Saturday, 13 August 2016

A Drive to the North: Lost and Found Coasts, with some Wine

For previous days, see here and here.

The Shelter Cove General Store - if you look carefully you'll
see that the truck on the right is carrying everything
including the kitchen sink!
Shelter Cove is right in the middle of the so-called "Lost Coast", the 50 mile stretch of coastline which is completely inaccessible by road. The mountains rise directly and almost vertically from the sea to 2000 feet or more. When Route 1 was built along the California coast in the 1930s, it was decided that this part was too hard. A few miles north of Fort Bragg, Route 1 gives up and turns inland to twist over the mountains and merges with US 101, which joins the coast at Eureka.

After my flight to Shelter Cove, I was looking at maps and realised that in fact there is a road which runs close to the Lost Coast. The southern part is called Usal Road, running from Shelter Cove to Usal Beach and then a few more miles to join Route 1 where it departs from the coast. One of the goals of this trip was to drive Usal Road. From the map, it looked as though it should have fantastic views of the ocean and coast from high up on the mountainside.

First we wanted to visit the Sinkyone State Park. (It's pronounced "sinky-on", named after the local Indian tribe). This has to be the most remote State Park in the country. It's reached by a steep, rutted dirt road, descending from 1200 feet to sea level in just over a mile - a ruling gradient of about 20%. I was very glad we had FJ.

It is well worth the drive though. The trail arrives at the coast at a place called Needle Rock. Once, this was an active port, shipping logs for the construction of San Francisco. But now, all that is left is a visitor centre, an old barn, and a primitive camp site. It's a beautiful and tranquil place, with magnificent views up and down the coast as far as Shelter Cove a few miles north. When we arrived a group of elk were ambling along the coast.

Needle Rock, surrounded by strange-looking seaweed.
We had a long talk with the warden - he probably doesn't get to talk to many people. He told us a lot about the way the marijuana industry works, and the damage it is doing. He lives there for a month at a time - just as well, it would be a terrible commute. Amazingly, his wife's car, which was also there, was just an ordinary VW Golf. I would not like to try and get that up and down the trail.

Shelter Cove from Sinkyone.
When we mentioned our plan to drive the Usal Road he said, "Why on earth would you want to do that? It's a terrible road, much worse than the trail down here. It's long and you can't get above 5 mph."

"I thought the views would be magnificent," I replied.

"There aren't any. It's in the trees the whole way, and anyway it's mostly on the wrong side of the ridge."

There was another guy there, talking with the warden, who was three quarters of the way through the round-trip walk along the Lost Coast - he'd spent four days so far, and was expecting to need another two. There is a hiking trail which goes from Route 1 in the south, all the way to the Mattole estuary in the north, the next place accessible by road. It's 50 miles from end to end, and there are long stretches along the beach which are submerged at high tide - so careful planning is needed, or in the worst case you can drown. The southern part goes up and down the mountains - there's a great blog about it here. It's only for the seriously fit.

We did a much shorter walk to see the eponymous Needle Rock. The northern coast is studded with rock formations, often, like this one, pyramidal in shape. But this one had a nasty accident - in the 1906 earthquake, whose starting point was close to here, its top fell off, a ten-foot high chunk of rock which now sits in the water next to what's left of its parent.

We drove back up the narrow, twisty trail to Four Corners where the Usal Road departs to the south. Despite the warden's disparaging remarks, we thought we'd give it a try. FJ has dealt effortlessly with plenty of challenging trails.

Usal sounds like it ought to be an Indian word. But actually it's short for USA Lumber, who logged this part of the coast and created the road.

The first mile was easy enough, dirt with a few ruts but mostly driveable at 10-15 mph. After that things got rapidly worse. The ruts were continuous and up to a foot deep, so we were mostly travelling slower than walking pace, gently dropping the wheels one by one into a rut then climbing out again. Even at that speed it was uncomfortable, especially for a passenger, and taking a lot of concentration. A quick calculation showed that it would have taken four or five hours of this to reach the other end. Finally after about three miles we looked at each other and agreed, "Enough". We had seen nothing but trees the whole way - very pretty trees, it's true, but not the magnificent coastal views we'd hoped for.

FJ resting at our picnic spot after the traumatic drive
along Usal Road.
We turned around and found an idyllic clearing where we ate our lunch. After that, 15 more minutes of the painful trail took us back to Four Corners, from where we could take the much longer but still faster and much more comfortable road back to the coast.

The first part of the route is through the hamlet of Whitehorn. Something we noticed here and everywhere else on these little roads is that nearly every single house has a solid wooden fence in front of it, completely blocking any view into the surrounding lot. Sometimes the fence seems to go all around the lot, but often it's just alongside the road. There is an obvious explanation - but really, every house? Is everyone here growing illicit pot? And even if so, is it really a good idea to draw attention to the fact with a massive - and expensive - fence?

The long way round back to the coast is very long, and it ends with the very twisty mountain crossing at the northern end of Route 1. Just when you think it's over, at the point where it rejoins Usal Road, it suddenly dives back inland again for the next few miles. Finally it reaches the coast just north of the tiny settlement of Westport.

From there on it is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, even more spectacular than Big Sur and with a lot less traffic. Every bend and every bay is breathtaking. The sand is dark, almost black, and the bays and headlands are dotted with rock formations.

Eventually it passes through Fort Bragg, the only real town along the whole coast from San Francisco to Eureka. It's an unlovely place of strip malls, car dealers and such, but it does have the only Starbucks on the whole coast, which made a welcome break.

Beyond Fort Bragg, the next place is Mendocino - which is more fancy tourist trap than real town. After that, there really is nothing but tiny hamlets right down to Marin County.

But our destination for the night was Boonville, inland on Route 128. This initially follows the gorge of the Navarro River, deep in the redwoods with 2000 foot mountains on either side. It is really a beautiful road, equal in every way to the more famous Avenue of the Giants but with hardly any traffic.

After the redwoods, the road turns into the Anderson Valley - really just the upper part of the Navarro Valley. It's famous for its wineries, which thanks to the influence of the ocean breezes blowing up the valley can produce wines very comparable with the Alsace region in France. But that was for the next day.

The garden of the Boonville Hotel.
At Boonville we'd booked a room at the best hotel in town, the Boonville Hotel. One reason was their restaurant, so were disappointed to learn that on Sundays they have a single-serving table d'hôte dinner, which was sold out and anyway we were too late. We went across the street to a small tapas-ish place called Aquarelle, where we ate and drank well.
Next day the plan was to take a look around some wineries before going back to the coast for a gentle, scenic drive home. Only problem is, we prefer red wines, and not pinot noir, and the Alsace-style wines of the Anderson Valley are mostly either white or pinot. Since the wineries open at 11, we spent much of the morning at the hotel, taking advantage of our little terrace looking out over their beautiful garden. They grow a lot of their own fruit and vegetables for the kitchen, in a superb mixture with flowers and other decorative plants. The hotel is a real pleasure, marred only by their eye-watering prices and the little problem with the dinner.

Our first call was at Roederer, owned by the famous French champagne house. Their regular champagne is OK, no comparison with a good French champagne but eminently drinkable. The big surprise for us was the identical champagne, but bottled by magnum (a double-size 1.5 litre bottle). It was a completely different wine, much more rounded, much deeper, and really comparable to a French product. We bought a magnum although I'm not sure when we'll drink it.

We visited a couple of others, but we weren't really impressed. The grapes for the deeper reds (Syrah, Zinfandel) are trucked across from the warmer inland valleys. It's de rigeur in California for a winery to make some of everything. Even if their local climate is totally unsuitable, they have to make available everything from Sauvignon Blanc (cold) to Syrah (hot) and everything in between.

At Point Arena.
Point Arena lighthouse.
From there we drove back to the coast at a place called Elk, and then gently southwards. It's impossible to resist stopping at practically every bay and every twist and turn in the road, the scenery is so magnificent. But there was one problem. I hadn't seen a gas station in Boonville, though there must surely be one, and by now FJ with her famously unfrugal appetite was getting seriously low. Just as we pulled into the parking lot for the Point Arena lighthouse, the low fuel warning lit up. That means at best 20 miles before running dry. I was very grateful for the 5-gallon can on the roof, the first time I've ever actually needed it. My new siphon pump worked a treat, and we managed to transfer all of it without spilling a drop, never mind the usual experience of getting it all over my shoes and trousers.
Manchester, California, from the air.
The harbour at Point Arena.
Just before that we passed through Manchester, California. It's a bit of a contrast to its counterpart in northern England (or even New Hampshire) - the population is under 500, and there isn't even a gas station. I have a picture of it that I took from the plane on my flight to Shelter Cove but even that makes it seem bigger than it really is.

Of course a couple of miles after using our emergency gas supply, we found a gas station, in the village of Point Arena. We were very happy to see it. From there we planned to have lunch at a famous chowder house out at the fishing port on the estuary. And indeed we did, but honestly it was a disappointment - more potato soup than chowder, with a handful of gritty, chewy clams. But the onion rings were good, even though each one is enough to harden the arteries of a whole football team.

Pelicans at Jenner.
The beach and Russian River estuary at Jenner.
And then, more coast, as lonely and as hauntingly beautiful as ever. We passed through a string of little places that I'd only ever flown over previously, like the vastly etiolated retirement and second-home community of Sea Ranch. The further south we went, the busier the road became. At Bodega Bay we turned inland to join 101, and the urban route back home. It had been a wonderful journey.

On our way home!

1 comment:

Catofstripes said...

Thank you, that was a lovely trip.