Most redwood lovers stick to the trees near U.S. Highway 101, aka the Redwood Highway, but 11 miles east of Fortuna on State Route 36, Cheatham Grove, a separate unit of nearby Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park (16949 State Route 36, Carlotta, 777-3683), offers one of the most beautiful, pristine old growth forest walks. The easy 3/4-mile loop trail is likely yours alone no matter the day. This hidden grove resembles a natural cathedral, its open canopy filtering sunbeams, its floor carpeted with thick redwood sorrel, ferns and wildflowers. Its redwoods, while not monsters in size, are flawlessly formedand vault in perfect perpendicularity from an alluvial flat. Lazy picnics or sunbaths beckon along the nearby Van Duzen River. While serene now, Star Wars stormtroopers and rebels chased one another in a chaotic scene here in Return of the Jedi. Don't be alarmed if you see an occasional fan dressed as an Endorian.
Western Azaleas thrive in patches scattered from Oregon to Mexico, but these wild rhododendron relations put on their best blooming show south of Redwood National Park. The flower power of Stagecoach Hill Azalea Reserve (Kane Road near Big Lagoon) attracts rhodie lovers each spring and summer to see the amazing display of colors, textures and shapes. Nourished by the mineral serpentine in nearby outcroppings, the hardy shrubs, some towering 15 feet, blossom into riots of white, cream, pink, red and yellow, in solids, stripes and spots, with crinkled, frilled and smooth petals. Why the variety? Some think because the species sports 78 chromosomes, twice as many as most American azaleas. To reach the 40-acre reserve, from U.S. Highway 101, just north of Big Lagoon, turn east on Kane Road, then left half a mile later to the parking area.
Of special note to rhodie fans, the 2017 American Rhododendron Spring Conference is in Eureka April 27-30. Besides featuring the Eureka Rhododendron Parade on April 29, the conference is hosting a tour of the reserve.
Many tour Fern Cottage (2121 Centerville Road, Ferndale, 786-4835, $10 admission, free to kids 18 and under), a sprawling circa-1886 farmhouse overlooking the Eel River delta, to marvel at 34 rooms filled with mementos from the Russ family, Northern California's greatest ranching dynasty, which has owned the home ever since. It's one of few in California containing original family furniture and furnishings from the 1800s. But should you take one of the hourly docent-led tours (Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), be sure to explore the picnic-perfect grounds: 4 acres featuring a gazebo, a fern-cloaked creek, stately elms, historic herb and flower gardens, a goat, honeybees and chickens. Russ matriarch Zipporah especially loved her chickens, watching them from her garden window until her 90s. For tours, it's best to call to confirm as the cottage sometimes hosts private events.
Everything about Rob Dunn, proprietor of Wild Oaks Grill (www.wildoaksgrill.com, 621-1913), is smoking. His grill, his cigar, seemingly his hair and clothes. He resembles the Roman god Vulcan in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen but instead of cooking heavy metals deep in the Earth, he's simmering giant hunks of perfectly brined and seasoned fowl, beef and pork. He forges creations like chicken bombs, barbecued breasts stuffed with sausage, pepper or shrimp and wrapped in bacon; caveman ribs, slow smoked beef with brown sugar and habanero, Texas-style; and chocolate covered smoked bacon, no description needed. His nickname, however, embroidered on his nearly smoldering jacket, Tri-Tip Guy, divulges his masterpiece. Look for his mobile smokehouse, a converted boat trailer, on which he keeps score as to how many vegetarians he's converted, as it makes regular weekly stops in Eureka, Scotia, McKinleyville and Humboldt Hill. Call or check his site for more details.
Home to car races, livestock fairs and roller derbies, Redwood Acres might not seem like the obvious venue for a gastronomic renaissance. But the Eureka fairgrounds houses several burgeoning taste bud businesses, notably the award-winning Humboldt Cider Works (3750 Harris St., Eureka, Friday 5 to 9 pm, Saturday noon to 9 pm, Sunday noon to 8 pm, 798-6023), a cozy no-frills jumble of barrel seats, apple crates and stubby round glasses bubbling with fermented dry to sweet apple elixirs on a giant wood slab bar. The tastes surprise many a non-cider-lover. Regulars suggest sampling a flight or diving right into a custom blend like "chunny," part honey and part cherry cider. HWC welcomes pets and kids, who fuel up on fresh apple juice and gravitate to the grassy side yard with picnic tables, a few mini-boulders to scramble over and old fashioned lawn games like wooden nine pins.
"It's like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert," gushed one patron of Caffé Dolce (545 Shelter Cove Road, Whitethorn, 986-7179, Monday-Saturday, 7:30 am to 4 pm). With few signs of civilization near the Lost Coast, a strategically placed bistro between Redway and Shelter Cove is a must stop, in this case, one hidden in the back of Whitethorn Construction, a popular home and farm improvement center. Pull over for sticky buns, panini sandwiches, organic meats, breads, baked goods and soups with local produce, fresh squeezed juices, exceptional coffees and smoothies.
The Humboldt Botanical Gardens (7707 Tompkins Hill Road, Eureka, 442-5139, Adults $8, 5 and under free, Wednesday-Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm), a scenic preserve with elegant greenhouses, ornamental and native plant gardens, and flowering trees, welcomes visits from weasels, rabbits, foxes, hawks, songbirds, butterflies and you. Overlooking southern Humboldt Bay, the 45 acres include gentle walking paths with panoramas of the bay, ocean and the forested mountains that frame them. On the most popular trail, "All Happy Now," artist Peter Santino's spiraling earth sculpture, the only of its kind in North America, merges two ancient landscape architectural features, the ziggurat and the labyrinth. Based on a mathematical equation called Fermat's Spiral, the 100-foot diameter mound is intended to be walked in a meditative manner like the labyrinths of historic churches and cathedrals. Kids might prefer racing along the entire winding path, which provides a quarter-mile workout to the top.
If the Black Faun Gallery (212 G St., Eureka, 798-6207, Thursday-Saturday 11 am-7 pm) were a bumper sticker, it would read, "Think Globally, Art Locally." Its acclaimed contemporary artists hail from many parts of the world, including, for exhibits in the months ahead, France, Australia, Japan and Finland. Despite the many red-eye flights required, the artists often display works that seem intimately connected to Humboldt, not surprising since many are North Coast regulars, invited by local artist friends and colleagues to do retreats and collaborations. "We try to create artistic bridges between Humboldt and the broader world," explains May exhibitor Marceau Verdiere, an Arcata painter who recently hosted an abstract ink artist from his native France for a show.
Travel and art. What better way to enjoy these two enriching cultural pursuits than a leisurely road trip through what the USDA calls America's most scenic county, stopping in towns and country to view the works of artists in their workplaces? North Coast Open Studios (June 3-4 and 10-11, 10 am-5 pm daily, 442-8413, www.northcoastopenstudios.com), offers a chance to do it in style. Between 100 and 200 artists, in places all over Humboldt, will welcome the public to tour their ateliers, ranging from backyard barns to downtown lofts. A few places, like the C Street Studios in Old Town Eureka and the Samoa Women's Club in Samoa, where numerous artists cluster together, offer chances to sample copious amounts of different art at single stops. For maps and more, check the website.
With the Kids
Follow the slimy footsteps of SpongeBob SquarePants creator Steve Hillenburg through Humboldt and kids of all ages will enjoy a sensational aquatic adventure. First stop, the Telonicher Marine Laboratory (570 Ewing St., Trinidad, 826-3671, requested $1 donation) managed by Humboldt State University, where Hillenburg studied marine biology and art. The facility, perched on a cliff overlooking Trinidad State Beach, houses aquariums teeming with odd local sea life, such as a monkeyface eel, a bashful octopus, camouflaged eelgrass fish, florescent jellyfish and one of the world's fastest starfish. After examining a giant whale skull nearby, the grand finale awaits outside, where young hands can plunk their digits over the squishy bodies of starfish, sea cucumbers and sea anemones in several open touch tanks.
What about sponges like Bob? Alas, such gentle souls don't last long in the aquaria jungles, where voracious shrimp turn them into dishes du jour. But go 5 miles north to Patrick's (not named for Bob's co-star) Point State Park (4150 Patrick's Point Drive, Trinidad, 677-3570, $8 day-use fee per vehicle) and judicious exploration of its tide pools at low tide, in particular, those around Palmer's Point Beach at the south end of the park, reveal bonanzas of hermit crabs, fish, mollusks, sea stars and occasional sponges. The more ambitious can stop in the visitor center to request a "Get in the Zone" brochure to identify the tide pool creatures or a Redwood EdVenture Quest map to earn a badge on a park scavenger hunt.
Naturally, the pursuit of poriferans may prod the appetite, best satisfied by a visit to Stars Hamburgers (1535 G St., Arcata, 826-1379 or 2009 Harrison Ave., Eureka, 445-2061), which serves up grassfed beef burgers, veggie patties, Cajun fries, onion rings, chocolate malts and, of course, fish and chips. The place may seem familiar. Hillenburg, during his stint at Humboldt State, flipped burgers here, inspiring the Krusty Crab Café, SpongeBob's undersea employer. Hungry for more SpongeBob fare? Try Toni's 24 Hour Truck Stop (1901 Heindon Road, Arcata, 822-0091), said to be the muse for the show's Chum Bucket restaurant, but less evil and with good milkshakes.
Not Strictly for Tourists
An unexpected religious retreat is veiled in Humboldt's midst, the Monastery of the Redwoods (18104 Briceland Thorn Road, Whitethorn, 986-7419), a small Cistercian community of Roman Catholic sisters a few miles inland of Shelter Cove. They welcome overnight pilgrims but the guesthouse is usually booked months in advance. You can always join them for Sunday mass — hearing the sisters sing in harmonic hymnal praise is to know the voices of angels. Afterward they are apt to greet their guests warmly, whether helping children count frogs in the garden ponds or showing the way to their hidden grove of old growth redwoods, a rarity on the Lost Coast. Want a keepsake? The nuns sell homemade gifts such as religious iconography, greeting cards featuring local flowers in water colors and their famous creamed honey, each jar 8 ounces of pure joy in flavors like anise, almond and ginger.
The drive is rugged. It requires a steep, seven-minute dirt path trek to reach. Backpacks are recommended. Elderly dogs and kids are not. The loo needs TLC. Bats flitter about. Wi-Fi and cell coverage are not among the conveniences. Why do people stay at the Lost Coast Tower in Petrolia? The other amenities make up for it. Dips in the nearby Mattole River, perhaps California's cleanest. Hikes to nearby Punto Gordo, known as "the Alcatraz of Lighthouses." Then there's the tower, a restored two-story wooden water storage structure, transformed into a rustic paradise — with deco chairs, cherry and redwood furniture, Wedgewood stove, ceramic arts and outdoor copper soaking tub — by the late Alexander Cockburn, noted political writer, editor and activist. It's a hilltop "box of light," with three sides of windows showcasing outdoor scenes, says daughter Daisy, who manages the tower and lives next door. Guests rave about the sunsets, and the apple cider that starts flowing from Daisy's orchard in late summer.
The county boasts more artists per capita than anywhere in California, a factoid beautifully illustrated by the many monthly Humboldt Art Walks. On evenings peppered throughout the calendar, Arcata, McKinleyville, Trinidad, Garberville, Fortuna and other towns brighten up their downtowns with people, food, spirits, music and, naturally, art. The biggest of these fine art fests, Arts Alive, held the first Saturday of the month, really livens up Eureka, ranked as high as No. 1 in John Villani's popular book, The 100 Best Small Arts Town in America. Best place to start, the corner of F and Second streets in Old Town, the nexus of the night. Look for jugglers, street performance artists and an accordionist resembling a folksy Elvis who belts out polkas and contemporary hits alike. For times and dates, visit www.redwoods.info/artwalks and the Insider 90-day calendar in this issue.