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Weekend Getaway in Enchanting Mendocino

Mendocino, California in its values and culture, is more “Coastal Elite” than “49er.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

At first blush, Mendocino on California’s northern coast is reminiscent of Cape Cod’s coastal towns but with a definite Western twist, like the wooden water towers (we wondered if they are still used, considering Mendocino’s water crisis), some repurposed into shops, like one that houses a Spells shop. This is expressed also in the charming architecture, much of it Victorian and the natural setting – high cliffs than drop into the Pacific Ocean – dramatic and spectacular.

Indeed, Mendocino seems to epitomize today’s California in
values and culture – the northern part, at least. The boutique shops,
restaurants and markets are high end, high quality but not pretentious –  they are artful and earthy. There are any number of holistic, New Age-y, naturalist services and organic food markets.  Mendocino is more “Coastal Elite” than “49er.”

 

Headlands Coastal Trail. Menodocino is more “coastal elite” than “49er” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The town itself hugs the rocky coast, providing a stunning scene from the coastal cliff walk, Headlands Coastal Trail, that snakes around and turns on itself for two miles. There is constant drama as waves rise out of green, aquamarine ocean crash against rocks, rush through rock tunnels with a roar and then spit up through a rocky blowhole.

Despite COVID and despite a drought so severe the town has
to truck in water, Mendocino is charming, welcoming, and exudes tranquility (and resiliency) – all is right with the world in this slice of heaven.

Fog Eater Cafe, Mendocino © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a pleasant, relaxing morning at Little River Inn, we head to a delightful Sunday brunch at Fog Eater Cafe. Indeed, we join a line
that has formed before the quaint restaurant with a 1940s/50s diner vibe for indoor dining and a gorgeous garden for outdoor dining, even opens. The hearty menu is a vegetarian fusion of Deep South/New Orleans and NorCal (if you can imagine that), big on comfort food, served on gorgeous, random antique China with silver utensils.  It’s a hoot, a feast for the eyes. You didn’t imagine Southern food could be vegan? The whole menu is vegan except for poached eggs and the preparations make you forget you’re not eating meat. 

Sunday brunch at Fog Eater Cafe, Mendocino: corn bread French toast © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get the corn bread French toast with apple, soaked in syrup. There’s fried cauli+ waffles (fried cauliflower and green onion sorghum waffle with pepper jelly and spicy sorghum syrup); pimento cheese and
black-eyed pea sausage biscuit sandwich; savory oatmeal with local tempeh bacon, roasted carrots, braised greens with either poached egg or tofu. Fog Eater Café is open for Sunday brunch, happy hour, and dinner when menu items might include Cheesy Pumpkin Grits, Fried Blue Oyster Mushrooms, fried green tomato biscuit sliders and a Southern Plate featuring mac ‘n cheese. The beignets come with a rhubarb jam. Natural wine, local beer and wine-based cocktails are also served. (Outdoor dining available for all; indoor dining for fully vaccinated guests; also take out; no reservations, 45104 Main St., Mendocino, CA 95460).

“Come in for a spell” at Loot and Lore, Mendocino © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

With great delight, we walk each street to explore the lovely shops and galleries in Mendocino (the village’s scale is perfect) – coming upon such special places as the Mendocino James & Preserves, Moore Used Books and Big River Trading Company on Main Street; the Artists Co-op of Mendocino, My Chic Farmhouse, and Icons on Albion Street; Mendocino Country Store on Ukiah; Mendocino Chocolate Company, Déjà Vu, on Lansing Street. Most intriguing is Loot and Lore, a wicca supplies shop on Albion, housed in a former water tower, where the sign that greets you is “Come in for a spell.” (We peek in through the window because it was closed when we visit.)

Water tower houses Loot and Lore, Mendocino © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We particularly loved Compass Rose (613 Albion Street), featuring American Crafts – the oldest family-run business in Mendocino, established 50 years ago; the father makes the leather items; there are also stunning objects in glass. Also, Rainsong offering exquisite contemporary clothing, accessories – you could imagine a millionaire coming to Mendocino for a weekend, buying a house and furnishing it and their wardrobe in one spot – the quality and designs are spectacular (10470 Lansing Street).

Compass Rose, Mendocino © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The galleries are marvelous – you never know what you will discover. I am enthralled coming upon the wildlife and nature photography of Jon Klein at the Lansing Street Gallery, which accurately describes itself as  “a hub for coastal and Bay Area artists, representing a diverse, vibrant and creative community” in the best fashion (lansingstreetgallery.com)

I especially love Mendocino’s rich heritage – mixed or repurposed but preserved – like the water towers that once supplied the homes (and may well again, considering the drought). Besides the historic Ford House that now serves as the Visitor Center for Mendocino Headlands state park, the Kelly House Museum serves as the town’s historical society and offers docent-led walking tours ($20 pp) as well as self-guided audio tours (707-937-5791, www.kelleyhousemuseum.org).

Historic Mendocino Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We loved wandering into the historic Mendocino Hotel, established 1878 – as you walk through the door with its etched glass into the Victorian lobby, you feel you have crossed through a time portal.

But what most transfixes me is the sculpture atop the Masonic Hall, dating from 1873, “Time and the Maiden,” which has become Mendocino’s iconic landmark.

 

“Time and the Maiden” atop the Masonic Hall has become Mendocino’s iconic landmark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I later learn that this exquisite sculpture by Erick Albertson, “the first Worshipful Master” of the Masonic Hall, was hand-carved “out of a single virgin redwood trunk”, is over 10 feet high and wasn’t specifically commissioned for the hall. Albertson, who undertook construction of the hall in 1866, “created the statue as a personal exercise of craftsmanship” but the Masonic members wanted it for the hall, so had a cupola built to support it.

 

Also known as ‘Father Time and the Weeping Maiden,” the haunting scene depicts a weeping girl reading from a book that rests on a broken column, an hourglass at its base; she holds an urn in her left hand and a sprig of acacia in her right, as Father Time, depicted as an angel with wings and carrying a scythe, stands behind her, tenderly braiding her hair.

“Time and the Maiden” atop the Masonic Hall has become Mendocino’s iconic landmark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to Wikipedia, the hour glass symbolizes the brevity of human life; the scythe and the urn foreshadow its end; the broken column symbolizes a life cut short prematurely, the weeping maiden represents those who mourn; the open book represents the enduring record of accomplishments. Acacia was the wood is specified in the Book of Exodus to use to build the Ark of the Covenant, and is also an evergreen known for its resistance to fire and decay, signifying the immortality of the human spirit. The symbols are drawn from history or mythology, and are used in Masonic rituals and rites. 

The masons have their own understanding of the symbols which boil down to “time, patience and perseverance will accomplish all things.” 

But to me, the girl symbolizes lives cut short – so common in Albertson’s day. Father Time is also the Angel of Death but his scythe remains in its sheath. He is taking his time, tenderly braiding her hair. Perhaps she is telling him she has not yet had the opportunity to fill the pages of that book. Perhaps we are witnessing a negotiation. Has the hour glass run out for her?

The Masonic Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and though sold to a savings bank in 1977 which operates on the first floor, the Masons continue to hold their meetings there on the second floor.

Mendocino cherishes its heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mendocino was the first of several north coast towns founded between 1851 and 1920 – the heyday of the lumber industry. German immigrant William Kasten was bound for gold country in 1850 when his ship ran aground off Mendocino coast; in 1851 he filed papers claiming the land. San Francisco engineer Harry Meiggs built a sawmill at Big River in 1852 and Little River was founded in 1854 as a mill town supplying the lumber that built San Francisco.

In 1854 Jerome B. Ford, superintendent of the first sawmill and founder of the town, built a home overlooking the Pacific. Today, the Ford House serves as the visitor center for Mendocino Headlands State Park and houses various exhibits.

Mendocino cherishes its heritage and what’s old can be new again © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Many who found their fortune not in California’s gold but in lumber built these magnificent Victorian buildings. But over-logging resulted in depletion of the forests and led to businesses and the school being abandoned – until new enterprises, like the vineyards and tourism, repurposed and repopulated the area. (We stay at Little River Inn, opened by Ole Hervilla, a pioneer of Mendocino’s tourism, who converted his 1857 house into the inn in 1939).

We can’t leave Mendocino without returning for a brief walk on a favorite section of the Headlands trail, just before it starts to rain. Considering the drought, I expect to see people rushing out and dancing.

Headlands Coastal Trail, Mendocino © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During our all-too brief but oh so perfect weekend in Mendocino, every moment is filled with something special, and yet so unhurried and relaxed. We are able to enjoy the Skunk Train, Glass Beach, Noyo Harbor and Headlands Coastal Trail, as well as exploring Mendocino’s lovely shops, boutiques, markets and eateries. But there are scores of other places and experiences – so many with enchanting names and providence (Glass Beach, Pygmy Forest, Fairy Trail) – and we can’t wait to return.

On our list (with help of the Brewery Gulch Inn and Little River Inn):  

Beaches

Van Damme State Beach (the Little River Inn has its own trail down to the beach directly below). Among the activities, this is the launching point for sea cave tours by kayak (Kayak Mendocino, www.kayakmendocino.com, 707-813-7117)

Caspar Beach on Point Cabrillo Drive off Highway One. “Good rock and tide pooling during low tide”

Big River Beach just north of the bridge in Mendocino, where the redwoods meet the sea, is reached from the Presbyterian Church on Main Street to a staircase to the beach. “The most popular beach with lots of activity- surfers, volleyball, etc. Soft sand, river side is often warmer, currents can be dangerous”

Hikes:

The Haul Road at Big River – “Flat and straight, easy walk into the redwoods with a stroller”

Van Damme Pygmy Forest: Fern canyon and ecological staircase walk.“Wooden walkway has educational signage about the pygmy forest. Both walkway and trail are easy for shorter legs and strollers.”

The Fairy Trail – inside the Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg. “Discover fairy dwellings and other surprises. The Gardens are hilly, so bring stroller or prepare to carry little ones.”

Jug Handle State Preserve – just north of Caspar on Highway One, which is recommended by a couple we meet at the Fog Eater. “Best example of an Ecological Staircase in the Western Hemisphere.”Hike through six different ecological zones – a five million year old ecological staircase with ancient marine terraces – wander through tall pygmy forests along a creek canyon. “Great educational science hike for older kids. Be sure to pick up the guide in the parking lot that explains everything.”

Montgomery Woods – first-growth redwood groves (there is an uphill half-mile hike to the virgin redwood groves)

MacKerricher State Park – scenic boardwalk along the ocean to tide pools and seal observation points or walk around the lake.

Ten-Mile Beach – dunes and miles of deserted beach, just north of Fort Bragg past the railroad trestle. – good for walking and biking.

Activities/Attractions

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens – 47 acres overlooking the Pacific

The Point Cabrillo Light House – (Schedule of events at PointCabrillo.org)

Bryan Preserve – in Point Arena: Preserve and breeding of endangered African hoof animals (Weekends, by appointment only). “The 2-hour Jeep tour better for older children”

CV Starr Aquatic Center, Fort Bragg: Water park with lazy river, water slide (must be 48”), and fountains.

Driving 128 through the Navarro Redwoods Forest © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The drive back to Sonoma along Route 128 is gorgeous – taking you through the Navarro Redwoods Forest and Anderson Valley wine region where we stop off at Husch Winery for a wine tasting (we enjoyed the wine at both the Brewery Gulch Inn and Little River Inn). It is very picturesque setting for wine tasting amidst the 21-acre vineyard of Pinot Noir (the vineyard was the first to grow Pinot here), Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer grapes (they require a warmer climate). Husch, founded in 1968, was one of the pioneering vineyards in the Anderson Valley and has used sustainable farming techniques since the 1960s (owl boxes help with gopher control, no till farming, sheep as mowers, insectory, cover crops, fish friendly farm).  In 1971 Husch made history by becoming the first bonded winery in the Anderson Valley. H.A. Oswald (neighboring grape growers) purchased the winery from Tony and Gretchen Husch in 1979; today the Oswald grandchildren run the day-to-day. (Husch Vineyards, 4400 Highway 128, Philo, CA 95466, 800-554-8724, huschvineyards.com)

Husch Vineyards © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We also stop at the PennyRoyal farm in Boonville, famous for its cheese and wine, happy to show off its 23 acres of vineyards, sustainable farming practices and traditional winemaking methods. The rain now coming down heavily (and you need a reservation for a tasting or tour), we stop just long enough to buy delectable cheese produced from their sheep and goats (www.pennyroyalfarm.com).

For excellent planning help: Visit Mendocino County, 866-466-3636, 707-964-9010, www.visitmendocino.com.

See also:

WEEKEND GETAWAY IN MENDOCINO: BREWERY GULCH INN

WEEKEND IN MENDOCINO: HISTORIC SKUNK TRAIN INTRODUCES A NOVEL RAILBIKE EXPERIENCE

WEEKEND GETAWAY IN MENDOCINO: LITTLE RIVER INN

______________________

© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights
reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at
goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Weekend Getaway in Mendocino: Little River Inn

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is just after sunset when we arrive at the Little River Inn, perched on a lovely curve on the Mendocino coast with a commanding view of the ocean. Little River Inn is one of the oldest lodgings on this dramatic stretch of the Northern California coastline, family-owned for 80 years. Over the years, it has expanded, upgraded and modernized in delightful ways to be a true luxury resort with the charm of an inn and ideal for everything from a romantic getaway to a family adventure to a destination wedding.

The original house that is the nucleus of the inn was built in 1857 by Silas Coombs, and has remained in the family ever since. Grandfather Ole Hervilla, clearly a pioneer in turning Mendocino’s economy from lumbering to tourism, turned the original building into an inn in 1939, which is now run by its fifth generation innkeeper, Cally Dym.

The original house that is the nucleus of the Little River Inn was built in 1857. Grandfather Ole Hervilla, a pioneer in turning Mendocino’s economy from lumbering to tourism, turned the original building into an inn in 1939, which is now run by its fifth generation innkeeper, Cally Dym © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Set on 225 wooded acres, the old Coombs home is now surrounded by 65 ocean view rooms in townhouse-style units where you have your own entrance and your own balcony and luxurious amenities like Jacuzzis, steam showers, private hot tubs, gas and wood-burning fireplaces, superior quality bedding and linens. There is also a lovely dining room in the original building and a legendary Ole’s Whale Watch bar.

The Little River Inn is distinguished by having a nine-hole golf course – the only golf course on the Mendocino coast (Ole actually built it himself in 1957 after being dissuaded by the cost of hiring golf architects); two tennis courts with lights for night play, and a day-spa.

Dining in the inn’s restaurant is sublime. The garden has been opened for outside seating (actually it is a tent) as an accommodation for COVID but has proved extremely popular – we sit among twinkle lights at the base of redwood trees.

Little River Inn has turned its lush garden into a dining space © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sophisticated menu offers a host of delightful preparations, marvelous flavors and gorgeous presentation. Sarah indulges in the Spicy Lobster Tagliolini prepared with lobster meat, lobster-tomato broth, yuzu caviar and house-made Tagliolini pasta (one of the “small plate” offerings that is sufficient for a main course); mushroom agnolotti prepared with “black pearl” oyster mushrooms, ricotta, parmesan with a black truffle cream and pecorino tartufo. Eric savors the Cioppino, prepared with Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, local rock fish, simmered in a tomato-fennel broth; and I delight in good ol’ Ole’s cheese Burger with flourishes of grilled onions, tomato, mayo, pickes, Pain de Mei bun, prepared with perfection.

Chef Dym’s Spicy Lobster Tagliolini prepared with lobster meat, lobster-tomato broth, yuzu caviar and house-made Tagliolini pasta © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

These are the creations of five-star chef Marc Dym, who was named Executive Chef at Little River Inn in 2006 after Marc and Cally (the fifth-generation Innkeeper) were married. Dym, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, brings a modern twist to classic American-regional cuisine and have garnered Little River Inn high Zagat ratings.

Schedule a tee time at Little River Inn’s Audubon-certified 5,458-yard, nine-hole golf course. Tucked among redwoods and pine trees, it offers majestic views of the Pacific and some “unexpected” challenges.

The Little River Inn’s Audubon-certified 5,458-yard, nine-hole golf course – the only golf course on the Mendocino coast – offers great views and interesting challenges © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

I love the colorful back story that once again features Ole Hervilla, who turns out to have been a major visionary for Mendocino’s tourism:  After watching Arnold Palmer play on television, in the 1950s, he got the idea to build a golf course at the inn because it would be a draw for guests. Locals were skeptical that anybody would want to play golf on the coast (tell that to Pebble Beach).  Working with his own contractors (after getting cost estimates from golf architects), he opened his course in 1957.

There is also a driving range, putting green, two lighted tennis courts (available free to guests; they even supply the racquet) and fully stocked Golf and Tennis Pro Shop (call 707-937-5667 to reserve a tee time).

Little River Inn’s Spa offers a full array of services including customized massages and facials (open daily, 10 am-5 pm).

Reveling in a quiet cup of coffee on our balcony at Little River Inn, looking out to the Pacific Ocean © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All of this – the setting, accommodations, dining, amenities – makes Little River Inn prime for destination weddings from elopements to grand affairs of 200, reunions, as well as events and functions, with four different venues.

The inn is especially welcoming to families and offers Family Discovery and Family Adventure packages, and children under 16 stay free.  Pet-friendly units are also available (check out the Water Dog package). Other packages include Stargazing, Romance, there are also special offerings for festivals and seasonal promotions.

Stroll down Little River Inn’s private trail to Van Damme State Beach to enjoy the sunset and the tidepools © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Little River Inn is perfectly positioned to take advantage of all the attractions in Mendocino, Fort Bragg. You can stroll down its private trail down to Van Damme State Beach where there are 10 miles of hiking trails, a Pygmy forest, beach and tidepools.

View from Little River Inn lawn © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And so, after lingering over coffee sitting in rocking chairs on our balcony, reveling in the view to the Pacific Ocean, we set out to thoroughly explore Mendocino.

Little River Inn, 7901 N Highway 1, Little River, CA, United States, 95456, 888-INN-LOVE, 707-937-5942 www.littleriverinn.com.

For excellent planning help: Visit Mendocino County, 866-466-3636, 707-964-9010, www.visitmendocino.com.

See also:

WEEKEND GETAWAY IN MENDOCINO: BREWERY GULCH INN

WEEKEND IN MENDOCINO: HISTORIC SKUNK TRAIN INTRODUCES A NOVEL RAILBIKE EXPERIENCE

WEEKEND GETAWAY IN ENCHANTING MENDOCINO

____________________________

© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Weekend in Mendocino: Historic Skunk Train Introduces a Novel RailBike Experience

The legendary Skunk Train on the Pudding Creek track, out of the historic depot in Fort Bragg, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our Mendocino, California weekend sojourn continues. From the Brewery Gulch Inn, where we stayed our first night, it is a picturesque 20 minute drive up the coast to Fort Bragg for the Skunk Train, a vintage steam train that weaves through the redwood forests of the Noyo River Canyon. That was alluring enough, but what really captured our imagination was the idea of riding a “railbike” on the same train tracks through the forest. Railbike?

Before you board the Skunk Train or railbike, sure to visit the model train display and the historic exhibits across the track from the Skunk Train depot © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Train buffs will be absolutely ecstatic to visit the historic train station, walk across the tracks to a fantastic model train exhibit and historical society exhibit housed in appropriately aged buildings (so atmospheric), then board the train for a fairly short ride about 3 ½ miles down the track along the Pudding Creek, to Glen Blair Junction before returning, for a total of 7 miles. Weather permitting, you can ride an open car or sit inside the vintage cars.

Boarding the Skunk Train at Glen Blair Junction © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Since 1885 the historic Skunk has made its way through these old-growth redwood groves, over scenic trestle bridges, through tunnels, and into the heart of the Noyo River Canyon, primarily for logging purposes. Today, the repurposed train offers five trains that ply two different routes and two different railbike experiences.

First the railbike experience.

Riding the railbike through the redwood forest en route to Glen Blair Junction © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Two of us have already gotten onto our railbike (it seats two people) – custom-built, patent pending, specially designed like a recumbent, where you sit back, outfitted with electronic-assist, and virtually silent so you can really appreciate the forest.

Riding the railbike through the redwood forest en route to Glen Blair Junction © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We take the more modest of the railbike trips that are offered, The Pudding Creek railbike trip, which gives you an excellent taste and can be done by just about anyone. It is 7 miles roundtrip traveling along the same tracks as the scenic train – in fact, the trips are coordinated so the railbikes leave first, then the train, then the train leaves and the railbikes follow. (Note: it is downhill most of the way but uphill most of the way back, along a grade that is higher than most railroads – no problem, you have the motor assist!). There are two guides who accompany us – one in front and one in the back. People follow one after another but everyone is independent.

Railbikers return to the station © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One person is designated the “driver” (the other is the passenger) who is given an orientation before we set off how to brake and use the electronic assist; the passenger just pedals (it is manageable for a parent and young child). It is fun, and you get this wonderful opportunity to just chat and be together as you roll through the forest.

The Puddle Creek railbike excursion takes less than two hours, including time at Glen Blair Junction where we get off (as the railbikes are reversed for the return), and can walk a delightful forest loop trail.

This gives the historic train time to arrive, the train passengers to also get out and stretch, and depart before the railbike riders start back. The guide gives us some narration here and points to where the train tunnel has collapsed.

While Eric and I set out on the railbike, Sarah boards the train at the Fort Bragg depot for the relaxed, scenic 7-mile roundtrip journey on the Pudding Creek Express, traveling along the same Pudding Creek Estuary through primeval ancient redwoods forest to the Glen Blair Junction.

The stop at Glen Blair Junction gives the railbikers time to hike a short trail in the redwood forest which brought industry and settlers to Mendocino © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Trains also stop at Glen Blair Junction for 15 minutes, allowing the passengers to get off and explore. But if you would like to spend more time walking the trails among the redwoods, you can stay behind and catch the next train (roughly two hours later). You can bring a packed lunch (to enjoy at the picnic tables set out there.

We organize it so I switch off with Sarah who has come on the train so she can experience the railbike and I can experience the train on the way back (how clever of me since the return was more uphill). Both were delightful experiences and the length well suited to families with young children.

The Skunk Train claims to be the crookedest train in the West © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the way back I hear the narrator say these were some of the first tracks ever laid down by the California Western Railroad in 1885 and have been used in some fashion just about ever since. He claims it is also the most crooked train in the West, possibly the world (though I would need confirmation of that). 1940s music is playing as we roll along. I mostly stay in the open car but wander through the passenger cars to see what that is like.

The Skunk Trains operate with both Diesel-Electric engines and a #45 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado Steam Engine, the Super Skunk, pulling the passenger cars, including a bar car with snacks, non-alcoholic drinks, beer, wine, and spirits, as well as an open air car.

Train buffs will love the back story of this historic train: the Fort Bragg Railroad was formed in 1885 to make transporting lumber easier, eventually being incorporated into the California Western Railroad, commonly known as The Skunk.

The train played a vital role transporting families and workers to their logging camps along the route, making The Skunk a different type of railroad, the website notes: It not only was key to the area’s economic activity but also its social and cultural life. “No other logging railroad in America has made the deep impression on American life that was created by the line from Fort Bragg – first by the natural beauty of its route and later, by the distinctiveness of its equipment,” the website boasts.

The nickname “Skunk” originated in 1925 when motorcars (actually railbuses or railcruisers) were introduced on the line. These single unit, self-propelled motorcars had gasoline-powered engines for power and pot-bellied stoves burning crude oil to keep the passengers warm, but the fumes they emitted had a very pungent odor that people living along the line said smelled like skunk. “You could smell them before you could see them.” (No longer the case.)

The Skunk Train dates back to 1885 and played a vital role transporting families and workers to their logging camps along the route, and not only was key to the area’s economic activity but also its social and cultural life © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The California Western Railroad was first operated as a division of the Fort Bragg mill (Union Lumber Company, Boise-Cascade). In the mid-1960s, Arizona-based Kyle Railways began managing the railroad and purchased it in 1987. In August 1996, a group of local Mendocino Coast investors purchased California Western, marking the first time in its 111-year history that the line operated as an independent business. Today the Skunk Train is owned and operated by Mendocino Railway.

The Pudding Creek train operates year-round and the railbikes operate rain or shine, so just bring raingear if the weather isn’t great).

The Pudding Creek railbike excursion is $250 for one or two people; the train is $41.95 (Ages 13 and up); $25.95 (Ages 2-12), Infant: $10.95; Dog: $10.95.

Be sure to visit the model train display and the historic exhibits across the track from the Skunk Train depot © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Train buffs should consider the longer excursion, the two-hour Wolf Tree Turn a scenic 16-mile roundtrip journey departing from the Willits valley floor that takes you over the summit of the line (1740 feet elevation), through Tunnel #2, and down into the Noyo River Canyon where you are immersed in the redwood forest that made Mendocino County famous. The train stops briefly at Crowley, giving passengers the opportunity to visit one of the oldest and most iconic trees along the route, the Wolf Tree (named for the large growth off of one side which woodsmen called “wolf trees”) (Adult: $49.95; child: $29.95; Infant: $10.95; Dog: $10.95).

There is a much longer, more ambitious railbike experience, as well: a four-hour excursion that travels the Redwood Route takes you 25 miles along the meandering Noyo River and deep into old-growth redwood groves on a section of track now reserved exclusively for the railbikes ($495/railbike for one or two people).

Eric and Sarah pedal the railbike © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are loads of seasonal and themed events as well: Cinema in the Redwoods; Music in the Redwoods; Magical Christmas Train; Easter Express, Pumpkin Express; summer BBQ trains, murder mystery trains, the Mushroom Train, the Crab & Cremant train and Railbikes by Moonlight. The trains can also be used to host corporate meetings, picnics, parties, proms, weddings, baby showers, and  team building.

The Pudding Creek railbike excursion is $250 for one or two people; the Pudding Creek Express train departing Fort Bragg year-round is $41.95 (Ages 13 and up); $25.95 (Ages 2-12), Infant: $10.95; Dog: $10.95.

Skunk Train, 100 West Laurel Street Fort Bragg, California 95437;
299 East Commercial Street Willits, California 95490, www.skunktrain.com.

Glass Beach

Polished sea glass like gemstones at Glass Beach, Fort Bragg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From here, it is a very short distance to go to Glass Beach in Fort Bragg – one of the absolute highlights of this place. The intriguing name and spectacularly picturesque scene belie the origins of the beach and why it is covered with tiny, shimmering pebbles of sea glass like gemstones: Rather than the sea glass floating in on waves from various places and mysteriously collecting here, the sea glass is in this space because it was once a garbage heap and the glass bottles tossed away over the years have broken down, smoothed and rounded by the rhythmic waves. There is a finite amount of glass so though it is illegal to remove any glass, people take what they think is an insignificant amount, and over the years, has drained the beach of much of what it used to have. Still, it is magical.

Polished sea glass like gemstones at Glass Beach, Fort Bragg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The water crashes against rocks just off the shore here, making for dramatic scene (but not suitable for swimming or letting kids venture into the water). You can hike north up to Pudding Creek Beach where a paved multi-use trail crosses over an old train trestle; other trails go south from Glass Beach to other glassy beaches.

Dramatic scenery at Glass Beach, Fort Bragg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Glass Beach is at the southern end of the sprawling MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg, which is noted for birdlife and harbor seals.

Dramatic scenery at Glass Beach, Fort Bragg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Polished sea glass like gemstones at Glass Beach, Fort Bragg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
You can hike from Glass Beach north up to Pudding Creek Beach where a paved multi-use trail crosses over an old train trestle; other trails go south from Glass Beach to other glassy beaches © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From here, we follow the Brewery Gulch Inn’s concierge recommendation to lunch at Princess Seafood in Noyo Harbor, an actual fishing port where various restaurants have sprung up to serve the fresh catch. Princess Seafood not only is totally operated by women, but the fishing boat that brings in its catch is run by women, as well.

We take the short drive into Mendocino to explore this charming place.

Headlands Coastal Trail

You literally step across Main Street from Mendocino’s charming shops and eateries to enter Mendocino Headlands State Park, a 347-acre park that envelops this enchanting village. The coastal trail is nothing less than spectacular: dramatic 70-foot bluffs providing views of rocky offshore islands, tide pools and beaches below. The hiking trail begins at the Ford House Visitor Center and continues for some 2 miles around the entire bluff of the headlands to the north side of town.

Hiking the Headlands Coastal Trail, you get a great view of Mendocino and Portuguese Beach © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our hike starts overlooking Noyo Bay, then snakes around to open views of the Pacific.

One of the highlights of this incomparable trail is Portuguese Beach, named for the Portuguese sailors from the Azores who were among Mendocino’s early settlers. The tide is low enough when we take the stairs down to Portuguese Beach to come upon these fabulous formations of driftwood, and can see at water level the rock arch. Eric can’t resist and with great abandon, plunges into the frigid water. The beach, its sand surprisingly soft, is aptly named, since it is reminiscent of the beaches in Portugal’s Algarve.

Encompassed by high bluffs, Portuguese Beach is reminiscent of the beaches in the Algarve of Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Continuing on the trail, we see remnants of the logging that was Mendocino’s primary industry, and, at a promontory about half-way along the trail, you take a small path to a blow hole/punchbowl where the ocean smashes up through a hole in the rocks, with a roar and a splash.

Coming upon the blow hole on the Headlands Coastal Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rounding the bend, there are dramatic rock formations. Offshore and north of the west end of Little Lake Street is Goat Island, a large flat offshore rock that is part of the California Coastal National Monument where you are also likely to see various shorebirds and seabirds. Indeed, it is a good idea to bring binoculars because whales and birds can be seen throughout the year.

Headlands Coastal Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Headlands Coastal Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visitor center for Mendocino Headlands State Park is in the Historic Ford House on the south side of Main Street near the beach. It is worth a visit especially if you are interested in local history and the flora and fauna you are likely to encounter at the beaches and on the trails nearby. Walking tours are also available. There are public restrooms at the north and south ends of the Headlands- on Heeser Drive and near the Ford House.

Headlands Coastal Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Headlands trail is a fabulous place to watch the sunset – the sun literally falls into the ocean – before we head to our next destination, Little River Inn.

Headlands Coastal Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Headlands Coastal Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Headlands Coastal Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For excellent planning help: Visit Mendocino County, 866-466-3636, 707-964-9010, www.visitmendocino.com.

See also:

WEEKEND GETAWAY IN MENDOCINO: BREWERY GULCH INN

WEEKEND GETAWAY IN MENDOCINO: LITTLE RIVER INN

WEEKEND GETAWAY IN ENCHANTING MENDOCINO

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Road Trip: Discovering Death Valley’s Treasures, Richer than Gold

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Laini Miranda, Dave E. Leiberman & Eric Leiberman

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the quest, so very popular in these days of coronavirus, of finding open spaces to become renewed, revitalized, revel in nature and contemplate one’s place in the universe, there is no better place than Death Valley National Park, spanning California and Nevada.

Our four-day trip to Death Valley has an overlay of planning that goes beyond planning for hiking in a vast desert: the coronavirus pandemic. It impacts our route, where we stay (an Air BnB at the outskirts and the Ranch at Death Valley in the park, having double-checked their COVID-19 protocols), how we organize food and water to take with us (and ice chest) to cut down on the need to eat out.

And our itinerary is designed to pack as much as possible from such an expansive landscape into such a limited time. In the process, we discover that we are very much following in the footsteps of the miners who came before seeking the treasures in these landscapes. For us, the treasures we find are not the material kind, but even more enriching.

With an eight-hour drive ahead of us, we calculate when to depart in order to get to Death Valley in time to begin our exploration. With meticulous planning and organization that the Army would be proud of, we pull away from Sonoma at 5:39 am, taking an interior route, east toward Tahoe, then south, passing the eastern side of Yosemite National Park.

The fall scenery all along the way is breathtaking, going from wilderness, through these little Western towns and ranches.

We pass the ski resorts at Lake Tahoe, where the road takes us up to an altitude of 8,000 ft. and temperatures as low as 19 degrees, and by the end of the day, down to 275 feet below sea level at Death Valley. As we drive out of Tahoe, we watch the thermometer ticking up a degree every mile, until reaching the 80s. Actually, the weather is quite cool and comfortable for Death Valley, which is the hottest place on the planet, with ungodly temperatures that reached 130 degrees this summer, but can also get frigid in winter. Our visit, in October, is actually a terrific time.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, Lee Vining, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Laini plots our route so we would stop at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, in Lee Vining, California, where we have a picnic lunch. The first sight of Mono Lake from the highway above is astonishing: a stunning, ethereal scene with its brilliant aquamarine color and striking tufa formations. We stop at the overlook and then drive down along the shore to the parking lot. The visitors center is closed (because of COVID-19 restrictions), but we go into a trailhead that leads to a short boardwalk to the lake edge.

California created the reserve to protect these spectacular “tufa towers,” calcium-carbonate (limestone) spires and knobs formed by the chemical interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. The reserve protects the lake surface as well as the wetlands and sensitive habitat for the 1 – 2 million birds that feed and rest at Mono Lake each year.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, Lee Vining, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Covering 65 square miles, Mono Lake is ancient – over 1 million years old and one of the oldest lakes in North America. Freshwater evaporating from the lake each year has left the salts and minerals behind so that the lake is now about 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline. “The extremely high salinity and alkalinity of Mono Lake has created a rare ecosystem, supporting a complex food chain of green algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies, and more than 80 species of migratory birds.” (www.parks.ca.gov)

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, Lee Vining, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Highway 395, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, near the town of Lee Vining, California, 760-647-6331, www.parks.ca.gov; also www.monolake.org).

We stop off at Carroll’s Market (probably the last one we will see), which actually gets high ratings on Yelp, especially for its blue cheese dressing, and has become its own attraction. We buy a dozen gallon jugs of water and stop off to fill up at a gas station.

Death Valley National Park

Father Crowley Vista Point view over Rainbow Canyon, a colorfully striped canyon created by ancient volcanic activity, nicknamed “Star Wars Canyon” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a long flat stretch with mountains in the distance, we drive the winding mountain road (make sure you have a full tank of gas), entering the park at Panamint Springs. We stop at the Father Crowley Vista Point for the view over Rainbow Canyon, a colorfully striped canyon created by ancient volcanic activity. Nicknamed “Star Wars Canyon”, it’s where the military practices Star-Wars type of flying. The wind today is so intense, it practically throws us over.

(Nearby is Darwin Falls, a seeming oxymoron in this desert place, quickly turning from a gravel canyon to a lush oasis of cottonwoods and willows, creek crossings, and finally 20-foot waterfalls, a two-mile roundtrip hike, which we have marked down for a return visit.)

We stop at the historic Stovepipe Wells Village – like something out of a Western movie – that links back to the very beginning of tourism in Death Valley. In fact, long after mining gold, borax and talc had collapsed, tourism has been the enduring enterprise in Death Valley.

Stovepipe Wells General Store evokes the earliest days of tourism to Death Valley © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Herman William “Bob” Eichbaum effectively invented Death Valley’s tourism industry here, believing its “beauty, mystery and history” would attract tourists. Indeed, since 1915, motion pictures, automobile companies and writers weaving tales and promoting advertisements sparked interest (early social influencers) in visiting. In 1925, Eichbaum built a 38-mile toll road over Towne Pass and 20 tent-style bungalows, a restaurant, general store and filling station. He opened the Stovepipe Wells Hotel in 1926. Just a few months later, the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn was opened by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, setting off an intense rivalry. Most enthralling is that both places are still around and give you this sensation of stepping back in time. (Open year-round, deathvalleyhotels.com, 760-786-7090).

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s only a short drive from the village to reach Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a little after 4 pm, giving us at least one hour before sunset. We have just enough time to play on the dunes and watch the colors (and temperature) change with the setting sun. People bring cardboard sleds, using the sand like snow.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is an extraordinary setting:  sprawling over 14 square miles, ringed with mountain peaks, the contrast of colors, shapes, contours is just stunning.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In late afternoon, the sand is cool enough to take off shoes and feel remarkably soft granular sand on toes. We climb the dunes –as much as 150 feet high- wowed in the colors of the golden hour as the sun descends.  All the pure joy you had playing in a sand box when you were four comes bursting through.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The best time to visit is the early morning or late afternoon; on a dawn hike, the notes say, you might see tracks of nocturnal animals and if you hike at night in the warm months, they warn, be alert for sidewinder rattlesnakes (I’m still thinking about the tracks of nocturnal animals).

Designed to Death

We drive on, reveling in the scenes of the road disappearing into the far distance, headed to our Air BnB, with the intriguing name, Designed to Death, in the small town of Beatty, about 20 miles outside the park’s eastern border (Las Vegas would be about 1 ½ hours beyond). Though the name evokes Agatha Christie, it is breathtakingly beautiful, cozy luxury, with a bit of a Western vibe – easily explained because the hosts are interior designers and the house is a showplace for their talent.

Preparing dinner at Designed to Death AirBnB, Beatty, Nevada © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are here for too short a time to fully enjoy all that the house affords. Set on an isolated stretch of high desert, the 1,200 sq. ft.,  three-bedroom, two-bath vacation home was designed by Peter Strzebniok to incorporate the vistas, providing stunning views while making the desert part of the interiors – merging the inside with the outside. What we do thoroughly enjoy though, is the large open kitchen, dining room, living room, that opens onto a 900 sq. ft deck with hot tub. The Presidential Suite at a five-star hotel would not have been any nicer or more comfortable.

Our Designed to Death Air BnB hosts are Karen McAloon, an interior designer who works in San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, who was an HGTV host and her partner was her producer. (They have two sister properties, Hip Modern cottage of Amazingness in Lake Tahoe, @hipmoderncottageofamazingness, and Too Pool for School in Joshua Tree, @toopoolforschooljtree.)

They provide excellent notes – like the nearest place for supplies would be at Family Dollar, but the nearest actual grocery is 70 minutes south at Pahrump. They also supply tour information of nearby ghost towns, museums, attractions and of course Death Valley National Park. There is an interesting note about the wild burros that we might see (there is even a traffic sign like a deer crossing), which are descended from burros abandoned by miners a century ago. “Don’t feed them, they can be destructive. They tend to be down at the creek in the morning and wander into town at night.”

We take full advantage of the gorgeous kitchen to prepare dinner (we brought food for dinner and breakfast).

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.

The next morning, we pack up quickly and head out early morning with a plan to stop off on our way into Death Valley to visit an actual ghost town, Rhyolite.

It is so fascinating to try to piece together what this town might have been like and to realize how big it was – most surprising, really (especially when you see the context) is what’s left of a hotel and casino. A casino! “100 years ago, Rhyolite was the largest city in southern Nevada with more than 10,000 residents. Yet after only a decade, the town became a ghostly remnant of itself” – a classic boom and bust story, with all sorts of lessons about the transitory nature of success in the span of history. It is tremendously exciting to wander about these ruins, so dramatically set.

Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.

In its heyday, between 1905-1911, Rhyolite had two churches, 50 saloons, 18 stores, two undertakers, 19 lodging houses, eight doctors, two dentists, a stock exchange and an opera.

The ruins that remain today include the Bottie House, the train depot (there is a caboose there), the remains of a three-story bank building and the jail.

It is one of several ghost towns that are scattered through Death Valley, “the silent ruins of broken dreams.”

Death Valley in art: “Rhyolite Bank Window,” a Death Valley ghost town, by Laini Nemett (2020, 12 x 9 in, oil on linen on panel). Visit www.laininemett.com

Next: Hitting the Highlights of Death Valley National Park

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures