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Perfect Spring Trips 

click to enlarge perfecttrips-magnum.jpg

Greg Nyquist

What better way to feel grounded in nature than to park a blanket and basket outdoors and commence to eat, drink and be merry? Fear not, hungry and thirsty traveler, we've got you covered. First, load up on sandwich supplies at the corner delis favored by locals. Second, set your course for the aptly named Picnic Tree, a picnic table the length of a school bus or a grassy knoll overlooking Redwood Creek. Third, enjoy. To work off the calories, take a trail featuring forest, prairie or murals, or chase friend and foe through a paintball course. Then relax the mind perusing Humboldtania in a library sporting the best view of Humboldt Bay.

Outdoorsy Type

click to enlarge Captain Sebastian Elrite leads a tour. - ROCKY ARROYO
  • Rocky Arroyo
  • Captain Sebastian Elrite leads a tour.

Renowned for its plump Pacifics and tasty Kumamotos, Humboldt Bay is the oyster capital of California. Some two-thirds of all oysters consumed in the state originate here, harvested using the latest low-impact sustainable techniques by hardy water farmers. Among them is Aqua Rodeo's Captain Sebastian Elrite, a laid-back, brawny fellow — sort of a Robert Redford if he were an outside linebacker — who pilots small groups in his boat around the oyster beds. During low tide tours with the captain, you can harvest your own mollusks in the mud flats to eat fresh from the bay or to take into Old Town Eureka, where a number of kitchens will prepare them for you. If the tide is high, just hold. You can head over to Humboldt Bay Provisions especially on Shuck a Buck Tuesday evenings, when Elrite or one of his crew will personally pop the oysters out of their shells and serve them raw or cooked in a variety of tasty manners.

As big tree hunters plumb the depths of Redwood National and State Parks to find monster specimens, hidden in plain site is one of the most photogenic champions: the so-called Picnic Tree, an old growth giant next to the campground of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. It's been featured in travel magazines and websites, but few who pass notice, on the edge of a pleasant picnic area, just a few steps from the Prairie Creek visitor center, this massive vertical spire, whose sprawling roots flare around its base like the foot of a prehistoric mastodon. Nearby, old stone grills covered in moss add to the prehistoric charm. Should you eat here among the giants, there are plenty of picnic tables from which to choose. And you can work off the meal with a stroll on the Revelation Trail, an easy mile that showcases more mammoth trees.

While technically inside Redwood National Park, most of Bald Hills Road looks like anything but a primeval forest. Rather than foggy groves, the area is dominated by sunny prairies, with occasional clumps of oaks, once grazed by sheep and cattle. The grassy hillsides, with panoramic views of the redwood groves below in the Redwood Creek valley, offer perfect places to picnic, especially in the spring when wildflowers like purple lupines spring up everywhere. To start, from U.S. Highway 101 just north of Orick, turn east on Bald Hills Road, pass the signs for the Lady Bird Johnson and Tall Trees groves, and ascend into what looks like a scene from The Sound of Music. Three suggested lunch stops: Dolason Prairie, which includes a 9-mile trail for the ambitious; Schoolhouse Peak, which at 3,097 feet is the highest point in the park, and the old Lyons Ranch, whose original barn and bunkhouses are intact and worth exploring. The first is 11.5 miles from U.S. Highway 101. The last two, which require a few miles of unpaved road, are just shy of 18 miles from the highway.


click to enlarge The five-meat Italian combo on the Eureka Waterfront trail. - AMY WALDRIP
  • Amy Waldrip
  • The five-meat Italian combo on the Eureka Waterfront trail.

Walk into either Hole in the Wall shop and enter an aroma wonderland. The just-baked breads, the quality meats, some hot, the fresh veggies and condiments, all flying into wraps and sandwiches perfectly protected in wax paper blankets, compel one to bark out an order at the counter as soon as possible among the din of the locals, who vote this the best sandwich shop year in, year out. After ringing up, the two questions that remain are 1) whether to split the oversize creation with a friend or save half for dinner, and 2) whether to eat it immediately at the picnic tables outside or take it to a scenic spot for a car or outdoor picnic. Hungry? The five-meat Italian combo will do the job, maybe for a week.

click to enlarge Generous portions at Deo's. - AMY WALDRIP
  • Amy Waldrip
  • Generous portions at Deo's.

Having served up lunch subs for more than four decades, Deo's Sandwich Shop has amassed quite a loyal following in Henderson Center. But new owner Joseph Sandoval, who took over the reins this year, wants to do more than rest on the kitchen laurels. He upped the game, revamping the kitchen, remodeling the counter area, and experimenting with no frills-evening service — grilled cheese and Tater Tots — for the hungry at Dave's Place, a neighborhood bar that shares a wall and pass-through window with Deo's. Perhaps the greatest addition, his perky, cheerful mom runs the register and serves up the baskets. Seating is limited so consider carrying out your order into the great big outside world of picnics. The warm, spicy, smoky pastrami comes highly recommended.

So, you're heading north on U.S. Highway 101 from Eureka for a Redwood National Park adventure and you realize you're going to burn more calories on the trail than your weak little granola bar can handle. What do you do? The Murphy's Market run. Stop in Trinidad at this popular independent local grocer, pick up Humboldt made products, like Henry's Olives, Dick Taylor Chocolates and Humboldt Fog cheese, and order up great sandwiches. Bonus if you request the Dutch Crunch bread. If you're not heading that direction, Murphy's has four more neighborhood locations, all with full-service delis. Another bonus (bonuses? boni?), in the summer, the deli crews fire up their grills for barbecue in the parking lot.

Art Lovers

click to enlarge Santino's "All Happy Now". - SAM ARMANINO
  • Sam Armanino
  • Santino's "All Happy Now".

Dozens of outdoor wall art creations grace historic buildings throughout Eureka, consistently ranked among the top 10 in John Villani's Best Small Art Towns in America, in styles ranging from tasteful classicism to oddball impressionism. Vintage cars. Galloping horses. Sea monsters. Aliens. A Tokyo traffic jam. Humans with giraffe and parrot heads. Other notables include a giant ballerina on the back of the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts, California's tallest mural north of San Francisco. It's by Duane Flatmo, a celebrated artist and Burning Man regular whose other murals tend to the zany side, such as the nearby "No Barking Allowed," a riot of deranged dogs. Find them all in Old Town and downtown. For a mural map, visit the Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau office or site.

One of the strangest art installations anywhere has gone to seed. And that's good. Renowned artist Peter Santino's "All Happy Now," an outdoor hilltop maze-labyrinth-ziggurat overlooking Humboldt Bay, has delighted visitors to the Humboldt Botanical Garden since its completion in 2008. Unfortunately, the turf and earth mound creation suffered from all the wear and tear. Fortunately, some months ago, Santino and friends managed a complete upgrade of the living art, replacing the original redwood bender boards with steel strips and reseeding the grass, which, thanks to our wet spring, has grown back gloriously. While only 100 feet wide, the maze's ramped interior spiral stretches to 1/4 mile, giving a respectable 1/2-mile workout to anyone who strolls or trots the roundtrip. Of course, slow going maximizes the meditative benefits, fast going the aerobic ones. Take your pick.

Giants, clowns, puppets and comics congregate in Blue Lake every summer for the Mad River Festival, a zany tradition hosted for four decades by Dell'Arte International. But the renowned theater ensemble and school of physical acting does more traditional Italian improv. Its staff and students also create outrageous costumes and traditional commedia masks, which you can see during the fest, at other performances throughout the year, or on display in their Blue Lake campus, headquartered in a beautiful circa 1911 Oddfellows Hall. Should any of the neoprene or papier mache creations exhibit lizard-like qualities, don't be alarmed. Dell'Arte's most celebrated mask maker on the faculty, Bruce Marrs, played the title role in the 1997 version of Godzilla. The fest's five weeks of nonstop entertainment takes place mid-June to mid-July. Keep an eye on the clown talents too, as many join Cirque du Soleil.

With the Kids

click to enlarge Tug-o-war at the Ma-le'l Dune. - COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE DUNES
  • Courtesy of Friends of the Dunes
  • Tug-o-war at the Ma-le'l Dune.

Should your familial lunch club be bigger than most, say, 10, 20, even 30 people, there is a picnic table or two for you and your kin. Twin monster slabs of redwood, between 30 and 40 feet long, have welcomed gatherings for decades in the Women's Federation Grove of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, just off the Avenue of the Giants. Some locals in the know escape here in the summer, trading the coastal fog for the warm Eel River Valley. After a repast, they might take a dip in this gentle, sandy bend of the river (check local conditions before a swim, the river can be dangerously swift and cold in spring or too low in autumn). For an added treat, walk across the seasonal summer footbridge over the river to the heart of the Rockefeller Forest, which at 10,000 acres is the largest single stand of old growth redwoods.

For a dune with a view, or more precisely, a view like that of R2D2 and C-3PO when they land on Tatooine, check out the mother of all Humboldt dunes, a sprawling, 1 million-cubic-yard sand mountain barely contained by the Ma-le'l Dunes. Managed cooperatively by the Bureau of Land Management and the Humboldt Bay Wildlife Refuge, this federal preserve features rare coastal plants and animals, a spooky skeleton forest and, once one trudges to the top of said dune, panoramic views of ocean, bay and inland mountains. Look for beach strawberries, sea rocket plants and rare Humboldt Bay wallflowers (don't pick), or crisscrossing tracks left at night by foxes, skunks and raccoons. The southern unit, which permits horses and dogs, opens daily. The northern one, which offers more direct access to the monster dune, is open weekends.

If you're going to paint the town red, and black and yellow, and so forth, might we suggest Samoa, home of the Humboldt Paintball Community. The family-owned outdoor center, which will reopen in May after a spring cleaning, gives kids of all ages an excuse to dirty up old clothes, splatter friend and foe with the biodegradable, water soluble stuff and, for the real young ones, target practice. It's open weekends and, starting in late June, Wednesdays, too. Prices vary based on whether you rent or bring your own paint or gear, but the nominal entry fee is waived for nurses and emergency and safety personnel.

Not Strictly for Tourists

click to enlarge The Humboldt Room in the Eureka Library. - JILLIAN BUTOLPH
  • Jillian Butolph
  • The Humboldt Room in the Eureka Library.

Housed in an old railroad depot, the Blue Lake Museum showcases the timber and train heritage of the Mad River Valley, which in 1854 started the first working railroad in California. The museum houses vintage Victoriana, blacksmithing equipment, logging camp cookware, and Native American basketry from local Yurok, Wiyot, Hupa and Karuk artists. The museum has loads of historic documents and other research materials. Dig deep and perhaps you can answer the age-old question: Where exactly was the Blue Lake of Blue Lake?

The Carter House Inn a luxury enclave of four Victorians in Old Town Eureka, is one of fewer than 100 establishments worldwide with a coveted Wine Spectator Grand award. Should you bump into owner Mark Carter in the lobby, you'll soon know why. He's a genius when it comes to creating, selecting and pairing wines. If he pours, be prepared for chemical amazement. During happy hour, 3 to 6 pm every day, get deals on his house labels, a few of which have earned 100s from Robert Parker, local beers on tap, or martinis and Manhattans with top-shelf stuff. Join local politicos, activists and professionals who share a relaxed détente after work at the bar, to get the real scoop on Humboldt, or just recommendations from the small plates menu. Our vote: fish tacos or crab and squid cakes.

Arguably the best public view of Humboldt Bay, from indoors, that is, avails those who enter the special collections room of the Humboldt County Library. The Humboldt Room, on the second floor of the county's flagship library, overlooks a pretty expanse of the bay, delighting those who happen to be there perusing historic Humboldtania; nautical maps, genealogical records, a random whale bone, snapshots and postcards with giant redwoods, logging trains and the rugged men and women of the 19th century Redwood Coast. Intriguing historical books abound, such as a high school yearbook from 1905, Indian Legends from the Lost Coast and an apocalyptic survival guide written by local Kurt Saxon, with tips on how to tie a hangman's noose or use a Tesla coil.

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