North Coast:
Settle in to this lush land of redwood forests, fishing harbors and Victorian villages

By John Flinn

Photo: John Birchard Photography

Until you’ve seen one up close, it’s hard to grasp just how neck-craningly tall a coastal redwood is. Remember the gargantuan Saturn V, the 35-story-high rocket that sent astronauts to the moon? The largest Sequoia sempervirens would tower over that, topping out at 379 feet.

These 3,000-year-old arboreal titans—nature’s loftiest skyscrapers—grow in only one place in the world: a narrow strip of fog-shrouded mountains along California’s wild and relatively unvisited North Coast.

The Redwood Highway

Old-growth redwoods are preserved in a chain of parks strung along Highway 101, known in these parts as the Redwood Highway. In southern Humboldt County, Humboldt Redwoods State Park straddles the scenic drive known as the Avenue of the Giants. In northern Humboldt and Del Norte counties, a cluster of parks—Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks—form one contiguous redwood reserve.

The sounds of chainsaws and buzzing sawmills that once dominated the North Coast are rapidly fading as the lumber industry winds down. In former mill towns such as Fort Bragg, tourism is replacing timber as innovative galleries, restaurants and brew-pubs spring to life.

Although it’s sometimes called the Redwood Empire, the North Coast is more than just tall trees: It’s also salmon-fishing boats bobbing in tiny harbors; Roosevelt elk bugling across misty meadows; steam trains chuffing through a damp and dripping forest; hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving fish smoked according to traditional Native American recipes; vineyards close enough to the coast to catch the salt spray; an old Russian trading fort; handsome Victorian villages; possible glimpses of the elusive creature known as Bigfoot; wealthy, tie-dyed growers of the region’s largest cash crop, which doctors in California can legally prescribe; and bouts of inspired lunacy such as elaborate sculptures racing across the landscape.

For generations, the North Coast was said to be on the far side of the “redwood curtain,” the psychological barrier formed by narrow, tortuous Highway 101, which was little more than a two-lane conduit for heavily-laden logging trucks. But California has spent the last two decades improving the road—straightening curves, widening it in many places to four lanes—and now the road is an easy drive.

City & Town

Transplanted New Englanders founded the town of Mendocino on a rocky bluff above the crashing Pacific Ocean, and it still sports a whitewashed Cape Cod look. Once a mill town, it went into decay in the 1930s as the local timber trade waned but was rediscovered in the 1960s by bohemians and artists. On the shore of Humboldt Bay, Eureka, the largest town on the North Coast, has also reversed decades of decline and turned its waterfront Old Town into an inviting Victorian district of galleries, boutiques and cafés. Crescent City was virtually wiped off the map by a tsunami in 1964. Rebuilt now, it sports a smattering of hotels and motels that make it a good base for exploring nearby Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Heritage & Culture

Native American tribes such as the Yurok and Hoopa lived along the North Coast for centuries before the arrival of fur trappers—both Russians working their way down from Alaska and American mountain men such as Jedediah Smith coming overland. For more than two centuries, resource extraction—primarily logging—was the region’s economic engine. As dwindling forests and stricter environmental laws took their tolls starting in the 1970s, the North Coast has transitioned to tourism as its mainstay.

Family Fun

Young children might have trouble fully appreciating the timelessness of an ancient redwood tree, but they’ll enjoy a gondola ride through the silent forest canopy and a chance to have their picture taken with four-story-high statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Look for it at Trees of Mystery, near the town of Klamath.

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