On Becoming a Fan of Short Weekend Trips — Plus a Report on our Trip to the Mendocino Coast

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.

17 thoughts on “On Becoming a Fan of Short Weekend Trips — Plus a Report on our Trip to the Mendocino Coast”

  1. Looks beautiful there! I tend to stay away from quick trips too, but I can see your point about just getting in some family time. Now that my kids are both teenagers, I realize how little time is left with them at home and doing something quick is better than nothing at all.

    I write this as we’re heading into spring break and I haven’t yet planned anything! Arrgh!!

    1. I hear you on Spring Break. We get home from Pacific Grove on Sunday, and then I’ve got a week ahead of me where I’ve got to figure out something for the 3 youngest to do.

  2. A special spot for our family is Quebec City. It feels like Europe there. It’s beautiful, there is a lot of culture and great bakeries and restaurants. We went ice tobogganing (which was terrifying!), dog sledding, and went cross country skiing as a family. There is an upper city and a lower city and you can walk some steep stairs or take the funicular… like an outdoor elevator/ railway. We have gone 3 winters in a row and now my husband and I will go this summer as a getaway while our teens are at running camp.
    We go as a long weekend. We are in CT… it’s 7 hours away… we stay with family halfway up the first night, get up there for 2 nights and have a really long drive home. No one complains, it’s so special!

    1. Quebec City sounds amazing. It sounds like your visits have become a terrific family tradition. Love that! And I like your strategy of breaking up the drive there and doing a long drive home. I bet that would work for us too.

  3. I would love to take more mini weekend trips!! Sound so nice to me! A preschooler and a baby make it a challenge but maybe this year!

    1. It’s true. The baby + toddler years can be tricky for traveling as you try to work around naps, meal times, and early bedtimes. And it’s too bad, because it’s like the one phase of life where your kids don’t have a school schedule or sports schedule to work around. Hah!

      1. I feel like airbnb has really changed the game on this. Inns and hotels are tough when you’re all crammed in one room, but we’ve loved doing our quick weekend trips with kids when we can stay in a house. It’s not for everyone, but we’ve cherished the memories. We try to time driving around naps, or on Sunday we put everyone in jams and leave close to bedtime.

  4. Preparing to travel with several children seems overwhelming. When our kids were small, the make-ready for a short trip (95% on me) never seemed worth it. Of course the bulk of our trips were to visit family living 5 hours away, so I was like doing all the same things I do at home, while being a guest. Occasionally we’ve stayed in a motel, but nothing is close by and I was the only one that thought it was worth the drive back and forth just to have privacy and our own bathroom.

    Now that the kids are older, they can help prepare and really, I’m quite content to be away for a short time. In fact, we are finally getting passports this weekend, because I want to be able to take advantage of good airfare and short trips. It’s also really hard to get a good stretch of time off for all of us at a time of year that I would want to travel.

    1. I know what you mean when you say: “When our kids were small, the make-ready for a short trip (95% on me) never seemed worth it.”

      I felt the exact same way. And I agree that it definitely helps that the kids are older and can help more. And there’s something to say about having more practice too — like it gets easier to take shorter trips, the more we take shorter trips. We learn what works and what doesn’t. Does that make sense?

      Congrats on the passport! I just sent mine in for renewal this earlier this week — so I’m U.S.A. bound for the next 4-6 weeks. Not that I have any foreign travel plans in the works right now — but you never know when super cheap tix to Iceland might show up! : )

      1. Yes! We’re on the East Coast an Iceland has been on our wish list since before we were married. Hopefully it will happen.

    2. Melissa, I’m feeling you on the doing all the same things at home but as a guest and how it doesn’t really feel worth it. It took me a couple of years after having kids to figure out why visiting family was no longer restful! I realized that the extra hands only really make up for the kids’ schedules being thrown off, missed sleep, etc. of travel, so there really isn’t much “rest” time left.

      Short trips sound like a nightmare to me right now. Haha! But I used to love them. Early in our marriage, we didn’t have the funds or time for longer trips anyway, so we made the most of it! Hoping as the kids grow older, as Gabby mentioned, it will feel worth it again! :)

  5. We seem to be having parallel thought processes here! We did a quick weekend to Mendocino last year, and just got back from a quick trip to Pacific Grove/Monterey. This most recent trip was great fun, but stressful with a toddler if I’m being totally honest! It’s hard to schedule around naps, etc. But still so worth it. Wanted to give you a tip for Pacific Grove from our awesome Airbnb host: grab sandwiches at Goodie’s and take a picnic down to Lover’s Point (picnic tables on the grass above or down on the sandy beach below). It was a highlight for sure! Also, if you go to the aquarium, drive out Ocean View Blvd a few blocks until 1st and 2nd (away from Cannery Row), where the parking is FREE ALL DAY(!), with a beautiful walk back to the aquarium, including ocean views and a little protected beach with harbor seals. Hope you have a great time!

    1. Oh! Thank you for the Pacific Grove tips. Both are super helpful! We haven’t done the aquarium in years — and Oscar is such a lover of sea-life (he’s wanted to be a marine biologist since I can remember), and it’s about time we made another visit.

  6. Yes to this! For your East Coast readers, we’ve done weekend trips to Lincoln, NH and North Conway, NH as well as Boothbay Harbor, ME! It can be done (I have 3 kids aged 3 and under). Happy adventuring!

  7. We visited Fort Bragg/Mendocino last Spring (on a Pacific Coast roadtrip from Astoria WA to San Francisco). There were so many interesting little coastal towns on Hwy 1 – it was hard not to stop at every single one! I highly recommend that route if you haven’t done it.

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  9. We love weekend trips, though we usually add the Friday as a full day if we can. Taking a little break from home and re-connecting as a family is so nice. And we’re lucky to live in a spot where there are many 2-3 hour options to explore.

    Mendocino looks like a beautiful spot!

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