Northern California doesn't begin with San Francisco, at least not to Humboldt County residents. It's not really a particular city that marks the split between north and south, but a vast stretch of forest – over 250 miles worth of redwoods, pines and ferns.
On your drive north, redwoods infuse the air, creating a sweet, musky scent. Drive through the Drive-Thru Tree and stop in Loleta to sample over a dozen fresh cheeses at the Loleta Cheese Factory, where visitors can watch the cheese-making process through two enormous windows.
In Eureka, downtown and Old Town merge. The waterfront is a great stop for pistachio ice cream at Living the Dream Ice Cream. View the bridge to Samoa over the bay, and the fleet of ships across the water.
Follow the 101 nine miles north to Arcata, home to Humboldt State University. Arcata bustles with farmers markets, organic grocers, yoga studios, boutiques and eateries. In late spring, Arcata hosts the Kinetic Sculpture Race(above), where bicycle-powered floats parade around the plaza before zooming forty-two miles over three days to Ferndale.
Dog-friendly marsh trail in Arcata.
Arcata is also home to the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, a refuge to godwits, egrets, ducks and more. The two main paths loop to form an infinity sign, a perfect place to clear the mind and walk the dog.
Amidst redwoods on the lush Miner's Ridge Trail.
The town has its own community forest, but to truly experience northern California’s cinematic wilderness, hike the 11.6 moderate Miner’s Ridge Trail and view the breathtaking Fern Canyon where Jurassic Park was filmed.
Or climb down a steep corridor to Trinidad State Beach, where the turquoise water leaves behind anemones as big as your head. Then, pick up freshly caught and canned tuna, salmon and oysters at Katy’s Smokehouse.
If you have the dog with you, as I usually do, stop at Clam Beach, an off-leash beach dotted with clamshells, blanched crabs and sand dollars. A consistently great highlight is free and ample parking, and unpopulated areas. Whether you’re at the beach or in a forest, you’ll have plenty of space to yourself.
In Humboldt County, the pace of life is slower, and so is the speed limit, but this may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Further reading: for more Reader Travel on Northern CA's Redwood Empire, check out Avenue of the Giants by Chad Deal.