If you say Northern California, the first thing most people think of is the Bay Area. While the San Francisco Bay is a wonderful place, it's not really that northern. In fact, look at a map of California, and you'll see that big ol' bay is just north of center. So it's no wonder that the real Northern California has a bit of an identity crisis.
Upstate California, that's what they're calling it nowadays. In other words, everywhere north of the Bay Area and Sacramento to the east. It's easy to find on a map, just look for the place the eastern border takes a sharp turn to the North, and draw a line straight across. There you'll find a place so remote and separate from the rest of the state that it's tried to secede from the masses of effete city dwellers on more than one occasion-and not without reason. It's forestry/agriculture economy and spread-out fiercely independent population is starkly different than the densely populated, high-tech cities of the rest of the state.
Out here is the real Wild West, where outlaw growers face down the federal government's FBI, DEA, and sometimes ATF in a trade that is at least partially sanctioned by the state, in the form of loose medical marijuana laws, a.k.a. the voter-approved proposition 215. It's not like this is a hot, new place to grow the devil's lettuce, it's been going on since the '60s and beyond, but it is the intersection between the perfect climate and millions of sparsely inhabited acres that are incredibly hard to police. Finding a lush, green plant up here is like finding a piece of hay in 10 haystacks.
So, the Emerald Triangle, comprised of Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt counties; this is the holy land for stoners. Though the only thing most potheads know about Humboldt etc. is da kine kush, brah. The whole story of the area is far more complicated than that, but it's also far too long for a magazine article.
The view while speeding along the Ferndale Bridge.
Fleeting hints of blue skies on the Humboldt coast.
Southern Mendocino could really just be considered an extension of wine country.
I start with Trinity County, because, for the on-road motorcyclist, it's strictly a transit. There are three state highways crossing its vast reaches, 299 and 36 going east-to-west, while the 3 spans the length of the county, north to south. There are a few other smaller, bumpier roads, but to be honest, I was afraid I was going to get shot for intruding where I wasn't wanted. 299 is the major thoroughfare, with easy turns, good views, and despite a large truck and motorhome population, there are ample passing opportunities. If you like a more challenging ride, try the other two roads. An old lady in a restaurant told me to avoid them because they "aren't very good roads," and what she meant (to me, anyway) is that they are awesome.
Trinity is its own animal; tough, independent, and rebellious. While the rest of the Triangle is on the hippiesque side of flowers, essential oils, and veganism, it tends toward the right wing a bit more in Trinity, with more guns and red meat. Shotgun-blasted road signs (every one of them), tell you everything you need to know. Still, it has very friendly people just the same. On my trip through the area, the waitress at my lunch stop warned me nonchalantly about a wildfire burning to the west that would probably delay my ride. So I took the other road. That's right, paved roads are a scarce commodity around these parts.
Weaverville is known for being one of the gold rush towns of the area, as well as forest fires. A quarter of Trinity's tiny population lives in Weaverville, but the funny thing is I can't figure out where the rest live. I didn't see another cluster of dwellings in the days I spent out there. Clearly people out in these parts want to be left alone, and Weaverville is just a convenient place to get groceries and growing supplies.
Its very small population lives in a land of East Coast-style green mountains, covered in conifers and cut through by mighty rivers. To me the message was clear: enjoy the roads and the views and move along. Unlike the rest of the Triangle, this part is not all about tourists staying and spending time and money.
So, the "not good" roads the old lady in Weaverville told me about ... she was half right. SR-3 is awesome, no two ways about it. It's a slalom run with good visibility and great views. It connects with the 36 in the south of Trinity. I'd ridden 36 from the coast to Red Bluff once years ago and had a blast. Going the other way after a long day of riding is a different story. See, the 36 is tight and twisty at its western end in Humboldt and gets gradually less challenging as you go east. So running it the other way when you've already got a few hundred under your tires and you'd just like to be done is less than ideal, but still a world-class ride. Going west on the 36 (or the 299) will take you into ...
Riding either of the highways from the dry, wooded high country into the marine-layer-covered coastal area is a trip. Everything changes-temperature, foliage goes from highland dry pine forest to Redwoods, and ferns that look like something out of a dinosaur movie. And cameras get very very confused. Or possessed. Or even high perhaps. Did my camera experience something akin to a contact high from the mere proximity of wacky tobaccy? No, just the suddenly lower light levels of the forest canopy combined with the socked in cloud cover made the settings go all out of whack.
And really, according to people in the know, it's not Humboldt's wet climate that's the key for the Sensi, it's the dry one. With long, warm days (in the growing season) and good soil (shared with the rest of the Triangle), the inland parts of the county are prime real estate for growing. But for me, the favorite was the border areas. Inland its epic green mountain hops over one unending set of hills after another. Going coastward, the broadleaves and raspberries are replaced by pointy conifers and, eventually, ferns.
This very well could be FernGully. Foliage along the coastal range of Hwy 36.
Basking in 90-degree weather while staring at a 55-degree marine layer.
The eastern fringes of the gloom seem like they're at war with the epic California sunshine of the interior, and unlike most wars, this is not hell. In the depths of summer, it's the only moderation you're going to get with 60-odd-degree chill on one side, and 90+ searing sun on the other. The DMZ in the middle is extremely pleasant ... and fleeting. In a mountainous coastal area, you can switch from one to the other several times in an hour of riding, furiously zipping and unzipping jacket vents, or (if you're a real masochist) removing and donning multiple pieces of apparel.
And just like that you're in the soup. Guidebooks will describe it as foggy. But it's more like a solid layer of cloud, usually not at ground level like a proper fog. And as the air gets soupier, the trees get bigger, climaxing with the world famous California Redwoods. Even in the flats the roads can go all curvy, dodging massive redwoods instead of terrain features, though they're basically big enough to be called terrain features.
Despite its reputation, Humboldt has a complicated relationship with the green stuff. Similar to my last trip to the area (documented in this magazine), I attempted to couch surf to keep things on the cheap. Looking for a place on couchsurfing.org, I told people what I was doing up here and most of the people I'd consider responsible adults were aghast that I'd write about their area in a weed related context. I offered to stay with them to get their side of the story, but they all demurred. On the other side of the coin, younger folk from Humboldt State in Arcata mostly didn't respond until long after it was useful, or were out of town for the summer. Peter Tosh famously sang, "Legalize it. Don't criticize it ..." but surprisingly, you won't find much support for that position up here. Most who aren't involved in the trade wish it would just go away, while those who realize that full legalization would mean an invasion by corporate farmers and a huge drop in profitability.
If you have a fear of heights, don’t look up in these parts.
While perhaps not as bad passing Harris Ranch along I-5, the smell from the dairy farms ar
An example of Ferndale’s old-world charm, the Ferndale Community Church.
Just south of Eureka there's a historic bridge called the Ferndale Bridge, which leads to a town of the same name. Guidebooks will tell you of its Victorian charm ... mostly it's foggy and smells of cow poop from the surrounding dairy farms. Actually the whole coastal vibe in Arcata and Eureka was one of quiet desperation. A depressed area squeaking by just waiting for Chase or B of A to foreclose on the whole shebang-it's rundown, dreary, and depressing. But it could have just been the weather affecting my delicate, sunshiny Southern California soul. Plus the speed limits are ridiculously low, 50 mph on the highway in some places, marked as safety zones with double fines. Humboldt State University creates a bit of young hippie energy, but it's dragged down by the weather and lack of industry.
North of Humboldt Bay things get interesting, with another stretch of amazing California coastline. With my GPS at handlebars, I was able to spot some interesting side routes into the looming hills and get off of the 101. Anything that says "old road" is gold, because it probably goes through climbing the redwood cliffs or hugging a stream bottom, usually no more than two small lanes of peaceful beauty.
The same is doubly true for following the 101 south towards Mendocino. Check out the map or GPS beforehand and you'll see either Avenue of the Giants or Redwood Avenue, both of which are the old alignment of US-101. Both are more scenic, have less trucks, and are more fun. Redway was a cool little town I discovered off the beaten path, just a little north of Garberville. In Redway there's a road that heads off to the very remote Lost Coast town of Shelter Cove. A good (bumpy) side trip if you're up for it. The Lost Coast is lost for a reason; however, the King Mountains are too sparsely populated and too rugged to justify the Pacific Coast Highway winding along its cliffs like it does throughout the rest of the state.
Garberville and the beautiful Benbow Lake State Park mark the southern end of Humboldt. Garberville famously hosts Cannabis College, and a radio station that at one time announced when the feds (based in town) were leaving on drug raids. Despite the notoriety, it's hard to see much of the ganja lifestyle influence in Garberville just casually riding down main street ... just a few restaurants, local businesses, and an old movie theater in this cool old town. For a town that wears the Triangle on its sleeve, I had to go south to Mendocino County.
While not quite the typical sunny Southern California beach scene, the northern Humboldt c
Mendocino County is the most diverse, the most out in the open, and the most party animal of the three Triangle points. The Mendocino sheriff's office tried signing up growers just to get everything out in the open, but the federal government let them know that sort of thing wasn't going to be tolerated. A cruise through the town of Willits reveals the reality version of the fantasy most have about this part of the world: A seemingly never-ending parade of head shops, Green Cross dispensaries, garden supply stores, pizza places, taco shops, Bob Marley banners along with Grateful Dead-themed shops, and more people proudly flying their pothead flag higher than just about anywhere you've ever been before. But it feels like theater, especially compared to the real growing towns that like to keep it on the down low.
Mendo (as it's sometimes called locally) is all about tourism in a way Trinity isn't and Humboldt only wishes it was. It's home to the north end of the Pacific Coast Highway, and unlike the areas to the north, there's plenty of access all over the county on an extensive network of roads (most of which make for fine riding). The northernmost stretch of PCH is legendary for its beauty, while the southern end's wine country is a rich man's playground. But somehow, with all of this going on, it almost Disney-fies the whole experience.
That said, the northern reaches of the county are pure Triangle. I came up here expecting to run into the green, but came up with a different kind. The kind that is decidedly more piney-smelling. Avenue of the Giants in the far north of the county (a.k.a. the old 101) winds its way through the majestic Redwoods. Yes, there are usually motorhomes to dodge, but it's a worthwhile trip regardless.
As in Humboldt, the 101 is the main highway through the whole area, continuing as it had for years running through towns as the main street, then opening up on the other side, unlike south of the Bay, where it's basically just another freeway. So, at times, it can be an exciting track along winding rivers (mostly the Eel), at others a big four-laner through the giant redwoods.
In the end the green I found wasn't the green I expected. It was a green world of hills, mountains, and epic coastlines, all topped with gigantic firs, pines, and redwoods; a place so huge and remote that the only roads are those that need to be there. Unlike many rides you go on, these will continue in their beauty for many tens or hundreds of miles at a clip, unchanging, but never boring. B