Wandering the West – Part 7: The Northern California Coast

It was well into the afternoon by the time I was waved through the shack of an agricultural entry station as my “welcome to California experience.” In today’s world, I rank it up there with Oregon’s professional gas pumpers as a protectionist make-work program. Perhaps I am too laissez-faire with that comment given the fact that in the orchyard I fight with European Apple Sawfly, which was an imported pest, and bees worldwide now suffer from the Varroa mite, also an imported pest – but I do question the efficacy of stopping the migration of insects, fungi, or bacteria by having a person breathing exhaust fumes all day while waving vehicles through a pole barn.

Given the timing, my key priority was to find a campsite rather than explore. This was helped by the fact that almost as soon as it crosses the state line US-101 heads inland, almost as if to remind you that while Oregon’s coastline is all public land up to the vegetation line, California’s most certainly is not. My first targeted site was the Mill Creek campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, but right at the turnoff from the highway they had a sign that they were full. The sign suggested trying the Elk Prairie campground a bit further south in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, but when I got there they too were full, and talking to the person who pulled in behind me so was Gold Beach campground. Although I had been in campsite finding mode, the fact I was driving through the redwood forests was not lost on me. Despite not finding a spot at Prarie Creek, I had noticed a trailhead a mile or so back from the campground and backtracked to it. The description showed a comfortable loop option, so I decided that if I was going to go campground hopping down the coast into the night I might just as well have a walk in the redwoods while I was there.

My first impression of the trail was not good. I got out of the van to the sound of happily screaming children, and soon discovered the source. Maybe 200 feet in from the start of a trail was a rather large tree with a cleared area around it, and several family groups were trying to get children and adults arraigned for pictures while the children wanted to be playing “big tree games” such as betting each other who could walk around it in the least number of steps, or guessing how many gazillion years old it was. While I appreciate the fact that the parents were getting their children at least a few steps into nature, I would have been far more pleased had I heard at least one of the adults try to encourage quiet appreciation of the space. I opted not to linger in their vocal space, but hiked as quickly as I could further into the trees until I was far enough in for the landscape to absorb the vocal intrusion. Once there, I was present in the sacredness of the cathedral of the forest. Had the Gothic architects of Europe’s great cathedrals been able to have observed something similar to a coastal redwood forest, I’m certain the designs would have borrowed heavily from that nature. The scale is simply too immense for a human to take in. I completed my walk in near silent reverence, greatly assisted by the wonderfully soft and spongy texture of the trail, and in the process I unwittingly disturbed numerous garter snakes as they sunned in small pools of filtered sunlight and quickly slithered off the trail.

Following this interlude, I again headed south in search of a campsite for the night, and had decided that if I didn’t find one by the time I got to Eureka I would settle for a hotel room. Before getting that far, though, I came across another promising county park sign and followed the road to a self-service check-in board for Big Lagoon County Park with the instructions to first find a site, then return and put the $20 nightly fee in an envelope with the site number on it and deposit it in the drop box, and directed any further questions to the campground host. After finding all the previous spots full, I came across the final two sites. One had a small RV parked in it, and the one next to it had a cooler on the picnic table but no other signs of occupation. I decided to occupy first and question later, so I parked and wandered over to the host’s site to inquire. It turned out that it was indeed occupied, or at least reserved and paid for by the people in the RV for friends who were supposed to arrive later that evening. The host then asked if I was self contained or tent camping, and when I answered that I was staying in my van he told me they did have an overflow area for additional vehicles that I could stay at and told me to just write “overflow” instead of a site number on the envelope.

The overflow area consisted of a small grassy area with a picnic table on it next to the bathroom building. I was happy enough with the arraignment, and soon had myself setup for the night. There was still an hour or so of light left, so I took the opportunity to walk around the edge of the lagoon and the out on the beach. If anything, the strong winds of the Oregon coast had intensified and the stroll under a heavy marine layer was quite atmospheric if not entirely comfortable.

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By the time I had returned to the van both my glasses and the camera lens filter were covered in salt from the blowing spray, so I stopped in the bathroom to wash them off.
As I walked out, I was glad I had just washed my glasses because I found myself walking past a van next to mine with a particularly notable paint job featuring lightning bolt shooting eyeballs over a hypno-swirl background. A young Australian woman was making dinner on a pull-out kitchenette, and I had to stop and admire the full camper conversion of the same year and model as my van. When I asked her how long it had taken them to do she explained it was a rental and had no idea about how any of it was done. It turns out I was looking at the one and only “Lasiks by CRE8” rented out by Escape campervans (http://www.escapecampervans.com).

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She and her friend were just starting out on their roadtrip journey, and while I had been out for a walk they had joined me in the overflow neighborhood. A few minutes later, a car pulled up and two young Canadian men became the final members of the overflow party around the picnic table. They had already been on the road for 2 weeks on a trip from northeast Ontario to LA and back, and it was obvious from the way they immediately switched into full-on flirt mode that they were fairly desperate for female companionship. I opted to retire for the night as daylight faded out, but based on the rolling tide of giggles and laughs which I fell asleep to I imagine that their conversations lasted well on into the evening. As dawn broke I was (predictably) the first up from our little neighborhood, and I happily found that the coin-op shower in the bathroom was both inexpensive and hot. After a quick breakfast by the lagoon I was back on the road, this time in search of the lost coast of King Range National Conservation area.

Getting out to the lost coast had become one of the key points of the return leg so, as with Crescent City, I gave Eureka less attention than it deserved. It also helped that I rolled through before 7 AM, and there wasn’t much open beyond the coffee shop in the local co-op which I would have stopped at had I seen the open sign before I was well past any opportunity to turn in. As 101 made it’s grand turn away from the coast, which it wouldn’t return to for over 500 miles at Pismo Beach (aside from the very brief glimpse of water while crossing the entrance to San Francisco Bay over the Golden Gate Bridge), I picked up CA-211 into Ferndale and from there picked up Mattole Road and quickly climbed into an impressively thick marine layer.

There are moments where you find yourself in situations which you would not have planned on entering, and the drive to the coast on Mattole Road was one of them. Crawling up a narrow, twisting, non-guardrailed, mountain road which gained and lost nearly 2000 feet in elevation and abruptly shifted between blacktop and gravel and back again, and doing so in cloud so thick that at times the visibility was under a car length, was not quite how I had expected to spend the morning. In the interest of safety over policy, I ignored the California rule of not having devices mounted on the windshield and put my GPS on the windshield right in front of the steering wheel and essentially drove on instruments, using the moving map to help anticipate the switchbacks and turns I couldn’t visually see approaching. There were times where a few feet off one side of the car I was looking even with the tops of trees, and out the other side I was looking up at the roots of the trees on the other side, other times where the sides dropped off into grey nothingness. Then there were brilliant moments where there were pockets of visibility for momentary glimpses of the landscape – sometimes a few hundred feet ahead or to a side, sometimes popping out fully over or under the layer. As a finale, it switchbacks down approximately 800 feet in elevation over the horizontal span of about a quarter mile to cross the Bear River at a few feet above sea level just north of Cape Mendocino, then climbs back up nearly as high again to cross the cape and drop just slightly less quickly to join the shore south of the cape. On the day I drove it, the bottom of the marine layer was about 350 feet, making for a stunning double dose of dropping out of the cloud and having the Pacific stretch out in the distance. In short, it was an exhilarating drive reminiscent of alpine rallyes mixed with crossing a foggy Striding Edge in the Lake District, and one of the best driving memories of the trip. I’m not sure a passenger would have felt quite the same.

 

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Once south of the cape the road runs along the coast for several miles, most of the way separated from it by a few hundred feet of grassland surrounded by rusty barbed wire and liberally sprinkled with no trespassing signs. The marine layer pretty much stopped at the cape, leaving an interesting play of blue and gray sky depending on which way you were looking. There was at least one opportunity to access the coast along the way, and in the 10 or 15 minutes I spent in the brilliantly lit area amongst the rocks watching the waves pound against outlying rocks and then expend the last of their energy lapping on a black sand and cobble beach I was the only person in sight.

 

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After a few more miles the road turned inland to the town of Petrolia, where I turned off and followed the Mattole river to the coast and the northern trailhead for the Lost Coast Trail, which provides the only access to miles of a narrow and wild coastline in the King Range Wilderness where mountains drop nearly straight into the ocean. I had a very windy but enjoyable walk along the sweeping shoreline before heading back to Petrolia and picking up Mattole road again as it proceeded up the Mattole valley through the town of Honeydew and, following a steep climb, into the western entrance of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

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Perhaps it was the circumstance of time and day, or perhaps just the location, but my experience in Humboldt Redwoods was spectacular. There were very few other people, lots and lots of towering trees, and an interesting forest floor to explore. After the windy blasts of the coast the calm amongst the trees was most welcome. The road through the park seemed to have been laid to avoid having to cut down any trees but often passed close between them, and when seen against their trunks the van seemed little more than a toy.

 

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Despite numerous stops to wonder at some new view of the giant trees, eventually the road brought me back to 101. In terms of miles on highway 101 my detour to the lost coast only got me about 30 miles from where I had first turned off but had taken well over 4 hours to do so – and I would do it again in an instant if I have the opportunity. No longer a quiet coastal route, 101 had become a divided high speed highway as it followed the south fork of the Eel river through the heart of the redwood country, with CA-254 providing a more intimate option along the same path.

Near Leggett the fabled California Route 1 has it’s northern terminus where it breaks off from 101. Headed south, highway 1 first climbs up and over the coastal range, then touches the coast for a quick vista before heading back inland for several miles. When it comes back out on the coast above Fort Bragg it begins it’s long and winding journey, often perched on cliff edges, down an expanse of dramatic coastline which defies description. Unlike the Oregon and Washington coasts, however, where 101 generally runs unencumbered by hordes of visitors, the world has heard about “Highway 1” and there is no shortage of people who want to fulfil a dream of travelling it in some form. I admire those who set out to do it on bicycle – the northern sections certainly have their share of windy wet cold as well as climbs and descents, and I appreciate those who, like me, go by vehicle. Catering for this interest, I imagine highway 1 probably has the highest ratio of scenic views and other pulloffs per mile of any road of it’s length in the world, and they were generally made use of. Every once in a while it would happen that coming up a climb there would be a bicyclist or a large vehicle (usually pickups pulling 5’th wheel campers) that was unable to keep speed and a few cars would back up until they either pulled off or there was a safe spot to pass. Altogether the section down to Bodega Bay was a fun and enjoyable drive with spectacular coastal scenery – but much of it was essentially the same as I had seen further north, so I found I was focusing on enjoying the drive so much that my viewpoint stops grew further and further apart.

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I had roughly intended to stop near Bodega Bay for the night, but despite the meandering pace of the day I arrived earlier than I wanted to stop. As highway 1 turns inland for a bit where Point Reyes extends out in to the Pacific, I debated if it might be a better option to head inland and go around the Bay Area. Eventually I decided I might just as well play a bit more north of the city to let rush hour traffic die off, then head straight through and pick up a campsite on the other side. After some meandering along Stinson and Muir Beaches, backtracking a bit to the entrance of Muir Woods (then deciding I didn’t have enough time to enjoy it), and then rejoining 101 I found myself on the Golden Gate Bridge and then on highway 1 in San Francisco just as the last of rush hour died away.

Driving through the city after days of mostly open roads was a bit of a change, but also a pleasant contrast and strangely relaxing. As I got into Pacifica I pulled off and consulted my campground maps, and with no real surprise noted that there really were not any in the driving range I felt comfortable with. I had carried the thought of getting a hotel for the night as a backup plan, and with plenty of Marriott points from years of business travel I decided to have a look at what might be available in the area. The Courtyard near SFO airport was closest, and so I made a booking and found my way there. After checking in I decided that the restaurant across the street looked far more inviting than my standard curry, so I made my way over, ordered a drink and a salad, and then nearly fell asleep while I waited. I had surprisingly little appetite, and by the time I finished my drink and gave up on the rest of the salad I had a throbbing headache and my eyes hurt. After getting back to the room I realized that all of my time out in the cool wind had given me a sinus headache. I took a warm shower, turned the heat up, took a couple of headache tabs and went out like a light.

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