The threatened northern spotted owl is perched on a 2,000-year-old redwood tree 370 feet above an enchanted forest floor of moss, ferns and three-leaf clovers. Chocolate-brown eyes are surrounded by chestnut brown feathers with small white spots. The elegant raptor looks at the magnificent world of old-growth trees, providing a home to woodpeckers, salamanders, flying squirrels (dinner) and other threatened species such as the marbled murrelet. A deer enters the grove of my dream.
I fell in love with “virtual” Mendocino County when I hosted a Chasing Clean Air radio segment about saving old-growth redwood trees in Mendocino’s Noyo River Canyon. In 2011 the Mendocino Land Trust and Save the Redwoods League raised awareness and $7 million to buy the 426-acre old-growth forest from loggers in order to preserve the redwoods and threatened species that depend on them. Only 5 percent of the original 120,000 acres of the world’s tallest trees remain in northern California and southern Oregon. The coastal redwoods — 1,000 to 2,000 years old — reach up to 379 feet. One to 2 percent of these old-growth trees are in Mendocino.
California was in its fifth year of drought, which meant mega-fires and climate change were accelerating. Invasive beetles and other species increasingly destroyed trees and their inhabitants. If I didn’t see Mendocino’s old-growth forests now, when?
On Aug. 4, 2016, my friend Patricia Jordan and I left the San Francisco Bay Area for coastal Mendocino. We drove U.S. Highway 101 north in her hybrid, veering left onto two-lane state Route 128. Weaving through tree shade and sun, we passed through the lush Anderson Valley, known for sustainable wineries, green trees, blue skies and some of California’s cleanest air.
We pulled into Lula Cellars to enjoy a picnic, gold-medal 2012 Costa Pinot Noir and a vineyard tour with owner Jeff Hansen. I asked about sustainability.
“We build up a colony of positive bugs, and bad bugs don’t have a chance,” Hansen said, sharing how his pinot noir grapes grow naturally. “We don’t use herbicides or pesticides. Positive predators like barn owls eat bad predators like mice.”
It turned out that Mendocino winemakers lead the country in organic and sustainable practices, and Mendocino County was America’s first jurisdiction to ban genetically modified organisms.
A 3.5-hour drive north from San Francisco, the historic town of Mendocino was situated on coastal bluffs overlooking the Pacific. About 900 residents and countless visitors enjoyed hiking, kayaking, bike-riding, bird- and wildlife-watching, farmers markets and the arts — including a classical music festival held in July. There is one traffic light and no Starbucks, chain stores or fast food in this New England-styled town, which helps maintain its unique charm.
Just south of Mendocino, Pat and I checked into the elegant “Victorian” Little River Inn, family-owned since 1863. A traditional feel permeated ocean-view rooms, a golf course and spa. Its Zagat-award-winning Little River Inn Restaurant overlooked gardens and spectacular coastline. I enjoyed a favorite: Alaskan halibut pan-seared over saffron couscous with toasted coconut, peanuts, raisins and mild curry sauce with local organic vegetables and wine. Adirondack rocking chairs on the guest room’s veranda offered tranquility and Pacific sunsets. Lulled to sleep by the ocean, I woke refreshed for paddling nearby Big River.
Rick Hemmings of Catch a Canoe and Bicycles, Too! provided a locally handmade redwood canoe — a stable outrigger with an efficient design that he said couldn’t tip over. At 1:30 p.m. we gently paddled with the tide up Big River’s estuary, a navigable eight miles, passing ducks, egrets, river otter and double-crested cormorants. It was Pat’s first canoe adventure. I focused my camera while she steered from behind with a foot pedal. The river curved like a ribbon, inviting curiosity. What lurked beyond?
The river’s beauty was such that we didn’t notice the blue sky turn gray. A breeze picked up.
“I feel cold,” Pat said.
We turned around, hugging the river banks.
“Watch that log near the water’s surface!” I pushed my paddle into shallow waters. Pat navigated. Dock in sight, we sang, “Michael row the boat ashore… ” Some climb Everest. We paddled Big River, earning the smile of accomplishment from a lovely afternoon.
“If you love redwoods,” a local said, “you’ve got to see Montgomery Woods State Reserve. It’s one of California’s 31 redwood parks, and remote.”
We drove the twisty, 30-mile Comptche-Ukiah road in an hour, moving aside for speedy trucks. Scenic tree-lined mountains were a reprieve from an increasingly bumpy ride due to gravelly conditions the last 15 miles.
Montgomery Woods State Reserve boasts a 2,743-acre grove and fern forest with Sierra and coast redwoods. In the 1940s the grove was acquired by the Save the Redwoods League and donated to state parks. The small parking lot with an outhouse led to informative panels and picnic tables. We crossed a bridge and climbed a steep 900-foot elevation entrance, leading to the redwood grove of my dream.
Pat and I walked upstream along Montgomery Creek to five never-logged redwood groves. Blankets of ferns and three-leaf clovers. Tall trees — to the sky! Fallen trees with giant splayed roots. We stepped over roots, streams and thousands of years of natural history. Trails weren’t always discernible. Daylight and a good sense of direction proved important. The three-mile loop took about an hour, but the memories, will surely last a lifetime.
That night we arrived to the rustic and luxurious Brewery Gulch Inn. Overlooking Smuggler’s Cove and the Pacific, we’d enjoy nightly light buffets featuring local organic produce and carefully chosen wines. Hearty breakfasts, too. The communal dining room offers floor-to-ceiling windows open to a sloping hill with wooden chairs for scenic viewing and fostering of friendships. We met travelers beating the Arizona heat and Europeans traveling scenic state Route 1. The Craftsman-style inn utilized ancient virgin redwood timbers eco-salvaged from Big River, lending a warm ambience. The night sky offered brilliant stars and the inn a handy telescope.
The next morning we headed 10 miles north to Fort Bragg for a whirlwind tour. There was Glass Beach with rugged ocean views but not much glass, the Pudding Creek Express Skunk Train ride through meadows and trees, and Mendocino Coastal Botanical Garden with dahlias in full bloom and a path to coastal bluffs. Historic downtown Fort Bragg had art galleries and bookstores. Returning on Route 1, we came to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse — a bird- and whale-watching mecca in fall and spring — and Jug Handle State Reserve and Beach, geologically rich and beautiful.
Our last day featured Hendy Woods State Park (handicap accessible), just off state Route 128. Soft leaves covered the flat Discovery and Upper Loop Trails to Big Hendy Grove. In the sanctuary of old-growth redwoods we sat on a log and experienced whiffs of earthy wood while a gentle breeze rustled leaves. The Navarro River whispered. Our gaze lifted. Redwood tips touched, as one swayed like a gentle dancer. Birds sang. The peace of a thousand years.
The gentle giants were Mendocino’s greatest gift and our reason to inspire others to preserve old-growth redwoods, providing habitat to threatened creatures and life-giving oxygen to us all. We started back when I felt compelled to turn: Sun rays flooded the redwoods’ path, illuminating Mendocino’s magnificent world.
WHEN YOU GO
Save the Redwoods: Learn about protecting redwood forests at www.savetheredwoods.org.
Little River Inn: 7901 N. Highway 1, Little River, CA 95456, 888-INN-LOVE, www. littleriverinn.com
Brewery Gulch Inn: 9401 N. Highway 1, Mendocino, CA 95460, 707-937-4752, www. brewerygulchinn.com
Visit Mendocino offers helpful information to plan your trip: www.visitmendocino.com.
Lula Cellars: 2800 Guntley Road, Philo, CA 95466, www.lulacellars.com.Tasting room open daily 10 to 6.
State Parks of the Mendocino District: Learn about the 17 Mendocino, California, state parks at www.mendoparks.mcn.org.
Catch a Canoe and Bicycles, Too: 707-937-0273, www.catchacanoe.com
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens at 18220 N. Highway 1, Fort Bragg CA 95437 (south of Fort Bragg): 707-9644352, www.gardenbythesea.org
Historic Skunk Train: Reservations suggested at www.skunktrain.com or 707-964-6371.