The Northern California Coast Rewarding Local Trip
When I moved to Nevada County after early retirement 15 years ago, I realized that I would not be able to make all of the exotic trips I had dreamed of in my younger days.
Because I was both financially and time challenged, I decided to see all I could of my native state in shorter trips of from one to seven days, such as my recent journey up the North Coast.
This trip included my favorite out-of-the-way places that I had visited several times before. I would recommend an SUV, pickup truck or a sturdy older car that can take some abuse; and for some of the side trips that I often indulged in, a four-wheel-drive vehicle was almost essential.
I used my 14-year-old 4WD Toyota pickup with camper shell, which allows me to be totally self-contained for any type of dry camping, allowing about two gallons of water a day, with a propane stove and ice chests to suit the weather. A cell phone would have been handy for emergencies, but I haven’t succumbed to one yet.
I started west on HIghway 20 to the end at Fort Bragg. Allow at least five hours for this interesting east-to-west crossing of California; if you have not done it before, there are many interesting points of interest along the way.
After going through Marysville and Yuba City, you will observe the smallest mountain range in the state – the Sutter Buttes. The entire range is privately owned, but escorted tours can be arranged at various times during the year.
This can make an interesting day-trip, but entails some rather strenuous hiking, since there are no roads and the current owners are intent on keeping it that way. Just like Nevada County, there is a lot of pressure being exerted to develop at least the southern edge of the Buttes.
Colusa is the next city and offers interesting possibilities for exploring. Be especially careful to observe all signs going through town, since you are required to go east and south before finally going west again!
The Colusa National Wildlife Refuge west of town offers a self-guided auto tour. During late fall and winter, many thousands of ducks and geese cover the ponds and marshes to escape the rigors of their Arctic homeland.
Continuing on Interstate 5 for about 40 miles, you come to Clear Lake. It is a beautiful lake, as long as Lake Tahoe but much narrower and not as pristine. There is a nice park for a picnic at the far end.
Continue on Highway 20 to HIghway 101 and then north 14 miles to Willits, then go west 34 miles on the heavy-duty part of 20 to the old port and logging town of Fort Bragg, established in 1857 to oversee the Mendocino Indian Reservation.
From here on, the trip gets more interesting. Proceed approximately 30 miles north past an old schoolhouse called Rockport.
Slow down here, because in about three miles you have to find a road to the left marked County Road 431. Follow this mountain road for six miles to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.
Have $11 ready in summer (until Oct. 1) and $7 in the off-season for depositing in a pipe post after selecting your primitive campsite. The sites are scattered in a 300-acre area – cross the bridge over Usal Creek and turn left to the ocean to find my favorite site, No. 30, on the left.
Other sites are in the forested area to the east. Make sure that the site is not occupied before depositing your money and realize that the money goes for a good cause, even though it is primitive.
Usal Creek dried up this year, and I spent a fascinating night and morning watching and listening to the breakers crashing into the sea wall that had built up along the ocean front. You’d better have an escape route planned if you don’t want to get wet.
The “Wilderness Unlimited” signs on the way in mean what they say – they “own” this land under lease from Georgia Pacific. Keep out! It is hard to believe, but in the 1890s there was a thriving logging village located at Usal Creek, with a steam-powered redwood mill, feeding lumber to a chute at the end of a long wharf. (The book “Exploring the North Coast” is an excellent reference source if you intend to spend more time along this fascinating 50-mile stretch north into the King Range.)
If you have more time and a sturdy vehicle (4WD in rain), proceed 19 more miles to the end of Usal Road at Four Corners. From this point on, there are endless possibilities for adventure exploring the Shelter Cover area and the King Range clear to Ferndale.
I finally left my favorite “beach” at 11 a.m., making my way back to Highway 1 and on to 101 at Leggett. Turning north through the heart of the redwood country, I drove through Garberville on the Avenue of the Giants bypass and on through Eureka to state Highway 299, then east along the Trinity National Scenic Byway through WIllow Creek and a few more miles to Hawkins Bar. Denny beckons!
Go north across the Trinity River and follow any sign or painting to Denny, about 18 miles. Be sure to take the right fork about halfway up! The very nice Forest Service campground is about two miles before the “town.” Ladds Store (the town) has been closed for years (at least in the off-season). I was the only occupant (on Oct. 15) of the very nice campground above the New River (class 5 for you rafters).
This is Trinity Wilderness after passing some active gold mines and farm areas north of Denny.
For some real wilderness hiking, go about five miles on Forest 7N15 to the Old Denny trail head. I have only been to the Virgin River confluence, but younger hikers can make it nine more miles to the unbelievable sit of Old Denny.
If you can make it, I’m told that it can be a very rewarding experience, and the loop trail goes past several other abandoned mining villages and old mines. The entire loop back to the trail head is about 24 miles.
Midmorning, I got back to 299 and headed east through historic places on the beautiful Trinity River. Take time to explore Weaverville. Go past Whiskeytown Lake to Redding, down 99 and the Highway 70 cutoff through Oroville, and take the rough Woodruff Road cutoff to 20 and home! It’s about a 600-mile trip.
Don Jones lives in Penn Valley.
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