TravelWell: Heading Up to Humboldt
Jan 09, 2018 09:59PM ● Published by Bobby Black
California is home to some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations: from the historical culture of San Francisco to the winter and water sports of Lake Tahoe; from the star-studded nightlife of Hollywood to the family fun of Disneyland and Universal Studios. For us nature lovers, the Golden State also features some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes in the nation, including Yosemite, Big Sur, and Joshua Tree—all of which, though quite beautiful, tend to be swarmed with sightseers during the nicer parts of the year. But if you’re looking for a more low-key getaway, one that’s a little quieter and less crowded, you might consider venturing a bit further north—past all of that hubbub and up into the wonderful wilds of Humboldt County.
First and foremost, Humboldt is best known for its trees. Ok, yes—the smokable kind, too. Humboldt, along with Mendocino and Trinidad counties, comprise the legendary “Emerald Triangle”—the region long credited as producing some of the best cannabis in the world. The ones I’m referring to, however, are California’s official state trees, the fabled redwoods. Redwood trees aren’t just the oldest living organisms on the planet (up to 2,000 years), they’re also the tallest, reaching heights of up to 350 feet. There’s almost no better place to see these majestic beings—and no better way to see Humboldt, in general—than via the peaceful and picturesque Route 101, appropriately named the Redwood Highway. A few years ago, my wife and I made just such a sojourn as part of an epic Pacific Coast odyssey from Los Angeles to Portland. For those wishing to take a similar road trip and enjoy the wonders of Humboldt County for themselves, allow me to recount some of the highlights:
Driving up the 101, one of the first few towns you pass through is Garberville. Garberville is the site of the popular Reggae on the River—a four-day music festival that takes place on the bank of the Eel River in early August each year—as well as the short-lived Cannabis Film Festival. It’s also home to several quirky little roadside attractions, including the One-Log House (a small home carved out of a single, giant hollowed-out log) and the 1,800-year-old Grandfather Tree, where, at the gift shop, you can pick up your very own live redwood burl. Up the road a ways is another unique souvenir shop called the Legend of Bigfoot, where you’ll find all sorts of carved wooden treasures, as well as anything and everything related to the mythical Sasquatch of the sequoias. Garberville proper is a quaint little town filled with cozy places to rest your head or grab a bite before heading up into Redwood State Park. For a hearty, home-style breakfast, make a pit stop at the Woodrose Café. Or for slightly fancier fare, try Cecil’s New Orleans Bistro.
From Garberville, it's just another 10 minutes or so up the road until you reach the entrance for the Avenue of The Giants, a scenic byway that runs parallel to the 101 for 31 miles, leading you through the 50,000-plus acres of old-growth redwood groves in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. These forests, among the most serene and majestic scenery in America, are an absolutely ideal spot for a hike, a picnic, some quiet meditation, or a relaxing smoke break—a sentiment shared by legendary director Oliver Stone, who happened to be enjoying a joint when we were lucky enough to bump into him and his wife in the Founder’s Grove. Just remember to be extra super careful with any matches or roaches. These trees are far too precious to risk starting a fire here.
With their impressive heights, it’s no surprise that the redwoods can be rather wide as well (up to 25 feet in diameter). Some are so wide, in fact, that you can drive a car through them, and naturally there are places where you can do just that—namely, the Shrine Tree and the Chandelier Tree. Some other famous tree attractions along the route worth a photo op are the Eternal Tree House, the Living Chimney Tree, and the Immortal Tree, which is located directly across from the can’t-miss giant statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe.
While you can drive right along the shoreline for the majority of the Pacific Coast, the same cannot be said for Humboldt County. Here, the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) turns inland and is gobbled up by the 101, making the shore a lot harder to access. But if you’re feeling extra adventurous, you might consider taking the long detour off the main highway to explore the rugged Lost Coast, including the small fishing hamlet of Shelter Cove (just under an hour’s drive southwest of Garberville), where you can snap a few photos of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse and take some sun on the secluded Black Sand Beach.
Further north, as the 101 snakes westward back towards the shore, you’ll find a number of great little towns that make up the county’s main population center: there’s the charming Victorian village of Ferndale; Eureka, an artist and artisan haven (and the seat of the county); and, on the other side of the bay from Eureka, Arcata, home to Humboldt State University and one of the oldest movie theaters in the country—not to mention a thriving glass art community, a few gourmet ice cream parlors, and even an indoor skate park.
Head up a bit further, and you’ll have easier access to more beautiful beaches, including Moonstone Beach. Known for its craggy outcroppings, tide pools, and hidden sea caves (accessible only at low tide), Moonstone is a popular destination for amateur rock climbers and surfers.
After working up an appetite spelunking or hanging ten, chow down on some fresh, delicious seafood right on the beach at the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill. Another 15 miles up the road in Trinidad is Agate Beach, named after the many smooth, colorful stones you’ll find in the tidal pools along its shore. It’s a remote spot that’s ideal for whale, sea lion, and bird watching, as well as beachcombing—but definitely not swimming, as its notoriously rough waters and riptides make it too dangerous. While in Trinidad, you have to stop at the Lighthouse Grill to try one of their trademark “mash cones”—a savory waffle cone stuffed with mashed potatoes and topped with your choice of beef, bacon, cheese, gravy, or veggies.
Beyond that, it’s just another two-hour drive through Prairie Creek Redwoods Park until you hit the northern county line. Where to go from there is entirely up to you: do you head back down to revisit your favorite spots and catch some of the attractions you missed? Grab a flight home from Arcata/Eureka airport? Or continue your adventure northward into Oregon? In the end, it’s not where you end up that matters, but the memories you made and lessons you learned along the way. Here’s hoping that your journey through Humboldt is enjoyable, enlightening, and elevated.