Lost in the Woods

EUREKA, CA – Count the rings inside the wood of the giant redwood tree. The thick one, in the middle, was formed around the time that Alexander the Great was conquering the world. The next, farther out, grew back when America first became a country. That outer one was made when man first walked on the moon. In the primeval forests of Northern California, history is organic. The tallest trees in the world stand unchanged by the centuries, and life slows down when you walk amongst them.

This hidden corner of California is best seen by car, and driving the six-hour trip from the nearest international airport in San Francisco is a treat in itself. You ditch the city, meander through valleys of wineries and follow the mountains. Driving North, the slopes get greener and the air gets cleaner. Eventually, the highway grows dark; you have to turn on your headlights in the middle of the day. You’re surrounded on all sides by dense, tall forest, blocking out the sunlight and making the air cool. Traffic is sparse and everything seems quiet. Now you know you’re inside Humboldt County, popularly known as ‘The Redwood Empire’.

I spent my childhood in the area, and like most country kids who run off to the big city, I’m constantly looking back. Whenever I return, I run around like the city-slicker tourist I have become, soaking in all the natural delight before I get back to pavement and honking horns.   But taking my husband to see the area for the first time made it all the more special and new. Trees stand everywhere, “dominating the landscape”, he commented in the car. I laughed; I had always thought of them as friendly things, or at least silent witnesses. To unfamiliar eyes though, they can tower, swallow – even intimidate. Some find them downright spooky. But he was right, no matter what you think of them, the trees are impossible to ignore.

Humboldt County is the only place in the world the giant redwood species can grow, besides a smaller variety that is found in parts of Japan. Most visitors’ first brush with them comes just past Benbow Lake at the Avenue Of The Giants, a 33-mile-long park bordering Highway 101. Tourist traps abound here, serving up greasy burgers and fake ‘hobbit’ caves. However, it’s worth a stop to see a living tree so large that you can drive your car through it. Once the camera and the kids have been satiated, head to Founders Grove, a flat, short hike which serves as a great introduction to the forest.   The Dyerville Giant, the world’s former tallest tree at 372 feet, has fallen, but it can now be viewed now as a gigantic log with a towering root system jutting up three stories into the air. Keep an eye out for fire damaged hollow-trunked trees that you can walk inside and rare, white Trillium flowers in the underbrush.

There’s many other hikes around The Avenue Of The Giants, but if you’re pressed for time, head farther North. Though the larger towns of Arcata and Eureka have fine dining and bed and breakfast inns, it’s best to give nature her due and camp inside the forest for at least one night. There are lots of safe, clean campgrounds to choose from, all run by the government with rangers on duty. The best time for this, of course, is the summer. Winter and Spring here is rainy and foggy – a great habitat for redwoods, but bad for sleeping bags.   One place most popular with the locals is Swimmer’s Delight, just off 101 on the impossibly winding Highway 36. The stars stand out at night, and crickets sing you to sleep. You’ll wake up with the shafts of sunlight peaking through the tree canopy, and can take an invigorating jump off fallen redwood logs into the cool waters of the Van Duzen River.

Unfortunately, we arrived in the chilly weather of early Spring. Stuck in civilization, we made the best of it by visiting the tiny town of Ferndale. Many a Hollywood movie has been filmed here because the entire town looks like a movie set – like it was trapped in time. The main part of town is made up of restored Victorian Houses built in the 1800s, and the jewel of them all, the fairy-tale inspiring Gingerbread Mansion, is well worth a visit.

Ferndale is also the home of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, a world-famous and incredibly silly event that features teams racing on land, sand and sea with moving, bicycle-powered art sculptures. My mother has photos of me as child covered in mud, helping the race organizers make a slippery hillside even more treacherous to confound the racers and heighten the challenge.   “Sounds crazy,” my husband said, and I couldn’t argue. There are no fancy nightclubs or designer clothing shops around, so people make their own amusement. At various times of the year, local towns hold flying saucer and tractor decoration contests, ‘penny scrambles’ which throw thousands of dollars of money on the streets for children to pick up, games where firemen compete to see who can unwind a hose the fastest, and summer parades where residents dress up like animals and woodland spirits to dance in the streets. Kooky as it all is, it’s what gives the area its charm and makes it so unlike other parts of the United States.

“It’s so laid back here,” he said as we walk past residents chatting at the old-fashioned post office. “I never imagined the US could be like this.”

Heading north from Ferndale you’ll reach Eureka, the largest town in the area. It’s flat and not much to look at, but there’s small historical quarter near the bay that has a buzz about it. The best restaurants, shopping and hotels are all near here. For a taste of California’s fresh fusion cuisine, go to Hurricane Kate’s. Gourmet dinners and a 30-page wine list can be found at 301 Restaurant, and surprisingly authentic Chinese food is available at Gonsea.   Live theatre shows are on most weekends at The Redwood Curtain and The North Coast Repertory. Also, every first Saturday of the month, the area turns into a virtual carnival for ‘Arts Alive’. The art galleries open their doors late into the night and kick-off new shows while bands and jugglers perform on the street corners.

Beer to lovers are sure to have a ball too. The area boasts some famous micro-breweries, where beer is made in small batches and hand-crafted. The best is the Lost Coast Brewery, again in old town Eureka. Great White, with a mysteriously light citrus flavour, is everyone’s favorite. If you’re looking for something darker, try Downtown Brown or Eight Ball Stout. Golden Angel Cellars near the docks in Eureka also demands a stop. They specialise in a sweet, thick wine made of fermented honey called ‘mead’.

But for a history lesson as well as a meal, hop over three island bridges to the other side of Humboldt Bay and you’ll find signs for the Samoa Cookhouse. Logging was the mainstay of the local economy even before the founding of California, but over-logging and cheap lumber exports from abroad have caused it to decline. Yet the Samoa Cookhouse relives the heyday of redwood timber, when falling a tree the size of the semi-truck was a regular occurrence. The food is served like it was in the 1800s when huge hungry men came back from the forests — any amount of anything you want is brought to your table in three courses. Their roasts and gravy are nothing special, but the exuberance of the place and the historical museum inside the dining area make it a treat.

Even though the woods are the big draw here, most visitors don’t realize that it boasts of a breath-taking coastline as well. The highway will take you down to windy, rocky beaches watched over by craggy cliffs and stands of trees. The tiny town of Trinidad has the best views, as well as the best smoked salmon around at Katy’s Smokehouse. At the beach you’ll find a giant rock jutting into the ocean called Trinidad Head. We had a great leisurely hike up to the top for a picnic of salmon and local cheeses, and marveled at the power of the Pacific Ocean when flutes of sea water crashed against the rocks and splashed up six feet in the air.   North of Trinidad lies an authentic Native American villages in Patrick’s Point Park, built by a local tribe using ancient techniques of wood-splitting.

Further North still is the Fern Canyon, a great day trek with tough and easy trails to choose from. After meandering through a forest, you’ll come to a narrow canyon covered with soft green ferns on all sides. If you think it looks like a prehistoric forest from the movie screen, you’d be right — Steven Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park II here, and parts of Star Wars trilogy were also filmed nearby.

A real life adventure, however, awaits east of Trinidad on Highway 299 in the town of Willow Creek. Get a look at the emerald green Trinity River and get in a boat, because the best way to see the woods is from the river zooming down some really impressive white water rapids. Bigfoot Rafting Company runs exciting day trips for $79 a person, which includes a lunch stop on the river.   The rapids all have names and legends attached to them, and the animated guides are happy to relate them. Hell’s Hole? A giant waterfall, the biggest rapid on the route. Martha’s Moonwave? A stretch of whitewater that legends say is the final resting place of a distraught Native American princess who threw herself into the river.

Rafting trips are also good for wildlife spotting — otters, beavers, turtles, deer, elk, bears, eagles and other critters make their homes near the river. How do you woo the beasties? The best strategy is so full-proof, it even works back in my big city apartment. Stop, sit, be still, be silent. The forest will come to you.  

FYI: All over the area, you’ll see naked hillsides without any trees, the aftermath of clear-cut logging. It’s a good reminder of just how precious these trees really are – only 3 percent of the most ancient redwoods (called ‘old growth’) are left, and many legal battles between environmentalists and the timber industry are fought for the rights of the remaining forests. Some local activists try to stop the logging by climbing up trees set to be chopped down. A famous ‘tree-sitter’, Julia Butterfly Hill, lived in the branches of an old growth redwood for two years!

Fact File Getting there: Arcata has a tiny airport with small planes arriving from Oregon, Washington and San Francisco. However, flights are infrequent and often expensive. It’s best to fly into San Francisco and rent a car. The drive time to Humboldt County is about six hours on twisty mountain roads, so be alert.   Climate Weather is best from May to September. Expect mildly sunny and foggy days. Winters are cold with frequent rain. If camping, bring a tents, pads, sleeping bags, mosquito repellent and flashlights (these can also be rented from local outdoor stores). Most campgrounds have firewood for sale. Find campgrounds info at http://www.co.humboldt.ca.us/ and click on the Parks link.

By Erica Lee Nelson

Published in India Today Travel Plus, 2006.