The North Coast

The last days of our trip were spent on the California North Coast. We’d hoped to cruise through Sacramento and up into the Sierras, but given the lingering snow in May and the impossibility of a campground in Yosemite, we were forced to once again drive up the coast – which may be our favorite landscape in the world. Before we reached the Bay Area we had covered a bit of the coast we’d never actually done before – the 40 miles or so from Santa Cruz to San Gregorio, from where we took 84 through La Honda and in to Palo Alto. This is a breathtaking stretch, with gentle river valleys coming out to the coast – which reminded us of the Olympic Peninsula – and some big headlands. It is astounding how few people there are here, right over the mountains from the Bay Area.dscf0963

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A week later we began our final leg, crossing the Golden Gate and following Highway 1. The variety of landscapes on this section is unlike other parts of the coast. In Big Sur you are always on the side of the mountains, looking down into the ocean, and it is unrelievedly spectacular. But here the highway weaves in and out, with beautiful farmland near Pt. Reyes Station,115-north-coast002dscf1703

just before you run along Tomales Bay, which is essentially a fjord, with the ocean hidden just over the hills to the west.dscf1707

At the north end of the bay we cut inland again, driving along Keyes Creek,115-north-coast003dscf1711

where you can see how the California Coastal Commission regulations require that even the cattle must be picturesque.dscf1714

On this inland jog we entered Sonoma County, and then back to the sea, where a wider plain appears between the mountains and the ocean.dscf1716

All of this variation – farmland, fjord, estuary, coastal plain, ocean – occurs within one hour of driving. We were overwhelmed with the density of beauty, how every minute there was some new and different prospect. It was similar to the experiences we had in some parts of the Southwest – Zion, Canyon de Chelly – but with more water.

We entered the part of the drive that does more cliff-hugging, and I stopped taking photos – too many sharp switchbacks with steep elevation changes for someone driving a truck with a trailer to ever have enough warning to contemplate pulling over onto a tiny gravel shoulder – but the scenery continued to amaze us. We had driven this stretch six years ago, and we wondered why we didn’t have a stronger memory of it – perhaps that had been on an overcast day, when the stupendously elemental qualities of ocean, sun, sky and cliff were just not as vivid. The Sonoma coast was one of the most arresting landscapes we saw on this whole trip.

We drove past Sea Ranch, the famous Halprin/MLTW/etc. resort development, but didn’t stop. I’ve learned from prior trips that visiting Sea Ranch without an in or connection is a frustrating experience, as you really can’t see the buildings and views you want. Perhaps we’ll catch it on the next trip, renting a place to stay..

At the end of the day we made it to Mendocino, the 19th-century New England whaling village perched on a bluff sticking out into the ocean. It can be a little too quaint and precious (and expensive), and as Isadore once said, Mendocino seems to be the Spanish word for gift shop. But every time I’ve been here I’ve been blown away, for many reasons. There are very few places in this country that have a setting anything like this – a headland with steep cliffs on three sides,115-north-coast005dscf1754

where the view down every street ends in the ocean.dscf1729

Some of the houses have been spiffed up pretty extensively, such as this one, which was used as the stand-in for Maine in the Murder She Wrote TV series,dscf1788

but much of the town retains its vernacular character, with old houses and water towers.dscf1721

There is a range of styles, from the simple cottages to the more elaborate Queen Anne, Italianate, etc.dscf1768

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I think I spent a night sleeping in this house over 20 years ago, when it was owned by the family of one of our students. I was awakened the next morning by the sound of sea lions barking at the base of the cliff.dscf1732

About half of the headland is preserved open space, with walks through fields of wildflowers to the ocean views.dscf1764

Greta and I walked out onto the bluff trail, where we saw the first weasel we had ever seen in the wild, and which was too fast to be photographed.dscf1740

Then there is the light, which changes rapidly and dramatically, as clouds break and fog rolls in. We have been there on sunny days and rainy days, and it is notable how your impression of such a small, simple place can also change so drastically.dscf1719

Mendocino was like many historic towns we visited on the East Coast, where it is obvious that the seeming simplicity and casual quality is maintained by unrelenting diligence and at great expense. But I can’t help being bowled over by these places, even if they represent Disneyfication by the Upper Classes. There are so few corners of this country that have not been overwhelmed by the crap of the past 60 years, that I’m completely able to suspend disbelief, and just enjoy the care and art that has gone into the creation of this environment. My appreciation for Mendocino is probably heightened by our experience in the past decade in the town of Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, which has both a historical building stock and amazing landscape that rival Mendocino’s. However, over the years Coupeville has made some astoundingly bad decisions about zoning and development, which have rendered much of the town indistinguishable from any other postwar suburb. Mendocino happens to be situated in a region that attracted a wealthy and sophisticated populace, which seems to be the solution nationwide for preserving this type of coastal town with any degree of integrity.115-north-coast006dscf1775

North of Mendocino we stayed in Ft. Bragg, a more normal small city which had a fishing and lumber-based economy. It could adopt the informal motto of Astoria – We Ain’t Quaint – but some of the remnants of that period are remarkable. There is the Glass Beach, which Greta has blogged about,dscf1816

the views of the coastline,115-north-coast008dscf1817

and the fabulous Pudding Creek Trestle, where a railroad spur ran right along the ocean.115-north-coast010dscf1826

A day out from Oregon, we were feeling the loom of home, and while the landscape felt increasingly familiar, there were still signs that California is different. In the town of Inglenook we came across this allee of trees, but they were eucalyptus, not the firs or madrones which would have been normal for us.115-north-coast011dscf1831

The highway continued this weaving in and out of farmland, forests, hills and coastal plain. The jogs in the road when we came to a creek were always amusing. We’d be driving along with a panoramic view of the ocean, then there would be a sharp right turn,dscf1834

and we’d be heading up the creek into the hills.dscf1835

A hairpin turn at the head of the creek, and we’d head back out to the ocean view. This shift in perspective repeated often, and each cycle took just a minute or two.dscf1836

Finally, Highway 1 leaves the Pacific for good at Hardy. The Lost Coast, 100 miles of fairly inaccessible coastline, lay between us and Eureka. We followed the last 15 miles of Highway 1, which after many trips I’m convinced is the twistiest highway in the country. The trees closed in around us, and our weeks in the sunny Promised Land of California came to an end.dscf1837

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3 thoughts on “The North Coast

  1. Jerry Finrow

    We have not been north of SF in quite some time so it was nice to read your comments and recall how lovely that area is. We have thought of renting a place at Sea Ranch for a night or two and go there from Santa Cruz for a week day outing. The variety of landscapes are astounding and always beautiful even in cloudy weather. I have always found it amazing that Mendicino is where it is, how did that happen? It lacks all the reasons for a town location but there it is. Perhaps this is one of those rare places that settlers just loved and decided to put a town there. It probably helped that they have the worlds largest trees to build from right in their backyard. Most of the older houses along the coast are framed in REDWOOD! Lovely article….

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  2. Peter Keyes

    I had heard that Mendocino was founded by New England whalers, but I’m not seeing any evidence of that now – was probably lumber and fish like everywhere else. You’re right, it is a pretty crazy place for a town – no water – unless you’re into ocean views.

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  3. Chuck

    Mendocino does not mean “gift shop”, based on my experience it means “place where the locals are resentful of tourists”. The North Coast really is a wonderful and diverse part of the world and you have captured that very well.

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