What would you do if you were told you were going to the “Lost Coast?” When an area is named thus, you envision undiscovered lands, pioneers and pirate ships on swirling seas. Most people who visit California head to Southern California for crowded beaches and warm weather. Many also travel to San Francisco and its famous tech suburban sprawl. What lies beyond the Bay Area is treated with aloofness. I was about to find out what lay there, as I began my journey into the great California unknown.
Instead of making a trip by airplane, I chose to use Amtrak’s services. Having visited San Francisco using Amtrak before, I was already a fan of its on time schedules, and comfortable rail and bus coaches. More importantly, since I had the time, I could comfortably recapture the heart of California country and take in the varying scenery, traveling south to north.
The train ride was extremely pleasant, passing through agriculture heartlands like Fresno, Madera, Merced and Modesto till the final stop at Martinez. From there, I would get on the coach bus and head to Eureka, the jewel on the North Coast. There was a warning of holdups on the highway due to a recent winter storm. Luckily, the weather had cleared and traffic was absolutely “normal.” I heaved a small sigh of relief.
Pictured above: Fortuna and Scotia
As we left the San Francisco bay area behind, we headed past the wide San Pablo bay and drove straight into wine country. The vineyards adorned the landscape stretching far and wide. Many notable places of interest passed by. The Cullinan tidal restoration project which is restoring 1549 acres of tidal wetlands in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge; then came sheep farms, Sonoma wine country, with wild horses running amok in striking green fields, and dairy farms – the sights kept changing rapidly. We headed into the Mendocino National forest, passing Confusion hill. I was especially awestruck by the Avenue of the Giants, a tribe of some of the most imposing trees known to mankind. The Grandfather Tree, found 17 miles south of the southern entrance to the Avenue of the Giants is its star resident. The tree is 265 feet tall, 24′ in diameter and estimated to be 1,800 years old. If trees could talk, I wondered.
Further north, people keep their eyes and ears open for the legendary Bigfoot of Garberville. Luckily for us, he had a pressing appointment and could not make our acquaintance. Up next, was indeed a sight to behold. The broad and massive aptly-named Eel river, snaking its way along the heart of forest country. This is one of five rivers in Humboldt county and is 196 miles long. The river and its tributaries form the third largest watershed in California, draining a rugged area of 3,684 square miles in five counties. The recent Netflix thriller hit Birdbox features Sandra Bullock paddling her kids to safety in, yes, the Eel river.
Pictured above: Garberville
Further along, one can settle into a Deluxe Cabin, RV or seasonal tent site and savor the beauty of Benbow Valley at the Benbow cabins for a taste of outdoorsy tourism. The historic Fort Humboldt announces your arrival into Humboldt county. The Fort overlooks Humboldt Bay from a commanding position atop a bluff. Established in 1853, Fort Humboldt was only occupied by the Army for 13 years. The North Coast regional headquarters of the California State Parks system is located onsite. This remote military post was established in 1853 to assist in conflict resolution between Native Americans and gold-seekers and settlers who had begun flooding into the area after the discovery of gold in the northern mines.
Indeed, Humboldt County is home to prominent Native American tribes and is working effortlessly with them to share their unique heritage with the world. Wiyot, Karuk, Yurok and Hupa are the 4 major tribes here, out of the 109 Native American tribes in California. Before white settlers found California, they were the original Californians. The Native Americans did not see themselves as conquerors of nature, but rather as an integral part of nature. It is to their credit that this driving philosophy shapes Humboldt County even now.
Named after the intrepid explorer Alexander Humboldt, Humboldt county comprises of many towns anchored by the pristine Humboldt bay. It is the largest protected body of water on the West Coast between San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound. It is also the second largest enclosed bay in California, and the largest port between San Francisco and Coos Bay, Oregon. Pictures don’t do the bay’s beauty justice. If you want to experience what the beaches are like here, be ready to be surprised. You won’t find maddening crowds and parking issues at all. People come here to genuinely immerse in the raw, rugged, natural charm of the non-touristy landmark beaches. Moonstone Beach with its tide pools, arresting black sands and sensational sea caves offer serene yet untethered views of the Pacific.
Arcata and Eureka, are home to the businesses that flourish in the North Coast, namely timber and fishing. The locals are “green” in many ways, with passionate views regarding nature, environmental causes and sustainability. Also, Humboldt county is home to a burgeoning cannabis culture, with around 30,000 people involved in this industry. There’s historic Eureka, with its magnificent downtown and stately Victorian architecture. Arcata, home to Humboldt State University hosts many students and school employees. Arcata Square with its rows of restaurants and President McKinley’s statue is always buzzing with activity. Bars full of friendly people letting their hair down makes for a pretty hip scene. Historic Hotel Arcata will offer you a vintage delight and a pleasant staying experience.
Pictured above: Piercy and Leggett
Humboldt county is essentially a nature addict’s dream. The Redwoods state park, Grizzly creek, Fern canyon, Founders grove – all of this will leave you feeling spoilt by the abundance of choices. If you’re into aqua activities, you can revel in the surfing to be found on many of the beaches peppering Humboldt bay. – Trinidad, Cape Mendocino, and Humboldt Lagoons state park to name a few. There’s plenty to do at all these landmark places. Winter weather is rainy and drizzly, but people like it that way. Most of the students arrive from sunny places like Los Angeles and San Diego, and grow to love the North Coast’s jagged beauty.
There’s no discovering the North Coast without a Lost Coast sojourn. As a long time Lost Coast resident told me, “This place is a retreat. You come here to lose yourself amidst nature and in the process, you find yourself.” The Lost Coast region lies roughly between Rockport and Ferndale and runs along for about 25 miles. The steepness and related geotechnical challenges of the coastal mountains made this stretch of coastline too costly for state highway or county road builders to establish routes through the area, leaving it the most undeveloped and remote portion of the California coast. It’s this very insouciance that arguably best defines the North Coast character.
Heading back home south, you are again vehemently moved by imposing vistas of sweeping forests andexpansive mountains ranges melting into the sea. John Muir’s spirit very much prevails in this unfiltered Californian landscape. The formerly “shrouded from the world” North Coast gifted me a primal awakening. I had experienced a pronounced intimacy with the unfettered side of California. I was oblivious to the North Country’s very existence before my trip.
I now emerged witnessing the dawn of Californian civilization through virgin eyes. Stay wild, and the spirit of adventure will follow, the wind whispered. “LIbertad, otra vez.”
Arijit is a restless traveler, academic, film and history enthusiast. He is from Mumbai originally, by way of Texas. Currently he is exploring all that California has to offer.