Pacific Coast Highway – US101 California Edition

When I was in high school and college in Florida, I drove highway US 1 up and down the Atlantic coast. I had the desire to hit the road even then. Now I’ve driven its western, Pacific coastal companion road, US101. In this post, I reflect on my California journey from Monterey to Crescent City. It was fabulous. To be honest, I did not take the 101 through San Francisco because it takes you over the Golden Gate Bridge. Not happening with the Airstream behind me, lol. Not happening with me in the car either, lol. Otherwise, I stayed on the 101.

From just north of the San Francisco bay to Ukiah is the famed California wine country. Santa Rosa is a good base location and there are a dozen wineries to visit near the highway. Go farther northeast and you’ll be in Napa, an entirely different level of vineyard access. The 101 highway rolls through gentle hills covered in vines. The coastal mountains ring the area. I was amazed, even though it was still winter, how beautiful this area is. I can only imagine how magnificent the hills and valleys are when the vines are in bloom with abundant fruit. I had one sunny day in this area and sadly, gray skies did not make for photos worth taking. Ukiah is a small town with a main street full of historic buildings. The rest was the usual retail you’d find in any town. Lake Mendocino is the highlight of the area, but the National Forest lands and trails were closed for the winter. I would like to have gone up into the hills where the Russian River (of the wine fame) begins. There is a Buddhist monastery there. Weather and road conditions kept me from going.

I had to stay longer in Ukiah than I expected because winter storms kept rolling through. I waited for the snow to stop and melt on the road north of me. Proceeding too quickly would have put me in a difficult situation with the trailer in tow. This is the Redwoods Empire County Fairgrounds RV park, inside the fairgrounds complex. I stayed at several fairgrounds because they were far cheaper than the commercial RV parks. State parks were either closed or their sites were too small for me to fit into. Just one of the decision points I had to make to afford this trip.

Waited out the snow at my campground in Ukiah.

Avenue of the Giants

The Avenue was on my bucket list. It is where the Coast Redwoods start dominating the landscape. The Avenue is a local CA road that parallels US 101. It’s a two-lane road that winds its way for 30 miles through ancient groves of these amazing trees. Humboldt Redwoods State Park sits within this area and there are trailheads all along the roadway with parking pull-offs nearby. I stayed a couple of days in the area so I could travel the Avenue without the trailer.

I got one day with sunshine and headed out as quickly as I could unhitch and go. I stopped numerous times during my visit to get out and soak up the enormity of these giants. The Eel River runs through the area and provides a photogenic backdrop. Sadly, a lengthy segment of the Avenue was closed at the northern end due to downed trees and broken pavement. It’s all part of winter in California. Even though there were cars on the road, the stillness of the forest is like nothing else. Stepping off the road just a few yards brings immediate tranquility and silence.

It’s hard to do justice to the scale of the trees but here is a sampling of them.

On to the Coast

I left the Avenue of the Giants expecting to camp in the Victorian town of Ferndale which sits at the mouth of the Eel River as it empties into the Pacific. Sadly, I never got to Ferndale. The Eel River started rising and the bridge to town closed. It rained for three days as I camped in a parking lot on a hill. It was the safest spot I could be in and I didn’t get to do anything in town as rising water, rain, and wind kept me hunkered down. The last night there, the clouds cleared and the sun peaked out at sunset. While this stop was a bust, my next ones more than made up for it.

Bears River Casino in Fortuna

This part of the coast is in the thick of Redwood country. My first stop was Trinidad, CA just north of Ferndale on US 101. I camped at another casino on a hill. This one had views of the ocean and another sunny day. Sue-Meg State Park is in the vicinity. It celebrates the rich Native American history of the area and has a replica of a tribal village on site. There is beach access and plenty of trails.

The Heights Casino in Trinidad

The heart of Redwood country can be found in four parks. Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek State Park, Del Norte State Park, and Jedediah Smith State Park stand sentinel. The entirety of the four parks are a world heritage site and are co-run by the National Park Service and the California Parks Department. Trinidad was my warmup for the main event – staying at Elk Prairie Campground in Prairie Creek State Park just north of Orick, CA.

The 101 highway winds through the coastal mountain foothills lined by redwood and other hardwood forests. It’s captivating. Then, as you come back down to sea level, the road comes around a bend and you see the Pacific ocean in front of you. The highway at this point is on a spit of land that traverses several freshwater lagoons and the ocean. There are wide pullouts on the oceanside of the highway – easily fitting 4 cars wide. Later, I came back to sit and enjoy the ocean. The waves rolled in below me and logs and other debris lined the coast. These beaches are not for spreading out your blanket. They can be dangerous to walk. Signs everywhere tell you to stay safely above the beach. If the tide is coming in, you may get cut off from your access point to higher ground. Waves can hit you and throw you into the coastline barrier and worse, the undertow can take you out to sea. You don’t want to hit logs and other debris that float in the water, especially during stormy winters. Finally, “sneaker” waves may literally sneak up on you and toss you about. They can be swells that don’t stop and turn into very large waves that crash at the shoreline, sometimes coming up over the coastal barrier. I stayed up top, got out my camp chair, and posted up in the late afternoon to soak up the rare sunshine and everpresent fresh air.

Elk Prairie Campground

This campground was another bucket list item for me. Seeing wildlife is always a joy. This park is filled with roaming Roosevelt Elk who come through the campground, feed in the nearby meadows and grassy areas, and hang out. While the main meadow was in its winter hibernation, plenty of grassy areas were within the campground and around the visitor center. I saw elk every day in various places, but not near my campsite, which was in a grassy clearing next to the meadow. On my day of departure, I was busy getting ready to leave. I had gathered my bag of trash and was going to drop it into the container a few sites away from me. I opened my door and I felt like Dorothy. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. There were the elk – eight males, right outside my door. They were having a hearty breakfast. When they had their fill, they all got down on the ground to hang out and chill. I was in awe. Sadly I had to hitch up and leave. All the while they sat contentedly until one got up and started pushing another elk to get that spot. It wasn’t fighting, merely asserting position. The camp host said that females are off having their calves and these are considered bachelor herds. I pulled out onto the camp road that looped around this grassy spot and I waved goodbye.

When I wasn’t spotting elk or sunning next to the ocean, I was enjoying the many trails this park offers in the redwood forest. I saw big trees and even bigger ones. I hiked up, down. and all around in this breathtaking area. I saw some Skunk Cabbage and Daffodils. Some of the places I wanted to go to, like the Lady Bird grove where the first lady dedicated the Redwood National Park in the 1960s, were closed due to weather and storm damage. Just a day before my arrival, the main scenic road that goes through the park and parallels the 101, Drury Scenic Parkway, was closed due to downed trees and debris. Luckily, they cleared it and reopened it the day I got there. It’s a beautiful road that I took as I left for my next stop.

Redwoods have very shallow root systems and more boughs than most trees. It’s quite common for them to fall over if the ground is too saturated. Limbs fall constantly and when the tree is over 200 feet tall, the crash of that limb on the ground creates a mess. The forests here are dense and that is due to the preservation efforts of the Coast Redwood League. The ancient trees were on their way to being clear-cut. The trees are inordinately straight and tall – a logger’s dream. But their beauty and limited growing area meant they needed protection. Coast Redwoods grow on the coast only – because they need a damp, foggy climate to propagate. It’s also what enables them to grow to be so tall. They only appear from Big Sur to Northern California. When I crossed out of California into Oregon, it was as if a switch was flipped and the Redwoods disappeared.

After Prairie Creek, I moved on to Crescent City and visited Jedediah Smith State Park. It was my last stop in California. I would love to have stayed in the park campground, but the sites were all too small for my Airstream. I parked in a nearby commercial campground. Smith was a white explorer and part of the gold rush. He was an original white settler in the area and the park is dedicated to his exploits. The Smith River runs through the park and out to the ocean, north of the park. Fishing and boating are favorite pastimes of the locals and tourists. There’s a 16-mile, hard-packed, dirt road that goes through the park. I drove part of it and stopped at Stout Grove and walked the trail. Being in the presence of these ancients makes it easy to understand why this is a World Heritage site.

It’s 241 miles from Ukiah to Crescent City. I spent 16 days on this portion of the trip so I could soak up all the Redwood magic. Sadly, I discovered that I must add Redwoods to my list of trees that produce my allergies. I got sick in Big Sur and it lingered through Crescent City. Once I hit Oregon and left the Redwoods behind, my symptoms cleared. That’s a disappointing realization, but I’m so happy I toughed it out and spent over four months in Redwood country.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.