NORTHern CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP
Commissioned by Visit California
According to the guidebook "the northern coast and interior of California covers around a third of the state... a rugged rural landscape coupling volcanoes with vineyards and legends of Bigfoot with movies of Ewoks". Liking this description and with a brief from Visit California to cover as much as possible on a six day trip, my wife and I flew from Wales to San Francisco, excited to hit the road.
Before we left the city we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and spent a few hours hiking through the Marin Headlands. A largely undeveloped area it affords some of the best views of San Francisco's famous landmark with the city behind. We obligingly snapped some pics before pushing north towards Lassen National Park via the Sacremento Valley; an agricultural corridor of small, sleepy towns, endless wheat field vistas and row upon row of perfectly aligned fruit and nut trees.
LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK
Approaching Lassen on Hwy-36 from Red Bluff the land starts to thicken with conifer forests and the climate changes rapidly. We had been warned, ahead of our visit, of the forbidding weather conditions which can bring up to fifty feet of snowfall each year. The park highway traverses avalanche prone slopes with 2,000 foot drops and can hold a snowpack 40 feet deep. Predicting when the road will open is not possible, even in late spring, and some stretches were indeed closed during our visit but we were able to explore on foot.
The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914, and its volcanic outbursts continued for three years. Today, things have settled down, but we still encountered a number of steaming sulphur vents and boiling hot springs interspersed amongst the lush forests
and mist obscured lakes.
Continuing our volcanic tour we left the snow packed highways of Lassen National Park and tracked North East in search of Mount Shasta. A lone peak of 14,179 feet which dominates the landscape for a hundred miles all around.
We spent the night in McCloud, a company built mill town whose downtown area is a Nationally Registered Historic District. Arriving late in the evening on Highway 89 we explored deserted streets, colourful clapboard houses and the long quiet lumber mill before retiring for the night, excited to witness the volcano once described by Joaquin Miller as:
"lonely as God and as white as a winter moon".
MOUNT SHASTA... or lack thereof
"If skies are clear, this massive, perennially snow-capped peak will soon become all that you see as you drive northwest, a behemoth rising up from the flat valley floor, topping out at a staggering 14,179 feet/4,322 meters high." Visit California
Unfortunately for us, the skies were not clear and Mount Shasta was nowhere to be seen! However, making the most of the incessant rainfall we experienced on this leg of the trip, we headed for Burney Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the state where, year-round, 100 million gallons of cold, clear water cascades over the ancient rock face every day.
Redwood National Park
Compass bearing west we tracked across state towards The Redwood National Parks. It's a long drive (around 5 hours from McCloud) rewarded with a landscape almost too
spectacular for words.
Located entirely within Del Norte and Humboldt Counties the parks protect 45% of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests, totalling at least 38,982 acres. These trees are the tallest and most massive species on Earth and grow only on the Pacific Coast.
The parks are huge and our time here was short so we focused our attention on two specific areas: the Lady Bird Johnson Grove (see pictures of the bridge amongst the trees below) and the Avenue of the Giants, home to some of the tallest trees in the park.
Northern Coastal california
Having spent much of our time at high altitude or in the shadow of ancient trees we had a yearning
for space that only the ocean can bring. Emerging from the redwood forest's that hug California's northwestern edge, we made our way to Moonstone County Park around 12 miles north of Arcata. A vast sandy strip dotted with weathered driftwood and distant beach combers it was a welcome handshake as we hit the pacific coastline for the first time in a week.
We spent a couple of hours exploring and watching migrating grey whales too distant to photograph before driving south towards our final destination in Mendocino County.
Mendocino County and our journey's end
Heading south towards Mendocino County and the weather begins to cheer. We're still around 6 hours north of San Francisco here and the coastline feels wild and at odds with the development further south. We checked into an Inn on the grounds of a 2,000-acre cattle ranch surrounded by more than a mile of cliff top oceanfront; steep mountains cloaked by fog-draped redwood groves provide a dizzying backdrop.
I have stayed in some pretty marvellous hotels in my time, but would swap them all for the hospitality shown to us at the Inn at Newport Ranch. A meal arranged on request with vegetables sourced from the on-site garden, we dined together watching whale blowholes far out at sea. After dessert we walked to a cliff top fire pit, a secluded vista overlooking jet black rock stacks berated by relentless Pacific surf. We listened to the bark of seals below and the honk from geese above, ending our time in California with fire-side chats and perfect company as the sun clocked out for the day.