Wandering the West
November 17, 2010
There are so many different Californias to see, I could fill this column for a couple of years. For most of us, San Francisco is a major getaway. So where do San Franciscans go to get away?
Quite often, the answer on the weekends is Mendocino, about four hours north through some pretty great scenery. Mendocino County and city seem frozen in time the logging days of a century ago, and the hippie days of the ’60s. They coexist side by side and make this trip a "trip." The only 2010 part of this trip are the prices.
Start up Highway 101 but veer west on Highway 128 where you’ll enter the redwoods that signal you’ve escaped the California population centers for counties like Mendocino, which only has four towns and lots of trees, rolling hills, farms, vineyards and, best of all, wild Pacific coastline. Besides Mendocino, with its population of 824 people and, up the road, its larger sister city, Fort Bragg, with its 7,000 residents, you won’t find many traffic jams or parking shortages. What you’ll find are fine old homes converted into bed-and-breakfast inns, good food, and relaxed people to serve you in any number of fine restaurants.
Mendocino County is famed for what is grown here. California’s northernmost vineyards are here; so are forests of towering redwoods and farms specializing in organic produce and organic orchards. Oh, there’s one more famous crop here that brings out pride in its growers. far the biggest cash crop of Mendocino is marijuana. Some of it is grown sort of legally in small batches for medicinal reasons legal in small quantities with a doctor’s prescription under California law but still totally illegal under federal law and grown illegally in much larger "grows" where armed guards and deputies and DEA agents play cat-and-mouse games as they have since the ’60s.
It’s something to be aware of before wandering into the forests, but there are plenty of activities that won’t get you into a confrontation with a paranoid farmer.
One is just to wander through the two towns, frozen in the Victorian era of a century ago, when houses were grand and full of gingerbread architecture. Even though you can hardly find a town farther away from the coast of Maine, Mendocino doubled as Cabot Cove, Maine, in the long-running CBS series "Murder, She Wrote." The town site is set back from the ocean bluffs around the Mendocino Headland, a peninsula pounded by wild surf from three directions.
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Fear of development on the peninsula let to the creation of Mendocino Headland State Park, which kept the bluff top open. The Headland is just one of many nearby state parks protecting both coastlines and redwood forests. Another interesting one is Point Cabrillo Light Station State Park, preserving a hundred-year-old lighthouse. The attraction here is the view, and the chance to stay in one of six rooms in the original light keeper’s house on the headland, which is now a B and B.
There are art galleries and shops for strolling in both towns, and museums dedicated to local history, botany and lumbering. There are several meandering rivers that flow to the sea and are safe for kayaking. To that add forest hikes, biking on country lanes and forest trails, beachcombing and manmade amusements like the Mendocino Music Festival, which will be held under a big circus tent on the Mendocino headland next July.
If you have two or more days to spend in the county, spend most of one day riding the Skunk Train from Fort Bragg through the redwoods 40 miles through twisting Noyo River Canyon. The 1885 logging-turned-tourist railroad crosses 30 bridges and trestles on its way to Willets and back.
You won’t find franchise motels here. It’s mostly a bed and breakfast kind of place, and I can vouch for the Grey Whale Inn in Fort Bragg, converted from a hospital built by the Union Lumber Company in 1915. From there you can walk to the Skunk Train, so named because of its smelly gasoline-powered engine. The railroad now runs steam and diesel locomotives instead of the clunky, smelly little gas engines.
Mendocino offers a relaxing few days among wild natural scenery and throwback Victorian towns. The food is locally grown, organic, and served with obvious pride.
As one of fossil rock’s more obscure bands, The Sir Douglas Quintet, once sang (in the classic ’60s film "Easy Rider"), "Mendocino, Mendocino, Mendocino, where life’s such a groove."
Far out. Dig it, man.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
San Francisco to Mendocino: 155 miles
Insider tip: Go in March to see a parade of gray whales heading north with their calves from winter breeding waters in Mexico. Also check out Glass Beach, where waves have turned a former town dump into a rainbow of worn, rounded glass beads.