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Humboldt County pays glorious tribute to the coastal redwoods, where forests of these towering giants, thousands of years old, create mystical awe. Consider this fact: These trees are so tall, some higher than 300 feet, that there are creatures at the top—flying squirrels and marbled murrelets—that never touch the ground. The short of it is, you will be blown away.
Come here to hike, admire the architecture, kayak, backpack, bird-watch, and remember what it’s like to be in solitude with nature. Eureka provides the perfect base, within easy reach of the redwood kingdom and the untamed Lost Coast, with plenty of enchanting surprises along the way.
On the first day, make the five-and-a-half-hour drive to Eureka, following the slow, sinuous curves of US 101.
Near Weott you’ll hit the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of historic US 101 (parallel to the modern highway) that offers an excellent spot to stretch your legs beneath giant redwoods. Pick up picnic supplies in a number of sleepy towns along the way, including Pepperwood, Redcrest, Myers Flat, and Miranda (or, if you want premade, Avenue Café in Miranda has soups, salads, sandwiches, and pasta); take a hike along its multitude of trails or simply stare up at these magnificent sky-high trees.
Sitting on stunning Humboldt Bay, Eureka’s historic downtown offers ornate 19th-century Victorian houses filled with boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries (the town has more artists per capita than anywhere else in the state). Spend the afternoon soaking in the North Coast vibe, perhaps taking a self-guided architectural tour of the lacy buildings, or strolling the six-mile pedestrian trail along the waterfront. You could also get out on the water, via kayak, canoe, sail—or take the Humboldt Bay Oyster Tour, a boat tour to a nearby oyster farm that includes an oyster tasting.
In the late afternoon, pick up a bottle of local Zinfandel in one of the town’s shops and take a sunset stroll along Samoa Beach, a seemingly infinite stretch on Samoa Peninsula, just across the bridge over the bay from Eureka. After, a fresh seafood dinner is in order with the best to be found at Sea Grill, housed in a lovely Victorian in Old Town. Get ready for amazingly fresh, simply-prepared, wild Alaskan halibut, wild king salmon, and Dungeness crab. And, if you happen to not like fish, that’s okay—there are plenty of land-based protein options as well. Do not leave without ordering a slice of Key lime pie.
Start off today in the Victorian town of Arcata, about 8 miles north of Eureka. Check out some of the shops for starters, like Moonrise Herbs and Isis Osiris Healing Arts. In the quaint downtown, filled with Victorian houses, you’ll find organic restaurants like Café Brio—which, with its outdoor patio overlooking historic Arcata Plaza, is great for breakfast—ecologically-oriented craft shops, and art galleries. Grab a self-guided walking or driving tour map at the Arcata Chamber of Commerce, and/or stretch your legs at Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary among flocks of water birds.
Then continue north about 40 miles to Redwood National Park and State Parks, a magical kingdom of age-old trees–“Ambassadors from another time,” is how John Steinbeck described them in Travels with Charley. Once, these behemoths flourished across the Northern Hemisphere, until climate change over time reduced the lush, wet growing conditions to a narrow strip running from southern Oregon to central California. After logging started in the 1800s, they would have disappeared completely if not for the forward-thinking intervention of conservationists. Today, even the most jaded urbanite will be awed by the unworldly beauty of these gigantic living beings—and there’s no place on earth where you will find more.
U.S. 101 bisects this composite of parks (comprising Redwood NP and Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods SPs), making it easy to zoom right through. But slow down! Take your time to explore misty canyons, sunbeam-filtered groves, and fern-covered glades. Start off at the Kuchel Visitor Center to gather information. Then find Lady Bird Johnson Grove, which has a sublime 2-mile hiking loop. Further north, in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the short hike up Fern Canyon, a prehistoric grove in Prairie Creek Redwoods, offers an excellent chance to spot resident Roosevelt elk foraging in the meadows. And Coastal Drive Loop, a 9-mile, partially unpaved out and back, takes you through a remote gathering of the majestic trees, with views of the Klamath River and the glistening Pacific tossed in for good measure.
As you backtrack on U.S. 101, Trinidad is the perfect place to wind down over dinner. This tiny fishing hamlet perched atop dramatic seaside bluffs offers stunning beaches, a fun little harbor complete with fishing pier, and scenic trails in the heart of the redwoods. It is, furthermore, the epicenter of the North Coast’s salmon and Dungeness crab—meaning, you know what’s for dinner. Trinidad Head is great for catching the sunset, then check out Trinidad Bay Eatery and Gallery for locally-caught seafood. The clam chowder is especially memorable.
Before heading back home to San Francisco, strike out for the Lost Coast, a fitting name for this fog-swathed, wildly rugged, little-traveled bulge of land sticking out into the Pacific between Shelter Cove in the south and Ferndale in the north. First stop: charming Ferndale, often lauded as California’s most quintessential Victorian village. Tucked away near the banks of the Eel River surrounding dairy lands, this little fairytale hamlet feels frozen in time, and yet it’s alive with artists (check out Artisan Alley), old-fashioned mercantiles, and antique and specialty shops. Find breakfast at Poppa Joe’s, a diner with 19th-century ambiance serving up generous servings of eggs, bacon, hash browns—be sure to ask about the daily special.
Then head out on Mattole Road for the Lost Coast, plunging into a pristine realm of forests and ranchlands. You’ll pass through tiny farming towns, admire striking sweeps of ocean, take in sky-high mountain peaks, and meander through stands of old-growth redwoods. The road touches the ocean at Cape Mendocino, following the shore for 6 miles. Stop at striking Black Sands Beach near Shelter Cove. It’s too rough for swimming, but there’s good beachcombing here, plus plenty of tidal waves to peek into. If you’re hungry, Shelter Cove has a couple of restaurants, including Delgada Pizza and Bakery.
West of Petrolia, named for the oil wells pumping oil here, take a 5-mile detour on Lighthouse Road to the shore, where a 3.5-mile trail meanders to an old lighthouse. From here, the road heads back to U.S. 101 through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The entire 65-mile drive should take about 4 hours—or longer, depending on how much you linger. Remember, you have a four-hour drive back to San Francisco.