Find towering redwoods, shimmering sea glass, and “stinky” trains on this getaway to the Northern California coast.
By Dan Arol Jahns
Gold Rush miners stole Archimedes exclamation, “I have found it!” when they reached California and struck a vein of the yellow stuff. “Eureka!” is now the official motto of the Golden State —and a North Coast town full of treasures, as well.
After our trip to Eureka—I’d echo the gold rushers. In terms of awe-inspiring terrain, I’d say Highway 1’s winding route atop the oceanside cliffs through Sonoma County, Sea Ranch, Mendocino, and the Lost Coast can hold its own against any of the spectacular places on this Earth.
At the end of the journey lies Eureka’s pot of gold: California’s primeval redwood forests. You can walk on, through, and, now, above these green giants — but you can never get enough of their size, age, or majesty.
So, if you’re looking for a weekend getaway outside the San Francisco Bay Area, driving the Shoreline Highway up to Eureka packs in nature, history, and a lot of fun into a two-night adventure.
North to Fort Bragg
We started our jaunt from our home in Monte Rio in Sonoma County, so if you are starting from San Francisco you’ll just need to power up the 101 for a couple of hours to join Highway 1 at Jenner. (Don’t miss the cliffside view of lazing sea lions where the Russian River meets the Pacific here.)
From Jenner, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the cliffs and ocean as the road winds, climbing steadily, and passing through the famed Sea Ranch area. We had planned to stop in Mendocino for lunch, but we decided to press onward to our destination for the night: Fort Bragg.
The California coastal town was named after the same Confederate general as the U.S. Army base in North Carolina. (Not surprisingly, the California Fort Bragg is now considering a name change.)
We checked into at the not-too-fancy Emerald Dolphin Inn & Mini Golf specifically because they had an arcade and minigolf, however, those had closed for the night by the time we arrived. Instead, we drove the short distance to the coast and the kids walked along the cliffs and watched the fishing boats coming in with the day’s catch.
The next morning I took two of our three little ones who were up early and headed out in search of coffee. We found this charming little drive-through, A-frame coffeeshop called, you guessed it, A-Frame Espresso! The place gets very crowded and the service isn’t particularly fast, so go early, but the drinks and food are delicious.
Exploring Glass Beach
Our kids had read about Glass Beach at school. Fort Bragg’s most famous strand was once used as a dump for the town, and over about 50 years the glass bottles and car turn- and taillights broke up and were smoothed by the waves and sand.
A recent story on the SFGate website, noted that there are actually three glass beaches. “Dump one, the original site, is reachable only by kayak or swimming — unless you go at a negative tide. Site two is a bit north and can be accessed by parking at Noyo Headlands Park, then following the Coastal Trail south and eventually navigating down the bluff. Site three, the official Glass Beach, is located within MacKerricher State Park…”.
Everyone had fun exploring the beach and tidepools. We had been warned on various travel sites that there wasn’t really any glass left at the official beach due to all the tourists pocketing handfuls as souvenirs over the years however, we were pleasantly surprised to seek out a lot of the multicolored beach glass. We later heard it’s actually illegal these days to take any glass home, so consider yourself warned!
Riding the Skunk Train
If your kids are into trains (and what kid isn’t?) Fort Bragg’s Skunk Train is a must-ride. According to the train’s website, “The nickname ‘Skunk’ originated in 1925, when motorcar train engines were introduced (today sometimes referred to as railbuses or rail cruisers). These single-unit, self-propelled train cars had gasoline-powered engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep the passengers warm. The combination of the fumes created a very pungent odor, and the old-timers living along the line said these trains were like skunks, ‘You could smell them before you could see them.’”
There are several train rides you can take, but we did the Pudding Creek Express, a 7-mile, 75-minute magical ride through the redwood forest. They have an open-air car that’s standing room only and comfortable, covered cars with facing bench seats to fit the whole family. They also have a snack and beverage concession stand on board. (Always a key feature for the young.)
For those seeking a more intimate “train” experience, there are two Rail Bike experiences available. These two-person “bikes” ride the rails through the redwoods, as well. But only two can ride at a time, so one of our little ones would have been left out. And these are much more expensive than the train. (Photo courtesy of the Skunk Train.)
A free train museum near the main ticket booth boasts a spectacular model trainset where the kids can enjoy a scavenger hunt to find items hidden in the extensive display.
We headed over to Noho Harbor for lunch and had a spectacular meal at the Noho Harbor Inn restaurant. The dining room offers views overlooking the Noho River right before it spills into Noho Bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond. We got to talking to an elderly couple next to us who are locals in nearby Mendocino. They said they were in Jenner for the day and were looking for a place to eat, but they decided that nothing was as good as their local Noho Harbor Inn restaurant. You could say they drove nearly three hours north to eat next to us! If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
Redwood Adventures near Eureka
After lunch, we hit the road north for Eureka. On the way, we stopped at the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, but because of our car’s kayak rack, we weren’t able to fit through. It was still worth the trip, as there are a lot of fun trees for climbing on and around.
Another classic roadside attraction is Confusion Hill in the town of Piercy. It opened in 1949 and includes what is called a “gravity house,” where people feel the need to stand upright even though they already are. There are other fun, gravity-based optical illusions as well as a light-gauge train ride (unfortunately we missed the last train by a few minutes.)
Crossing the Redwood Skywalk
From the Best Western Plus Bayshore Inn in Eureka, it’s only 10 minutes to Sequoia Park Zoo and its new Redwood Skywalk. The crossing is the longest bridge over the forest canopy in the Western United States. The kids loved running around 100 feet up in the treetops.
The rest of Sequoia Park Zoo is small and, well, like all zoos, kind of sad, but they do have a petting zoo where the kids can interact with goats and other barnyard animals. Right up the street from the zoo is Sequoia Park, a very cool 67-acre park and playground with some unconventional play structures.
5 Best Stops on the “Avenue of the Giants”
We began our 5-hour trip back to the Bay Area with a drive down the world-famous “Avenue of the Giants”, a 31-mile country road that parallels Route 101 and runs through more than 51,000 acres of magnificent redwood groves. There’s a brochure with an auto tour explaining the various points of interest (or you can access it online if you don’t want to kill more trees to read about seeing trees.)
This route is spectacular and offers some gorgeous scenery as well as numerous distractions for the kids. We didn’t hit all of them, but here are five stops we found especially memorable.
1. The Eternal Tree House We made a brief trip to the Eternal Tree House in Redcrest. This roadside attraction boasts a 20-foot room inside a 2,500-year-old living redwood tree. It’s a quick hit – and a big hit with the kids.
2. Founder’s Grove A few miles after you pass over the Central Fork of the Eel River is Founders’ Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This was undoubtedly the most spectacular stop on the whole trip. Right off the parking lot, there are huge downed redwoods to climb on and walk across.
There is a half-mile loop walk (about 20 minutes with kids), which passes by the Founders’ Tree and is a natural playground for kids of all ages — including this big kid! The sheer size of these redwoods is unbelievable.
Founders’ Tree, named after three of the founders of the Save the Redwoods nonprofit, is 346-feet tall and about 1,400-years-old. Make sure you get the scavenger hunt brochure from the rangers (a $1 suggested donation) to guide you around the various trees, both fallen and standing tall.
3. The Shine Drive-Thru Tree Of course no visit to the giant redwoods is complete without driving your car through a redwood tree. Though our kayak rack blocked our way through the Chandelier Tree, we made up for it with a successful run through the Shine Drive-Thru Tree. We did scrape our Kia Telluride a wee bit, but it was worth it.
4. Shine’s Redwood Tree Houses The Shine compound also has some amazing treehouses. And I don’t mean houses in the trees, I mean houses made out of two huge redwoods.
5. Coffee for the Road After that it was a quick stop at Sips Organic Coffee in Miranda to caffeinate for the ride home and to treat the kids to some ice cream. Then we hopped back on the 101 for the drive home.
Dan Jahns – October 2021
Dan is a New Jersey native who has lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong and now resides in Los Angeles with his wife Francesca and their three young children. Having seen so many travel-loving couples grounded when they started having babies, Dan and Francesca made a pact that they would continue to explore no matter how large the brood got. They kept their promise to each other and now the family of 5 travels as often and as far as possible. Read about Dan’s pre-kids travels at Eat, Play, Love – An Around the World Travel Blog.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
The Ultimate New Orleans Itinerary
A week - or weekend - of family fun
Adventuring in Puerto Rico
Rainforest, beaches & culture - without leaving the US
In Mexico’s Surrealist Secret Garden
See secret gardens & endless waterfalls
Thailand during Covid
The easiest family beach vacation in Southeast Asia
Dog Days in the SoCal Desert
Poolside Palm Springs & Joshua Tree & more!
Insider’s Guide to the Best of Andalucia, Spain
Granada, Seville, and Córdoba—and much more
The Road to “Eureka!”
From sea glass beaches to redwood forests
8 Reasons Why You Should Rent a Pool NOW
Poolside Palm Springs & Joshua Tree & more!
Coastal Paradise in North Carolina
Pass the Outer Banks for the “Wright” Beach
A Perfect Day in San Francisco’s SOMA District
Art! Architecture! Parks! Garlic fries!