At a Glance: John’s Favorites
Ukiah? You’re kidding. Nope. Believe it or not, Ukiah—along with tiny neighboring Hopland—make a reasonable target for a quick getaway. Okay, I’ll admit that inland Mendocino County lacks the dramatic visual punch of its seaside communities, but now that high season has kicked in across California, it’s sensible to have some lesser-known backup destinations in your pocket—especially if you’re on a budget.
But don’t write the region off just yet. Ukiah is ringed by 4000ft mountains—Ukiah means ‘deep valley’ in Pomo Indian—and the landscape is impressive. So what if downtown Ukiah is boring? Take to the hills and spend the day exploring ancient, old-growth redwood groves or soaking in natural hot-water mineral springs at 19th-century-era resorts. Or head to Hopland for an afternoon of wine-tasting. Still not sold? Tack on a short drive to pastoral Anderson Valley, or make a day trip to moody Mendocino to round out your road trip.
Ukiah-Hopland is a good destination for off-the-beaten-path travelers with a curiosity about seeing California destinations that tourists generally skip. And you can’t beat the prices ’round here: you’ll get rooms for under $150 a night. Just try doing that on the coast. But bring your own entertainment—there ain’t nothin’ to do at night.
- Soak in carbonated thermal hot springs.
- Widen your repertoire of Rhône varietals.
- Discover new uses of alternative energy.
- Espy 10,000 Buddha figurines—in a single room.
- Pick up pot-growing tips from local hippies.
- Two hours from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Zero nightlife; book a hot-spring resort or b.y.o entertainment.
- Limited restaurant choices—but there’s one really good spot!
See & Do
Downtown Ukiah has one major tourist sight, the Sun House-Grace Hudson Museum. The museum’s mainstays are American Indian paintings by Grace Hudson (1865–1937), complemented by a mind-boggling collection of Indian artifacts collected by her ethnographer husband. But for me, the pièce de résistance is the Sun House, the Hudson’s gorgeous 1911 Craftsman-style bungalow.
Surprise, surprise—there’s a good ceramicist in Ukiah. If you like home furnishings, check out the hand-painted earthenware at Hoyman/Browe Studio.
Love kitsch? Don’t miss the Redwood Tree Service Station; it’s a gas station carved from a giant redwood trunk. Only in America.
Three miles west of Ukiah, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas used to be a state mental hospital. Now it’s a 480-acre community of Chinese Buddhists, and the temple hall actually has 10,000 buddha statues in it. What a trip! It’s open for viewing if there’s no service taking place; be discrete. Have lunch in the Chinese-vegetarian cafe (closed Tuesdays). It’s easy to get lost on the campus; pay attention.
The tiny town of HOPLAND, 15 minutes south of Ukiah, has way more charm, and you can walk from end to end in under 10 minutes. Town’s main attraction is the Real Goods Solar Living Center, a 12-acre, hands-on site devoted to the advancement of sustainable energy and environmental education. Check out the exhibits on organic gardening and passive- and active-solar building design, then take the kids aboard a solar-powered carousel. And of course, you can refuel on biodiesel at the little station out front. Very cool.
Of Hopland’s wine-tasting rooms, I best like McDowell Valley Vineyards for its fantastic Rhône varietals, including a big, slutty syrah made from the oldest syrah vines in America. My other top choice is Graziano Family of Wines, which specializes in Cal-Italian wines—nebbiolo, barbera, sangiovese. Afterward, burn off your buzz with a game of bocce ball at Brutocao Schoolhouse Plaza (but skip the wine).
If you’re into brandy, visit Jepson Vineyards to see the gigantic alembic still; there’s good chardonnay too. For cognac made by a fifth-generation French craftsman from Cognac proper, make a beeline to Germain-Robin, in Ukiah. The place is basically a windowless warehouse abutting the freeway, but you’d be hard pressed to find better spirits manufactured this side of the Atlantic. Seriously.
For a mini-adventure in wine-tasting, head to the hills to visit Fife Vineyards, in Redwood Valley. Fife only makes red wines—all long-lingering and fruit-forward—including a peppery zinfandel and petite sirah, both prized by foodies. Bring a picnic and take in the postcard views of Lake Mendocino from on high (but buy a bottle of your host’s wine first). Bottles cost $13 to $32.
The area’s two hot-springs resorts are reason enough to visit. Just east of Ukiah, Vichy Hot Springs Resort opened in 1854, and has the only carbonated, warm-water mineral baths on the continent. (Curiously, the water’s mineral composition perfectly matches that of Vichy, France.) In addition to 10 indoor and outdoor private tubs, with water gurgling out of the ground at 90ºF, there’s a big swimming pool, a hot tub, and a grotto where you can drink the curative water, straight from the springs. Swimsuits are mandatory (alas). The resort comprises 700 acres abutting BLM land; bring hiking boots. Call ahead, especially for massage appointments. You can also rent rooms and cottages (see Hotels, below).
Orr Hot Springs is much more hippy-dippy, if only because the entire resort is clothing optional. About 30 minutes west of Ukiah along a winding, narrow road, Orr is tucked in the woods in the middle of nowhere—the perfect place to vanish from civilization. In addition to a mud-bottom, spring-fed swimming pool, there are also communal hot-spring tubs, private porcelain tubs, sauna and steam. Reservations are essential for day use; call ahead. Orr also rents rooms and tent sites (see Hotels, below).
West of Orr, the 1100-acre Montgomery Woods State Reserve protects five old-growth redwood groves and a lush fern forest. On a hot day, the reserve is a cool oasis of shade. Take the easy hour-long, three-mile walking trail for an overview. Some people may try to tell you that the world’s tallest tree is hidden in one of the groves. Not so. That honor belongs to the Hyperion tree, in Redwood National Park. But so what? The trees here are giants, awesome in every way. Check ‘em out.
Hopland & Ukiah Restaurants
The premier restaurant in Ukiah-Hopland, Patrona ($$–$$$) merits a special visit, even if you’re just driving through. The diverse menu of seasonal cooking lists everything from cripy-crust pizzas (in changing, unusual combinations like gorgonzola, walnuts, and red-wine-poached figs), to house-made pastas, to earthy roasted meats (I especially love the roast chicken with pan jus and wilted greens—yum!). Because it’s owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team of chefs, the quality is spot-on every time. Patrona also doubles as a wine bar with an outstanding selection of Mendocino County wines, and pours 30 vintages by the glass, drawing local oenophiles and bon vivants. Don’t miss Patrona. No dinner Sun & Mon; no lunch Sat & Sun.
Whadya know? There’s good sushi in Ukiah. Tiny hole-in-the-wall Oco Time ($$) serves properly thick cuts of super-fresh fish. In a nod to local culture, the all-veggie Mendo roll is seasoned with hemp seeds. For something different, try the oco, a griddled, layered pancake of sauteed vegetables and noodles.
For carry-out picnic sandwiches on freshly baked bread, or for easy, eat-in hot meals to satisfy the kids (think mac-n-cheese and meatloaf), head to Schat’s Courthouse Bakery ($), in downtown Ukiah.
The Bluebird Cafe ($) is good for rib-stickin’ pancakes and giant scrambles at breakfast, and hearty Americana blue-plate-style lunches. Check out the crazy burger selection; there’s not only beef, but ostrich and elk too. I prefer the old-fashioned lunch-counter vibe of the original in Hopland, but the location in Ukiah serves basically the same food.
I’ve not yet tried the recently reopened Hopland Inn ($$$), but the owner is the chef, which is a good indicator that, good or bad, the quality will be consistent. The mishmash Cal-Mediterranean menu reads well and lists lots of local organic purveyors, but I can’t say anything about the execution (if you’ve eaten here, leave a comment at the bottom of the page). There’s lunch ($) Friday to Sunday.
Alas, the Hopland Brewery ($), California’s first brewpub, no longer serves food, and the beer is now made up the road in Ukiah. Drop by and have a Red Tail if you’re in the mood, but know that the brewpub has lost its luster since the glory days when the beer was made on site.
If you want steak, the Shotgun Restaurant ($$$–$$$$), in Hopland, does an okay job, but it’s expensive for around here, and the room pretends to be so fancy—hello, we’re in the boonies—that it makes me uncomfortable (likewise the adjoining hotel, which looks like something off the set of Dallas).
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Ukiah & Hopland Hotels, Motels, & Resorts
The top spot to stay in Ukiah-Hopland is Vichy Hot Springs Resort ($$–$$$$), where deer and elk wander the sun-dappled lawns beneath century-old trees. Accommodations are in single-story, hundred-year-old lodge buildings, or in freestanding cottages—among them, Mendocino County’s three oldest structures. I prefer the creek-side lodge rooms; they’re not particularly big, but are long on charm, and the creek babbles outside your window. If you want more space, book a cottage, but note that the new ones are devoid of charm; stick to the old ones for greater sense of place. All guests have unlimited use of the hot springs (See & Do, above). Kids l-o-v-e the giant swimming pool. Pack hiking boots to explore the extensive trails on the hills behind the resort. Breakfast included. No TVs. RV parking available, but no tent camping.
A peaceful and happy place, the Robinson Creek Inn ($$) doubles as a commercial flower farm. The two-room B&B was built in 1878, and though the look is country Victoriana, it’s not at all fussy. There’s no pool, but there’s a swimming hole in the creek out back beyond the gorgeous gardens. Breakfasts are huge, and include eggs from the inn’s own chickens. The inn is ideal for two couples traveling together, or for one large family.
Built in 1890, the Hopland Inn ($$) got a refurb in 2006, and the place looks great. Rooms on the second floor have no TVs and are done in Victorian style, but with little froufrou other than fringed lampshades. Third floor rooms are more modern, look vaguely French provincial, and have a bit of frill (i.e., damask crown canopy beds)—but nothing overbearing. Some rooms have twin beds, ideal for two single travelers. Downstairs there’s a restaurant and a big library with floor-to-ceiling books. NB: The inn sits right on busy Hwy 101 and has single-pane windows. Choose a room in back. And just in case, pack earplugs too.
Sadly, the Fetzer Valley Oaks Inn, also in Hopland, has closed—and so have its famous meandering gardens. I’ll keep you posted if the inn reopens; it used to among my favorite places to stay in Mendocino County. My fingers are crossed.
Thirty minutes west of Ukiah, you can camp, book a dorm room, or rent a simple cottage at Orr Hot Springs ($–$$$$), a fabulously old-school, patchouli-encrusted hot-springs resort (See & Do, above) that dates back to the 19th century. Unlike at buttoned-up Vichy, here clothing is optional. Cook your own meals in the communal kitchen (meat is okay), or in your cottage. There’s no web site, so you’ll have to call.
There are several dozen motels in Ukiah, ranging from middle-of-the-road family properties, to downright dumps, and I’ve seen nearly all of them. The top generic motel in town is the recently constructed Holiday Inn Express ($–$$), which has good beds, wireless internet, a swimming pool, and complimentary breakfast. If you’re tight on cash, choose the Sunrise Inn ($), a sparkling clean mom-and-pop motel. Request a remodeled room. Alas, there’s no pool.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up