Welcome to the North Coast! The region that stretches from north of the Bay Area to the Oregon border in California, also known as the Redwood Empire, comprises a whole lot of coastline as well as inland sights and cities that can simply blow your mind. It’s where the famed Pacific Coast Highway begins and is home of Redwoods National Park, among other delights.
As we noted in our review of the Red Lion Hotel in Eureka, California, we had no specific plans to stay here. Sure, there’s plenty to see and we wanted to know what it felt like to be a speck below some massive trees; but overall, we just stopped here because, why not.
Before we get into our report on the region, I must spew out our typical disclaimer: What is in here is not a list of must-sees or must-dos, not a top ten or a things-to-see-before-you-die. It’s merely what we did when we were there. There is – as almost is always the case – way more to do and see than we saw or probably could ever see. We had a few days in the area and this is what we did. Got it? We do, however, encourage you to leave your thoughts and your recommendations in the comments below.
Now, shall we proceed? Yes!
After heading out of Coos Bay, Oregon, and making our way across the border, we kept on down the famed U.S. 101, which heads through Eureka before it goes inland and the PCH takes its place. The drive down the coast is full of more delicious scenery, as well as a high-altitude stint overlooking the coast that puts you through the main portion of Redwoods National Park.
You won’t see much of anything, though, as it usually seems to be covered in a heavy blanket of coastal fog. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting drive that’ll drop you straight into Eureka. And how’d we get there, in a nutshell? Here are the details:
- U.S. 101 south from Coos Bay, all the way to Eureka, CA
Yes indeed, that’s it!
We had a very relaxing stay during high season at the Red Lion Hotel in Eureka. We were covered since they’re a supporter of our “Fabric of America” tour, but we can honestly say we had a great time there and wouldn’t stay anywhere else if we were to return. Plush king room, all the necessary amenities, easy access to both town and the highway, and a very friendly staff. What else do you need?
Also, all of the rooms on the front side of the property have balconies, where you can get some fresh air but not much sun; because, unfortunately, it’s rarely ever sunny in Eureka. However, they do have a heated pool to counteract the mild weather. Woo-hoo!
The location of the hotel:
1929 Fourth St.
Eureka, CA 95501
Tel: +1 (707) 445-0844
Mmm, mmm, good. There are a lot of scrumptious dining options in Eureka. Sometimes, we went with recommendations; other times, we went with what looked good. From Italian to ice cream to Southeast Asian, we’re always down for whatever. (Except cold food. I hate cold food.) Here’s where we got down…
Brick & Fire: This seems to be one of the more popular restaurants in town, with everyone and their grandma recommending it to us. If memory serves me correctly, it’s also the number-one Eureka restaurant on TripAdvisor. The dining room here was probably smaller than our hotel room, with half the building taken up by a bustling kitchen that includes a brick pizza oven. All of the staff were great, and our server had plenty of recommendations on the thankfully small menu that changes a bit every day. The wine list lasts forever, so be prepared to get your reading on, if you are into that.
While the food was good, we weren’t all that impressed. It’s easy for us to call this place overrated, and we honestly think it is. It’s priced like a fancy restaurant but the food just doesn’t deliver. Regardless of how much you pay, the meal should be worth it, right? It wasn’t, really. Good, but not that good.
Overall, it’s a bit pretentious and overdone, which isn’t a surprise given the entire name of the restaurant is Brick & Fire: A Bistro. Really?
Living the Dream: Ice cream, ice cream! Who wants some ice cream?! We do. All the time. This top-notch dairy deli is located in historic downtown Eureka, adjacent to the boardwalk. I imagine that, despite the chilly weather, it’s always crowded given the local population is used to it and walks around in shorts when it’s 60F outside.
These nice ladies – didn’t see any dudes working – serve up classic treats as well as contemporary flavors like salted caramel to ice cream junkies from all walks of life.
It was a hit for both Ang and me, despite my alleriges to the air screwing with my taster. So, go here. Ice cream, yo. P.S. Everything is organic and made on-site. Score!
Humboldt Bay Tourism Center: Okay, so here’s the deal. When we were there, we thought it was called the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center & Oyster Bar. Now that I go to their website, I see a separate link and a new name: Taste. I’m sure that once our friends from there read this, they’ll gladly correct me as to what the name actually is.
Either way, this very well might be the best place in town. We wandered in here after we saw the sign for a bar, only to find out that it’s a newish, privately-owned tourism center. With an oyster bar inside. Heyooo.
I’ll save most of this for the Activities section down below. Right now, we’ll just talk about the food. Everything here is local. The produce, the meats, the cheeses, the beer, the wines, and the oysters. It’s a one-stop shop for local culinary glory, and it’s foodstasy. (Not sure that food + ecstasy combo works.)
We had stopped in for a beer, but ended up staying for hours, chit-chatting and eating all sorts of local meats, cheeses, and olives, while washing everything down with local brews. Don’t miss it: This place is our number one stop for many reasons, some of which are the food and drink on offer. As noted, see its section below for more.
Annie’s Cambodian Cuisine: A lot of people ask, “What’s Cambodian food like?” Well, it’s similar to Lao or Thai. Since most people don’t know Lao either, let’s just say it’s in the same ballpark as Thai food. And Annie’s does it right.
Since it’s just across from our hotel, we scooped takeout to eat in the comfort of our room. But, they have a small dining room that was full of happy guests, as well as a bar that serves local brews and other treats.
Everyone here was nice, and all of our dishes were delectable, including the red curry that Ang took care of. It’s highly recommended if you want to step out of the usual line of what Americans seem to eat every day.
The Pacific Grill and R.J. Grin’s Lounge: These are the on-site restaurant and bar at the Red Lion Hotel in Eureka. We never ate breakfast – rarely do – but we did get room service one night after a long day of sightseeing. The salads were done just right, as were the fried treats we got to offset the healthy greens.
It’s not the best bang for your buck, but that’s not surprising since it’s the case with room service at every hotel, 600% of the time. We wanted to try it though, and it was worth it in comparison to room service at other hotels in other cities.
Despite the fact that most people don’t go to Eureka with the destination of Eureka in mind – usually, it’s the Redwoods, PCH, or something else – the city has a lot to offer. And of course, it’s a great base of operations for all of those well-known and lesser-known sights that dot the North Coast region.
There’s no shortage of things to do, and we did our best to explore the diversity of the area as much as we could over the course of a couple days.
Drive the Coast: While not as legendary as Big Sur, south of the Bay Area, this stretch of coast is well worth its weight in scenery. As stated earlier in this piece, the PCH starts south of Eureka. But, U.S. 101 from Oregon down to there is just as exciting, with plenty of opportunity to see wildlife, towering redwoods, beaches, craggy cliffs, the ocean, and more.
North of Eureka, we spotted a huge herd of elk just chillin’ on the beach, ignoring the fog and low temps in favor of the views and looking good for passersby.
Get a Haircut: Yeah, I’ve done this before. I love a good, real barber shop, and Eureka has one of its own. It’s not only a great place to get your wig split, as I say, but to meet locals, get tips, and hear interesting stories about the area. Rocky and his barber shop on F Street do not disappoint. He’s a lifelong resident of the area, and can give you the lowdown about sights, lesser-known haunts, restaurants, and of course, gossip. Rocky directed us to a few places we went while here, and we thank him kindly for my proper haircut and all of the insight.
Humboldt Bay Tourism Center: Yes indeed, this place gets spots in two categories on our list. While it’s a new organization and one technically separate from local government, it’s probably the best promoter of local culture and tourism that the region has. Started not too long ago by our new friends, Sergio and Liz, along with their partner, Jon, it aims to promote tourism in the region with a different, more high-tech approach.
Inside what we thought was just a local bar when we originally stepped in, one half of the historic property is dedicated to a tourist information and booking center, complete with computers, touchscreens, and a concierge. There, you can use all of these resources to learn more about everything around you, and of course, book all sorts of activities in the Humboldt County area.
The other half of the building houses an oyster bar, complete with fare sourced directly from local producers. As I mentioned in the food section, there’s a host of cheeses, meats, produce, and drink that give a great sampling of the culinary delicacies available from source to plate. We were also fortunate to meet Sebastian, who not only runs oyster harvesting tours for visitors but acts as the oyster bar shell slinger when he’s in the shop.
During all of our travels, we have honestly never seen such a magnificent combination of form and function when it comes to a tourism center. Not only should the local government and businesses be backing this place with the utmost fortitude; tourism information centers across the globe should see this as an example of how to present their cities and regions to the general public. It’s pure genius, and Liz and Sergio should probably be hired as consultants by every corner of the Earth.
Historic Downtown Eureka: The landmark center of Eureka proper is full of Victorian architecture, and the surrounding blocks are full of even more Victorian homes. In fact, Eureka has one of the largest collections of Victorian structures in the entire country.
From downtown buildings to sprawling mansions and cute, smaller homes, the pristine condition of many of these places gives a sense of pride to the often cloud-covered and not economically-booming city.
Just having a stroll around downtown is a chance to fill up your SD card with the curves and intricate detail that will confront you at every turn of a corner.
The pinnacle of this is the Carson Mansion, completed in 1886 for lumber tycoon William Carson, now a private club and considered one of the most garish examples of Victorian architecture in all the land.
Eureka Boardwalk: Not particularly separate from the historic downtown, you’ll find the boardwalk. Home to a few businesses, at least one boat tour operation, and a nice walk along the water, we enjoyed hanging out and watching the fishing boats on one side while eyeing the hippies, musicians, and ‘free spirits’ on the other side.
It’s a nice place to sit and enjoy the scenery on the rare sunny afternoon, and wasn’t crowded at all except for a group of tourists waiting for the next boat to depart.
We also saw this pet turkey, belonging to some ‘eccentric’ heh. Gobble, gobble!
Ferndale, California: Twenty miles southwest of Eureka is the town of Ferndale, complete with its 1,300 happy residents and singular main drag. Not to be outdone by Eureka, Ferndale is seemingly famous for its proud Victorian heritage.
The entire Main Street is chock-full of this architecture, each building painted to its own personality while being surrounded by fields on one end and rising mountains on the other.
Most of the shops cater to tourists – trinkets, antiques, T-shirts, etc. – but we had a nice walk around the area, including a duck away from Main Street and onto the side streets, where the Victorian scene continues in every direction.
Lost Coast: Tucked away from small Humboldt County towns, the Redwoods, and the tourist drag, you’ll find the Lost Coast. It’s almost entirely development-free, and keeps most tourists away with its long, two-lane, treacherous drive through the mountains.
If you’re thinking of the coast as somewhere you can be free of civilization and high-season traffic, there are very few places you’ll find it. One of those is this. Dropping out of sight outside of Ferndale, you’ll find yourself winding up and up and up, high above the clouds and into the golden mountaintops and plateaus that keep this place mostly untouched.
The only thing you’ll see is the occasional rancher or a small herd of cows.
Once you drive for a while and come out of your winding-road dizziness, you’ll be greeted with another reward: Miles of people-less coastline.
It’ll just be you, the water, the waves, the fog, the grass, the mountains…and maybe a few others every now and then who’ve bothered to make the journey here.
It’s unspoilt and worth every second. It’ll also be sure you don’t loiter around too long, as the weather can change in an instant.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park: The national and state parks systems in California are somewhat strange in organization, with the feds and the state government managing them together or occasionally in place of one another. That’s why the Redwoods are called Redwood National and State Parks. It gets even more confusing when you realize that the Redwoods are actually a group of parks, sometimes entirely cut off from one another.
The one in we spent the most time in is called the Humboldt Redwoods, and it contains Rockefeller Forest, Avenue of the Giants, and many of the other hotspots for Redwoods tourism. We entered the park from the backside after driving through the loop that is the Lost Coast, coming over and through the mountains and down a terribly-kept road. Most people don’t come in this way and never see this route, which is probably why the road is in such bad condition.
Alas, it provided a somewhat unique vantage point to the park, as we tumbled from golden grassland plateau and into ever-increasing tree height. Once you’re inside the park, there are several famous trees you can jump out and see, with plenty of parking lots and short walking paths for those who’d rather not hike for miles.
The temperature here was also about 20-30F degrees warmer than on the Lost Coast, which was both a blessing and a curse.
From here, we hopped onto the famed Avenue of the Giants – aka California State Route 254 – driving at the bewildering 55mph speed limit attached to a narrow, two-lane road flanked by redwoods as old as this country.
It’s just completely bonkers to see these trees in person, nothing that any of our pictures can properly display.
We also stopped in the village of Myers Flat in order to drive through a tree, because you get to drive through a freakin’ tree, man. Sure, it’s totally cheesy, but whatever. We did it anyway. And we’re glad we did, because the gift shop is run by a nice, older lady from Thüringen, Germany. This gave us the opportunity to level-up our German, which is always a good idea.
Redwood National Park: This is an entirely different park, much larger than the above and probably a bit less impressive. We didn’t spend much time here, as we got our fill of redwoods in the other park. But, we did drive through it on U.S. 101, which is where we encountered heavy fog and cliff-side driving, all while being closed-in on by centuries-old trees.
It’s connected to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, as well as Humboldt Lagoons State Park, and a bunch of other parks that are more than willing to confuse the hell out of you. Even if you read up on the National Park Service website, you’ll probably still be very bewildered.
Just roll with it, and ask the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center where you should go. Better yet, follow our Lost Coast route – or don’t, to keep it free of tourists – and then ask the center about other activities in the area. Phew.
Hard to believe we did that in two-and-a-half days, eh? It never felt like rushing, but it sure looks like a lot. We had a great time in Eureka and the surrounding area, chatting with locals, eating locally-sourced treats, driving up and down mountain and coastal back roads, looking up at towering trees, and gawking at Victorian architecture.
Don’t be fooled by the fame of the Redwoods: There’s plenty to do here, and we only just stepped in the door. Next time you’re thinking of heading to Cali, try stepping out of the norm and spending a few days digging into the beauty and friendliness of the North Coast.
Have you ever been to Eureka or the North Coast? Have you visited any of the places in our post? Do you have any suggestions for things people should see when they stay in the region? Any other thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!