Exploring Northern California

Dude!  California is f—ing awesome!

Oops.  Inner voice escaping.  Let’s try something more appropriate… California’s natural beauty will make even the most calloused urbanite “ooh” and “ahh” at its diversity and splendor. Better?

Okay.  I just returned from another road trip, this time to the opposite end of the state.  (This is one big-assed state, let me tell you.)

It had been eons since I was last there, so I headed to the northern California (NoCal) coast to spend some time just exploring the area.  My prior trips in the area were merely in transit to someplace else, so I never really spent any time exploring.  I’m glad that I made the time to stop and smell the ferns on this trip.

The overall concept was to make a bee-line up the 5 (that’s Interstate 5 for all you non-Californians) to around the Sacramento area, and then head northwest to Eureka up U.S. 101.  With this being another make-it-up-as-I-go trip, I also had the idea of seeing Mt. Shasta or Lassen Volcano National Park if time permitted.

One thing that surprised me during the trip was how disconnecting allowed me to connect.

21 April 2015 – San Diego to Vacaville

This particular day held significance for me, as it was nine years ago that we lost our mother, so I gave a nod to her as I drove past where we scattered her ashes and invited her along for the ride.

I left home at the gentlemanly hour of 10 AM, which put me in Los Angeles around noon on a Tuesday.  From my previous post about L.A., you all know how much I loathe driving through it, but this particular day, I zipped through from Mission Viejo to the Grapevine on the 5 in about an hour and a half.  Amazing.  Perhaps Mom was my guardian angel, clearing traffic out of the way for me.

Once I cleared L.A., the static on my FM radio was getting annoying, so I turned my radio off.  The wind rushing through the truck and the tires hitting expansion joints on the concrete pavement became my music.

It was patently obvious that the extended drought is taking its toll on the San Joaquin Valley.  The grassland is completely brown and there are signs on farms blaming the politicians for the water crisis, and saying “No Water = No Jobs” or “No Water = Higher Food Costs.”  I found it interesting and a tad hypocritical that some of the farms had their irrigation systems spraying their fields in 30 mph winds at 2 p.m. on a warm, sunny afternoon.  Probably half of that water was wasted to evaporation or landing on unintended places.

Interstate 5 parallels the California Aqueduct that brings water to both the farmers in the valley and to the cities of southern California.  It’s an engineering marvel with pumping stations along the way to help move the water uphill.  Did you know that 19% of the energy that California consumes is spent moving water through the state?

There was one section near Buttonwillow where it was so dry and dusty with the strong winds, that people were driving with their headlights on.  A sudden gust threw up a cloud of dust so dense that it dropped visibility on the highway to less than 100 feet.  Not fun if you’re cruising along at 70 mph to have that appear in front of you.  Thankfully, it lasted only a few seconds.  It reminded me of the Oklahoma dust bowl days of the 1930’s that caused the great migration west to California.

A bit further up the road, there was some sort of orchard where each and every tree–mature, about 20 feet tall–had been pulled up by its roots and was laying on its side, dead on the ground.  Every single tree.  Whether it was drought-related or not, I couldn’t know, but it was just odd to see hundreds and hundreds of trees pulled out of the ground laying on their sides.

Driving through what appeared to be a well-irrigated citrus farm (not sure what kind–trees with no fruit yet), I had my windows open and even at 70 mph, a sweet fragrance filled my truck. I didn’t see any orange blossoms, but something smelled very nice.  Sadly, about five miles past the orchard, I passed a large cattle operation that had to have had several thousand head of cattle, and it had a completely different aroma.  Enough to make me gag.  Ugh.

When you get to Stockton, you can be in for an unexpected sight.  It’s fun to see ocean-going ships 60 miles inland tied up at the Port of Stockton. They navigate up the San Joaquin River from San Francisco Bay, and as you’re driving along CA 12, you may see one of the ships appear to be gliding through some of the farm fields in the distance.  A tad freaky.

The other thing that was interesting driving through the Sacramento River delta on CA 12 was how flat it was and how black the soil was.  It reminded me of being back in Illinois.

I finished the night with dinner and then headed to the hotel where I bemoaned the fact that I left my laptop at home.  I wanted to start recording my thoughts as I went, and I wanted to be efficient about it by doing it electronically.  There was a Best Buy near the hotel, and I even toyed with the idea of going out and buying my first tablet, but I chose not to.  If I could leave the radio off all day long, then I can disconnect from the electronics, too.  I pulled out my pen and leather-bound travel journal and began scribbling.

22 April 2015 – Vacaville to Eureka

I opted for an earlier start than the previous day, hitting the road around 8:30 a.m.  I had a full day ahead of me, and I wanted to allow enough time to play en route.  The radio stayed off.

Because I left at the tail end of rush hour, I didn’t want to get caught in the traffic headed into San Francisco, so instead I headed north up I-505 to Winters, and then cut west on CA 128.  What a pleasant surprise that was.

First, Winters is a small town with a delightful Main Street that warranted exploring, but I was too early and unwilling to hang around until shops opened.  I continued west.

The scenic rolling hills around Putah Creek State Wildlife Area and Lake Barryessa caused me to stop and explore a little before heading into Napa Valley.

CA 29 took me south through the heart of California wine country: Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville, and into Napa.  What surprised me was the amount of traffic on the St. Helena Highway at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.  Construction really fouled things up, so I opted to get out of the traffic and head west to the town of Guerneville.  Besides, I just wasn’t ready to try any wine tasting at 10:30 – 11:00 a.m.

Guerneville sits beside the Russian River and is just south of the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.  Guerneville itself didn’t impress me all that much, but Armstrong Redwoods certainly did.

It’s a small park that’s best explored on foot, as you walk amongst these giant trees with names like Parson Jones or Colonel Armstrong that were already alive 800 or 900 years when Columbus landed in the New World. It just boggles the mind.

Before heading off on the loop trail, I ate the small ham and cheese hoagie that I bought at the local Safeway (for $3.49–a great way to save on a trip) on a picnic table in the shade of a giant redwood.

There was a small outdoor theater created in a clearing beneath the trees, and the only sounds to be heard were songbirds singing their joyful tunes.  (Until a six or seven year old girl hopped on the stage pretending to be Katie Perry.)

It was time that I get back on U.S. 101 and head north with the mission to get there and checked into my hotel at a reasonable hour.

One area that I didn’t really have time to explore was Mendocino County.  Just from the highway, it looked amazing, and I think it’s worthy of a return trip just to explore it someday.

When I arrived in Eureka, I have to admit that I was underwhelmed, at least by what was along the main drag.  Lots of strip malls and other little shops that weren’t all that appealing.  Still, Eureka was conveniently located to all that I wanted to see and do, and it became my base for the next three nights.

23 April 2015 – Avenue of the Giants and Ferndale

The Avenue of the Giants is a two-lane road (technically CA 254) that runs for 31 miles through Humboldt Redwoods State Park starting just south of Phillipsville and ending just south of Stafford.  I’m glad that I drove every inch of it, radio off, of course.

The visitor center had a ton of interesting information about the park and the redwoods, and it was worth the stop.  I also stopped at Founder’s Grove which had a terrific self-guided trail that you can walk.

After spending the day in the forest, I needed a little town time, so I headed to Ferndale (population 1,362) which is known for its Victorian architecture.  It’s also known for something–actually, someone–else.  It’s the hometown of Food Network’s host of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, Guy Fieri.

I spent a good half hour in the Ferndale Art Gallery talking with Joan, one of the artists whose work is on display in the gallery.  There was a beautiful redwood bowl on the shelf that was a bit too pricey and would be one more thing in my collection of things that I don’t dust, so I passed on it.  Joan did, however, give me directions to a great out-of-the-way beach for a view of the ocean.  While I was there, this sea lion kept poking its head out of the surf looking at me looking at it.  Fun.

I worked up quite an appetite after a full day of exploring, so I headed west to Samoa for dinner.  No, not that Samoa.  The town called Samoa on a little peninsula on the west side of Arcata Bay.

A friend at work had recommended eating at the Samoa Cookhouse, an old logging camp style dining hall.  You sit at a communal table and you eat what they serve.  Your choice: Take it or leave it.  My particular night was baked ham and fried chicken, boiled red potatoes, homemade vegetable soup, three-bean salad, corn, tossed salad, and fresh bread.  I took it.

I was seated at a long, rectangular table with two other couples on the opposite side. I said hi as I sat down and it was pretty apparent that the younger couple was having none of this communal talking with each other crap.  They would eat a few bites and then start macking on each others’ faces. They were in love.

The couple my age to the right of me were pleasant, but very quiet as they were eating their meal.  They even started whispering things between themselves, and never really engaged in conversation with me.  When they finished their meal, however, they began talking and we had a great conversation that lasted a good half hour.  The food was good and, once it got going, the conversation was even better.  I guess it all depends on who your seat mates are.

At the end of the peninsula is Samoa Dunes Recreational Area.

24 April 2015 – Patrick’s Point, Fern Canyon, & Redwood National Park

Fern Canyon was my 100% must-see attraction of the day, but someone along the way told me that I needed to check out Patrick’s Point State Park, too.  Off I went, radio off.

Patrick’s Point is right on the ocean with these towering rock cliffs hundreds of feet above the water.  When I parked my truck and walked over to check out Wedding Rock, I was moved to say simply, “Oh, wow!”  Aloud.

You can actually walk/hike out to Wedding Rock and climb nearly to its summit, so you have this commanding view of the ocean below.  The photos below just don’t do it justice because there’s scale for comparison.  (Some of the rocks in the water below are as big as houses or small apartment buildings.)

But, again, my main focus was on Fern Canyon, so I hopped back in my truck and drove the hour or so north along U.S. 101.  Along the route was the visitor center for Redwood National and State Park, so I stopped in to check it out and see if the road to Fern Canyon was in passable condition after the rain the night before.  (The road to Fern Canyon is about 8 miles of dirt road and you have to ford a couple of streams in your vehicle on the way in.)  Everything was just fine according to the ranger.

As you turn onto Davison Road to head into the park, there’s a meadow and a small herd of elk were grazing and relaxing there.

Elk near Fern Canyon
Elk near Fern Canyon

I did do a little research before leaving for my trip, and the whole reason I took my 4-wheel drive truck instead of my car was because I had read about the road and the stream crossings.  I figured my 1997 F-150 was better suited to the task than my 2011 BMW 535xi.  I’m glad I made the choice that I did.

While there were plenty of small cars on the road into the canyon and all of them made it in and out okay, the road was wet, muddy, washboard-y, and punctuated with potholes.  The speed limit was 15 mph, which I rarely hit, and the lane was narrow in many places, with only enough room for one vehicle at a time.  “This better be worth it,” I kept thinking to myself.  It was.

The other thing that I read about Fern Canyon online was that you’ll be wading through the stream that carved the canyon, so bring footwear that you can afford to get wet.  I brought my rubber/nylon “water shoes” that I used in the tide pools at Cabrillo, and while all the other visitors were doing a ballet hopping from log to log or stepping stone to stepping stone, I just rolled up my jeans and plodded through the 6″-8″ deep water.  It was like I was five years old playing in puddles again.  Fun.

Fern Canyon has near vertical walls in places that are just covered completely with ferns and other vegetation.  It’s quite special.

After Fern Canyon, I braved the dirt road back to civilization and made my way a little further north into Redwood National Park and the Lady Bird Johnson Grove.  It’s one of the best-protected old-growth redwood groves along the coast, and it has a mile-long loop trail through it that’s very easy to walk.  You can pick up a brochure to take along with you and it explains some of the features along the way.

About halfway through the loop, I heard this music from what sounded like a Native American flute or recorder being played.  I stopped in my tracks and listened, searching for someone along the path or in the forest who might be playing it.  I saw no one.  I pulled out my cell phone and recorded some of it.  The walk, the music, the whole experience was truly sublime.

My cell phone isn’t the best at videos, so click on the settings icon and watch it in 1080p HD for the best image quality:

After that, I was ready for dinner and spend my last night in Eureka.

Eureka made for a great base for my trip, and it’s certainly a bit eclectic. Northern Californians are definitely a different breed of people from Southern Californians, and that’s fine. I like experiencing diversity of viewpoints.

The one thing that struck me was the number of people who were pretty ragged in appearance, some with beards to their navels, riding around on bicycles with what appeared to be all their worldly possessions strapped to them.  Only a few panhandled as if they were homeless, so I had to wonder if, for some of them, this was their chosen life. I don’t know if it was fierce independence combined with an outdoor ruggedness that made them want to live that way, or if something more was going on.

25 April 2015 – Trinity River, Whiskeytown N.R.A., & Mt. Shasta

On my way out of Eureka (radio still off), I stopped at the local self-service car wash to knock the mud off the truck from the previous day’s journey through the streams and forest.

I opted to head east on CA 299 towards Redding.  Little did I know what I was in store for.

The Trinity River is designated a National Wild and Scenic River, and the highway paralleled it for a good portion of the trip.  As I climbed higher and higher into the mountains, the river became a little whiter with small rapids, and there were a number of places to pull over and just enjoy the sound of the rushing water.

Also a surprise was Whiskeytown National Recreation Area just west of Redding.  There’s a man-made lake that’s quite scenic and, despite the drought, is nearly at capacity.  (Interestingly, Lake Shasta not that far away is down considerably.)  Whiskeytown N.R.A. is part of the National Park Service, so I stopped in the visitor center, stamped my national park passport book, and traded volunteer stories with the volunteer on duty.

I took a little drive around the south side of the lake and spent some time just hanging out at one of the beaches.

Mt. Shasta was not far from Whiskeytown N.R.A., so I headed up to see if I could get some interesting photos of it in the late afternoon sun and early evening alpenglow.  Clouds complicated things a bit, but I did get a few decent shots.

After the sunset, I headed off to my motel for another night of rest.

26 April – Red Bluff to San Diego

I woke up and headed off to breakfast in the hotel’s lobby, but when I returned to my room, my stomach started doing a little jig for some reason.  Let’s just say I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the hotel (i.e., bathroom) right away. Fortunately, things calmed down enough for me to leave, but I didn’t hit the road until nearly 10 a.m.  My stomach was still a little iffy as I headed south on the 5, so I opted to forego Lassen Volcanoes National Park (and I had entertained the idea of going to Yosemite, too) and just decided to head home a day early.  It was a long drive that put me in my driveway around 9:30 p.m., but it was a good thing that I did that.  My stomach started acting up again not long after I got home.  An inauspicious end to an otherwise great trip.  (It’s fine now; not sure what it was.)


California really has something for everyone.  Urban areas like Los Angeles; the breadbasket agricultural regions of the central valleys; the vineyards of Napa; the rolling hills of Mendocino County; the beaches and sheer cliffs along the ocean; and mountains, rivers, lakes, and volcanoes.  What’s not to like??

After three years in arid San Diego County, it was good to be reminded of what the color green looked like.  Even with the drought, the coastal redwood forests were, as you can see, plenty green.  It was refreshing.

Spending three nights in Eureka is about as close to a “plop and drop” vacation that I’ll have, and I’m glad that I did that.  It allowed for day trips to explore the surrounding area.  But I equally enjoyed just driving through the countryside on some of these two-lane back roads that allowed me to see parts of California that most would probably never see.  Once again, the journey itself can be as much fun as the destination.

When I turned that radio off after coming out of L.A., I didn’t realize that it was going to turn into a self-imposed challenge for me to remain disconnected through the trip.  The radio remained off the entire trip, and I never turned on the television in any of my hotel rooms.  Disconnecting from the media allowed me to connect with my surroundings, to use my other senses to enjoy the trip more.  It worked.

It was a great trip, and I’ll continue to explore the region.  Who knows, maybe I’ll even break out my camping gear and set up camp in one of these f—ing awesome places.


Total Distance:       2,137.6 miles / 3.440 km

Driving time:           39:34

Fuel consumed:     117 gallons / 443 liters

Fuel efficiency:       17.55 mpg / 12.9 l/100 km

Photos taken:          480

Photos in this post:  71 (You can thank me for paring it down by 85% later!)

3 thoughts on “Exploring Northern California

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