BY MERRY SCHMIDT
(This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 edition of Touring & Tasting)
At the mention of Mendocino County, you can’t help but think of rolling vineyards and fine wine. After all it is one of California’s “Big Three” wine regions. Mendocino’s neighbor to the east is Lake County, named for its abundance of sparkling lakes and reservoirs. Its own Clear Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in California. Beyond the water and the wine, however, there is much to behold and do in this Northern California pair.
The words “mosey” and Mendocino go hand in hand. Wending your way along Mendocino’s secondary roads and through its many small towns is just the thing to do in the fall and winter. Orr Springs Road
One of the most scenic drives in northern California runs from Ukiah, the County Seat, to the Mendocino Coast. Orr Springs Road, a forty-nine-mile slide show, is particularly striking in the winter, when clear skies afford crisp views of snowy peaks above the Russian River Valley. There is no shortage of places to stop and admire on this splendid drive. You will find woodlands and meadows, vistas and views, hot springs and rivers, a “top-of-the-world” ridge and a sleepy valley, giant redwoods, and a pygmy forest. Make it a day trip, or take your time, stopping at an inn or bed and breakfast in one of the towns and hamlets along the way. The Village
The delightful seaside community of Mendocino Village is recognized as a National Historical Preservation District in large part because of its unique architecture, epitomized in the colorful Victorian buildings that line Main Street. While strolling the town, take time to visit the 1861 Kelley House Museum, where you can’t help but learn about the cultural heritage of the entire Mendocino Coast. Be sure to take in the glorious grounds, with the natural spring-fed pond and picture-perfect gardens. Skunk Train
The bustling harbor town of Fort Bragg is also a botanical paradise. It is the home of the forty-seven-acre Mendocino County Botanical Gardens, the only public garden in the continental United States with ocean frontage. But a trip to Fort Bragg is not complete without a ride on the Skunk Train. A steam engine version of a time machine, its route features redwood forests, open meadows, geological anomalies, and wildlife sightings. The historical trivia you learn from the wise and witty guides is, by itself, worth the price of admission. Trip offerings range from three-and-one-half-hour excursions to its eastern terminus in Willits, to overnight adventures. Hop aboard, and you’ll also discover the source of the Skunk Train’s enigmatic name. Hopland
As you head up or down Highway 101 in Hopland, it is impossible not to notice the signs inviting you to stop at Real Goods, said to be the oldest and largest solar outfitter and the most complete showcase for renewable energy on the planet. The eco-friendly retail store alone makes it a destination of choice. There you will find hundreds of environmentally safe products for home and garden and an array of clothing, gifts, and toys. Their bookstore offers more than a thousand titles on sustainable living. The expansive grounds feature exhibits on solar power, water conservation, and more. Before you leave make sure to visit the restrooms, where you just might gain a new appreciation for creative recycling. Also in Hopland, stop by Brutocao Cellars to admire the local history. The building that houses the tasting room was originally the community school- house, built in 1924.
Smaller Lake County snuggles up to Mendocino County’s eastern border and sits conveniently between the 101 Freeway and I-5. This picturesque county may be known for Clear Lake, Mount Konocti, and its limitless outdoor recreation possibilities, but there is much to learn and do indoors, in cooler weather, or when the sun goes down.Taylor Planetarium and Observatory
Far from city lights, just off Highway 29 in the small town of Kelseyville, you will find some of the finest astronomical viewing in North America. Taylor Planetarium and Observatory serves small or large groups with day or evening programs and spectacular viewing opportunities. You’ll see planets, constellations, and galaxies millions of miles away, made clearer by some of the darkest skies in all of California. You can even learn to spot your “birth sign” among the stars. Historic Courthouse Museum
Another educational opportunity of note is found in the small town of Lakeport. The Lake County Courthouse was built in 1871 from bricks kilned locally. Of interest architecturally and historically, the building also houses the Lake County Pioneer and Indian Museum. The Pomo Indians, who lived in the area in the later Stone Age, are world renowned for their skill in basket making, and the courthouse displays an impressive collection of their wares. Decorative and highly functional, their baskets were made from a dozen different materials and had hundreds of uses.
The cooler weather is the perfect time to slow down and savor the small towns of the West. Nowhere can the wealth of wonders be greater than in California’s Mendocino and Lake Counties.