By Ross Lawrence
You’d be hard pressed to find a place more quintessentially Californian than Humboldt County. It’s a natural wonderland with monstrous redwoods, an expansive bay, miles and miles of beautiful undeveloped coast and scenic byways. Artists, adventurers, surfers, hippies, writers and students enjoy its laidback lifestyle and mild climate year round. The area has a history defined by Spanish traders, Native Americans and it’s most famous resident, Bigfoot.
Considering its familiar California features, it’s odd that Humboldt has somewhat fallen through the cracks of our collective state consciousness. Perhaps that’s why many call it the “Lost Coast.” Luckily, I’ve found the coast, explored it and here I am to tell you what it’s all about.
Driving into Humboldt County from the south you immediately notice the massive old-growth redwoods. To the north is Redwood National Park, an international biosphere as well as a world heritage site boasting trees reaching six stories higher than the Statue of Liberty. Visitors to the national park and its state park neighbors can take advantage of 200 miles of hiking trails, many mountain biking paths and campsites.
Unique California gems, Redwood National and State Parks contain 45 percent of the remaining old growth redwood forests in the world. Looking up and noticing that 300-foot tall, thousand-year-old trees shelter you is a grounding experience. Also, on one hike or bike ride you can go from dense tree cover to an open prairie to a pristine beach overlooking the seemingly endless ocean. Natural diversity defines Humboldt just as much as the redwood forests.
“Humboldt is home to Highway 36, which runs from Fortuna near the coast to Red Bluff, and is considered by many to be the best motorcycle ride in the state,” stated Richard Stenger from the Humboldt County Visitor Bureau. “We also have a 30-mile stretch of historic highway 101 called the Avenue of the Giants, which showcases some of the most beautiful redwoods anywhere. It’s probably the world’s best forest drive.”
If you’re looking for outdoor lodging in Humboldt County there are choices galore. Camp at Patrick’s Point right off of 101 and stay either deep in the forest or on cliffs overlooking the ocean. As far as seaside camping, Gold Bluffs Beach in Redwood National Park provides about 25 campsites directly on the beach where you can gather around the fire pit with friends and take in awesome ocean vistas.
For an all-around camping experience, set off to Prairie Creek State Park. The campsites run along a large meadow where elk frequently roam, and campers are near most of the best and biggest Redwood grove trails. Adventurer types may want to stay at a different spot each night as they make their ways down Humboldt’s forgotten coast.
A mention of the Lost Coast should never be omitted from any comprehensive discussion of Humboldt’s, and in all reality, California’s best outdoor attractions. The misplaced shoreline accommodates nearly 100 miles of unspoiled beaches. It’s the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States. Those up for the hike of a lifetime can take a three-day excursion down the Lost Coast. Hikers begin their journey at Mattole Road to the north, and trek all the way south to Shelter Cove, which remains one of the few signs of civilization in the area. On the 72-hour trudge, explorers get to see epic ocean views, sprawling forests, open prairies and unique wildlife. The adventure down the seaboard is a meditative and peaceful endeavor, as you may not see another human being the entire way. For tourists who are less intense, Humboldt offers a range of other activities.
In terms of urban activities in Humboldt County, visitors should check out the coastal towns of Eureka and Arcata. Both flank Humboldt Bay, the second largest bay in California (can you guess the biggest?).
Arcata houses Humboldt State University and a downtown plaza encircled by quaint stores, coffee shops, bars, and live music venues. Each year, the city kicks off the Kinetic Sculpture Race in which “human-powered amphibious all-terrain works of art” race through hell and high water to finish first.
In Eureka, known as the Victorian Seaport, you’ll find hundreds of examples of 19th century Victorian architecture on the waterfront. The coastal hub of is also the center of a lively art scene. Humboldt County has more artists per capita than any county in the state. Furthermore, Eureka is a great place to participate in Bay activities including kayak fishing, oyster tours and much more.
“On Clam Beach, you can go razor clamming in low tides where you bring a shovel, and get up to 20 huge, meaty razor clams,” explained Stenger. “People can go on Oyster tours in a boat or a kayak, and harvest them personally. They’re not really well known. People don’t realize how big the oyster industry is up here. Two thirds of all oysters from California originate in Humboldt Bay.”
Instead of focusing on its large oyster industry, redwoods, plethora of things to do, and natural beauty, many think of Humboldt County as the birthplace of the Bigfoot legend. Stationed on Highway 299 in Humboldt, the small town of Willow Creek is where the first apparent Bigfoot sighting occurred in 1958. About nine years after the first encounter, the infamous Patterson-Gimlin footage of the creature walking across a clearing was shot in Willow Creek. Seeping into the town’s identity, the Bigfoot story has inspired many gigantic carved Bigfoot statues, a museum, a bookstore and a lot of speculation. Almost 50 years later, the debate rages on about the authenticity of the Patterson-Gimlin video and the existence of Bigfoot, but there’s no doubt the hairy legend will continue to stir controversy and discussion from all corners of the globe.
Humboldt County in many ways remains an undiscovered, mysterious gem in a state rife with large-scale development and superficiality. Like Bigfoot who lurks in the shadows unimpeded by urbanization and human tampering, the Lost Coast has stayed largely unaffected by the modern world. It’s the Lost Coast not only as a result of it being overlooked, but because it represents something that’s been lost in modern times – a pristine, natural utopia. Let’s hope that it’s never truly found.