Fort Bragg actually has a surprisingly charming Main Street. Stop in Mayan Fusion, where the chef offers not only traditional dishes of the Yucatan, but American and European dishes spiced up by Yucatecan seasoning. It also has beautiful Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, where I spend a few hours wandering among the house-sized rhododendrons, gardens from ferns to succulents to vegetables to woodlands, and a trail taking me to a flower-clad bluff overlooking the sea. Then there’s the Glass Beach, an amazing phenomenon. It’s on the spot where locals used to dump their trash, and the bottles they tossed have been worn by years of wind and waves into tiny iridescent pebbles covering the beach. I defy you to step onto this beach and not go hunting and pecking to f ind your favorite: white, green, amber, and the occasional prize of deep blue glass. Stand among the rocks, waves crashing hard against a series of pointy boulders standing like sentinels over a sweep of rugged coast. Below you, human debris has been transformed by nature into something of her own.
HEADING TO HUMBOLDT
More driving, more wonders. About a half hour out of Fort Bragg, the road twists and turns right along the ocean, as if the Pacific is saying farewell as the highway begins to cut inland. As I drive the final part of Highway 1 into Leggett, I’m in the middle of the other natural wonder of the area: the redwoods, and the splendor of these giants of the forest begins to reveal itself. Of course I stop in Leggett for the “Chandelier Tree,” a redwood with an opening carved in its trunk that’s big enough to drive through.
From here I take Route 101, heading through redwoods into Humboldt County. At Phillipsville, I leave the freeway and travel up the Avenue of the Giants, driving right through a tunnel of redwoods. I pull over on the frequent turnoffs, admiring these amazing trees towering above me and breathing the forest air deeply and gratefully. The Avenue of the Giants goes for about 30 miles, and there are numerous points at which you can rejoin 101, but why not take this alternative route that puts you right in the middle of it all? Of course I stop for coffee in tiny Myers Flat, at a sweet little place called Daily Grind. All this nature needs some caffeine to go with it!
Soon I’m in Ferndale, a perfectly preserved Victorian town, where the main street is lined with vintage buildings. I check into Victorian Inn, located in one of these buildings, and my room is a Victorian wonder: floral carpet, fringed shades on standing lamps, a table set up in a cupola surrounded by deep, rich wood, and windows looking onto Main Street. It’s Ferndale in a nutshell: the Victorian charm, the warm welcome, and the combination of vintage and modern.They also have a great restaurant, VI Restaurant, where bruschetta with sun-dried tomatoes, cheddar, and balsamic reduction and mains like locally-fished petrale sole with a scrumptious almond brown butter combine traditional styling and modern cuisine beautifully.
Armed with a walking tour map I get from the friendly guy at the front desk, I set out, admiring the many perfectly-preserved late 19th century buildings now holding shops, bakeries, and eateries. I stop in Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge, the only coffee house I’ve ever been in that has a kayak workshop in the back and up front, a comfy little spot with armchairs, fireplace, and shelves full of books. I visit The Old Steeple, a wonderful live music venue in an old church just a block from the hotel (well, nothing’s more than a block or two in Ferndale). It’s quite an amazing transformation of this gorgeous space, and a wide variety of acts have played here, from up-and-comers to greats like John Hammond and Tom Rush. There’s even an “owlcam” focused on the bell tower (okay, there’s not a super-large amount of stuff to do in Ferndale.)
About twenty minutes from Ferndale lie the Lost Coast Headlands. Here I walk along trails where to one side of me the waves pound on cliffs, and to the other tiny cows graze among ridiculously soft, green, oceanside hills. The whole scene looks like an illustration from a book about Shangri-La, it’s so impossibly perfect. This is one of the most remote beach areas in California, and if you’re up for it you can leave 101 and come into Ferndale on the Lost Coast Loop, which adds about two hours to your trip and takes you along a rough, winding road along this nearly-deserted coastline and up into the hills for some amazing sea views.
About a half hour north of Ferndale is Humboldt County’s biggest town, Eureka (a booming “metropolis” of 28,000). I love the Old Town section, filled with shops and galleries that are pure Northern California artsy: gifts, antiques, crafts galleries, plants, and jewelry. The town even has two bookstores within a block of each other. For caffeine and sweets, stop in Old Town Coffee and Chocolates, where you can have your espresso or nitro cold brew with strawberry or “chocolate decadence” truffles, or head for Ramone’s Bakery and Café, an institution in town. If you want to make Eureka your base for exploring the area, check in at Inn at 2nd and C, a beautiful lodging in the historic Eagle House, which was built in 1886 and has been through various incarnations till it was purchased by a brother and sister and their respective wives (one of the couples, Rebecca and Tammy, was also instrumental in reviving Eureka’s annual Pride festival, and the Inn hosts the parade’s after-party in their ballroom). My room, with its antique wardrobe, tapestry chairs, and patterned wallpaper, has a vintage charm and an amazing view of ships and water. The hotel itself, with an Irish pub and friendly Phatsy Kline’s Parlor Lounge, is a real treasure for Eureka, with a flawless location, incredibly nice staff, and old-world but somehow modern feel.
For dinner I head up to Arcata, and spend some time strolling around its central plaza, a large green space traversed by pathways and surrounded by shops and eateries. Storefronts offer beads, herbs, CBD, vinyl records, yoga, and more. People in tie-dye stroll by, a not-so-young man cruises past on a skateboard, and a woman with a forest-green stripe in her hair details her latest relationship issues to her friend. The trashcans are covered with mosaics. A sign of the middle of a flowerbed has a quote from the Dalai Lama. Welcome to a Northern California college town!
Dinner is at Salt Fish House, and it’s about the best meal I have on the trip. Down a flight of steps into a sleek and lovely spot, all done in shades of gray and white, with a subtly lit bar and light wood tables. Great atmosphere, great service, and perfect food: what could be better? Arcata actually has two places I love: the other is Northtown Coffee. There’s an artsy, happy feeling here. Among the drinks like Cosmic Chai (with turmeric and mushroom extracts), or Humboldt Fog (Earl Grey, lavender, steamed milk), I settle for a plain old double espresso with a fabulous breakfast burrito as I listen to conversations about time travel, theater producing, and spreadsheets. (Note: if you want your own house up north, Redwood Coast Vacation Rentals is a great lodging alternative, with a variety of suites and houses throughout Humboldt County, some with ocean vistas and other perks, leaving you to explore at will, pick something up to eat at home, or just settle into Humboldt in style.
The next morning as I approach Trinidad, a sweet little fishing village, I leave the highway for the Trinidad/Patricks Point Scenic Drive, which starts at Westhaven just south of Trinidad and leads all the way up to spectacular Patrick’s Point State Park. In the park, I walk toward Agate Beach. As I look down through the trees at the towering cliffs and pounding surf, the Humboldt fog is still hanging in thick. I move over to Patrick’s Point itself and stand at the end of a point jutting into the sea looking out over the marine landscape. I decide I’m going to wait for the sun. Is my patience rewarded?
Well, after an hour the sky begins to glow and warm up, the clouds slowly dissipating. After two hours, the sky is blazing blue.
I head back to stunning Agate Beach (this time I climb down the cliffside trail to spend some time on the sand), which looks utterly transformed in the sunshine. As I sit on a piece of driftwood to watch the waves crash, I realize I’ve learned an important lesson. A very Humboldt County lesson. What was my hurry, anyway?
TO THE NORTH: THE FINAL STRETCH
After an oyster sandwich at Seascape, a down-to-earth place overlooking Trinidad Harbor, I press on. I enter the Redwood National and State Parks, heading through corridors of towering redwoods. I leave 101, taking the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which wends for 10 miles before meeting up with the highway again. It’s the perfect way to explore the redwoods, as the drive itself is gorgeous, and every so often there’s a place to pull off and walk down a trail. Please stay as long as you possibly can, for this is a park unlike any you’ll see. I first take the Prairie Creek North trail past massive ferns, the sun filtering through the giant redwoods and every step I take revealing a different outlook. I visit some of the “celebrities” of the park: the Corkscrew Tree, whose limbs wind around each other in so many formations it looks like an entire dance company in kinetic action, and the aptly-named Big Tree, a massive redwood that’s almost 300 feet high. I drive on to the Elk Meadow, where a group of these stately creatures don’t even spare me a look as they go about their important grazing business. Thus ignored, I walk for a little while longer under these ancient and towering trees, some of the oldest and tallest on earth.
I cross from Humboldt into Del Norte county, and check out Trees of Mystery, where I’m greeted by a gigantic Paul Bunyan and Babe the Ox: kitsch in its purest form. Yet their End of the Trail Museum boasts a very nice collection of Native American art and artifacts, well worth a stop and totally unlike the gloriously tacky entrance would lead you to believe.
I head through Crescent City with its amazing lighthouse. Through Smith River, the “Easter Lily Capital of the World.” Then I see the sign I’ve been waiting for: “Welcome to Oregon!” I did it!
Just minutes ago, a sign in Smith River said I was 361 miles from San Francisco. I think of how far I’ve come, and what a journey it’s been. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, surrounded by craggy cliffs or low hills coated in an electric green. I’ve walked under literally some of the tallest trees in existence. I’ve checked out charming towns, stood on impossibly gorgeous bluffs, encountered elk, Canadian geese, blue herons, and seaside grazing cows. I’ve admired beautiful artwork, sampled fresh, delicious food. I’ve traversed a landscape that changes at every turn, presenting a new and different vista just when I think I’ve seen all the stunning vistas I could possibly see. This is truly one of the most spectacular road trips in the world.