Checklist: Humboldt County, California

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Isolated behind the “Redwood Curtain” more than five hours north of San Francisco, Humboldt County, California is a pristine paradise that is still off the beaten path, even for Northern Californians. A land of superlatives—from the tallest trees in the world to the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental U.S.—Humboldt was recently ranked one of the most naturally beautiful counties in America. The area also has a quirky side; it is home to the gentle giant known as Bigfoot and grows copious amounts of the highest-quality marijuana on earth.

All of this has made Humboldt attractive to creative types, and the county now has more artists per capita than any other in California, meaning the historic towns that dot the area burst with culture. Food is top-notch here too, with organic farms around every corner and locally owned restaurants sourcing their ingredients from the area’s bountiful produce, wine, cheeses and free-range livestock. Here is a rundown of what to do and where to do it in this magical piece of far Northwestern California. Visit once and you will be back again soon.

1. Redwood National Park

Photo by Ocean Malandra

Used as a set for films like Return of the Jedi and Lost World: Jurassic Park, Redwood National Park is known and regaled for it’s otherworldly atmosphere. The tallest trees on earth, Sequoia sempervirens, make it a living museum that displays the ecosystem that once covered much of North America. Besides the ancient redwood forest, the park also boasts miles of rugged coastline and the sapphire blue Smith River, a wild and scenic river that winds through the old-growth forest.

The most popular trail in the park is the five mile hike to Fern Canyon, which cuts through untouched ancient redwood groves to a lush 80-foot deep canyon with walls carpeted in verdant ferns. Both developed and primitive camping is possible throughout the park, pick up a map at the Prairie Creek State Park Visitor’s Center, the headquarters of one of the five state parks that make up this mega preserve. While both mountain lions and black bears make their home in Redwood National Park, you have a better chance of catching a glimpse of the majestic Roosevelt Elk—the largest of the four elk subspecies in North America.

2. Old Town Eureka

Photo by Douglas Thron

Eureka’s Old Town is a Victorian waterfront downtown district that oozes character. This authentic slice of old school Barbary Coast really rocks on the first Saturday of each month when art galleries and street music fill the mural-lined alleyways and red brick plazas for Arts Alive! Take a walk on the Eureka boardwalk for sweeping views out over the Humboldt Bay before getting on board the historic Madaket, the oldest continuously operating passenger vessel in the country, for a sunset cocktail cruise around the bay’s islands. A visit to the Carson Mansion, an eighteen-room Victorian castle that sports a dramatic widow’s walk on its tower, is also a must-do. Check out the Morris Graves Museum of Art, housed in a palatial former Carnegie library, for an impressive showcase of local art and swing by the Clark Historical Museum for an extensive collection of native basketry and Gold Rush era artifacts.

Old Town Coffee and Chocolate is the social center of Old Town, while nearby Eureka Books, owned by New York Times bestselling author Amy Stewart, is the place to stock up on guidebooks to the North Coast. For lunch, the award-winning Café Nooner serves both Cajun and Middle Eastern fare on an outdoor patio while Taste provides Humboldt Bay oysters and area cheeses paired with Humboldt-made beer and wine. At night, the Siren’s Song Tavern hosts local music and stocks an amazing selection of craft beer and The SpeakEasy does live jazz over New Orleans inspired cocktails. For those that just can’t get enough of Old Town Eureka, The Carter House offers elegant bed-and-breakfast style accommodations in a three-story Victorian mansion.

3. Trinidad

Photo by Douglas Thron

Dramatic rock formations and secluded little cove beaches where the water turns tranquil and turquoise blue await visitors in Trinidad. The original Spanish settlement in Humboldt County, the tiny town of under 400 residents is home to a historic lighthouse on towering Trinidad Head and one of the top rated restaurants in Humboldt County—the Larrupin Café. A short hike down the trail and through the woods from town brings you to College Cove, a picture perfect beach—complete with wide golden sands and forested offshore islands—that is popular with sunbathers in the summertime but mild enough to enjoy as a coastal hike year-round. For more rugged Pacific splendor, visit nearby Patrick’s Point State Park, where cliffside campsites look out over jaw-dropping heights down into the crashing surf and a redwood plank recreation of an authentic Yurok fishing village.

4. Arcata

Known as the “New Berkeley” for being environmentally conscious, the high academic level of Humboldt State University and a cannabis smoke infused atmosphere, Arcata is a mecca for flower children from around the world. Located just across the Humboldt Bay from Eureka, the town has a pleasant grassy central plaza that is a frequent site of political protest and hosts the state’s oldest farmers market every Saturday morning. Day hikers, mountain bikers and Frisbee throwers should check out the Arcata Community Forest, a publicly owned and ecologically managed second growth swath of redwoods that extends for miles up the hillside behind campus. Hit Café Mokka after a long day spent in the Humboldt outdoors for a European-style cappuccino and a soak in a private redwood hot tub.

5. Bigfoot Country

Photo by Douglas Thron

Heading inland up highway 299 and into the Six Rivers National Forest, Humboldt County becomes a mountainous wilderness of epic proportions—one of the least populated regions in the entire state of California. Locals come here in the summertime to soak up the sun along the emerald green Trinity River, but the forested valley and peak surroundings are also where legendary Bigfoot calls home; it was in this area that the hairy hominid was first captured on film in 1967. Visit the town of Willow Creek to check out the Bigfoot Museum, which displays footprint casts of the Sasquatch and maps that mark his appearances. Serious Bigfoot buffs should plan on hitting the town on the first weekend in September, when the annual Bigfoot Days festival fills the streets with parades. The Willow Creek area is also a white water rafter’s paradise and offers unlimited backcountry backpacking opportunities, just bring a camera in case you have an “encounter.”

6. Ganja in Garberville

Southern Humboldt County (SoHum to locals) is the heartland of the marijuana farming that still makes up the backbone of the entire region’s economy and the culture here is unlike anywhere else on earth. Stop by Garberville’s pretty little downtown strip to stock up on everything cannabis related at the Hemp Connection and check out the selection of area goodies at Chautauqua Natural Foods. If you have got some time to kill there is a beautiful riverfront beach in nearby Redway—also home to the Mateel Community Center, which hosts international musical legends on a regular basis and puts on the annual Reggae on the River Festival, the largest of its kind in the U.S.

7. Avenue of Giants

Photo by Douglas Thron

Running parallel to Highway 101 and right along the edge of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the Avenue of Giants is a 31-mile long scenic drive through the largest stand of old growth redwoods left on the planet. While many tourists stop at roadside attractions like the Drive-Thru Tree and the One Log House, the real gems here are the easily accessible short loop walks through “Nature’s Cathedral”—as the redwood forest is often described. Try the Founders Grove for a quick 15 minute jaunt into skyscraper-high trees that are over 2,000 years old, or hit up the Rockefeller Forest, a large preserve of ancients that runs along the banks of gurgling Bull Creek. Pick up a map and check out the interpretive exhibits at the Burlington Campground Visitor’s Center, where you can also spend the night and access trailheads that lead into the mountainous heart of the state park.

8. Ferndale

Photo by Ocean Malandra

A perfectly preserved Victorian dairy village that has barely changed in the last 100 years, Ferndale has been used as a movie set for flicks like Outbreak and The Majestic. Strolling down Ferndale’s charming Main Street yields treasures like the Blacksmith Shop, where the largest collection of forged iron items in the U.S.—everything from kitchen knives to key chains—are on display and available for purchase. A trip to the tomb-studded historic Ferndale cemetery, which was built in 1868 and looks like a place where Edgar Allen Poe would find his ultimate inspiration, offers magical views out over the town and the enchanted Eel River valley that possesses it. Ferndale really comes alive during the holiday season and hosts a parade that celebrates the lighting of the world’s largest living Christmas tree.

9. The Lost Coast

Photo by Ocean Malandra

In a colossal meeting of land and sea, the mighty King’s Range mountains rise directly from the shoreline to over 4,000 feet within just a couple of miles on the Lost Coast. Way too rugged to allow for Highway 1 to continue north, a true wilderness coastline exists here—something not found at this scale anywhere in the United States outside of Alaska. For backpackers, the Lost Coast Trail—which takes four days and offers the chance see whales, bears and rare flora—is a rare opportunity to experience complete solitude on gorgeous black sand beaches and peaks that look out over the Pacific for miles. Those who prefer enjoying the scenery from the comfort of their vehicle have the Lost Coast Scenic Drive to explore. This winding country road allows you to get a small sample of the rocky coast before heading inland and passing through the quaint hamlets of Petrolia and Honeydew, following the sparkling Mattole River the whole time.

Ocean Malandra is a widely-published journalist and travel writer that divides his time between Northern California and South America.

Douglas Thron is an expert drone pilot and outdoor photographer whose aerial cinematography is used by the Discovery Channel and in high end real estate videos.