The North Coast offers much to appreciate in autumn, both indoors and out. Museums, murals and exhibits, both on tribal lands and in civic buildings, feature traditional and modern tribal arts and culture. Meanwhile, prehistoric trails and settlements, along with recreated villages still in ceremonial use, reveal ancient land and waterscapes that date back millennia.
Take nothing but right turns in Patrick's Point State Park (4150 Patrick's Point Drive, Trinidad, 677-3570; day-use fee $8 per vehicle) and you'll soon find yourself at a meticulous recreation of a Native American settlement, constructed by local Yuroks who use the Sumeg Village for occasional ceremonies. Otherwise the public is encouraged to explore the redwood plank houses, sweathouse, dance pit and redwood canoes, which, like other traditional boats from the region, have structures identified with primary organs, such as the heart, the lungs and kidneys.
Enter the narrow circular crawlways in the plank houses, intended to keep out bears, wait a moment in the darkness, and you'll see the pit and stone floors where a fire served as a central heating unit.
For more Yurok cultural experiences, a short pathfrom the village leads to a native plant garden, with flora used for food, baskets and medicine.
A longer trail leads through a meadow into a small forest over which juts Ceremonial Rock, held sacred by the tribe. Walk carefully up the stone steps to the top of this 100-foot-high promontory for an inspirational panorama of ocean and coast.
Sumeg was named for a small nearby Yurok fishing camp. Six miles to the south, Trinidad was the site of another Yurok village, Tsurai, thought to be one of the West Coast's oldest continuously inhabited native towns. Yuroks lived here along Trinidad Bay, an ideal place for strategic defense, seafood gathering, sea canoe launches and protection from the harsh ocean elements, for perhaps a thousand years.
Though the last inhabitant left a century ago, Trinidad is still home to descendants, some of whom have been instrumental in preserving cultural relics and lore at the Trinidad Museum (400 Janis Court, Trinidad 677-3883).
A tour of the museum gives a useful perspective before one explores the bayfront outskirts of Tsurai. The actual town is off-limits and forested over, but the adjacent Old Home Beach, also known as Indian Beach, the village's "front door" to the ocean, is accessible at the foot of a steep, many-stepped trail just below the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse. Sea stacks, beach rocks and tide pools showcase how the area was a veritable seafood supermarket. Today it still teems with fish, clams, sea lions and kelp.
Twenty miles south in Humboldt Bay, Indian Island is a patchwork of marshlands, scrub forests and shell mounds, or middens, comprised of prehistoric food scraps, discarded tools and burial artifacts. The island is the sacred epicenter of the Wiyots.
In 1860, a dark chapter in California history, local settlers massacred hundreds of Wiyots here as they conducted their World Renewal Ceremony. In 2004, in a gesture to help heal this historic wound, the city of Eureka transferred 60 acres of the island back to the tribe, which, after a century and a half hiatus and a massive environmental cleanup effort, has since resumed its annual renewal observances.
The island is off-limits, but one can paddle around its perimeter and that of nearby Woodley Island. The islands and neighboring mudflats support some of California's largest egret and harbor seal populations, not to mention giant flocks of cormorants and other water birds. Rent a kayak in nearby Old Town Eureka from Pacific Outfitters (1600 Fifth St., Eureka, 707-443-6328), the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center (921 Waterfront Drive, Eureka 443-4222) or on Woodley Island from Hum-Boats (601 Startare Drive, Eureka, 443-5157). Within minutes you'll be on the water.
Roy's Club in Eureka (218 D St., 442-4574) didn't have to retro-renovate to take advantage of America's nostalgia for classic Italian food. The old-school restaurant has stuck to its elegant basics since 1945, whether that means a colossal antipasto plate that could serve as a standalone meal, a Caesar salad brimming with anchovies, or a popular seafood-rich cioppino. The Old Town landmark is open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday, but on Friday afternoons, 95-year-old Evo Fanucchi, Roy's late brother and the current owner, still tends bar for friends new and old. If you want to hear some of the funniest family stories ever, ask about when his parents ran a Prohibition-era speakeasy and cigar shop in the same location.
Five miles inland from the coast, right off State Route 299 in the sunny community of Blue Lake, Alice's Steak & Sushi (777 Casino Way, Blue Lake, 668-9770) serves up dependably delicious fare at reasonable prices. Owned by the Blue Lake Rancheria, a tribal group comprised of local Wiyot, Yurok and Tolowa members, the restaurant is located in the Blue Lake Casino.
Sunday brunches, Monday prime rib and Wednesday
surf and turf are among its popular staples, and you should keep an eye out for dinner and wine specials. While the menu features classic steaks and sushi dishes, the cedar plank salmon recalls the traditional cooking method local tribes use. Dinner reservations suggested.
Yurok artist and photographer Kristi J. Smith has transformed the walls of the Sunset Restaurant in Trinidad (27 Scenic Drive, 677-3611) into an exhibition of family, baskets and dentalia. Her photo exhibit, on display until January of 2017, pays homage to the crafts of the Yurok Tribe. Her framed pieces reveal intimate, elegant features of the traditional craftworks, whether baskets inspired by her great-grandmother, Nettie McKinnon, a renowned Yurok weaver, or nicely arranged Yurok ornaments made from dentalium shells, small tubular mollusks resembling tiny elephant tusks that were used for jewelry and currency in the region. The restaurant, open daily for dinner in the Cher-ae Heights Casino, has a permanent display of eye candy, too: an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean.
Located in the Hoopa Valley, the largest Indian reservation in California, the Hoopa Tribal Museum's collection (12510 State Route 96, Hoopa, (530) 625-4110) includes an excellent display of local basketry, ceremonial regalia, jewelry, dugout canoes and tools used by local Hupa, Yurok and Karuk tribes. Most of the artifacts on display are on loan from tribal members and are regularly used in traditional ceremonies. Set up an appointment and for a small fee the museum can coordinate guided group tours to historic sites in the Hoopa Valley, including the traditional village of Takimildiñ. For museum visits, it's best to call first as the hours are limited.
The first Native American mural in Eureka, "The Sun Set Twice on the People that Day," created by Brian Tripp and Alme Allen, chronicles not just the darkest night for the Wiyots, the 1860 massacre on Indian Island, but also their determined resiliency. Measuring 40 feet wide and 12 feet tall, the imposing installation next to the Morris Graves Museum of Art (636 F St, Eureka, 442-0278) can seem at first glance an abstract composition of colors and shapes. With a few visual cues and knowledge of regional tribal lore, however, the piece comes alive. A basket design represents a stairway to ancestors, which affirms a commitment to renewal; black figures carry a giant red obsidian blade, suggesting a ceremony to cut away sickness in the world. Redwoods, moon phases, and a blue medicinal spirit are part of this epic visual story weaving together the past, present and future. So are a boat, turbulent water and a repeated pattern that resembles the Loch Ness monster. It's actually another leviathan, Kah-ha-mis, who, according to Wiyot legend, created Humboldt Bay. More clues to interpret the piece are inside the museum.
With the Kids
The Yurok Visitor Center, opened in 2015 near Klamath, both the town and the river, provides an outstanding window in the world of California's most populous tribe. The teens might gravitate to the native jewelry or hoodies and ball caps with cool native designs for sale, the younger ones the interactive displays, such as the language learner. Press a few intuitive icons on a screen and they will soon be saying "Aiy-yu-kwee," which is hello in Yurok, a dialect of the Algonquian languages spoken by tribes farther east. Of note, the courteous, knowledgeable staff frequently hosts kid-friendly events either inside the center, which resembles a traditional redwood plank house, or in the nearby amphitheater and discovery village park, such as storytelling, dances, language demonstrations and native foods sampling (101 Klamath Blvd, Klamath, 482-1555).
A 40-acre natural refuge hidden in north Arcata, the Potawot Community Gardens demonstrate the power of healing, as farmland worked for decades returns to its former state. Two miles of paved, looped trails offer children a chance to burn off their energy, meandering through restored meadows, forests and wetlands. As they catch their breath, they may notice the sounds of the city have given way to the sounds of nature, whether songbirds or the rustling of the wind. If they chance a spur trail over a scenic footbridge, they may spy a garden of wild plants used in traditional basket-making, such as willow, hazel, spruce root and maidenhair fern. Interpretive signs captivate children of all ages, such as the one showing basket design patterns like frogs hand, snake nose and swallow tail. The Potawot Food Garden, also open to the public, grows organic produce as well as culinary and medicinal herbs for the nearby Indian Health Village. The impressive array of plants alone makes it worth exploring, but occasional sales and samples at the barn or village center further entice (1600 Weeot Way, Arcata, 825-5000).
The entrance to Talisman Beads, a pair of French doors transformed into a riot of festive colors, patterns and paints, gives a hint as to what's inside this Old Town Eureka storefront. One of Northern California's most popular bead shops seems less like a store than a place to hang out and get chromatically crazy. Many enthusiasts are children, who are welcome to dig in and create their own jewelry on-site. We think the more kinetic kids would especially like to make hammered bangles. Faceted labradorite, garnets, amethyst rounds, agates, old pressed glass beads, spiny oysters, polished abalone, anything you can imagine that you can put on a string and wear is here, overflowing in bins, against walls, even along the ceiling. The owners travel the world in search of unusual goods, with regular stops in the Czech Republic and Tucson, Arizona. Their beads are often used in Native American regalia and Talisman offers tribal member discounts. (214 F St, Eureka, 443-1509).
Not Strictly for Tourists
In Old Town Eureka, the Clarke Historical Museum (240 E St, Eureka, 443-1947) showcases some of California's finest Native American basketry and regalia in a wing devoted to regional tribes. In particular, the Hover Collection preserves Karuk examples from the golden age of basketry, the 1880s to the 1930s. And the Hailstone Collection, a recent acquisition, exhibits baskets from the Yurok revival period, the 1950s to the 1990s. Look closely at the works of Nettie McKinnon, for example, to see an impressive display of strength and math, both of which are required to make quality baskets. The weaves are tight and the designs incredibly intricate. As she aged, her weaving loosened a bit but the perfect patterns demonstrate how her mathematical wizardry remained intact. Besides the baskets, Nealis Hall exhibits a dugout canoe, a model redwood plank house, ceremonial regalia, flint and obsidian points, traditional dolls, stoneware and portraits of individual basket makers. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (small donation requested).
Buzz cuts. Flat tops. Side parts. Rocky McCovey has perfected the classic cuts, and counts among his customers regulars who have stepped into his chair for more than 40 years. The younger generation has discovered Rocky's Barber Shop (308 F St., Eureka, 443-5557), too, not only for his old-school treatments — hot cream, a straight razor and classic hair tonics — but for his old fashioned prices. Walk in under the vintage rotating barber pole in Old Town Eureka and you'll see a sign of the owner's Yurok heritage: a snarling stuffed otter caught by his father near the Klamath River, where the family lived in his youth. More wall mementos reveal his true passions: golf, golf and golf.
Sixty-five miles north of Eureka, the Trees of Mystery seems like the ultimate in retro roadside kitsch, with two paper mache giants, Paul Bunyan Babe the Blue Ox, standing sentinel at the US Highway 101 entrance. But if you only take selfies with Mr. Bunyan or ride in the redwoods gondola, you'll miss the most historic attraction: the End of the Trail Museum (15500 US Highway 101, Klamath, 482-2251), which houses one of the finest private collections of Native American artifacts in the nation. The cultural diversity among dozens of local and Western tribes is showcased by a range of basketry, bead work, shell work and tools — all for free. Don't miss the amazing collection of baby carriers and baby boards from various tribes.