The 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, on a marine terrace two miles south of Fort Bragg, offers a pleasant opportunity to get acquainted with native plants of the region, as well as with some exotics. Paths take you through a coastal pine forest and groves of tree-sized rhododendrons, passing azaleas, heathers, fuchsias, heritage roses, and other plant collections, then lead across grassland to a rocky headland.
The marine terrace, above high rocky sea bluffs, has been carved by Digger Creek. Steep terrain and the creek prevent wheelchair access along the North Trail, but there are plans to build a 175-foot wheelchair-accessible bridge that would make the trail more accessible to some wheelchair riders. Paths wind through a dense coastal pine forest and past 20 sizable plant collections and eventually lead to the sea bluffs. En route, you can see tree-size rhododendrons, heathers, heritage roses, fuchsias, and many other shrubs, flowers, and grasses. More than 80 species of birds live in or visit the gardens, including acorn woodpeckers, Anna’s hummingbirds, American goldfinches, red-throated loons, osprey, and hawks. You’ll likely see butterflies floating about the perennial and dahlia gardens. After a summer and fall of color, migrating gray whales add excitement starting in December.
There’s always something in bloom, so check the garden’s website for the bloom schedule and plan your visit accordingly. Start your day with a picnic on the plaza that overlooks the perennial gardens and end it with local, handmade ice cream from Cowlick’s at the Plaza Café (open 11 am-5 pm, May to Labor Day, and weekends in April and September). Be sure to leave time to linger in the retail nursery and garden gift shop. Several electric scooters are available for free at the entrance on a first-come, first-served basis. Benches are plentiful, and dogs are permitted on leash.
see access criteria for definitions
- Trailhead: West of the nursery
- Length: Less than .5 mile
- Typical Width: 4 ft. & above
Some spur trails are less than 30 inches.
- Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentle
One steep section (greater than 1:12) is just beyond the bridge over Digger Creek.
- Terrain: Hard
The two main trails, the North and South trails, are paved. Spur trail surfaces vary, and include gravel and firmly packed dirt. The loop trail on the bluff may be muddy in wet weather.
In this adult fairyland, at any twist or turn you might be treated to a dazzling display of color or a symphony of birdsong, or halted in your tracks by delightful smells. A quick look at the garden map provided at the entrance may make you dizzy trying to plan your route, but fear not, the signage is excellent throughout the maze of pathways—even the best accessible route is identified. There are two main trails: the South Trail is accessible for its entire length, while signs about a third of the way along the North Trail indicate that it is too steep for wheelchairs.
Everyone starts at the plaza. Ambulatory visitors descend a broad stairway to a lawn dotted with perennials; the wheelchair-accessible route is a gently sloped path to the right of the stairs, although four short spur paths lead to the lawn, where you can explore the perennial gardens up close. You can continue on the path that becomes the North Trail, or cross the lawn to the south, as we did, to reach the heritage rose garden and display house. During our late August visit, a brilliant display of begonias was in full bloom. Next, you’ll find the heather garden, and just beyond, you can choose to backtrack slightly and rejoin the North Trail as it passes a pine forest, take spur paths through a rhododendron and camellia garden, or follow the South Trail along the property’s southern perimeter.
We chose the South Trail. This well-groomed path passes a Mediterranean garden, rhododendrons, a meadow, and a marsh before coming to an imposing yet artistically crafted fence and gate made of tree branches that are intended to keep out deer. Once inside the gate, you’re surrounded by forest. The trail dips slightly to an accessible bridge over Digger Creek, then climbs for about 100 feet up a moderately steep hill (greater than 1:12) to a junction. To the left (south) is a spur trail to the former Parrish family homestead, where you can see the family cemetery, picnic next to a maintained vegetable garden, and view the farmhouse—a private residence—from a distance.
Alternately, you can continue on the South Trail, past a circle of eucalyptus created as a “fairy circle” for children, an impressive dahlia garden (in bloom August-September), and a dense forest of coastal vegetation, to emerge eventually at a blufftop coastal prairie with lovely ocean views. An observation point (Cliff House) just past the restrooms is not accessible to wheelchairs, but a packed-earth trail some 50 yards beyond the stairway leads to an overlook with similar views. Past the bathroom, the trail, now named the Coastal Bluff Trail, becomes hard-packed dirt. Views open up to the ocean, and the trail loops around the prairie, where you may spot western meadowlarks, northern harriers, white-crowned sparrows, and white-tailed kites. From here you can either backtrack or continue on the loop to reconnect to the South Trail by the event lawn.
The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.
- Accessible Parking: Yes
Spaces have no access aisle but are very wide. I had plenty of room to lower my ramp.
- Accessible Restroom: Yes
The most accessible restroom is at the start of the Coastal Bluff Trail, but the doors are heavy. The single-user restroom by the parking lot has a 30” door clearance, limited turning space, a pedestal sink, and only one grab bar.
- Hours: March-Oct.: 9 am-5 pm. Nov.-Feb.: 9 am-4 pm. Open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Saturday after Labor Day.
- Map: See here.
- Fees: Entrance
- Dogs: On a leash
- Public Transportation: Mendocino Transit Authority