Mendocino County encompasses far more than just the bucolic, “Murder She Wrote”-setting hamlet on a gorgeous cliff over the ocean. Go inland or even further north into Humboldt and Del Norte counties, and you’ll find many outdoor options, such as kayaking, hiking, abalone diving. The area, of course, is known for its spirits – but not just wine. Craft beer, too, thrives in this back-to-nature environment.
A weekend trip can be as mellow or adventuresome as you make it. The problem will be that you won’t want to leave.
If you really want to have a mind-blowing experience when visiting this funky, friendly and slightly freaky North Coast college town, there’s one place you’ve got to frequent.
Not the hippie-saturated, groovy-vibe-infused Arcata Plaza, where a bluegrass band warbles “Wagon Wheel” at head-nodding Saturday market habitues. Not the long, strange trip on the trails at the Arcata Community Forest, where primeval morning fog hugs the redwoods. Not the quirky cafe-and-Finnish hot tub and sauna, or even the Grateful Dead movie night at a brew pub, where hemp ale is liberally quaffed.
The place to go for total sensory immersion and the quintessential Arcata experience is ... the wastewater treatment plant. It’s an intricate ecosystem where sludge is composted to fertilize city grounds, the water chills out for a spell in oxidation ponds, becomes purified by micro-organisms and then goes to a marsh where plants and animals feed on it. And, except for a couple of pale-green tanks off to the side, none of the equipment is visible. Nearly all the 307 acres of freshwater marshes and tidal sloughs, mud flats and tall grasses have been cleverly repurposed as an ecologically stunning sanctuary, migratory home to 270 bird species as well as otters, foxes, red-legged frogs and the occasional rough-skinned newt.
Beyond the award-winning plant, Arcata is diverse: a college town (Humboldt State University), a neo-hippie enclave, a haven for environmentalists and activists, a nature lover’s paradise, a crash pad for the homeless, and a close-knit community of families in stately Victorians and quaint bungalows with tree-lined sidewalks more Eisenhower-esque than Kerouacian.
The place to stay on a weekend is the Hotel Arcata, a tastefully renovated 1914 hotel on the plaza.
Vichy Hot Springs, Ukiah
The billboard on Highway 101 heading into Ukiah features a photo of a raffish Jack London, posthumously endorsing the healing, carbonated “champagne” waters of Vichy Springs.
Jack, apparently, was not alone among celebrities drawn to Vichy, named after the original carbonated mineral spring in France. Everyone from Mark Twain to Teddy Roosevelt to Bo Derek to Nancy Pelosi have “taken the waters” here. Little wonder, then, why Vichy, 150 years old, has earned California Landmark status. While the landscaping and grounds have changed, the 90-degree mineral baths themselves remain the same as when they were built in the 1850s.
“You pull out the pipe (in the tub) at this end for the water to rush in and plug the pipe in on that end to keep it in, “ said Angela (“I never give my last name”), a Vichy employee. “They work exactly the same as they always have; they’ve only been repaired twice in 155 years.”
Vichy has two pools – a mineral swimming pool at 72 degrees, a hot pool at 104 degrees – and a long line of mineral baths, some hidden behind walls, some exposed to the elements. Vichy, as with the other hot springs, offers massages and facials and features hiking trails. But its selling point, without question, is its bubbly baths.
At the south harbor in Fort Bragg, where the meandering Noyo River dumps into the Pacific Ocean, Liquid Fusion Kayaks offers guided paddles of varying degrees of difficulty and sightseeing splendor. Instructors swear that even novices can learn to handle the area’s “rock-gardening” spots (it involves extreme sea paddling, through waves and around rocky outcroppings) without getting tossed. Others prefer negotiating the area’s numerous sea caves.
“Summer and fall are the best times, since it’s calmer, “ instructor Cate Hawthorne said. “The Bay Area Sea Kayakers (group) comes here every September for what they call ‘Mendo Madness.’ You’ll get over 100 kayakers. Winter, it can get a little choppy, but we still get a lot of people challenging themselves.”
A two-hour paddle to the mouth of the ocean highlights the diverse flora and fauna of the riverbank and shoreline. You head through the harbor, under the Highway 1 bridge and to the edge of the Pacific, which locals call “Jaws.” You are joined throughout by frolicking harbor seals, rising and flipping on their backs to sun themselves and check out the humans in their strange vessel. There’s a bevy of birds, common varieties such as belted kingfishers, acorn woodpeckers and red-shouldered hawks and, of course, circling gulls, but also a few rare breeds.
While in Fort Bragg, go to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, where Rhododendrons highlight this perennial garden along the coast. Also, stop at Glass Beach. It is both a manmade and natural phenomenon. Manmade, because it was spawned by years of people dumping their garbage, plastic and glass particularly, over the cliffs back when Fort Bragg was a lumber town. Natural, because decades of pounding waves transformed the discarded bottles and refuse into smooth, multicolored, partially translucent pebbles.
Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville
Even in the Anderson Valley, said to be the less-fashionable “interior” of lovely Mendocino, there are no fewer than 43 wineries and vineyards stitched into the rolling hills of tawny oaks. Yet, the big draw for those seeking either inebriety or a chance to let their sophisticated palates go slumming sits on the corner of Highways 128 and 253, just east of Boonville proper.
It is a Bavarian-style structure housing the Anderson Valley Brewing Co., home of ales and stouts once merely a local delicacy but now available nationwide and in four countries. And, yes, the owners give tours, have a tasting room and offer other attractions. You belly up to the tasting room’s bar, both elbows on the copper counter. You quaff, not sip; swallow, not spit. The beer samples come in elongated shot glasses, not fine-stemmed crystal. Rather than reaching for an oenophile’s ludicrous adjective to describe taste and aroma, a perfectly acceptable response is a Homer Simpsonian “Mmm, beer.”
Or, more likely, what you’ll hear at Anderson Valley Brewing Co. is an exclamatory “Bahl Hornin’.” That means “good drinking” in Boontling, the official unofficial language of Boonville codgers. Boontling is mostly an archaic dialect, having all but died out in the 1920s, but within the confines of the brewery, it endures. It all makes for a memorable stop on your way to the cost, where vast wealth is the lingua franca.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Crescent City, way up north in Del Norte County, is surrounded on three sides (west, of course, is the Pacific Ocean) by 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 5 miles east of downtown Crescent City, but the last 2 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.