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With a population of just over 7,000, Fort Bragg qualifies as the major metropolis of the Mendocino County coast. Centrally located, and with an abundance of its own attractions, it makes a good “home base” for exploring the Mendocino coast. Fort Bragg also has the only conventional hotels and motels in the area, if you’re not interested in the romantic (and expensive) Victorian bed-and-breakfast inns that provide most of the Mendocino region’s other accommodations.
Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor is a working fishing harbor at the mouth of the Noyo River. If you walk along the wharf you can see fishing boats leaving in search of the day’s catch, crab traps with colorful floats, and aging boats of questionable seaworthiness.
There is no actual fort in Fort Bragg. In 1857, the Mendocino coast was a reservation for a tribe of Pomo Indians. Army commanders in San Francisco decided that a military presence was needed to keep the Indians in line. So they sent Lieutenant Horatio Gibson to establish an army camp near the Noyo River. Gibson named the camp for Captain Braxton Bragg, under whom he had served in the Mexican-American War. The original Fort Bragg was abandoned in 1864, and Bragg (who never visited California) went on to become a Confederate general in the Civil War. Another Fort Bragg, an Army base in North Carolina, is also named after him.
By 1873, logging companies were busily cutting down the coastal redwood forests to meet California’s growing demand for building materials. The mouth of the Noyo River proved to be a good location for a lumber mill. Following the usual practice whenever someone discovered that Indian land had value, the Indians were summarily evicted from their reservation to make way for a town that would support the mill. The mill and the town kept the name of the former army camp.
The owners of the Fort Bragg lumber mill built the California
Western Railroad in 1885 to haul enormous redwood logs to the coast.
It began carrying passengers on a 64-kilometer route to Willits in
1911, something quite unusual for a logging railroad. Now that
environmental consciousness (and laws) have severely curtailed
Northern California’s redwood logging industry, the railroad has
become Fort Bragg’s most popular tourist attraction. It’s better known
as the “Skunk Train,” a name it acquired in the 1920s when the
railroad used gasoline-powered passenger rail cars that emitted
distinctive aromatic exhaust fumes. The scenic narrated trip chugs
leisurely along Pudding Creek, through a redwood forest that’s
actually recent regrowth after two cycles of clear-cutting. It’s also
a bonanza for rail buffs, since the authentically restored cars and
locomotives date from the golden age of passenger trains.
A city dump usually isn’t on any traveler’s itinerary. But Glass Beach, Fort Bragg’s former waste disposal site, is a most unusual hidden spot that’s definitely worth a visit. For much of the 20th century, Fort Bragg residents threw their garbage over a cliff above a forlorn cove. In addition to household trash, “The Dumps” were the burial ground for appliances, assorted hardware, and even entire cars. Years of rain, surf, and incinerating fires dissolved and baked the refuse into a reddish cement, in which the remnants of metal objects are clearly visible.
In 1967, city officials finally figured out that dumping the city’s
rubbish onto a beach and into the ocean wasn’t such a good idea. They
closed the site to further dumping and cleaned up the beach and cliffs
as much as they could. But they couldn’t clean up the innumerable
little pieces of colorful broken glass mixed in with the rocks on the
beach. Over the years, the pounding surf has smoothed and polished
those shards into smooth colorful gems. Thus “The Dumps” became “Glass
Beach.” It’s a state park, so removing even a tiny piece of glass is
officially illegal. But it’s an undeveloped park; there are no
entrance gates or fees, and rather treacherous footpaths lead down to
The Mendocino coast is a nearly continuous seascape of bluffs overlooking rock formations, beaches, and pounding surf. Pomo Bluffs Park includes ten hectares of these bluffs, on the headlands at the south side of the entrance to Noyo Harbor. A city park that opened in 2006, it makes coastal views easily accessible. The park has paved paths suitable for bicycles, pedestrians, and wheelchair users, plus benches for lingering at lookout points. The park’s name is an acknowledgement of the Pomo People, a group of about 70 linguistically-related tribes whose territories once included much of the Northern California coast.
Other Northern California Coast pages: