If you take the fastest route you can reach the little town of Ferndale, California in twelve hours from our house. Happily, we had time to spare so we took a longer route, avoiding Seattle traffic by taking a ferry to the Olympic peninsula and heading south along the scenic Hood Canal.
A ferry ride is a nice way to begin a road trip. On a cool September morning we watched two seals and a Great Blue heron fishing in the harbor while we waited for the next Coupeville – Port Townsend ferry. The heron’s successful catch was an auspicious sign for the start of our the trip.
After disembarking from the ferry we drove through Washington and Oregon, stopping for the night in a small town off Route 5. The next day it rained off and on as we wound through southwest Oregon and into California via the Redwood Highway, finally arriving in Ferndale. The two long days on the road were a bit of a slog but we were in good spirits as we settled into one of our all-time favorite airbnb’s. The cottage was stocked with fresh eggs, home made muffins, local jam, coffee, tea, chocolate and wine – how could we not feel pampered? I woke up early Monday morning to fresh, cloud-dappled skies and a rainbow.
We had a leisurely breakfast, then headed into town. Ferndale is known for being a throwback kind of place where people cherish their old-fashioned, small town way of life. The atmosphere is such that movies have been made here and the entire town is a state historic landmark. The uniqueness could have gone to town’s collective head but residents go about their business in a low-key way, keeping the town a few degrees away from preciousness.
After wandering around town we drove up to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is dairy country so there was a slight delay as a herd of cows crossed the road.
At the Ma-le’l Dunes unit at Humboldt Bay NWR we hiked across an expanse of sand dunes out to the beach. It feels so good to be at the ocean when you haven’t seen it for months. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in the cold water, delighting in the small spectacle of foamy water swirling over rippled sand. All day the skies paraded towering cumulus clouds as the storm we came in on sailed out to sea.
The next day we followed a road out of town to a place on the map marked “Centerville Beach.” It turned out to be a county park, the kind where kids meet up after dark for a bonfire, and people walk their dogs unleashed and drive their trucks on the hard sand beach. To the south we saw cliffs rising steeply to grassy, rolling hills dotted with evergreens. Curious, we began walking down the broad, deserted beach towards the cliffs. There were strange rock formations along the way, things that make you wish you had a geology guide tucked in your pocket, or a handy app to consult.
Way down the beach we found a big piece of driftwood that we simply had to have. It was water-logged and very heavy. How could we get it all the way back to the car? Eureka! I found a fresh length of Bullwhip kelp, we tied it to the driftwood, and dragged it over the sand. Worked like a charm. (You’re right, I was NOT the one doing the dragging.)
Centerville Road swings past the beach and uphill into the grasslands. We wondered what was up there. On the map there didn’t seem to be much, though we imagined the ocean views had to be spectacular. Up we went, following the narrow, pot-holed road around tight curves, past deep gullies, up hills and out onto open range land. A few herds of grazing cattle and widely-spaced ranches were the only signs of humanity until we arrived at a small parking lot and trail. We hesitated to take the trail all the way down to the beach, thinking about the steep climb back up, so we ambled along the winding dirt path for a half mile. The views were breathtaking. We admired golden grasses and lingering wildflowers and wondered about animal trails tunneling through the grass. A fist-sized hunk of fur had been left on the trail next to some scat. There are mountain lions in the area. Maybe this was the site of a kill.
We spent the rest of the day exploring by car. Older wood frame homes dotted the countryside – some barely standing, others well kept. When I stopped to photograph one of them the neighbor from across the street approached us. Uh oh, I thought, here’s trouble. But no, he just wanted to offer us a few apples from his heirloom tree!
We drove through the town of Scotia, which we learned was built for loggers employed by the Pacific Lumber Company about 150 years ago. When a new owner took charge of the company in the 1980s, logging practices changed, clear-cutting for quick profit became common, and protests ensued. You may have heard about Julia Butterfly Hill’s two year sojourn living high in a 1500-year-old redwood tree to protest logging practices in the late 1990s. That tree was finally protected. During the 2008 recession the lumber company declared bankruptcy. Now the company, called Humboldt Redwood Company, is divesting itself of Scotia real estate. Logging isn’t as profitable as it once was, and running a company town no longer makes sense. What we saw was a depressed town, a busy lumber mill and an elaborate educational exhibit with live salmon, promoting the company’s efforts to preserve salmon habitat. Logging can pollute the streams where salmon reproduce; they and other animal and plant species may be threatened when timber is extracted haphazardly. On the surface the town of Scotia was calm, but protests at nearby logging sites continue.
Wednesday morning we hiked at Headwaters Forest Reserve, a preserve comprising over 7,000 acres of redwood forest which was protected in 1999, thanks to over ten years of grass roots organizing to save one of the last intact old growth forest habitats from the saw. The land had been owned by the same lumber company that founded Scotia, the town we looked at the day before. For over 100 years the family-owned company provided an important, and probably sustainable livelihood for Humboldt County residents but a hostile takeover in 1985 put the company into the hands of an outside corporation that drastically increased the timber take and violated environmental regulations. Activists rallied together to stop the company, using legal actions, protests, road blockades and campaigns. Feelings on both sides were intense enough that one activist’s car was bombed. It took years to reach an agreement in which the company was paid to hand over 7,472 acres of forest land.
Previously logged forest is slowly being restored at the reserve, where you can still see evidence of logging. One intact old growth groves is open to anyone with the energy to hike 10.5 miles (17km). Alternately visitors can make advance arrangements for a tour to another old growth grove that’s only accessible with a guide. We hope to do that next time, but our walk through the surrounding, previously logged areas was delightful.
The weather was unsettled. Light rain interrupted us a few times but the forest is thick and we weren’t bothered. The woods had a magical look that morning, especially around the South Fork Elk River, where I concentrated on photographing the ever-changing reflections of foliage in the water. (Some of those photos are in the post “Transitory States.”)
We had time after hiking at Headwaters to return to the Lost Coast Headlands via another route, Mattole Road. This remote, scenic road is described here, on a “dangerous roads” website. We went as far as Steamboat Rock. We pulled over and wandered on the deserted beach, feeling like we were indeed on a lost coast. Interesting traces of ocean life and intricate rock formations were plentiful, but this time we only pocketed a few small shells and rocks. (The photo below of Ferndale was taken when we stopped for coffee before driving to the Lost Coast.)
Our time in Humboldt County went by way too fast. Thursday we had to be to another airbnb in Waldport, Oregon, before dark and it was 6 1/2 hours away. We planned to punctuate the drive by meeting Gunta for coffee in Gold Beach. That left an hour or so for one last stop to gape at California’s redwood giants. I chose a location in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park called Cal Barrel Road because it was on the way, easy to get to, and is home to some of the really big ones.
Steam poured off the tree trunks seventy feet over our heads as warm sunlight met cool, damp bark. It’s impossible to describe the experience of standing among these ancient beings and needless to say, photographs don’t do justice to 300-foot-tall, 1800-year-old trees. I hope you can see them someday for yourself.
Perhaps I should have broken this post up into several shorter ones. If you read all the way to the end, thank you for your patience!