How do you feel about short weekend trips? The sort of trip where you leave on Friday after the kids are home from school, and you’re done with work, and you drive a few hours to a destination. Then you spend all day Saturday exploring and a good chunk of Sunday exploring too. And then you drive home Sunday afternoon or evening — ideally to arrive an hour or so before bedtime. Then it’s back to school and work on Monday.

I used to frown at this kind of trip. It felt like a lot of work for such a short amount of time — basically 48 hours — and a good chunk of that time is spent in the car. But as the kids have gotten older, with more complicated schedules, I’ve figured out that these little weekend road trips are a great way to squeeze in some dedicated family time. Sure, we’d love a full week at the beach, but that’s rarely if ever doable. And I’ve been surprised to learn how satisfying even a short trip can be — it’s all about the change of pace and scenery.

A second thing I figured out is that these trips are a great way to explore a 2 to 4 hour radius around our home. And a third thing I’ve learned is that since we’re just going for a weekend, and don’t need to plan around days off, we can often choose a calendar day that’s not peak-tourist-time. 

These types of trips are on my mind, because we’ve taken two of them over the last several months — to Yosemite and Mendocino — and we’re taking another one this weekend to Pacific Grove. 

Here’s a little report of our trip to the Mendocino Coast. Looking back, I love how much we packed in, but it didn’t feel stressful or rushed at all. Mendocino is a small town and part of a larger area that includes Little River and Fort Bragg.

It was a last minute sort of thing. Our December had been so jam-packed that it felt like we hadn’t been able to hang out as a family at all. We were calendaring one evening and realized we had an open weekend right before Christmas — no parties, plays, concerts, or anything else. It was basically a miracle! So we made plans. We chose Mendocino which we’d heard amazing things about, and it’s only a 3-hour drive from Oakland. 

We drove North and checked in late. We stayed at Little River Inn. When I mentioned we were thinking about staying there on Instagram, tons of people told us how great it is — which is always reassuring. It’s picturesque as can be, with white cottages on green lawns. And the whole thing is set on a hill with epic ocean views. It really is charming — apparently James Dean stayed there while filming East of Eden. The location is perfect.

Our room had a fireplace, a deck with gorgeous views and rocking chairs, comfy beds, and a big bathroom. It’s a landmark of a hotel, and the perfect place to enjoy the sunset.

The next day we slept in and had a big breakfast at the hotel restaurant — eggs benedict, huge pancakes, all the fixings. The restaurant was fully decked out for the holidays and felt magical and just right.

Then we went exploring.

First, we went to the Fort Bragg Headlands and spent time taking in the stunning coastline and watching the waves crash on the rocks. It was a little bit chilly — sweatshirt weather — and very bright. The water was turquoise and I couldn’t stop staring at it.

The next stop was a longish, but easy hike to the Mendocino Lighthouse which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. There was a small nature center where we got to learn about some of the local flora and fauna, and we bought a puzzle at the gift shop to do on Christmas Day.

Then we stopped at Big River in Mendocino, so we could get close to the water. It was freezing (because: December), but that didn’t stop Oscar, Betty and June from jumping in. 

After the quick dip, we got the sand off of our feet and went for a late afternoon ride on the Skunk Train. If you’ve got young kids, this is a don’t miss. It’s a historic train that meanders along the Pudding Creek Estuary. It’s short and scenic — a 1-hour long ride, about 7-miles roundtrip.  

During the holidays, they do a little Christmas-themed play on the train, and have the luggage racks decked out in holiday decor. A guitarist walks up and down the aisles playing along while the riders sing carols together.

Even more fun: Santa visits the train and hangs out with the kids — delivering candy canes and finding out what everyone wants for Christmas.

And one more big perk? They hand out souvenir mugs of hot cocoa, and warm cookies, as you board the train. It’s the perfect activity for the under 8 set, and a happy excursion for riders of any age.

That evening, we bundled up and went to the light show at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Such a gorgeous place. One of the highlights? Right in the middle, there was a spot where you could make s’mores. Oh, and there was the best gift shop. We bought a new ornament for our tree.

It was a happy and festive thing to do. And totally no-stress — you could just meander at whatever pace you liked.

To finish up the day, we ate at the Little River Inn Restaurant back at the hotel. Oh man. So good. Ben had the abalone fritters. I had the crab cakes. Two thumbs up on both. We also ordered one each of all the desserts to share — which I also highly recommend. The service was excellent, and it felt fancy, but totally family friendly.

The next day, we hiked around Mendocino Headlands State Park, which includes pathways along the cliffs near the picturesque old-town area. I could not stop taking pictures. The sky, the cliffs, the blue, blue water, the happy little row of buildings. I mean. It’s straight out of a picture book.

It was a short, simple trip, and we loved it! We listened to audiobooks as we drove, we got to know a new-to-us area of California, and we had uninterrupted family time — no phone calls, errands or distractions. It felt like such a gift right there in the middle of a busy holiday season.

What about you? Do you ever take short trips like this where you don’t need to miss work or school? Or do you find this sort of thing to be a pain in the neck? I’m guessing the age of my kids makes a big difference in how I feel about these types of trips. You too? Are there any good destinations not-too-far from your home? And have you ever been to Mendocino? Anything you would add to our itinerary?

P.S. — I just realized there are other short trips I haven’t reported on — like our visit to Palm Springs between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And a little day trip to Tijuana in February. Both were awesome, so I’ll try to write up a post.