Chiropractors must do a cracking business here on the North Coast, where some of the world’s most vertiginous trees tower, causing untold stiff necks among the populace.
But constantly looking up is part of the experience as you drive along that stretch of Highway 101 known at the Redwood Highway (along with a recommended detour for a swing along the Avenue of the Giants).
This is a yin-yang road trip, alternating arboristic majestic grandeur with the cheesiest of roadside kitsch. It will satisfy both back-to-nature types and those naturally drawn to low-brow culture.
Make sure to pack your irony as well as your iron. Before reaching the coast, you can drive your car through a tree, tour a house made from a single log, peruse a lunchbox museum and gawk at a darn-big totem pole.
But once you arrive in Crescent City or Trinidad (we give you a choice of home bases for this long weekend), you’ll be keeping it real by hiking among redwoods, exploring the ocean and its inhabitants, and feeling part of nature before Highway 101 beckons you back home.
ON THE WAY
It’s essential to start this trip early, which means hitting Interstate 5 north before sunrise.
Breakfast? Funny you should ask, because that’s the first stop. When you pull into the trinity of commerce that is Granzella’s, not far from the freeway exit, you’ll see this town’s beating heart.
The restaurant/hotel/olive business has been around since 1976. In 2007 a fire gutted the restaurant, which took a year to rebuild. But Granzella’s is back. You can see some charred remains of the old place framed next to the cash register.
Yes, the place looks spiffier than before, but those framed photos of Sinatra, Elvis and Pacino in “Scarface” still adorn the walls, along with oil paintings from the old country (Italy). After breakfast — pancakes as fluffy as seat cushions, though tastier — check out the store and deli.
The bar’s not open during breakfast hours, of course, but duck your head in to see that the two glassed-in polar bears — famous in the old Granzella’s — are still there, guarding the bar.
Farther along Highway 20, along the north shore of Clear Lake, are two cities named for posh European locales — Lucerne and Nice.
Do either of them resemble Switzerland or France? Well, we asked Linda Armstrong, manager of the Lake County visitor’s information center.
“We’ve asked people from Lucerne and they say, ‘no,’” she said, saying nothing about Nice. “The story is, this whole area has lots of hot springs and way back when, they got some people from Europe coming here. So they called it Lucerne.”
Five miles west in Nice, the highlight definitely is the more than 700 lunchboxes on display at Clarke’s Collectibles and Lunchbox Museum, situated in the old firehouse.
The antiques store brims with nostalgia; it’ll send baby boomers into paroxysms of childhood reverie. The only downside is that Clarke opens the store only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from noon to 4 p.m. May I suggest you plan your trip accordingly?
You know, once you’ve crossed deep into Mendocino and headed hard toward Humboldt, you might want to consider meeting the natives in their natural habitat.
A roadside spot off 101 announces itself as Area 101, lending an otherworldly, alien-invasion type of vibe. Actually, though, it’s a “center for personal growth & spiritual enlightenment.” Among the growth, says worker Mike Angelotti, is promoting the use of medicinal marijuana.
“We also have a concert stage and a campground and a meditation center,” Angelotti said. “We have concerts and events all the time.”
At last, I have exacted revenge from the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree. Last year, when heading back from a trip to Oregon, I scraped up the company car a bit when (doh!) I forgot to fold in the side mirrors before driving through the tree.
I’m happy to report that, this time, I did not get stuck and need assistance. Redemption is sweet. It only cost me $5, too. Worker Lori Wellborn said the place gets 300 cars a day driving through, but only a few doofuses like me ever get stuck. The whole thing takes about five minutes, depending on the backup and the artistic considerations of the family member trying to be an Annie Leibowitz.
I celebrated my successful navigation of the tree by consuming a big, greasy burger at the Peg House, a funky roadhouse close by on 101.
I’m skipping the bustling Eureka/Arcata metroplex on this trip. There’s so much to do in those towns it would seriously throw off the schedule.
Instead, I’m making a stop 10 miles north in McKinleyville. Not only does a tall totem pole reside between a barbershop and a Safeway in a strip mall, but there’s a great artisan brewpub close by. (Strange, I’ve been hungry ever since Area 101).
First, about the totem pole: It’s one big sucker, said to be carved for the grand opening of the McKinleyville Shopping Center in 1962.
After a dispute about its size, the McKinleyville Press last year hired a surveyor to measure the totemic symbol of the town, and it came to 159 feet, 5.6 inches. That’s shorter than a totem pole in British Columbia, but it remains the world’s largest pole carved from a single redwood tree. (The Canadians used two trees.)
Whatever, tourists still come, said Leroy Murrell, who’s owned the barbershop for 43 years. “Every day, they take pictures. Had a whole bus of Japanese tourists recently.”
Equally as popular is the Six Rivers Brewery, perennial winner of the “Hops in Humboldt” contest. Highlights include the Chili Pepper Ale and the Sasquatch Double IPA.
A cynic’s view of the tourist attraction that uses Redwoods as a lure: It’s a mystery that people will pay $15 to look at trees and walk on trails when they can do so for less at state and national parks.
But the non-cynic will say it’s a great educational tool, giving fun facts about redwoods and logging and other arboristic data.
The cynic would invoke Joni Mitchell: “They took all the trees/Put ’em in a tree museum/And they charged the people/A dollar and a half just to see ’em.”
But let’s ask the steady stream of customers making the 0.4-mile stroll on the “trail” to get to the “Sky Trail,” a seven-minute gondola ride to the top of a hillside.
“I think it’s a good thing that they can make an amusement park out of the trees and things,” said Matt Buchner, a tourist from Munich, Germany.
At the observation deck after de-gondolaing, 5-year-old Riley Judd dragged her dad, Casey, over to show him the view of the ocean through the complimentary binoculars. This is the third time in a year Judd, who lives 65 miles south in Eureka, has brought his daughter to the Trees of Mystery.
“She loves the (gondola) ride,” Judd said. “My wife didn’t like it too much.”
The ride is a steep ascent and descent, but it goes in fits and starts, sometimes barreling along, other times stopped completely and left to drift in the wind. The interpretive trail does identify trees other than redwoods and there’s a proud sign halfway into the hike: “Summit: 105 feet from parking lot.” Along the way, several signs warn “No Smoking.”
CRESCENT CITY/NORTH COAST
This hands-on aquarium may be touchy, touristy and slightly short on science, but it’s loads of fun, especially for the tactile (e.g., children). The tour starts at a simulated tidal pool, where you can reach in and fondle starfish and let a sea slug take root on your index finger.
The funny and knowledgeable tour guide, Justin Gasper, tells us that leopard sharks, which at Ocean World you can pet, are “highly evolved,” because “they don’t have to keep moving forward or die.”
The tour kept moving forward, regardless, with Gasper showing the group a variety of rays, sea bass, rockfish ( “really lazy,” he called them) and the surf perch, which Gasper says “can live with sharks because they have a symbiotic relationship — they clean out sharks’ wounds.”
Finally, time came to reach in what looked like an oversized bathtub and feel up the leopard sharks. Thomas Dye, from Washington state, had his toddler son, Keegan, almost vertical as the boy reached in behind the fins and gave a shark some pats, mom Morgan clicking away on the camera. Gasper’s one bit of advice: “Don’t hold the sharks still. They are strong and will kick you with their tails. One of our female sharks smacked a big guy in the back of the neck, and he went down. He told me it was like getting punched by a biker in a bar.”
Happy to report, no instances of shark attack when I stroked its flesh.
On a blustery day, some tourists took the easy way out and stayed in their cars to eat lunch and stare at the red-roofed lighthouse from a distance.
Be brave and make the short walk — low tide only, naturally — from the cliff parking lot across the driftwood-strewn, pebbly shore up the ramp to the lighthouse, built in 1856 and decommissioned in 1953 when automation took over.
For the low, low price of $3, you can get a guided tour by residents of the lighthouse. Yes, people sign up and travel from all parts to live there for a month, keep the place spiffy looking and spout history at tourists.
Guides Bob and Janet Phillips give the history of the keepers and the light lens itself. It seems the very first caretaker, one Theopolis Magruder, quit in a huff after a couple of years when the government cut his salary from $1,000 a year to $600.
“He went into town (Crescent City) and opened a store and became a millionaire,” Phillips said.
The lighthouse, however, thrived under sundry other caretakers before outliving its usefulness in the 1950s. You can climb the 45-foot, cylindrical brick tower and get a sweeping view of the ocean and the jutting rocks that would’ve sunk boats had the lighthouse not been a warning.
Crescent City is surrounded on three sides (west, of course, is the Pacific Ocean) with state and national parks with those towering redwoods.
The closest hike to town also is strangely one of the most remote. It’s called the Boy Scout Tree Trail, built in the 1930s, and it owes its name to something related to Scouting, although several versions of the story make it hard to know the specifics. (The National Park Service says the tree was discovered by a local troop leader, which led to the naming.) The hike is a scant five miles east of downtown Crescent City, but the last two miles of the drive are on a rutted dirt road. But that’s part of the fun.
The dirt road, by the way, cuts right through the giant trees, so you don’t even need to leave your car to see the star attractions. The hiking trail is a 5.1-mile out and back, ferns at your feet, redwoods looming above. You’ll cross some creeks (on foot bridges) and climb and descend often, but it’s a relatively easy hike that is total eye candy for nature lovers. After finishing, get back in the car and drive an additional 1.8 miles deeper into the park on that dirt road and make a left at the sign for Stout Grove, a small passel of huge and lovely trees bordering two rivers.
It’s only a half-mile loop, flat and partly accessible to the disabled, but you’ll see more big redwoods here than on long treks on other trails. Should you want to venture farther, the loop connects with the Little Bald Hills Trail, which will take you deeper into the woods.
If you’re looking for a bargain and also have a taste for the offbeat, it might be worth a stay at the Curly Redwood Lodge in Crescent City, right off 101 and across from the beach.
The motel was built entirely from a single curly redwood tree that produced 57,000 feet of lumber. Local businessman Tom Wylie in 1952 acquired a felled 18-foot-diameter curly redwood (meaning the rings are swirling, not straight) so massive it had to be cut in five logs for transport to a mill. The walls of each room show the swirling, burnished wood, unchanged, though presumably cleaned, since 1957, when the place opened.
On the other hand, there is more opulence at the Turtle Rocks Oceanfront Inn, a quasi-B&B north of Trinidad, about 60 miles south of Crescent City.
Perched on a 3-acre site, with ocean views from every room and glassed-in decks in most, you can chill without getting chilled and contemplate life while staring at the rock formations off Patrick’s Point. Since Crescent City isn’t exactly a dining mecca, take advantage of Trinidad’s Moonstone Grill, one of Mendocino County’s top restaurants.