California’s Mendocino County: There’s a Whole Lotta There There

Coastline at Fort Bragg, California. Photo by Max Hartshorne
Coastline at Fort Bragg, California. Photo by Max Hartshorne

A Road trip from Sacramento to Mendocino on a May Morning

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

A Western Roadtrip

Sacramento to Mendocino roadtrip: Rolling down Highway 101 west in my red Corolla rental with just 159 miles on it, I blasted my music, Fiest, at a scintillatingly loud volume. Why not? I was alone and I had

200 lovely miles ahead of me. I would wind my way through the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma counties, and then the Alexander Valley — the heart of wine country.

Then I’d head north, hard by the Pacific, and continue up all the way to the edge of the map to Fort Bragg. It’s a spec of a town, and I’ll find my accommodations there. Then I’ll drive down to the Noyo River to get into the water with Liquid Fusion Kayaks.

We adventured up the road through towns with California Gold Rush era names… Sutter’s Mill and Volcano. We turned there to find the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, a series of holes once used by the Miwok Indians to grind their staple — acorns — into a flour to bake cakes.

It’s now a California state park, with an interpretive hiking trail. The South Nature Trail is a half-mile loop that leads through a diverse natural area of meadow, creekside, oak woods and coniferous forests.

Indian Grinding Rock State Park

The flat rock is like a giant black whale, lying 50 or 60 feet across, and here are the holes… some barely dents, others well-worn and used often, then those that are so deep the acorns might have gotten lost. Nearby are five tipis, shaped in the traditional spired way, yet these have skins of rough oak trees. Down a path is the ceremonial round house, where a large fire pit and a hole in the top to let out smoke, and where dances and elaborate Native American ceremonies were performed.

Indian Grinding rock state park.
Indian Grinding rock state park.

In the woods, we sat for a moment, being careful to deliberately avoid making any noise….and let the sound of the forest creep into us. As a distant car eventually drove out of earshot, we were left with a soft silence. We hushed our bodies and remained still, squeezing all of the extra noise out for this moment.

Then a particularly sharp cry of a nearby, unidentified bird broke the murmur of the forest canopy. And later, an owl hooted faintly.

Through the Forest to Mendo County

Mendocino county is among the most sparsley populated counties in California, two milllion acres big, about 3,500 square miles of gorgeous redwoods, crashing waves on deserted beaches, and miles of places without cellphone reception. There are nine Indian reservations in the county, and just 87,000 people recorded in 2000. That’s empty!

Back on the road again, the coastal town of Fort Bragg surprised us. It’s a former mill town, of about 7500 residents, with the most desirable beach front real estate taken up by a 400-acre former Georgia Pacific lumber mill.

Redwood forest on the way to Fort Bragg.
Redwood forest on the way to Fort Bragg

With this industry pretty much gone, this prime location is now just empty land with a gorgeous view. Some day this will be developed, but carefully, with the California Coastal Commission and various other environmental regulators all putting in their two cents.

I quickly learned that Fort Bragg ain’t no stinkin’ Mendocino. It’s the hardscrabble, timber and fishing cousin to the artsy, Bohemian smaller neighbor. Fort Bragg has a really nice main street, with local shops and off a back street I found it has another cool attraction… a railroad.

The Skunk Railroad connects Fort Bragg with the small town of Willits, 22 miles inland. While the railroad exists primarily as a tourist magnet, “a powerful pull through the redwoods!”, a man I met from Willits told me that there are plans to connect this steam-powered tourist train to regular train service to the rest of California. The railroad also has a self-propelled traincar that runs on diesel. Exciting times for those who think that rail would be viable versus the car!

The Skunk Railroad engine car
The Skunk Railroad engine car

Living Light Culinary Arts Institute

One of the highlights of the working-man’s town of Fort Bragg was the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute, where they have a cafe, a B&B, and a school where the techniques of raw food cuisine are taught.

Cherie Soria, the brains behind it all, is her own best advertising, since her radiant smile and fit physique make her look twenty years younger than her real age of 62. It must be all that raw food and filtered (not chlorinated) water she drinks!

You can take classes in raw food cuisine, learn how to be a raw food caterer, or just enjoy the raw food and desserts in their cafe.

Oh, if you want to stay over they also have a B&B where students bunk down for the rigorous week of culinary training. The day I stopped by cheerful women were slicing zucchini thin to roll up with savories like nuts, dried fruits and spices from around the world.

Cherie Soria
Cherie Soria of the Living Light Institute

Spending a hour learning about Cherie’s path that had brought her here 13 years ago was inspiring, and made me rethink my own eating habits. Hey, she already had me wanting what she had which was a healthy glow!

Cherie was raised in Santa Barbara, but discovered this town and put her roots down on Main St. Her strict health regimen which bans pasta, meat, dairy and coffee is so gentle on her body. Inspiring! I liked the treat made of avocado and cocoa, as we toured the big walk-in. YUMMY!

How About Noyo Instead?

Our kayaking guide Cate Hawthorne told me that Fort Bragg residents periodically bring up the idea of changing the name of the town. Since most people associate the name with the big army base in North Carolina (it’s named for a man who never even set foot in the town!), maybe some day the burgh will be named for the scenic river that flows out to the Pacific, the Noyo.

We got into two-person ocean kayaks and glided out to the sea with the outgoing tide, a perfect sunset twilight time to get into the water. The scenery of the cliffs where the river meets the ocean was majestic, and calming.

Bridge over the Yola River, Fort Bragg, Calif. Photos by Max Hartshorne/GoNOMAD
Bridge over the Noyo River, Fort Bragg, California Photos by Max Hartshorne/GoNOMAD

Passing under the tall bridge that supports Route 101, we watched the many sea birds — pelagic cormorants, ospreys, belted kingfishers, predators who seek out fish by diving and swimming after their prey.

In the waning twilight, we paddled the agile two-person ocean kayaks with ease.

In our party was a girl of about nine who seemed almost mute — too nervous to utter any sentences, terrified by simple questions tossed out by the guide. But she did well with her paddling.

We went past the five or six nests of the river otters. The creatures always have that many dens, sort of safe houses in case of floods or predators.

Sea Lions and River Otters

Beneath the pier, across from where a Coast Guard fast rescue boat was docked, was a pier where sea lions played. The big lions are twice as big as their sleeker, smaller cousins, the seals, both of them frolick with abandon and without much fear of man.

Kayaking the Yolo
Kayaking the Noyo River.

There are river otters here too, though, sadly, none popped up during my float-by. We went past wooden fences in the river, once used to handle the logs that flowed downstream from the bounteous redwood forests of Mendocino County. There were once 274 sawmills; today there are two. They just ran out of redwoods to cut down!

That night at dinner, we looked down at the Noyo from atop a window side table at the Cliff House Restaurant. I was joined by Richard Strom, who told me that he’d just sold a B&B in Mendocino. Now he works for Visit Mendocino, talking about the place he’s adopted as home.

“Murder She Wrote,” was filmed here, he said. “And in the town of Mendocino, you can’t have solar panels, thermal pane windows, skylights or anything too modern.” He said that these strict historic preservation rules keep many people out.

Later I took a walk with an artist friend who lives in nearby Little River, and he showed me a huge open field next to the beach.

On the road.
Boonville highway

“A big hotel was planned for right here,” he said. “They had to give it up because of the lack of a large supply of water.”

So this explained those water towers I kept seeing. It just doesn’t rain much in Mendocino, so big developments have a hard time moving forward. And there aren’t that many people here to work there or patronize it.

Many Mendocinoites are glad that this is true, things like cellphone towers go through hard-fought battles, many citizens are against modernizing in just about any way.

I asked Richard about the topic that many people quickly associate with the name Mendocino: Marijuana. “Oh, that. Let’s not go there. There are many things more important than that.”

A baby whale on the beach in Elk, California.
A baby whale on the beach in Elk, California.

But what he’s referring to is an underground economy of nearly $1.5 billion. Scores of local residents have good jobs trimming the marijuana buds, easy work that pays $25 per hour.

“Try hiring somebody to clean motel rooms, if they can make that for trimming,” an innkeeper told me that night.

In November 2010, an initiative on the California ballot will give voters the chance to legalize pot, both growing it, smoking it, and owning it will be legal. Most people said they thought it was a good idea, eyeing the tax revenues that would be produced for the state.  Now, in 2016, it is likely a new ballot question legalizing pot will pass…and this will make a lot of people happy.

Everyone here is plain sick of the mess their state finances are in… looming giant deficits and cuts that go far beyond the acceptable. So this new source of tax revenue has to be tempting.

Yet when I visited a winery and spoke to people there, they said that they feel that legalization would kill the many pot businesses, and then big conglomerates would come in and take over the growing operations.

There are already plenty of Mexican drug gangs profiting handsomely from ‘illegal grows’ in the huge state forests of the county. Many people told me about how they showed the DEA where to find the growers who were invading their land with illegal planting…and they said they were fed up with it.

Who knows what will happen? At GoNOMAD we’re interested in promoting tourism, travel and spreading the gospel of going. I think if Mendocino follows the example of Amsterdam, it might be the biggest tourist draw since Disneyland. “This Bud’s For You!” might be the perfect slogan for California’s new tourism campaign.

Postscript.  Recreational marijuana has been legalized in the state of California as of November 2016, so watch,  the retail stores will soon open!

The following two tabs change content below.
Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.
Max Hartshorne

Latest posts by Max Hartshorne (see all)