by Lee Foster
I had a chance recently to renew my acquaintance with the Mendocino Coast, refreshing myself on what an engaging and important segment it is on the California travel map.
The Mendocino turnoff from 101 at Cloverdale on Highway 128 is one of the loveliest winding road drives in California. Especially pleasing is the road from Cloverdale to Boonville.
You pass vineyards and grasslands, plus forests of broadleaf and redwoods. Oak, madrone, and bay trees abound.
In spring the wildflowers along the route are profuse, especially the blue lupines and poppies among the easily recognized species. Less well known are the sticky monkey bush, brodiaea, and scotch broom.
The road is curvy, but the curves are gentle, and the ride is pleasurable if you take it slow.
There are canopies of trees throughout the drive but the most impressive and complete are just west of Cloverdale. Alongside the road you pass creeks, lush with foliage.
At Boonville, stop for carrot cake and coffee at the Moosewood Market and peruse the local homemade jams at the old timey gift store next door, with a general store flavor, called Bates & Millard Farmhouse Mercantile. The largest item on sale is an antique wood burning kitchen range.
There are hidden vineyards down the smaller side roads, if you know where to look. A list of small wineries open to the public can be seen at www.avwines.com, focused on the Anderson Valley area between Boonville and Navarro
The winding road ends at Boonville, where the highway straightens out more towards Philo, site of an old sawmill. Then the road becomes wider still in the Navarro River watershed, where there are tempting turnoffs into redwood groves, such as at Hendy Woods.
Around Navarro the apple orchards and wineries proliferate amidst lush grass fields for cattle.
West of Navarro there are redwood forests along the Navarro River. This is one of the choice redwood forest roads in Northern California. You may want to put your lights on, so thick are the trees, so dark is the forest. The drive is through a long riverside park called the Navarro River Redwoods State Park. It is a gorgeous and awe-inspiring drive.
Where the Navarro River meets the sea, you turn north on Highway 1.
You are now on the Mendocino Coast.
The Little River Inn is an historic property on your right, at Little River.
The skyline of the town of Mendocino can be viewed and photographed from the south, complete with its rugged coastline, if you turn toward the ocean at Brewery Gulch Road.
Once in Mendocino, drive out to the Mendocino headlands and go for a walk. The bluffs out here are inspiring. Winds can be strong, so always come prepared during a visit to this coast to be comfortable in wind, cold, and rain. Solve those issues with all-body windbreakers, meaning jackets and pants, and with some rubber boots as part of your default travel system, and you are good to go 365 days a year around here. Storms can be exhilarating.
In spring the bluffs here sport lovely patches of Douglas iris. My late April visit reminded me that early March would have been better for these early blooming spring flowers. Bush lupine are the next most obvious wildflower. Large bird rookeries flourish on some of the bluffs where a slight watery separation keeps the feral cats longing for contact.
Mendocino has several lovely B&B establishments, such as the Whitegate Inn, Headlands Inn, and MacCallum House.
The Kelley House Museum is a repository for history in the area. Stop in to hear the local story from Chuck Bush and others. In the kitchen you will see on the shelf the local elixirs of the 19th century days, such as Horehound Syrup, Worm Sugar, and Foley’s Kidney Cure. In a drawing room you might see a horsehair chair or the company clock, which triggered the steam whistle, blowing at 6 am to start the day and 6 pm to end the day. The six day work week made Saturday night a time to blow off a little steam back at the company.
Mendocino got its start because of a shipwreck. The ship was the Frolic. When the salvagers got to the Mendocino area to recover what they could from the Frolic, they realized that the area’s redwoods were the big cash crop of the day. A mill was set up in 1852, and the board feet of redwood were shipped in small sailing vessels from “doghole” ports made in a makeshift manner along the coast. Wood was slung down from the cliffs to the decks of ships, ready to sail to San Francisco when full.
Redwood was a versatile lumber, not as strong as doug fir, but more resistant to rot and easy to saw, good for everything from houses to railroad ties.
MENDOCINO: MEET THE ARTISTS
One of the pleasures of Mendocino is the arts community. Walk around town to visit the art galleries and studios. Maybe there will be a show opening during your visit.
I met artist Janet Self at a show at the Odd Fellows Lodge, an 1878 building, and a local art space since 1961, but with an uncertain future. Janet led a group of people in a collective art creation project.
I browsed the current art show and met some artists present. Over 400 artists have shown their work at the Odd Fellows Hall in the recent period. Every month there is a new show. This is a major shared art space for display. I happened to be there when 20 artists from the Anderson Valley had a show.
Artists Bill Allen and Nancy McCleod collaborate in painted furniture art. Some of the furniture I saw is used for media storage. Bill constructs the furniture, Nancy paints on the wood surface. Nancy also does paintings on canvas.
“My art is mainly about what we need to do to help the planet to survive,” said Nancy.
Her canvas paintings were colorful and outwardly folksy, but with deep symbolic meaning. The title is a clue to the detective work needed to understand the meaning. One title was “The Cat Woman Instantly Recognizes Krishna and Invites Him to Tea.”
Nancy’s fans follow her work at http://nancilinispaintings.blogspot.com.
One furniture collaboration with Bill Allen is titled “Skinny Jester Hutch.”
“I like sustainable wood for my furniture,” said Bill, “so I might use plywood rather than a tropical hardwood.”
Bill’s inspiration came from an early need for display cases for storing various media. His pieces with Nancy’s drawings are highly playful, and the title “The Jester Series” epitomizes this.
“I like to create whimsical furniture,” noted Bill. “We consider our work a part of American folk art.”
Bill encourages visitors to take in the annual Memorial Day Show in the Anderson Valley. He and Nancy live in a straw bale house in the area.
Rachel Lahn was another of the Anderson Valley painters, then on display. Her canvases were full of ocean and movement abstract images.
“I think of my work as ‘dimensional constructions,'” she said.
I asked her how she liked painting and living in the Mendocino region.
“There is a good, strong art community here,” she said. “The light is good. I like the wide spaces. I like living on top of a ridge.”
“People have chosen to live here,” she added.
I then walked to the Mendocino Art Center, the most established art showing and instruction venue in the town. They have an artist in residence program and ample gallery space for displays, plus a handy publication guide to the scene. Be sure to stop in there.
I wanted also to see Janet Self’s work at a place along Main Street called the Artists Cooperative of Mendocino, where about 25 artists show their work.
Janet Self had on display some of her “stick people” cluster of paintings, including one called “Carmen’s Triangles.” The co-op also has an outdoor deck where the locals gather for socializing when a new show is up or for their regular Second Saturday Sunset Parties, starting at 3:30. Janet has her wall in the gallery and served, during my visit, as a spokesperson for the entire art scene.
FORT BRAGG: RON LEVALLEY’S NATURE PHOTOS
I drove up to Fort Bragg with much anticipation to meet photographer Ron LeValley and see his work in his art space, called the Mendocino Coast Photographer Guild and Gallery. The gallery is open Thursday through Sunday.
The building at 301 North Main Street in Fort Bragg is distinct. It is a white columned affair with faux Greekish columns carved, you guessed it, out of redwood rather than marble. The building is called The Company Store, readily viewable on Main Street.
Ron LeValley is a truly gifted nature biologist and photographer, who has the technical competence, the artistic passion, and the patience to get great shots of birds and nature in the Mendocino region and worldwide for selected other nature subjects, such as cranes in Japan.
Ron’s mission is clear.
“I focus on sharing the beauty I see and the joy I have in the natural world,” he says. “I want to share what I see with other people.”
I photographed Ron standing next to some of his exquisite wave photos near Van Damme StatePark.
“This is right from the front door of my house,” quipped Ron. “I must have shot this wave a thousand times. It’s always different.”
Ron came to photography by way of biology, starting with a need to have photos to illustrate his biology lectures.
His technical competence is considerable.
“Lightroom is my favorite tool,” he said, referring to the photo processing program from Adobe.
“I think Lightroom and Powerpoint must have been developed just for me, they are so useful,” he joked, commenting on his choice for a presentation program.
Photographing birds, Ron’s great forte, requires a lot of skills. Ron works with a Canon 5D camera, using a 1.6 extender for his 300 mm F4 lens. This gives him an effective 500 plus mm range, which is what you need to get closeup images of small birds. To hold things steady, Ron works with a tripod.
The gallery was started two years ago and has three top-quality photographers who display. This is not a showplace for amateurs, only these three titans, though one guest photographer has a small wall space. Ron makes huge prints for major fine art presentation. Ron will work with clients to do custom size prints that fit into a décor space.
One special outreach effort by Ron is on his website. He posts one new and pleasing nature photo each day. A consumer can sign up and look in for free. The website feature is called Outside my Window at www.levalleyphoto.com. Ron had about 1,300 people on his free photo reception list at the time of my visit.
“I try to look outside my window each day to see the beauty of the natural world,” said Ron.
His window is the region, not just his literal window. He has experienced some touching comments from viewers.
“I got one note from a viewer who said his mother was dying of cancer,” commented Ron. “The viewer said that in her last weeks that one beautiful picture a day brought some joy in an otherwise bleak reality.”
Ron’s photography also documents the realities of climate change in our immediate time.
“When I go out from shore to the open sea here, I now can photograph Risso dolphins,” he said. “Twenty years ago, when I started dolphin observation here, there were no Risso dolphins here. The sea temperature change has made their food abundant here now, so they have migrated to the area.”
I then asked Ron for his tips on where an interloper in his domain should go to photograph in the area. Here are his suggestions:
-1. For wildlife and birdlife, go to MacKerricher Park and Laguna Point, plus Lake Cleone in the park. There you’ll see birds, such as osprey, and harbor seals off Laguna Point. There is a easily-walked boardwalk out to Laguna Point and around Lake Cleone. Whale watching is excellent from Laguna Point during the winter/sprint season.
-2. Virgin Creek is good for shorebirds.
-3. In winter, the south side of Noyo Harbor has many birds.
-4. Point Cabrillo Light Station is one of the best whale watching places during the January southward and March northward migrations. The Light Station is also celebrating its 100th anniversary in this period. It is a half mile walk in to the light station from the parking lot. One light station keeper’s house is a B&B.
-5. For bird photos, the rookery right at the Mendocino Headlands has cormorants, pigeon guillemots, and black oystercatchers.
-6. Van Damme park is good for photos of kayaking and abalone diving.
-7. The rocky shoreline around Elk and Cuffey’s Cove is striking, especially near the old cemetery at Cuffey’s Cove.
-8. Point Arena Lighthouse would be an iconic photo symbol at the south end of the Mendocino Coast.
I left Ron LeValley inspired to make some photographs. I stopped for a picnic immediately north of For Bragg at Pudding Creek for a rest. There was a rail bridge across the creek entrance. It was a symbolic aspect of the change of the region. This former rail track for hauling redwood lumber was now a part of the rails-to-trails transformation of the region from a lumber to a recreation economy. I took a photo, thinking of Ron.
RELLA AND THE SUCCULENTS
Occasionally in travel one meets an original with a consuming passion.
On the Mendocino coast that would be a vibrant gardener named Rella. Her passion is succulents.
I met her at her place, called Simply Succulent, a mile north of Fort Bragg, and a half mile in on Airport Road.
First, there is the name, Rella.
“It’s my legal name, a single word, Rella,” she said.
No, she had not been listening to too many songs by the performer Prince, out of Minneapolis.
The name story is somewhat complex. Rella’s parents were Lithuanian and Polish, and the tangle of their names was truly torturous. Also, Rella grew up with a feminist streak in her and was not inclined to let the name of a husband define her identity. So she took a shortened version of her European name and called herself Rella. In fact, she made it legal as one word. Her total legal name is Rella.
This did not make life easier for her.
“When I travel, it does create problems,” she says. “When I went to China and to Mexico, it caused delays. I almost missed my flights. The authorities could not deal with a single name. It took some time, especially post 9-11. And when I need to fill in a form online, and there are the ‘necessary fields,’ such as first and last name, there are issues.”
Having dispatched with the name issue, we got going on the succulents.
Rella has always loved plants. She grew up in Detroit and had a childhood fruit stand. She actually paid her way through school, including her nursing college degree, with proceeds from her vegetable garden fruit stand.
Now she is focused on succulents alone.
“Succulents are gaining in popularity,” she said. “They have their own special aesthetic for landscaping, but many are also strongly drought tolerant. They are also often quite hardy.”
What are succulents? That the first question Rella gets. “Succulents are plants that have developed special ways to store and hold water, often in their leaves, stem, or root. People often confuse succulents with cacti. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.”
Once you get hooked on succulents, there are a lot to choose from. Succulents come from many temperate regions. South Africa happens to have the largest number of succulents. Rella has about 35,000 plants on hand from 30 different genera. Her main market is landscapers who like to use succulents.
For people who want to emphasize California native plants, she has a collection of all-California succulents, from the dudleyii family, such as dudleya farinosa.
LODGING ALONG THE MENDOCINO COAST
Two lodgings I enjoyed show the different styles possible in Mendocino.
Right in town I stayed at the Mendocino Hotel. Outside of town, two miles down the road, I then experienced the Little River Inn. Both places have their fans.
The Mendocino Hotel put me in a historic boardfront building in town on Main Street. The lobby and dining room are fine places to hang out. Rooms are in the Main Street building or in other buildings across the street in the back. One has a sense of the past, but updated with everything modern, including a good connection for my iPhone and a high-speed Internet connection. Lodging in town put me close to the main historic attraction (the Kelley House), walks out on the Mendocino Headlands, surveying the Mendocino art scene, and other restaurant options in town, beyond the excellent fine dining option right at the hotel.
Little River Inn is a lacy, white historic building from 1853, two miles down the road from Mendocino. From the outside it looks like a small B&B, but it is actually a modern coastal resort, with 65 modern rooms, a spa, and a golf course in back. My room was modern, ample, and spacious, with sea views and a deck, a nice touch in this area. A fireplace with real logs could be lit in the evening. Bathroom was large and had a Jacuzzi. One family, the McKinneys, have owned the place for five generations. James Dean slept here in 1955 while making the East of Eden film.
DINING ALONG THE MENDOCINO COAST
For lunch, try two Fort Bragg establishments, the North Coast Brewing Company or Cap’n Flint’s in Noyo harbor.
For a quiet fine dining experience at night, try the dining rooms at the Mendocino Hotel in Mendocino or at Little River Inn, just south of Mendocino.
The North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg makes good beer and has tasty bar-food dishes. I like lighter beers, so enjoyed their Acme Pale Ale and Scrimshaw Beer. If unsure of your preferred beer, try a beer tasting with a cluster of twelve 4 ounce glasses of everything on tap, which is an ample range of lights and darks. For food, consider the Carolina pulled pork sandwich, which comes with garlic waffle potatoes. Lighter fare might be a plate of fried, breaded calamari.
The other Fort Bragg lunch choice would be Cap’n Flint’s in the Noyo River Harbor. Turn off Highway 1 on the north side of the bridge as you approach Fort Bragg and descend into the inner workings of this fishing harbor. At the end of the road is Cap’n Flint’s. As you look out at the river, you might see a boat coming in, but fishing is not prosperous in this era of salmon closings. The food of choice here is Fish and Chips, washed down with chilled beer. The fish is local rock fish, possibly red snapper, right off the boats, and can only be slightly improved with a splash of malt vinegar. The potatoes are freshly fried. There is nothing fancy in the setting, just superb tastes served by solid local folks.
Dinner at the Mendocino Hotel should be a leisurely affair. Consider a pre-dinner drink in the inviting, warm, wooded lobby, next to the lit fire in the fireplace, as you think of the story of redwood lumbering at this historic building, right on Main Street in downtown Mendocino. Once seated in the dining room, tasty starters might be the oysters or foie gras, with entrees of lamb shank or halibut. The lamb shank meat was so tender it literally fell off the bone. For dessert, try the olallieberry crisp cobbler. Local wines, such as Meyer Family Yorkville Syrah 2004, are worth considering.
The Little River Inn dining room is run by Marc Dym, part of the fifth generation family ownership group that runs the Inn. Start with a pre-dinner drink at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, named after patriarch founder Ole Hervilla, who got the place started in 1939. Breakfast features Ole’s Swedish Pancakes. The dining room has large windows with floral plantings on the outside, creating a kind of aquarium effect, but with flowers rather than fish on the other side of the glass. Chef Dym considers his style “comfort continental” cuisine. Consider as starters the Dungeness crab cakes and the flash fried calamari, perhaps followed by flat-iron steak Diane and the pinenut encrusted salmon. For a tasty dessert, try the hazelnut flan.
BIRDING ALONG THE MENDOCINO COAST
If you can hook up with Audubon birding leader David Jensen along this Mendocino Coast, you will experience an enthusiast who will help you get wild about nature.
I went birding with David at Virgin Creek, as it flowed down to the beach at MacKerricher Park, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=436. Then we birded at a second site, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which has both lovely rhododendron displays and ample birding, especially along its coastline.
Hook up with David at the local Audubon website, www.mendocinocoastaudubon.org. He leads at least one free beginner outing at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens each month. We were joined by another enthusiast, Becky Bowen. Becky is one of the locals energetically involved in counts of birds and reporting on bird behavior in these stressed environment times. Her special expertise is in shorebirds.
Jensen had the gear as well as the enthusiasm, which is essential. He set up his spotting scope so I could view a plover a hundred yards away, but closeup. He had extra sets of binoculars. With binoculars around your neck, you will suddenly assume the persona of bird detective, thrilled to see small flying creatures perched or in flight. I used his Swift 8×40 binoculars to good advantage.
But, above all, David Jensen had the informed enthusiasm of an adventurer delighting in nature.
“The Mendocino area is great as a resting and feeding place for migrating birds,” he said. “It is especially good for near shore seabirds, such as murres, gillemots, and puffins.”
Jensen has some personal favorites.
“I love the black oyster catchers with their bright reddish beaks,” he noted. “You’ll see them feeding in the mussel beds. They are noisy.”
We parked at an unmarked but official public access point north of Virgin Creek and took the path to the coastline. The forest we walked through happened to be devastated by bark beetles killing the trees, a natural phenomenon enhanced by the stress of drought. We ended up along a road called the Haul Road, by the sea in MacKerricher Park. This road was used in the logging era and is now a recreational road for hiking and biking. Beyond the road, we walked along rocky and sandy beaches at MacKerricher, which has miles of oceanfront.
What happens on a trip like this is you begin to make a “life list” of birds seen. On that day, a few species we saw were
“With birds, it’s a matter of familiarity,” said David. “Start with one or two. Learn what they look like, and how they sound. Then build your experience. Observe their behavior and the habitat they are found in. It’s an activity that becomes richer and deeper with each new experience. You become aware of a lot of things when you begin to enjoy birds.”
I asked David about the overall state of birds now.
“Loss of habitat is the biggest challenge,” he said, “followed closely by climate change, which affects birds and their food supply.”
The landmark recent study is called State of the Birds, which can be Googled.
After our Virgin River/MacKerricher outing we continued birding at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which celebrates the rhododendrons and azaleas for which the coast is famous. Breeders take great delight in making hybrids of these colorful flowers. The garden was a joy to walk through while the birding continued, in the garden and along the coastline.
POINT CABRILLO LIGHTHOUSE
The Point Cabrillo Light Stations in the heart of this Mendocino Coast and the Point Arena Light Station on its south edge are two icons to experience.
Point Cabrillo requires a half mile walk in, unless you are staying at the B&B created from one of the light keeper’s cottages.
The Point Carbillo Lighthouse is a modest-sized building with its Fresnel lens light still on top and shining. By contrast, the Point Arena Lighthouse has had its Fresnel lens taken down and put on closeup display in the museum on site.
Inside the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse building is a model of the Frolic, the notable fast ship, called a “Baltimore Clipper” in the ship trade of the day because of its speed and the skill of the shipbuilders in that city. Frolic participated in the opium trade between India and China, among her various cargoes. She ran aground along this coast, bringing the first settlers, salvagers who quickly saw that the real treasure here was the redwood tree, which could be cut for the insatiable lumber appetite of booming San Francisco.
Contact the lighthouse if you want to participate in their periodic lens tours. Contact info is http://www.pointcabrillo.org/, 707-937-6124.
There is also a marine sealife exhibit in one building at the site, showing living shellfish and plant species that flourish in these coastal waters.
The first assistant lighthouse keeper’s house is a museum and pays homage to the self-reliant lifestyle of the families who lived here in the early era.
THE COMPLETE DRIVING ITINERARY
If you don’t like to backtrack, and I don’t, you can make a pleasing, progressive trip out of a Mendocino foray with a start and end in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Begin by driving north on Highway 101 to Cloverdale, then cross to the coast on Highway 128. After meandering around the Mendocino/Fort Bragg area, drive home via Highway 1 going south, cutting across to Highway 101 on the Russian River Road, Highway 116. This gives you a redwood forest road on both ends of your trip and a fairly long stretch of Mendocino and Sonoma Coast to enjoy.
Continuing immediately south from Mendocino, as this trip proceeds, each creek and river bridge offers a pleasing glimpse of the ocean, especially at the Albion River and at Salmon Creek. A steep vertical rock presents itself at Saddle Point south of the Navarro River.
Further on the drive south along Highway 1, a highlight is the rocky coast in the town of Elk at Greenwood State Beach. This entire area, from Greenwood north to Cuffeys Cove cemetery, is an inspiring rocky coastal view.
The Sonoma Coast presents a different perspective, often putting you on high grassy bluffs with a steep drop off to the sea, rather than adjacent to the sea on much of the Mendocino Coast. One phenomenon of the Sonoma Coast is the Sea Ranch, miles of upscale coastal development, thankfully cut by occasional Coastal Access points to make a visitor feel like something other than a trespasser. In the grasslands along the road the spring wildflowers, such as poppies, mustard, goldfields, and baby blue eyes, can be pleasing. The redwood forests along the route give way to pine forests and grasslands, a dramatic difference of perspective. Some steep dropoffs along the curvy Sonoma Coast road are not recommended for the acrophobic. In spring, at the turnoff to the Russian River road, before going inland, be sure to stop on the high bluffs and gaze down at the harbor seals giving birth on the beach below you at the mouth of the Russian River.
The two cultural icons worth a stop are the Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Fort Ross. Pigeon Point has its Fresnel lens at ground level in the museum shop, making it interesting to view up close. The rocky coast looking at the Pigeon Point Light Station from the south is an iconic landscape. Fort Ross State Historic Park is the locale of the Russian colonial adventure from the era when sea otter furs from California and Alaska were the fashion of the moment in Europe.
MENDOCINO COAST: IF YOU GO
The main tourism information source is the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, www.mendocinocoast.com, 707/961-6300.