A drive up Highway 1 reveals countless coastal towns in Northern California, each with their own unique personality and story. But not every town makes it so easy to hop out of the car and encounter the local
Noyo Headlands Park sits on about 100 acres of picture-perfect coastline that until recently was an industrial lumber mill site for Georgia-Pacific. It has been centuries since this land was open to the public. The park’s main feature (besides the views)? The newly-developed Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail. It ties into the California Coastal Trail network, but this stretch of coast in Fort Bragg is an adventure all on its own. Even the benches along the three-mile trail have been decorated by local artists inspired by the Headlands and Fort Bragg’s past.
There are two entry points to the trail, one at the northern end and one closer to the south. On the north side, you’ll pass near one of Fort Bragg’s glass beaches, where discarded glass bottles, pounded into pebbles and smoothed into sea glass over decades, have washed ashore and covered the coastline. They aren’t as colorful as they once
If you keep going north, you’ll hit MacKerricher State Park. Only three short miles from Fort Bragg, this park encompasses coastal bluffs and rocky coves separating stretches of dunes and pocket beaches. Further inland, there are forests, wetland, and even a lake. Admire the wildlife in the tide pools, watch harbor seals basking in the sun, hike among fields of wildflowers, and camp out in this coastal wonderland. The trail crosses all the way through to the end of the park. This is also prime trail-running territory.
The southern end of the trail is bustling with excitement. Be on the lookout for Skip’s Punchbowl, a collapsed sea cave that fills with water at high tide, on your way to the trail’s southernmost point at the Crow’s Nest Interpretive Center, part of the Noyo Center for Marine Science. The Noyo Center is a local institution dedicated to research, education, and stewardship with a unique focus on engaging visitors as well as locals and scientists. At the Crow’s Nest, you can see articulated skeletons of marine mammals, get up close with their tide pool aquarium, and learn from their other hands-on exhibits and displays. They even have telescopes installed outside, perfect for checking out whales, sea birds, and other coastal wildlife in their natural habitat.
You don’t have to use a telescope to spot migrating whales. Between the end of December and April, over 20,000 California Gray Whales take a journey from Alaska to Mexico, where they breed before returning north. Fort Bragg has an annual Whale Festival in mid-March that turns the event into a community affair with chowder tastings, charity runs, lectures, and more. It’s a great excuse to explore Fort Bragg’s vibrant historic downtown, which is bustling with independent shops and restaurants that highlight the rich heritage and local specialties of the Mendocino Coast.
The Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail isn’t the only stunning landscape to hike near Fort Bragg. Just a bit further south of the city is Russian Gulch State Park, which protects more stunning coastline with beaches and another collapsed grotto as well as a canyon filled with waterfalls, massive redwood trees, and lush ferns and moss.