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Mendocino stay and play

fern in Fern Canyon, Van Damme State Park
fern in Fern Canyon, Van Damme State Park
Susan Alcorn

The rugged coastline of the Mendocino area offers picturesque views and often spectacular crashing surf to enjoy—and that’s just the beginning of its attractions. The coastal communities have distinct personalities. If traveling from the Bay Area and taking Highway 132 along the Navarro River to the coast, Little River will be the first settlement you’ll hit when you head north on Highway 1.

Heritage House Resort: A welcome retreat
Susan Alcorn

Little River may be tiny, but it has some great offerings for those who like to sightsee and relax as well as those who enjoy more active pursuits such as hiking and kayaking. Accommodations range from camping among the redwoods at Van Damme State Park to luxuriating with an ocean view at Heritage House Resort (known by many as the setting for “Same Time, Next Year”).

Hike: The Fern Canyon Trail in Van Damme is incredible—lush, green vegetation covering everything in sight except for the trail and Little River. Go far enough (and uphill), and you’ll reach the pygmy forest that provides a rare look at the unusual forest of low, stunted trees and shrubs.

Van Damme’s properties are on both sides of Highway I; this hike heads east (but don’t miss visiting the ocean side and perhaps renting a kayak to explore the ocean caves also). From the main road into the park, you can drive into the canyon to a parking area just before a sign and a barrier that indicate the beginning of Fern Canyon Trail.

The first part of the trail is a gently ascending trail—paved, but mostly covered with soft needles—that follows the creek. The trail crosses the creek nine times during the hike, but unless the wooden bridges are washed out, you generally can stay dry. Trail can be slippery when wet, poles are handy.

Many people turn around at the 2.3-mile point, where the loop up to the Pygmy forest begins, but it is fun to continue on (an additional three miles round-trip) if you have the time and energy (it gets steeper). Since the trail splits and becomes a loop to the Pygmy Forest, it is fun to go along one side (along the river) on the way up (the left tine of the fork is longer and more lush) to the forest and along the other side (following the Old Logging Road, the right-hand side) for your return.

Details: Easy, 4.6 miles round trip to the entrance to Fern Canyon, 200-ft elevation gain. Seven miles round trip with 400-foot gain (moderate) from parking lot to Pygmy Forest.
Fern Canyon Trail map, click here.
Pygmy forest map, click here.

Accommodations: Though the campgrounds at Van Damme are wonderful in their own right, the deluxe accommodations of nearby Heritage House Resort are a real treat. You can't beat the setting—Heritage House sits on 37 gorgeous acres on bluffs overlooking the Pacific.

Little River has a colorful past. According to the Mendocino Coast Model Railroad and Historical Society, Little River was begun in 1864 as a mill town, and what later became Heritage House was built in in 1877 for the Pullen Family. After the mills and lumber operations in the town died out at the end of the 1800s, some questionable enterprises took hold. There was period of smuggling (of Asians when they were “illegals” and of liquor during Prohibition) and there was, allegedly, a time during the early 1930s when what was to become Heritage House was a hideout for gangster “Baby Face Nelson.”

By the mid-1900s, however, Heritage House had undergone vast changes and had become a beautiful romantic place to stay on the North Coast. It became known across the country when it served as the setting for the movie, “Same Time, Next Year,” with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. Unfortunately, a period of neglect followed, and then the resort closed in 2008.

Fast forward: In September 2013, Heritage House Resort reopened—with new owners and new management—to become a lovely, bright “jewel” on the coast. Adhering to rules of the California Coastal Commission, the resort is a combination of “modern design and original architectural elements.” The rooms have wonderful views—some with picture windows framing the spectacular ocean—and personal decks. Most have gas fireplaces (a couple has wood-burning stoves) and all have rain showers, Duxiana beds and such amenities as robes and complimentary slippers.

The restaurant serves breakfast and dinner (full schedule here). Happy hours at the 5200 Restaurant & Lounge are M-F 4-6 pm. While in the lounge, we enjoyed music by Frank Sinatra and seeing the grand pianos that Alan Alda played in the movie and the "farm-to-fork" cuisine of the dining room was apparent in the succulent prawns in the pasta (seasonal).


Heritage House Resort, 5200 N Hwy 1, Little River, CA 95456. 707-202-9010. Prices from $175 up.

(During our stay as guests of management we learned from manager Jim Hunter that Heritage House is somewhat “a work in progress” —meaning that there are still a small number of rooms to be remodeled or redecorated. We found, however, that the work is not disruptive or noisy.)

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