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Beautiful Mendocino coastal drive
is one of California's most scenic

And some of the most charming small towns
of the coastal American West are here, too

Beautiful California coast
Scenes like this are common along the Mendocino coast, and California Route 1 delivers motorists close up for spectacular views.
By the staff of
Out West
The newspaper that roams

FORT BRAGG, CALIF. — With its ancient redwood forests, steep bluffs, historic towns and, of course, the Pacific Ocean, Northern California's Mendocino Coast seems custom made for city-weary visitors.

Beginning about three hours north of San Francisco, the Mendocino Coast winds northward approximately 80 miles via California Highway One. The drive is generally recognized as one of the nation's most scenic, rewarding travelers with stunning views and the realization that they didn't bring nearly enough film.

From south to north, following is an overview of the Mendocino Coast's major towns and attractions:

Gualala is situated right at the county line, in what many locals boast is the coast's "banana belt." Born a lumber town like most of it's neighbors, Gualala today is a happy mix of new and old, with art galleries, restaurants, boutiques and accommodations ranging from refurbished 19th century properties to more contemporary options. Among Gualala's annual events is the annual Arts in the Redwoods festival.

Many a ship met its doom before the Point Arena Lighthouse became a welcome fixture at the point in 1870. The original structure was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake; the "new" lighthouse was built in 1907. The lighthouse is open to the public and includes an intriguing museum; during gray whale migration season (November-March), it offers one of the best spots from which to view the gentle leviathans.

Next on the map is Elk, nestled on a cliff-top setting as beautiful as it is secluded. A prosperous mill town at the turn of the century, Elk today is a peaceful cluster of elegant country inns, several with private cottages and access to the beaches below. Unique restaurants, and shops featuring the work of local artisans, complete the picture. The old post office is now home to a small visitor center.

Albion is tucked alongside the Albion River; the bridge here, built in 1944, is the last wooden bridge remaining on the highway. The harbor at Albion is one of the locations thought very likely to be 16th century explorer Francis Drake's 1579 fort site when he navigated the Pacific coast. While arguments continue, visitors come to Albion for respite at its restaurants and charming inns, many of which participate in an annual area Candlelight Bed & Breakfast Inn Tour during the holidays.

When James Dean stayed in Little River during the filming of "East of Eden," he was ordered out of the dining room of a local inn for putting his feet on the table. Still popular with silver screen stars who appreciate its beauty, Little River has changed little over the years. Its inns, fine restaurants and access to neighboring Van Damme State Park make it a favorite hideaway on the coast. Not to miss is Little River's Logging Days celebration in the summer.

Just a few miles north is Mendocino, regarded by many as the jewel of Northern California's coastal crown. Known as a haven for artists since the 1960s, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places. Innovative restaurants, a who's who of galleries and stylish shops mingle with historic museums, landmark buildings, a first-rate art center and a full range of accommodations within walking distance from the town's attractions. Annual events are plentiful, and range from the Mendocino Whale Festival in March, to the late spring Historic House and Building Tour, and the outstanding Mendocino Music Festival concert series held every summer.

Between Mendocino and Fort Bragg are the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, one of only three botanical gardens in the U.S. actually situated on an ocean. This lovely oasis is 47 acres of theme garden "rooms," crisscrossed by meandering creeks and paths. Species and hybrid rhododendrons are the gardens' signature plant, but there are also perennials, heathers, succulents, ivies, fuchsias, dwarf conifers, heritage roses, dahlias, camellias and a vegetable garden set in an old pioneer orchard. An excellent nursery and stylish restaurant make it easy to spend a full day here.

Fort Bragg started life as a lumber town and can still lay claim to the title. With a population of about 6,000, it is far larger than its neighbors, but still a small town. There is plenty of 19th century flavor about, but an equal dose of the modern, in retail, the arts, restaurants, lodging and services. California Western Railroad's "Skunk Trains" are one of the coast's biggest draws, offering short trips on vintage trains through the redwood forest from Fort Bragg. On the south end of town is Noyo Harbor, still a traditional fishing village where diners can feast on the day's catch in harbor-view restaurants. Fort Bragg events (and there are many) include the World's Largest Salmon Barbecue and late summer's Paul Bunyan Days festivities.

Cleone began as a ranching community more than 100 years ago, but later joined its neighbors as a lumber town. Today its western roots are evident in the popularity of horseback riding here, available to visitors at MacKerricher State Park via Ricochet Ridge Ranch. Comfy inns, modern motels and home-style and fine estaurants, coupled with MacKerricher's10 miles of unspoiled beach (with riding trails), make this an attractive vacation spot.

Westport is the northernmost town on the Mendocino Coast. It's isolation is one of its virtues; north of Westport the highway swings east in deference to a coastline so rugged, it is best explored by seasoned wilderness hikers and four-wheel drive vehicles. The opening of abalone diving season here (early April) brings divers from near and far. The locals have a sense of humor — Westport's annual Great Rubber Ducky Race on Mother's Day draws crowds for the race and barbecue (beef, not duck).
Lodgings include both basic and pampering.The Mendocino Coast is blessed with numerous private campgrounds and state parks, offering hiking trails, camping sites and beautiful beaches.

For more information, contact the Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, 800-726-2780 or 707-961-6300; PO Box 1141, Fort Bragg, CA, 95437.

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