Ferndale and Mattole Road – Verdant Northern California Road Trip

Genie Davis October 22, 2010 No Comments


This lush and beautiful part of Northern California is a destination in and of itself; for us it was part of a road trip that stretched up the California coast. We spent the night in Fortuna, highway convenient, basic, and quite pleasant. Before heading to the gorgeous Victorian town of Ferndale, we went north a few more exits to pick up some essentials for a picnic lunch at the Loleta cheese factory. Here your kids can see the actual process of making cheese, the separation of whey and curds, the cheese cutting. Depending on your children’s ages, the phrase ‘now here’s where we cut the cheese’ may encourage long bouts of laughter.  Samples are freely offered and whatever fresh cheese you purchase, you’ll enjoy it.

Leaving the dairy we passed by grazing cattle and stopped to witness, roadside, the birth of a calf. It was touching and memorable to see that calf stand for the first time.

Heading into Ferndale there are plenty of dairy farms and cows along the roads. The town itself was built in the mid eighteen hundreds and is known today for its beautiful Victorian houses, many of which are bed and breakfasts. Multi-colored and in perfect shape the residences and the charming stores on Main Street make browsing irresistible. Famous for its Christmas celebrations,  and it’s annual race of eccentric hand made vehicles dubbed the Kinetic Race, the town is also on the national historic register. You’ll love the old fashioned mercantile with penny candy; a small ice cream shop that serves enormous cones, and the beautifully kept gardens around town. There are two museums: antiques and memorabilia at the Ferndale Museum; vehicles from races past at the Kinetic Race Museum, a small but absolutely cool collection if anyone in your family is interested in cars, kitsch, or alternative energy. You can stay over at any of several lovely bed and breakfasts, we took a look inside The Victorian Inn, which had large, comfortable rooms filled with warmly appointed antiques. There are full house rentals available, too.

Just past Main Street a sign points the way to the little known Mattole Road, and another to Centerville Beach County Park. The latter is a narrow dead-end trip that is well worth seeing – the road literally ends at the edge of a cliff with the ocean below. Not a place for the kids to run around, it’s a beautiful sight and a great photograph. You can take a side road to actually reach the beach, which is flat and wide, nine miles backing up onto farming land; windy, excellent for bird watching; sometimes home to harbor seals and tundra swans in the late winter and spring months.

Mattole Road View California

A great drive with great views, Mattole Road

After a long leg stretching on the sand, turn back toward town and pick up Mattole Road. It’s a beautiful drive that your family will enjoy. While not nearly as curvy as parts of Highway 1 near San Francisco, there are plenty of turns – if you have a child prone to car sickness you may want to keep the Saltines handy. Our kids did fine, and using Highway 1 as a comparison, that stretch was troublesome.

Mattole Road gives you many picture taking opportunities on an easy, beautiful, deserted half day drive that will circle you south east toward the redwood groves at the Avenue of the Giants.

Along the way you’ll climb over two thousand feet in elevation to take in absolutely deserted, wind whipped coastal views, green pastureland, and what remains of the ruins of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse. A gravel path can take you toward the foundation. There’s a road pull out with a plaque that describes the lighthouse’s history; when it fell apart it was transported to the town of Shelter Cove near by in miles but a half day’s drive away, most easily accessed from the 101 at Garberville.

As the road dips down along the coast, you’ll pass through curvy, deserted landscapes – except for cows. Many cows. Much fun to be had watching them peacefully roaming the open pastures. Do be careful driving though – like the proverbial chicken, they do cross the road here.

You’ll veer away from the coast at Petrolia. California’s first oil wells were drilled here in the mid eighteen hundreds. With oil production a now distant memory, drive on about twenty pastoral miles across the Eel River and the tiny towns of Bull Creek and Honeydew. The latter has a general store where you can pick up waters and soda, and a picturesque church on a hill. After this you’ll climb another pass and descend into the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. More beautiful trees, more peaceful groves.

We descended into Garberville from here, a cross roads town known mostly for one elegant, English style hotel the Benbow Hotel, which opened in 1926 and is still a popular resort today. The decor is Tudor, the afternoon tea is a pleasure – and a family can share the cucumber sandwiches, scones, and petit fours — all delicious, elegant and wonderfully child size treats. Built  above the banks of the Eel River, it’s a beautiful spot, with spacious rooms, many with patios. There are also cottages available, with full kitchens. You’ll enjoy strolling with the kids through their ample lawns and terraced patio. Redwoods and tall oaks grow along the lawn, and the gardens are lovely; connected with easy to follow, stroller-friendly walkways.

Ferndale Beach California

Windy, but great views and a great drive near Ferndale, CA

Garberville is also an excellent jumping off spot for a visit to Shelter Cove, which in turn is the place to stay before setting out on a Lost Coast, uninhabited, off -road wilderness adventure. The lure of this adventure is exciting, particularly once you see the vast, untamed, virtually untouched shore line heading in both directions from Shelter Cove. However, that type of adventure is probably not the excursion you want to take with small children in tow. Instead, enjoy Shelter Cove itself, and the views of that untrammeled coast surrounding it. We’ll tell you more about Shelter Cove’s natural wonder and small town pleasure in an upcoming story that continues our coastal and tree lined adventures.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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