Travel Guide to California

North Coast

Beyond the redwood forests lies a land of Victorian villages and picture-perfect fishing harbors

by john flinn

This should put things in perspective: The North Coast’s tallest building is only 77 feet tall, but its tallest tree, named Hyperion, stands 379 feet tall. Until you’ve seen one up close, it’s hard to grasp just how neck-craningly high a coastal redwood tree can grow. These 3,000-year-old arboreal titans—nature’s loftiest skyscrapers—grow in only one place in the world: a narrow strip of fog-shrouded mountains along California’s wild and relatively unvisited North Coast.

The Redwood Highway 

Old-growth redwoods are preserved in a chain of parks strung along Highway 101, known in these parts as the Redwood Highway. In southern Humboldt County, Humboldt Redwoods State Park straddles the scenic drive known as the Avenue of the Giants. In northern Humboldt and Del Norte counties, a cluster of parks—Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks—form one contiguous redwood reserve.

The sounds of chainsaws and buzzing sawmills that once dominated the North Coast are rapidly fading as the lumber industry winds down. In former mill towns such as Fort Bragg, tourism is replacing timber as innovative galleries, restaurants and brew-pubs spring to life.

Although it’s sometimes called the Redwood Empire, the North Coast is more than just tall trees: It’s also salmon-fishing boats bobbing in tiny harbors; Roosevelt elk bugling across misty meadows; steam trains chuffing through a damp and dripping forest; hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving fish smoked according to traditional Native American recipes; vineyards close enough to the coast to catch the salt spray; an old Russian trading fort; handsome Victorian villages; possible glimpses of the elusive creature known as Bigfoot; and bouts of creative madness such as elaborate sculptures racing across the landscape.

For generations, the North Coast was said to be on the far side of the “redwood curtain,” the psychological barrier formed by narrow, tortuous Highway 101, which was little more than a two-lane conduit for heavily-laden logging trucks. But California has spent the last two decades improving the road—straightening curves, widening it in many places to four lanes—and now the road is an easy drive.

insider's tip

Once a seedy skid row, EUREKA’S WATERFRONT has been transformed into the city’s liveliest and most inviting district, with Victorian storefronts housing restaurants, galleries, shops and museums, all crowned by the iconic CARSON MANSION, a masterpiece of over-the-top Victorian opulence. visiteureka.com

City & Town  

Transplanted New Englanders founded the town of Mendocino on a rocky bluff above the crashing Pacific Ocean, and it still sports a whitewashed Cape Cod look. Once a mill town, it went into decay in the 1930s as the local timber trade waned but was rediscovered in the 1960s by bohemians and artists. On the shore of Humboldt Bay, Eureka, the largest town on the North Coast, has also reversed decades of decline and turned its waterfront Old Town into an inviting Victorian district of galleries, boutiques and cafés. Crescent City was virtually wiped off the map by a tsunami in 1964. Rebuilt now, it sports a smattering of hotels and motels that make it a good base for exploring nearby Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Heritage & Culture

Native American tribes such as the Yurok and Hoopa lived along the North Coast for centuries before the arrival of fur trappers—both Russians working their way down from Alaska and American mountain men such as Jedediah Smith coming overland. For more than two centuries, resource extraction—primarily logging—was the region’s economic engine. As dwindling forests and stricter environmental laws took their tolls starting in the 1970s, the North Coast has transitioned to tourism as its mainstay.

Family Fun 

Young children might have trouble fully appreciating the timelessness of an ancient redwood tree, but they’ll enjoy a gondola ride through the silent forest canopy and a chance to have their picture taken with four-story-high statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Look for it at Trees of Mystery, near the town of Klamath.

5 Must See, Do

FOREST TRACKS Built in 1885 to haul redwood logs from the tangled backcountry to coastal sawmills, the iconic Skunk Train now carries passengers on two different runs. The Pudding Creek Express, starting at Fort Bragg, runs year-round along the Pudding Creek Estuary and the Wolf Tree Turn runs from Willits to the majestic Wolf Tree, seasonally. And don’t worry. The train’s name derives from an original, stinky gasoline engine that long ago was consigned to the junkyard. skunktrain.com

BOULEVARD OF BIG TREES The Avenue of the Giants is a 31-mile detour from Highway 101 that weaves in and out of lofty, old-growth redwood trees like a slalom course. The route takes you through the heart of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, one of the best places along the North Coast to gaze up in awe. Sunnier and drier than redwood parks farther to the north, it’s less tangled with undergrowth, making it easier to wander and wonder. avenueofthegiants.net

COMMUNITY FOREST Arcata, with a town square lined with a mixture of hippie-chic boutiques, eclectic restaurants and old-time lumberjack bars, is home to Humboldt State University. Spend some time wandering its community forest and the innovative wastewater treatment facility that has become a thriving sanctuary for migratory birds. cityofarcata.org

SEA AND SKY COUNTRY A full five sensory experience is guaranteed as you stare out at the sea in Mendocino Headlands State Park. Undeveloped bluffs along a rugged coastline, this secluded perch is timeless. Go for the scenic coastal hiking trails, views and cast your gaze on the lush meadows dotted with wildflowers in spring. parks.ca.gov

VICTORIAN HAMLET Gaily painted Victorian mansions line the streets of Ferndale, an idyllic hamlet on the Eel River delta in southern Humboldt County. Lovingly preserved, they give the town a turn-of-the-last-century look that has proven irresistible to Hollywood. More than a dozen movies have been filmed here. Main Street’s shops keep the Victorian theme going, with old-fashioned mercantiles and even a blacksmith shop. Cradled between two redwood forests, the entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. visitferndale.com



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