The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
Cruising south along Hwy-1, 40 miles from Leggett and US-101, the first real town you come to is Fort Bragg (pop. 6,963), whose burly, blue-collar edge comes as something of a shock on the otherwise undeveloped, 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 very 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.
Fort Bragg 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’Aurelios (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 (18220 N. Hwy-1, 707/964-4352, daily, $14 adults), a nonprofit public space showing off the abundance of plant life 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.
From Fort Bragg, the California Western Railroad (100 W Laurel St., 707/964-6371, $54 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.