Well worth the 10-mile round-trip detour west of US-101, the historic town of Ferndale (pop. 1,368) is an odd fish along the woodsy Northern California coast, a century-old dairy town that would look more at home in middle America. The three-block-long, franchise-free Main Street includes a fully stocked general store, the Golden Gait Mercantile (421 Main St.). Whitewashed farmhouses dot the pastoral valleys nearby. Ferndale’s diverse history is well documented inside the Ferndale Museum (515 Shaw Ave., 707/786-4466, hours vary).
Ambling along Main Street is the best way to get a feel for Ferndale, and if you build up an appetite, there are many good places to eat. One of the oldest cafés in the West, Poppa Joe’s (409 Main St., 707/786-4180), serves great diner food in a no-frills Victorian-era storefront, while one of California’s earliest hotels features a family-friendly Italian restaurant, The Hotel Ivanhoe Restaurant & Saloon (315 Main St., 707/786-9000, dinner only). On the main road midway between town and US-101 is another fast-foodie landmark: the No Brand Burger Stand (1400 Main St., 707/786-9474), where all the tasty patties are hand-formed from local grass-fed beef. There are fab fries and luscious milk shakes too—yum.
Along with its good food options, Ferndale is equally well supplied with places to stay. Right off the heart of Main Street is the clean and tidy Redwood Suites (332 Ocean Ave., 707/786-5000, $129 and up), but the real draws are the half-dozen historic B&Bs, including The Shaw House Inn (703 Main St., 707/786-9958, $135 and up), an 1854 American Gothic masterpiece.
The Lost Coast
Between Ferndale and Rockport, the main US-101 highway heads inland along the Eel River. But if you have time and a taste for adventure, head west from Ferndale along the narrow, winding Mattole Road, which loops around Cape Mendocino through the northern reaches of the so-called Lost Coast, a 100-mile stretch of shoreline justly famous for its isolated beauty. By road, you can only get close to the ocean at a few points—the few miles south of Cape Mendocino, and again at the fishing resort of Shelter Cove, west of Garberville—but hikers can have a field day (or week) exploring the extensive coastal wilderness. Some 50 miles of rugged untouched coastline, packed with tide pools and driftwood-strewn beaches, have been preserved in a pair of parks, the King Range National Conservation Area in the north and the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park farther south.
Besides Hwy-211/Mattole Road, which makes a 70-mile loop between Ferndale and the Rockefeller Forest section of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a network of rougher and even more remote routes allows auto access to the Lost Coast, linking the hamlet of Honeydew with coastal Hwy-1 near Rockport. If you do explore this wild and rainy region, take a good map and plenty of food and water, and be careful.
For further information on the Lost Coast, contact the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (1695 Heindon Rd., 707/825-2300); its office is off US-101 on the north side of Arcata.
Back along US-101, on the banks of the Eel River midway between the coast and the Humboldt Redwoods, Scotia was the last true company town left in California. The Pacific Lumber Company (a.k.a. PALCO) built it and, for most of the 20th century, owned and operated everything, from the two huge wood-cutting mills to the 10 blocks of pastel-painted houses, the church, and the schools that constituted this little community of about 1,000 people.
The lumber mills used to be the heart and soul of the town, as well as Scotia’s main tourist attraction, but after a 1980s junk-bond leveraged buyout and subsequent asset-stripping, PALCO finally went bankrupt in 2007. Since then the town and the mills have struggled to find a way forward, but Scotia is still a proud and photogenic place, well worth a look and a wander.
Part of the old lumber mill has been reconfigured into a biofueled home for the excellent (and 100 percent organic) Eel River Brewery (1777 Alamar Way, Fortuna, 707/725-2739), which operates a popular tasting room and restaurant at its original location near Ferndale, off US-101 in the hamlet of Fortuna.