“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” - Robert Louis Stevenson
California is home to some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations: from the historic 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 Trinity Counties, comprise the legendary “Emerald Triangle”—the region long credited as producing 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 2000 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. Several years ago, April 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 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 1800-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 over 50,000 acres of old-growth redwood groves in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. These forests are some of the most serene and majestic scenery in America—an absolutely ideal spot for a hike, a picnic, some quiet meditation, or a relaxing smoke break (a sentiment obviously 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.
Humboldt County is one-third (along with Mendocino and Trinity Counties) of the legendary “Emerald Triangle” region, widely considered to be the originator of the world’s best cannabis.
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 actually 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, such as Moonstone Beach. Known for its craggy outcroppings, tide pools, and hidden sea caves (accessible only at low tide), Moonstone beach is a popular destination for amateur rock climbers and surfers. After working up an appetite spelunking or hanging ten, why not chow down on some fresh, delicious seafood right on the beach at the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill?
Another fifteen 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 to venture into. While in Trinidad, you absolutely 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? Catch 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!
THINGS TO DO
The Humboldt Bay Mycological Society Mushroom Fair
What: Since 1978, over 200 species of local fungi on display
When: Sunday before Thanksgiving
Where: Redwood Acres Fairgrounds, Eureka
Kinetic Grand Championship
What: Since 1969; known as “the triathlon of the art world;” a three-day marathon spanning over 40 miles of Humboldt County featuring all-terrain, human-powered vehicles. Think the Amazing Race with Burning Man art cars.
When: Memorial Day Weekend
Where: Arcata to Ferndale
Humboldt Green Week
What: A celebration of both Earth Day and 4/20.
When: The week of April 20th
What: A cannabis trade show & festival, featuring a flower competition, vendors, educational workshops, four stages of live music, art and glassblowing, food, and games
When: May 5th & 6th, 2018
Where: Redwood Acres Fairgrounds, Eureka
What: Celebrate cannabis culture with live music, a family interactive zone, food trucks, vendors, and a medicinal 215 market
When: Aug 11, 2018
Where: HSU parking lot to Arcata Ballpark, Arcata
What: Take in the sights of the coast on a historic vessel. Cruises include: historical, eco/wildlife, sunset/cocktail, full moon, or fireworks (4th of July only).
When: Check website for tour times
Where: Humboldt Harbor, Eureka
Ale & Spirits Trail / Humboldt Beer Tours
What: Drink your way up the redwood highway at some of the many breweries, distilleries, and cider houses along the way.
When: When you’re done driving for the day, of course!
Where: Along Route 101
Lantern Floating Ceremony
What: A 35-year-old peace ceremony that commemorates the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the ancient Japanese custom of floating lanterns on the lake.
When: Aug 11, 2018 – 7:30pm
Where: Klopp Lake, at the Arcata Marsh
Dick Taylor Chocolate Factory Tour
What: A 45-minute tour showing how their organic, fair-trade chocolate is made and packaged, plus a 15-minute tasting.
When: Check website for tour times
Rampart Indoor Skate Park
What: 4,000 square feet of indoor wooden ramps, artwork, and music for skaters and BMX riders.
When: Open year-round (check website for hours)
Arcata Scoop (Arcata) - facebook.com/arcatascoop
The Lighthouse Grill (Trinidad) - trinidadlighthousegrill.com
Pasta Luego (Arcata) - cocopastaluego.com
Café Brio (Arcata) - cafebrioarcata.com
Woodrose Cafe (Garberville) - thewoodrosecafe.com
Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill (Trinidad) - moonstonebeach.com
Grandfather Tree / One-Log House (Garberville)
Immortal Tree / Paul Bunyan Statue (Redcrest)
Shrine Tree (Myers Flat)
Living Chimney Tree (Phillipsville)
Avenue of the Giants
Legend of Bigfoot Gift Shop (Garberville)
World’s Tallest Totem pole (City Center Rd, McKinleyville (behind Safeway).
Confusion Hill / Gravity House / Redwood Shoe House (Piercy, CA)
(This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Sensi magazine.)