Western road trip: The Coast Part 2

Trinidad lighthouse on the NorCal coast.
Trinidad lighthouse on the NorCal coast.

In the hopes of finishing my Summer Road Trip series before summer actually ends (didn’t quite make it), here’s Part 2, which covers the West Coast between Point Reyes and roughly Coos Bay, Ore. This trip segment through Bigfoot country was all about wild beaches, wild elk, purple beach critters, craft breweries and good and bad showers. You can read Part 1 here.

After leaving Point Reyes, I took three days to camp along the coast on the way to Portland. Wanting to drive through beautiful Anderson Valley, I opted to skip Highway 1 for a spell and took the 101 north from Marin County, which also shaved hours off the drive.

North coast

Unfortunately it was during the height of the Endless Summer of Heat, and the inland coastal valleys were baking. I scooted through Petaluma (cute), Sebastapol (meh, think I missed the nice sections), Healdsburg (love, even at 100 degrees), picking up ice for the cooler in Santa Rosa. Turning off Highway 101 onto State Route 128, I passed through the rolling golden hills of Anderson Valley.

The tiny town of Boonville is home to funky and fun Anderson Valley Brewing (Boont Amber and Hop Ottin’ IPA, yum) and “boontling,” a home-grown language all its own. Right outside the apple-centric town of Philo, Navarro Vineyards is an excellent stop. We discovered Navarro’s fine pinot noirs on a previous trip. This time, with a reserved campsite on the Mendocino coast, I had time for only a quick tasting and snagged a few bottles of recent vintage. And in the late afternoon heat, Blue appreciated the lovely, shaded, dog-friendly patio:


From Navarro, it was a short drive to the coast. I resisted a stop in Mendocino, forging ahead to MacKerricher State Park, three miles north of Ft. Bragg. The park occupies nine miles of the mostly uninhabited North Coast, and is home to sand dunes, wetlands and innumerable bird species and pinnipeds. It’s one of the premier places to view gray whales during their December to April migration between the Bering Sea and Baja California. A whale skeleton at the park entrance marks the meeting place for whale-watching tours:

Whale skeleton:MacK

The campground has more than 140 campsites in three separate areas, including 10 walk-in sites at Surfwood. I stayed in one of the East Pine sites near the sand dunes, and it was a quick walk to the beach. At the height of summer, this is a very busy family campground, even mid-week (read: if you’re looking for peace and quiet, consider off-season).

I generally liked this campground (tho my site was teensy weensy) and was just grateful it had clean, hot showers ($1 for 5 minutes!) but would have preferred something a little less jammed. It’s so close to Ft. Bragg, I skipped the campfire and ate dinner there. Ft. Bragg itself is a cool North Coast town, with the fine North Coast Brewing Company and many nicely-preserved historic buildings, but it was pretty deserted mid-week. Even the Spunky Skunk was closed:

Ft Bragg street

Instead of driving, you can walk from MacKerricher to Ft. Bragg via the Haul Road, an old logging route that is now a paved trail. This is handy for dog walking because canines are not allowed on the beach:

Haul Rd:MacK

Horseback riders on the beach at MacKerricher are treated to amazing views. All of this is about a 5-10-minute walk from the campground:

Horses MacKerricher

Waterfowl (and kayakers) love ocean-adjacent Cleone Lake, a freshwater lake that was formed when the haul road was built, blocking incoming seawater.

Cleone Lake

I practically stepped on these ducks right at the lake’s shoreline. I can’t believe they let me get this close:

Ducks:Cleone L

From the Mendocino coast, it was a long, varied drive to the next night’s camp, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The coast was stunning and went on. And on. And on. I’m not complaining. The weather was clear, sunny and warm, and the views beyond impressive.

North Coast beach

However, despite the majestic avenues of redwoods, the inland drive through Humboldt County (100 degrees or so) was a bit too warm for my taste. This guy didn’t seem to mind tho:


Frankly, with the road twisting and turning so much, a good part of my memory of it is a bit of a blur. I did make stops in Eureka (Target for a new towel, which I left behind at MacKerricher, and Lost Coast Brewery, for the obligatory T-shirt for boyfriend) and Trinidad, one of my favorite towns in California:

Trinidad harbor

I was eager to get to my campsite at Gold Bluffs Beach, but also a little worried about what my pit mix Blue’s reaction would be to the hordes of Roosevelt elk that roam the park and campgrounds. I found out as soon as I got to the elk jam at the park entrance:

Elk jam

After closing the windows during Blue’s barking fit — some of the elk turned their heads toward us so I knew they heard her  — I waited till the creatures passed, then proceeded the six-mile drive to the campground. The drive is along a wondrous route shaded by old-growth redwoods, which thrive in the ever-present coastal fog. Prairie Creek is one of three parks that make up Redwood State and National Parks, which protect 45% of the state’s coast redwoods.

Reservations are a must at Gold Bluffs Beach, which has only 26 campsites (mostly tents, yay!), and I was lucky to snag a site. At road’s end, it was thrilling to see the ocean and a smattering of tents under the bluffs and in the meadow along the beach. This is one of the finest places I’ve ever camped — isolated, quiet and stunningly scenic.

Gold Bluffs tent

Blue grazed on mounds of purple “wind sailors,” a type of jellyfish called vellela vellela that clog shorelines in the summer when the waters are warm. Surely an early sign of El Niño. Other wildlife included a fox, whose calling cards all over the campground and a visit to our campsite made Blue break out in into howls.

Blue:Gold Bluffs copy

I really lucked out with the weather, which was superb. And the sunset was spectacular:

Gold Bluffs sunset 1

The only downside of the Gold Bluffs campground was frigid water in the bathrooms. Cold tap water in the sink and showers, which barely spit out water. Luckily I was heading to an Oregon state park, home to the gold standard of campground facilities.

The warm and sunny weather continued as I motored into southern Oregon, stopping in Bandon for an ice coffee and to pick up that night’s campfire dinner from Bandon Fish Market. Into the cooler went a nice little slab of fresh coho salmon for $6, which made my day.

Salmon:Sunset Bay
Later that night…

Just north of Bandon, I turned west on Seven Devils Road and gradually lost sun and gained fog. My destination was the campground at Sunset Bay State Park, just southwest of Coos Bay. I knew I was in a different world as soon as I checked in at the entrance station. The campground operation was like a well-oiled machine, with multiple campground and yurt hosts rolling around in golf carts. And it was crowded with families. My campsite was on lush grass that made it feel like I was camping in someone’s backyard (some brown grass too, just like home!)

Sunset Bay site

I enjoyed the Sunset Bay campground, despite its camping industrial complex feeling. This is another one that I’d prefer to visit perhaps in the off-season, when the wee ones are back in school. Next I might try one of the eight yurts — one pet-friendly — which are the primo accommodations. One woman told me she made a reservation almost a year in advance and was lucky to get it. Oh, and I have nothing but praise for the shower experience, located in one of the finest, cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. And — California, are you listening? — showers have hot water and are FREE.

From my campsite, it was a short walk to the beach and along the way I came across a ranger talk set amidst a grove of trees. The bay was fogged in and the water flat and gentle.

Sunset Bay beach

The next day, before heading north, I drove south a few minutes to Shore Acres State Park, a coastal gem that was once the estate of a lumber and shipping baron. Today, visitors stroll the seven acres of gardens at the former estate, planted with flowers from around the world. All the green lushness reminded me I wasn’t in drought-stricken California anymore.


Shoreacres 2

After a brief garden stroll (sans Blue — one of the only Oregon state parks where dogs aren’t allowed), I drove down to Cape Arago, yet another scenic Oregon State Park where colonies of seals and sea lions on Simpson Reef can be seen from a rugged headland overlook. A sign jolts you back to reality:

Cape Arago sign

Next up: the Umpqua Valley to Portland, then the Columbia Gorge and Hood River.




Tongva Park and the future Santa Monica

Tongva from street

I have seen the future of the oceanfront in Santa Monica and it is walkable, drought-tolerant and sustainable!

Tongva Park, which opened last September, is part of the overhaul of the city’s Civic Center area, adjacent to RAND Corporation between Ocean Avenue and Main Street. In fact, the property was owned by RAND, which relocated just south about 10 years ago. Sandwiched between the park and RAND is the Village at Santa Monica, a mixed-use, mixed-income development still under construction that will have hundreds of condominiums and rental apartments, as well as retail space.

The main path through Tongva Park, with the Weather Field art installment
The main path through Tongva Park, with the Weather Field art installment

So why would a blog about the West, the outdoors and the environment care about this new park?

  • Because it’s an extremely pleasant outdoors spot, and something that’ll make one of the most pleasant West Coast cities even more liveable.
  • And it’s only a block from what will be the terminus of Metro’s Expo Line light rail from downtown L.A., which is on track, ahem, to arrive in 2016 (keep your fingers crossed). Hoping beyond hope that this will alleviate somewhat the traffic nightmare that is endemic on the Westside.
  • Also, I love parks that blend seamlessly into urban surroundings (think Millenium Park in Chicago and the High Line in NYC). In fact, Tongva Park was designed by James Corner, who also created the much-loved High Line.
  • Plus, I’m a total Santa Monica geek who actually listens to City Council meetings on Tuesday nights.
  • And, of course, #itsmyblogandicanwriteaboutwhateveriwant.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the space — which used to be a parking lot — since I used to live in that area and worked on an infographic on the plan. I just couldn’t picture a park there. I got used to seeing construction and giant trees in pots waiting to be planted. My eyes popped when I saw the finished park a couple months ago. What a stunner.

Tongva’s seven acres are laced with walkways through hillsides studded with a palette of native, drought-tolerant plants. Garden-lovers will geek out at the online planting plans. The highlight of Observation Hill at the top of the park is two steel Slinky-shaped observation decks overlooking the ocean.

Tongva Park's Observation Hill is dotted with plants adapted to the seaside location.
Tongva Park’s Observation Hill is dotted with plants adapted to the seaside location.
Observation deck at Tongva Park, on a marine-layer day.
Observation deck at Tongva Park, on a marine-layer day.

Here’s a view of the observation decks from Ocean Avenue:

View from Ocean Avenue of Tongva Park's observation decks.
View from Ocean Avenue of Tongva Park’s observation decks.

The park’s benches have nifty tables built into them:

Tongva bench

A wall near the restrooms is filling in with vines in a lattice pattern:

Tongva wall

Water feature near the Main Street entrance, across from Santa Monica’s City Hall:

Tongva water

Locals may wonder what will become of the iconic Chez Jay, next to the park. The tiny, historic eatery is still there and in fact was designated a local landmark by the city, so hopefully it’ll persevere. There are plans for a walkup window, but I’m not sure where they stand at this point.

Chez Jay

Here’s a short video of Weather Field No. 1, 49 stainless steel poles with anemometers and wind vane:

A median down Ocean Avenue in front of the new “village” was recently planted:

Ocean Ave. median

Tongva Park makes a nice side trip if you’re on the bike path, or if you’re hanging out on Main Street or the Third Street Promenade. There’s also a playground with a climbing wall for the kiddies.

The park really connects this part of downtown Santa Monica to the oceanfront district. Another project that promises to be an attractive addition is the Colorado Esplanade, a pedestrian-friendly promenade that will connect the Expo station at 4th and Colorado to Ocean Avenue,  Santa Monica Pier, and Tongva Park. There’s a nifty interactive timeline on the city’s website that details all these projects, for all you fellow eco-geeks out there.