With the Central Valley and Wine Country in our rearview mirrors, we made our way towards the coast. We made the conscious decision to skip the California coast from the Mexico border to San Francisco. Like a lot of our decisions, it came down to money. Coastal camping in the more populated areas of California was just not in the budget. We would finally reach the coast (or close to it) for the first time at Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
After several nights of free camping at Harvest Hosts, we were shocked back into reality by the California State Parks System. We stayed in the Burlington Campground, the largest in the park. Basic dry camping site: $35. Reservation fee: $8. “Extra” vehicle fee (more on that later): $8. Showers: $.25 per minute. Why the “extra” vehicle fee you may ask. Well, in California if you don’t actually tow your second vehicle it’s not free. Of course, when we booked the site we didn’t claim any extra vehicles, but within 5 minutes of arriving the ‘friendly’ ranger hassled us, and ultimately made us pay the extra $8 per night. Gotta love California.
The campsite was spectacular, however, nestled in the giant redwoods. And that’s the problem with California. They are a nature monopoly and they know it. Where else are you going to find Redwoods, Sequoias, Joshua Trees, Yosemite, and hundreds of miles of rugged coastline? Damn supply and demand.
Unlike most other national parks, there is no single “Redwoods National Park”, but rather a patchwork of several State Parks mixed in with some other areas administered by the National Park Service. Humboldt Redwoods is just south of what is officially considered Redwoods National Park. The park hosts several groves of old-growth redwoods, all of which are pretty amazing. In fact, the tallest tree in the world was found in the park until it fell after heavy rains in 1991. The fourth tallest tree in the world is still found there, and 100 of the 137 known trees over 350 feet are found in Humboldt Redwoods.
This is one impressive state park, although I really wish there was a way to fully appreciate it. By that, I mean visitors can appreciate the huge trunk girth, and they can appreciate how high the lowest branches are, but it really is impossible to comprehend a tree standing 350 feet tall when viewed from ground level. Also amazing is the amount of time it takes for Redwoods to grow to such a size, around 2000 years.
During our visit, we hiked through redwood groves, drove through redwood groves, and that’s about all. We looked for Banana Slugs but were skunked on that front. We considered doing the ‘drive through a redwood’ thing but we decided against it since it wasn’t free.
After leaving the Redwoods (for the time being) we headed up to the cute Victorian town of Ferndale, where we could camp on the cheap ($12 per night) at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds. It wasn’t luxury, in fact, it was just a parking lot, but after taking it in the keyster at Humboldt Redwoods it was necessary. It was comfortable enough with a couple caveats. First being that the ‘dump station’ was just an open sewer with manhole cover. Remove the manhole cover, dangle the hose down into the hole, and let ‘er rip. The second being the showers which were prison-esque. There’s nothing like a hot shower though, and since leaving civilization I’ll put up with nearly anything.
As mentioned before the town of Ferndale is cute, almost too cute, like it’s hiding something. Why don’t more people live here? Why aren’t there more tourists? Old Victorian houses and shopfronts line nearly every street in town. Most of the structures were impeccably maintained, including the Gingerbread Mansion Inn, a huge mansion constructed from Redwood in the late 18th century. Apparently, quite a few of the town’s houses were built from Redwood, very good for durability.
The people of Ferndale were friendly, and the community seemed tight-knit. Like the kind of town where people would stop their car in the middle of Main Street to shoot the shit with a buddy walking down the sidewalk. The population is under 1400 as of the last census. Maybe they don’t take kindly to strangers ’round these parts. This is, after all, Humboldt County, illegal weed capital of the country. In reality, I suspect it’s the wind, rain, cold, clouds, and fog that keeps strangers away.
Ferndale is about 5 miles from the ocean. We visited the nearest beach on our first day and got utterly sandblasted. It was awfully pretty though, with powerful crashing waves and sharp cliffs. The countryside surrounding Ferndale consists of emerald green meadows, perfect for cattle grazing, and the next day we visited the Loleta Cheese Factory. No, it’s not a low-class strip club featuring underage farm girls. It’s a real-life cheese factory located in a town named Loleta.
They were generous with the free samples. I was like Steve Urkel in a… cheese factory. Lucky for us, cheese was being made the day we visited so we got the full experience. There’s a large glass window looking from the front shop area into the production area in the back where we could watch the cheesemaking in action. The day we visited, they were making Jalapeno Jack. We left with several pounds of cheese, enough to keep us fed for at least a couple days.
While staying in Ferndale we drove Mattole Road, a narrow winding road that leads to the aptly named Lost Coast. The rough potholed road first climbs through dense forest, then through green pastures, finally reaching the rugged coastline. The Lost Coast is California’s only coastal wilderness. It is mostly undeveloped but for a few farms dotting the landscape. We parked in a small pullout and walked down to the nearly empty beach. Once again it was cold and windy, but we enjoyed the view and the solitude.
After leaving Ferndale, we continued up the coast to the town of Trinidad, one of the nicer towns on the North Coast. Bonus points were awarded for being able to camp for $6.66 per night at the Cher-Ae Casino just south of town. Again, it was dry camping in a parking lot but you can’t beat that price considering it’s right across the street from the ocean. Also, the entire cost of camping was refunded in free gambling credits. Unfortunately, we did not strike it rich.
Trinidad was a great base camp to explore the North Coast. Right in town, we hiked the Trinidad Head Trail. The trail climbs a rocky point high above town and offers spectacular views of Trinidad, its harbor, and the surrounding coastline. Adjacent to Trinidad Head was the public beach, where we sat down after our hike and watched the waves while the boys played in the sand.
The next day we checked out Agate Beach by way of Big Lagoon County Park north of Trinidad. The beach was filled with small polished rocks, some of which are supposedly Agates, free for the taking. We didn’t find any Agates but did find some neat looking rocks and a few sand dollars. There were quite a few people Agate hunting, so they must exist. The lagoon was pretty cool as well, and there were several classic sailboats tooling around the calm waters of Big Lagoon.
On our final day in Trinidad, we drove up the coast to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Prairie Creek Redwoods is officially part of Redwoods National Park so we could stamp our passports at the Visitors Center. There was even a penny smasher! We hiked part of the Elk Prairie Trail. It was similar to the scenery in Humboldt Redwoods, but with a lower density of huge Redwood trees. The main attraction for Prairie Creek Redwoods was the creatively named ‘Big Tree’. In the world of giant Redwoods, ‘big’ is relative and Big Tree was only a measly 286 feet tall. I spit on any Redwood shorter than 300 feet. On the plus side, we finally found a Banana Slug! We also saw a herd of Roosevelt Elk on our way out of the park.
After our morning hike, we continued further up the coast, stopping along the way at various scenic overlooks. At each overlook we kept our eyes peeled for whales. These were allegedly prime whale watching areas, but there were no whales to be found. We were promised whales dammit! We eventually reached an overlook at the mouth of the Klamath River. There was an interpretive sign about Grey Whales so we got out the binoculars.
Sure enough, we saw the telltale spouts, or at least we thought we did. Over the course of the next hour, we tried to discern whales from seals, sea lions, and white cap waves. I was hoping for the iconic Free Willy whale jump and splashdown but had to settle for Grey Whales only barely breaching the surface of the water. We must take what nature gives us though, and it was still a splendid experience. The mouth of the Klamath was teaming with marine life and we also saw a bob of seals (yeah bob, look it up). There was even a baby, ripe for the clubbing.
Our final stop in California was the Crescent City KOA. KOAs are always a shock to the wallet, but at least they’re predictably clean and presumably safe. After five days straight of dry camping, we needed to fill the fresh water tank and drain the black and grey tanks. Plugging into power is always nice, and the park’s WiFi allowed us to watch Game of Thrones (it’s the final season ya know). Clean, hot, showers are another KOA perk, very welcome to this stinky family.
The town of Crescent City was just OK. They had a Safeway so we could buy groceries. There was a harbor where we could watch sea lions. Other than that, nothing worth writing home about.
So there you have it. California’s in the bag. It was the best of times when it comes to natural beauty. It was the worst of times when it comes to the pocketbook. We spent six weeks in California and barely scratched the surface. We’ll remember it fondly but may not be back, at least not soon. Next, we’ll continue up the Pacific Coast to the ‘Wild Rivers’ of Oregon for some fun in the rain.
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