands- what I assume must be Point Mendocino itself- coming last. As this hike was so close to town, we did see a good number of other hikers out, especially as sunset approached; however, there was enough coast here to spread out and the hike never felt crowded. The proximity of the town did not make the wild surf and rugged coast seem any less wild or rugged.

Mendocino Coast
Surf pounds the Mendocino Coast
As we wrapped around the final headland, we came to a massive sinkhole. Set slightly back from the coastal bluffs, this sinkhole connected through to a deep sea cave underneath, with seawater and waves washing in from the sea. A trail wrapped around the entire rim of the sinkhole and a wooden fence prevented visitors from getting too close to the edge. I actually found this sinkhole more impressive than the better known Devil's Punchbowl in Russian Gulch State Park; even though it was smaller, it was thrilling to see waves wash through the cave below us.

As we hiked onward from the sinkhole, there were more views of the town of Mendocino, which sits atop coastal bluffs above Portuguese Beach. The town takes its name from a Spanish name for the region, bestowed when California was under Spanish control. The redwood lumber industry birthed the immigrant settlements along the North Coast, including the town of Mendocino: the area was originally populated by the Pomo people but the discovery of redwood forests along the coast led to the construction of a lumber mill that fueled the growth of the current town. Settlers during that period included many transplants from New England and southern China, who were then responsible for the town's New England-style architecture and the Temple of Kwan Tai. Once the old-growth redwoods were gone, the lumber industry when bust, but the town of Mendocino recovered in the latter half of the 20th century by redefining itself as an artists' colony and attracting tourists to its charming seaside location.

The town of Mendocino and Portuguese Beach
From the sinkhole, we followed the wide main trail to its end, leaving the coastal bluffs behind. The trail ended by joining up with Main Street on the western edge of town. This was an enjoyable hike to enjoy the natural scenery near Mendocino's charming streets; don't leave town without doing this walk. 

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