Legend has it that every time a sailor is lost at sea, a mermaid weeps into the waves. Her salty tears turn into sea glass that eventually washes up on shore. These tiny drops of glass, sparkling orbs of blue, red and green that dazzle the eye, are beautiful enough to make you wish the lore were true.
As you stroll the rocky bluffs of Glass Beach, a shimmering oasis on the Mendocino Coast, it’s hard to believe that this stunning natural tableau was actually caused by something as ugly as garbage. For decades the people of Fort Bragg, a lumber mill town, simply threw their trash away in an ocean cove, believing the refuse, from cans to cars, would be washed out to sea. Eventually this became the town’s main dump, which it remained until 1967.
But over time, Mother Nature turned this environmental nightmare into a thing of beauty. The glass waste was relentlessly pummeled by the waves and slowly emerged as rounded pebbles, smooth enough to be walked on by bare feet.
Today, it’s a beachcombers’ dream, a vast public art installation with glistening sand and surf. Indeed, so many folks have pillaged ruby and emerald jewels for mementos that the gems are becoming scarce. It is now forbidden to take any of the glass home.
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On a recent visit, we had to wander well out of the most easily accessible coves to find a deep trove of gems. My daughter Daphne didn’t seem to mind, giddily playing tag with the waves as the sun set on this ruggedly beautiful stretch of shoreline.
Steeping in sand and saltwater gives the sea glass a gorgeous frosted sheen and an almost soft texture. Keep your eyes peeled for the ruby red pebbles, often the remains of tail lights, and the cheery white and blue stones of chinaware. Feel free to collect a cache to admire (and Instagram) fleetingly, but remember that removing the glass from this beach is illegal – and it would be a shame to deplete this beloved local landmark.
Many folks prefer to go barefoot on a sea glass quest, feeling for booty with their toes, although there are still a few sharp bits here and there, so look where you leap. Little ones will also delight in climbing the epic rock formations and scurrying through tide pools where you can spot crabs and mollusks. In a bohemian region long famed as an artist colony, this beach is the perfect intersection of art and nature.
If you can ever entice the children away from the treasures of Glass Beach, it’s hard to top the breathtaking visual drama of the Mendocino Coast. You can kayak through the lazy meandering Big River, hike through the teeny tiny cypress and pine trees of the Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park or stare agape at Russian Gulch’s Devil’s Punchbowl, an underground sea tunnel that collapsed, creating a blowhole where high tides dance in swirling waves.
The power of nature, its ability to bounce back and reclaim its beauty, is always on display in Mendocino. The same train that once was used to ferry felled redwood trees to 19th century lumber mills, is now the gorgeously restored Skunk Train, which zigzags tourists through the majestic splendor of old-growth groves teeming with blue heron and soaring osprey.
On a recent jaunt on the Pudding Creek Express, which departs from Fort Bragg, children crowded the outdoor viewing platform while many a parent drank in the old-time ambience with Bloody Marys in the dining car of this 131-year-old train. As for the name of the famous locomotive, old timers say you could always smell it before you could see it.
Another don’t-miss tip from the locals is the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which really ought to be called something more like Oceanside Garden Nirvana. The incredibly beautiful 47-acre gardens include flowers, succulents, pine trees and redwoods, dotting an emerald green expanse of canyons, bluffs and wetlands.
Even if you don’t know your dahlias from your rhododendrons, a stop here is a delightful romp through one of the most picturesque gardens you can imagine. Even my little one enjoyed it, although the homemade ice cream she tucked into at the cafe certainly didn’t hurt. The gardens are also a prime spot to pick up a souvenir, perhaps a delicate glass butterfly for your yard or a hand-crafted wind chime, something to remind you of the carefree coastal bliss of your Mendocino getaway.