Road Trip to the North Coast: Fort Bragg and Mendocino

By Kirsti Scott

glass beach mendocino

For a great road trip with gorgeous scenery, great food and drinks, no crowds, and unforgettable beachcombing, head up the California coast to the sleepy fishing town of Fort Bragg. 

Fort Bragg, established as a military garrison before the Civil War, is a few hours north of San Francisco along the rocky North Coast. Once home to a bustling lumber industry, this remote town is now accessible via highways that wind through valleys, along rivers, and over the redwood-covered coastal range.

Getting oriented

In the heart of Fort Bragg is the Guest House Museum, covering the history of the town and its logging past. Just a block off Main Street you’ll find the depot for the Skunk Train. The 45-minute round trip takes you into the redwoods and through the Noyo River Estuary. Three miles south, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are perched on the ocean bluffs where hummingbirds make the rounds of the vegetable gardens, dahlias, and succulents.

russian gulch park mendocino

Seven miles south of Fort Bragg is Russian Gulch State Park, with a 36-foot waterfall on the Fern Canyon trail, the Devil’s Punchbowl (a collapsed sea cave), and the Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge that spans the beach 100 feet overhead. Just two miles farther is the charming town of Mendocino, with white picket fences, cozy shops and restaurants, and breathtaking views of the coastline from almost every street. Pick up a copy of Foam on the Crest of Waves at the Gallery Bookshop, and don’t miss the chocolate shop and the new Fog Eater Café.

fort bragg mendocino noyo harbor

To get out on the water, consider a fishing excursion from Noyo Harbor, or rent kayaks on Big River in Mendocino. If you’re into golf, The Little River Inn course is a lovely place to play with exceptional views of the ocean.

scoop glass beach fort bragg

Glass Beach

The main attraction for beachcombers in town is Glass Beach. As in many seaside communities in the past, Fort Bragg disposed of its trash by dumping it into the ocean. From 1906 to 1967, the residents discarded everything—household trash, industrial waste, machinery, cars, and more—off the cliffs west of town. Unlike other communities, the currents here keep everything on the beach. All the glass and ceramics have been tumbled non-stop for more than 100 years until they have been worn smooth. This sea glass and sea pottery is still found piled up on the beaches of Fort Bragg, making it a beachcomber’s paradise. 

Access to Glass Beach is well marked, with a parking lot and signage pointing the way. The Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail along the bluffs above Glass Beach is marvelous. It’s some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere, and the wide paved walking and biking path is dotted with interpretive signs to help you learn about the area. Harbor seals nestle among the rocks offshore and birds fly overhead, while whales pass by just offshore.

Trails down from the bluffs lead to the three former dump-site beaches in Fort Bragg. The “Easy Path” has a wide, gentle slope to a beach where so much glass has been taken that only clear and brown glass remain. The two other beaches require hiking down narrow trails to reach the beach but usually have more glass on them. Be sure to climb down carefully as it can be tricky. Your reward is seeing a beach made completely of sea glass. 

The pieces of glass may be small here, but you can still find cobalt blue, orange, red, yellow, purple, UV, and milk glass. Try to visit the beach at low tide to really see how much glass there still is after all these years. There are also lots of animals in the tide pools to check out, many holding onto their own little pieces of sea glass. Check the tides carefully as it’s easy to lose track of time in this sea glass paradise. 

Fort Bragg was rated the number one glassing beach by our readers.

The Sea Glass Museum

cast Torrington

Capt. Cass Forrington moved to Fort Bragg in 1979. A retired deep sea ship’s captain, what Cass loves most about the area is the weather. “It’s eternal spring here,” he says. That nice weather means there has been plenty of time for him to explore the local beaches and coves.

“Fort Bragg has the highest concentration of sea glass in the world on three glass beaches and their auxiliary coves,” says Cass. “Collecting is best from October through April when we have the highest seas turning the beaches over,” adds Cass. 

When asked if there are any quintessential experiences a visitor should have, his answer is, “The Sea Glass Museum, of course!” Cass himself owns and operates the International Sea Glass Museum, located in Fort Bragg.

international sea glass museum fort bragg

During 10 years of beachcombing along the Mendocino coast, Cass collected about 250,000 pieces of sea glass and sea pottery, and he loves sharing them with other enthusiasts.  “I began my gallery in a single room, which my landlord tended during the week while I was out collecting and sorting,” explains Cass. “One day a woman commented that the jewelry display was like a museum. My landlord told me this, and I told him I wanted to do a museum, so he cleared out another room, and in January of 2009, I opened the museum in that room. It was so popular, he cleared out another room twice that size, and I expanded into it the following year and added another room each of the next three years.”

Today the museum houses the largest collection of sea glass on permanent display in the world. There are over 3,000 pieces of sea glass, terra-cotta, bottles, shells, and more finds, almost all found by Cass on the California coast. The pieces are sorted, labeled, and displayed with detailed descriptions. More than 20,000 people visit the museum every year, making it the most popular privately owned attraction on the Mendocino coast. “I get visitors from all over the world,” Cass says.

microfauna pacific coast

Cass is very interested in the environmental benefits of the sea glass, which creates a habitat for microfauna, small animals that make their homes in the crevices between the pieces of glass, on the beach, and in the water. “I am currently involved in trying to get a marine research facility opened here, with an aquarium highlighting our rich diversity and abundance of marine life,” he says. “It would focus on the beneficial effects of the glass on the marine environment.”

Cass is a vocal advocate for replenishing the beaches by recycling the town’s waste glass on the local beaches instead of trucking it to a recycling center in Nevada. “As landfills get farther from the municipalities they serve, communities like Austin, Texas, put their waste glass in the back of a cement truck and tumble it so it is not sharp.” Residents take the glass to use as they wish. Cass says the savings would be enormous if Fort Bragg did the same, and dumped the tumbled glass on the local beaches. “A cup and a half of glass weighs a pound, so imagine the economic and environmental cost of shipping it over two mountain ranges to get it to the landfill.” Cass’s goal for recycling is the creation of glass reefs worldwide on all our badly depleted continental shelves.

The Glass Beach Jewelry shop inside the museum sells sea glass, jewelry, books, calendars, DVDs, and more. Cass is always happy to talk to you about his collection, the environmental benefits of sea glass, his thoughts on glass recycling, and of course his favorite routes to get to the best sea glass beaches. 

Where to eat

Headlands Coffee Shop has great coffees, pastries, and a lively music scene. The Depot also cooks up yummy breakfast selections and Eggheads features omelets, eggs Benedict, and crêpes.

Jenny’s Giant Burger is a great old-school greasy burger joint, Mayan Fusion makes a great spicy meal, and Los Gallitos makes fresh guacamole and chips. Grab a meal to go at Goodlife Cafe and Bakery, which serves fair-trade coffee, pastries, and sandwiches.

The lines out the door of North Coast Brewing Co. Taproom, Restaurant & Bar are folks wanting to grab a beer, brewed next door, and watch live jazz performances on the weekend. Reserve ahead. For dinner with a sunset view, consider Silver’s at the harbor and ask for a window table, or head 12 miles south to Little River Inn where you can have a view of the ocean in the bar while you toast the end of the day.

little river inn mendocino

If you’re looking for sweets, check out Cowlick’s Ice Cream Shop and try the mushroom ice cream. Yes, mushroom. Or, if that’s a little too adventurous, you’ll find great choices at the Mendocino Cookie Company. 

Where to stay

The Beachcomber Motel and Spa on the Beach is adjacent to The MacKerricher Coastal Trail that leads to Glass Beach. Large rooms, fire pits where you can watch the sunset, and on-site bike rentals make this a great choice. Best Western Vista Manor Lodge has friendly owners. Request a room upstairs to watch the sunset from your private balcony. South of town, Holiday Inn Express is another dog-friendly option. Fort Bragg is dog-friendly, so ask if your hotel takes pets, and reserve in advance. 

If you want a home away from home, the Country Inn B&B is an 1890s farmhouse within walking distance to town. Enjoy wine and cheese in the evenings and one of the best breakfasts you’ll ever eat. Outside of town, the Little River Inn is a classic Victorian hotel, where all rooms have a view of the ocean. With the dog-friendly restaurant, golf course, tennis courts, and the spa, you may never want to leave! 

Feel like roughing it? You can’t get closer to Glass Beach than camping in MacKerricher State Park. 

The city of Fort Bragg and park rangers do not ticket people for taking small amounts of glass from Glass Beach. All tickets were thrown out of court and no tickets have been issued since 2016. Please collect responsibly to protect this resource for future beachcombers and the animals that make their home in the marine environment created by the sea glass.

Thanks to Susan Shaw, Rhonda van Dyk, Cass Forrington, and Tide Charmers for their recommendations on visiting Fort Bragg.

Learn about the International Sea Glass Museum.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.

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