Mendocino National Forest Overview
Considering it's a mere three-hour drive from San Francisco and Sacramento, Mendocino National Forest is surprisingly little known. Likely accounting for this is its title as the only one of California's 18 national forests that is not traversed by a single paved road or highway. Solitude abounds here, and you won't need to hike 15 miles into the backcountry to find it.
Covering one million acres at an average elevation of 4,000 feet, Mendocino stretches from the Yolla Bolly Mountains in the north to Clear Lake in the south. Boaters will find no shortage of suitable and scenic waterways. Anglers will be pleased with the excellent fishing opportunities at any of the area's giant lakes and smaller tributaries.
Backpackers, meanwhile, have two wilderness areas to choose from, Snow Mountain and Yolla Bolly Middle Eel, both of which consistently leave visitors speechless with their stunning views and lush stands of California conifer. Of course, the 100 miles of trails and near-total lack of cars is a big attraction for mountain bikers, who can plan anything from leisurely day rides to challenging multi-day trips.
A beautiful wintertime visit is a must, too. Mendocino's surprisingly chilly climate and proximity to the ocean ensure a good snowfall almost every year. Cross-country skiers should head up Forest Highway 7 toward the snowline to find the best trails.
Hike the Yolla Bolly
Most trails can trace their origins back maybe 20 or 30 years, but the 8.8-mile Ides Cove Loop is an ancient Indian route whose precise creation isn't even known. The gradient on this national recreation trail is steady but invitingly gentle almost the whole way, taking you on a leisurely jaunt through the best of what Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness has to offer. You'll walk through several different forest types, from chaparral to foxtail pine, and through stunning landscapes, ranging from steep-walled glacial basins to rugged 7,361-foot Harvey Peak. For a good short hike, try the steep-but-rewarding Black Butte Trail (0.7 mile), or ramble through the Ponderosas to see some pioneer ruins on Peterson Trail (3 miles).
Bike Letts Lake Loop
More than 100 miles of trails—from nontechnical three-milers to steep 26-mile hell-and-back treks—are accessible through the network of fire roads that stretch through the southwest section of Mendocino National Forest. Letts Lake Loop is just one of these, a moderate 7.5-mile ride through high elevation conifer and oak forests. It follows low-maintenance dirt roads, which are well-marked and easy to follow in a clockwise direction. You'll hit a few sustained grades, but this loop is a suitable ride for mountain bikers of any skill level.
Paddle Lake Pillsbury
The largest lake within the borders of Mendocino National Forest, Lake Pillsbury covers 2,280 acres and has 31 miles of shoreline. There are several developed campgrounds with boat ramps and picnic areas—there's even a small resort, a grocery store, and a boat rental outfit. If you're a canoeing fisher, there's good trout and bass throughout the lake. Make sure to throw back any other kinds though; there are some smaller species park rangers recommend you not consume. Not keen on sharing the water with motorboats? Then instead try Letts Lake, or for a primitive experience, Howard Lake.
Sample California's Best Birding
Mendocino National Forest is a birder's paradise. Bald eagles are known to hunt and congregate around Lake Pillsbury, and the Black Butte and Anthony Peak areas support scores of golden eagles. But perhaps the best bird-watching can be found in and around the water and trails at Lake Red Bluff Recreation Center. Here, you may see dove, wild turkey quail, ducks, geese, eagles, osprey, hawks, and owls. There is reputedly no greater variety of birds in Northern California. Non-birders may be interested to hear that the southern part of Mendocino is said to have the highest concentration of mountain lions in California. Tule elk, black bear, black-tailed deer, flying squirrels, and bobcats all also make their home here. If you're lucky, you might see them all.
Hang Glide Hull Mountain
Mendocino is fast becoming a very popular hangout for hang gliders. Its varied topography and swooshing crosswinds make it an ideal place for the sport, although beginners be warned, what follows are considered advanced glides. Beginning at Hull Mountain, you can glide 4.5 miles southward over a 6,000-foot drop to Gravelly Valley Airstrip. Or from Elk Mountain, glide two miles and descend 3,000 feet to Middle Creek Campground. Southwest of Elk Creek, gliders can depart from Ponderosa Point on Tool Cache Ridge and take a 2,000-foot decent over two miles to the Diamond M Landing Strip. (Note: Diamond M is privately owned; gliders must get permission from the owner.)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication