The Best Western we stayed at in Eureka, didn’t just have a resort-esque pool area, they also had one of the better continental breakfasts I have encountered, which you could eat in said resort-esque pool area. Though they had the usual suspects, they also had a few things you’re more likely to find at a breakfast buffet. We served ourselves and then ate outside. It was far and away the nicest hotel breakfast experience I’ve had in the States in years. (Keep in mind, I don’t stay at hotels in the US where buffets or actual breakfasts are included, as those places are usually way too expensive. The best hotel breakfasts I’ve had in my life were all in other countries, such as Vietnam, where they are amazing.)
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
We headed out of Eureka into country that decidedly didn’t look like it was redwood country. Instead it looked like farm country. (The suddenly changing countryside was the most constant feature of this trip, even more constant than the ocean, at times.) But it didn’t take long for us to start climbing and be engulfed by the famous forests. It’s only about 40 minutes to get from downtown Eureka to our first destination, the famous Avenue of the Giants.
I’m sure if we had been driving from south to north instead of north to south the Avenue of the Giants would have been more impressive than the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, but the direction we drove it sort of felt the other way around. The trees were extremely impressive – they are among the very largest in the world – but in the previous park it felt like the biggest ones were closer to the road, and generally more accessible.
We mostly just drove through, stopping only a few times to look around. This is partly because the hike to the highest point takes most of a day and the drive to that same highest point was on a road that I didn’t want to take a rental car on. Though we did take it one weird place, accidentally driving down to the Eel River:
In the 1960s, a bunch of circumstances led to this river flooding an impossibly high amount:
That pole in the above photo is on the road, probably 10-15 metres up from the river, by the way. That was some flood.
We stopped at the Visitor Centre and then drove through the famous portion in the southern park where elk are just wondering around, a little like in Jasper. Then we drove through a tree:
California State Route 1
US 101 Heads inland at Eureka, avoiding the “Lost Coast.” I had a few side-trips imagined for the Lost Coast but all three would have taken half a day so we didn’t end up going on them. (Black Sand Beach – one of many – Shelter Cove and King Range National Conservation Area if you must know.) The Lost Coast is the last part of the California coastline to not be developed. It is extra isolated and the roads are apparently quite bad. As a result, 101 is inland from just below to Eureka to San Francisco. And if you want to drive the coast, you have to head back to it via Highway 1, which is a through road that starts south of the Lost Coast.
Highway 1 departs Highway 101 in the tiny town of Leggett (population 77), a town I mistakenly might have more services because it got some lines in our guidebook. We got out of the car, and it was very hot. (Which it hadn’t been in Eureka or basically at any time on the coast.) As we entered the convenience store (likely the grocery store for the town), a sign said “I survived Highway 1.” I smirked and thought “That’s funny, I guess the road ahead is a little curvy” but I didn’t think much more about it. The store wouldn’t let us use the washroom so we had to buy a second round of drinks at the gas station next door.
And then, we headed down Highway 1, towards the coast.
I have driven some crazy roads in my life. This one…would not make the Top 5. But it probably makes the Top 10, certainly the part of it that runs from Leggett to Hardy at the ocean. The rest of it, from Hardy to San Francisco, is windy, but nothing compared to the northernmost part, which has basically blind, hairpin turns where the speed limit goes down to 15, one which is marked at 10 and a whole bunch of turns with no posted limit which could easily be limited to 15 or 20. The road is in the trees, and so there is forest all around and you don’t really feel the cliffs in this section like you do in the more southern parts. But they are also arbitrary with the guardrails on Highway 1, and it was hard to understand why one drop deserved one and another did not.
So, not one of my Top 5 hairiest drives, but probably Top 7 and definitely Top 10.
Riley’s Top 5 Hairiest Drives
(In chronological order.)
- Quebec Route 389: Mostly unpaved, tons of switchbacks/hairpins, logging trucks driving down the middle of the road
- BC Highway 12: Blind, single-lane hairpins, no shouler
- Any number of “A” roads in Wales (including A5): narrow, no shoulder with a hedge on one side and a wall or hill or the other, not actually wide enough for trucks and buses but full of trucks and buses, no guardrails
- Switchback section of R18 in Montenegro: Blind hairpins, oncoming traffic drives in the middle of the road, no guardrails
- Northern road to Ostrog Monastery: guardrail is a two inch-tall stone wall seemingly a few inches wide, switchbacks, blind single-lane hairpin tunnel through the side of a cliff.
When we got to the Coast Highway Lookout, I had to get out and walk around. I was full of adrenaline, I was stiff, I kind of wanted a drink. But, alas, there was still some way to go. I now understood the sign above the grocery store in Leggett and I wanted the t-shirt. We stopped at the one store in Westport to see if they sold them. They sold t-shirts, but only for their local fire department.
The rest of the drive to Fort Bragg was far less insane, but every time I made a comment about the road getting straight, we’d reach another valley and the hairpins would start again. The road had very little traffic – almost all of it going north – and the whole area felt fairly uninhabited. I can only imagine how empty the Lost Coast is if the area north of Fort Bragg is this empty.
Fort Bragg, California
Driving into Fort Bragg was a little surreal as, since we left Eureka, we hadn’t been in a town of any size. (101 is a divided highway at times in California and tends to go around, rather than through, towns of any size. And the “towns” on 1 north of Fort Bragg often barely qualify.) It’s not a large city, but it’s the local centre and has a pretty downtown.
We went to North Coast for lunch and Jenn got a flight. The beers were fine and the food was decent but not up to the standard of Lost Coast. We got a few bottles of beers that weren’t in the flight. We drank one later that night and we brought the other two back to Toronto.
After lunch we went to find Jenn a coffee. North Coast is such a staple in Fort Bragg that it literally owns three of the four corns of the intersection it is on. The downtown of Fort Bragg is pretty nice, certainly nicer than some of the other towns we stopped in. Near where Jenn got a coffee is a cross-section of the largest tree they believe was ever cut down in the area and it was something like 27 feet wide.
We got back in the car and drove a couple of blocks to Glass Beach. Glass Beach is a former town garbage dump that has been a park for decades. The glass that was once dropped there has been smoothed by the surf and now dots the beach. So much of it has been picked up over the years that people on the internet will tell you there is no glass there. That is a lie, there is plenty of glass, you just have to look for it. My guess is that the biggest pieces are long gone. But it’s very easy to see the glass, at least in May 2023.
Russian Gulch State Park
On our way out of town we went by the Mendocino Botanical Gardens, which are apparently quite impressive. A number of miles down the road we arrived at Russian Gulch State Park.
Here I wanted to hike to a waterfall. The guidebook said it was about 3 miles return. But when we got to the gate they said it was closer to 5-7 miles. It turns out, there was a shorter hike at the other end of the park, but it was straight down and straight up. Jenn didn’t feel up to it and it was too late in the day to do the big one. So instead we did a really brief hike out on the headlands which was actually really cool. The colour of the water was quite cool and we found ourselves another Devil’s Punch Bowl.
Almost in site of Russian Gulch is the small town of Mendocino (population 932). It’s a quaint town on a headland, surrounded by a small strip of state park. We don’t really remember why we decided to stay here, but it’s a popular weekend destination in summer.
We checked into our B&B and the owner gave us a brief summary of the town. We noticed there wasn’t a TV in our room, which is the consequence of staying at a B&B I guess. But it was in a historic home which was at least different than the types of places we’d stayed before.
We walked down to the beach, which was absolutely covered in driftwood. Knowing that it was our last visit to a beach during this trip, we took off our shoes. Perspective is such a weird thing. The water felt so much colder at Mendocino than at Cannon Beach over 600 miles to the north. I guess the air must have been a little warmer.
We walked back up into town and found ourselves in one of the few open shops, a book shop. But they were closing soon. We then walked to the end of town, learning that the state park that surrounds Mendoncino on three sides is little more than a strip of parkland. We turned around and went to find somewhere for dinner, walking through about half the town in ten minutes.
We went to an irish pub so we could watch the basketball game. It was full and we had to sit at a bit of bar that wasn’t even connected to the main bar. I got to try the famous Pliny the Elder. Before we got a table, I overhead an older man rapturously singing the praises of Victor Wembanyama. He was talking about how versatile he was. He sounded a bit like a basketball guy, or at least someone who had watched a lot. And then, moments later, after a Hachimura layup, he started saying similar things about Rui Hachimura.
The food we had was decent and we had some more beer. Apparently, we had a little too much beer because I got it in my head we should go see the sunset once the basketball game ended. It didn’t occur to us to check local sunset time before we started walking towards the water. I was still wearing shorts, from our trip to the beach, and the temperature had dropped a fair amount. Then Jenn looked up the sunset time and it had already set, all we were saying with the last rays.