“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” — FDR
The yellow rolling hills of northern California are a shade too yellow this time of year. They are a shade too dry and still. Without the natural vitality that a season of rainstorms normally brings, the fields of gold transpose starkly against man-made fields of green dollar bills – rich, groomed and cultivated by the commercial demand for inebriation and oasis. Knowing that months from now the northern forests of Mendocino would be in a fight for their lives makes the memories that much more vibrant, special . . . and haunting. Having not been fed in months, the natural world was low energy, in a state of neglect and walking slowly and resoundingly to the gallows. The Mendocino Complex fire is one of the largest forest fires EVER; it’s incredible to think that one day, we might come back to this wild part of the world only for it to be completely unrecognizable.
The best runs are never about time, space or place but the absence of all of these things. The environment wraps you in a blanket of cool air, trickling sunshine and fresh balmy air that feeds your soul. Often, when it’s all over you might just question yourself if it really happened at all – was it a dream? Do people really live this way all of the time? Do people bathe in the forest as frequently as the ocean?
In California, the answer is decided: yes.
The great Mendocino coast is part of the greater ecosystem of Northern California natural spender that leaves you more or less speechless around every corner. Trail running is only how we explore the wilds. While the vistas overlooking the Pacific have no parallels on the east coast, it’s the heart of deep redwoods that draws you into a blanket of rolling hills; they give and they give until they can’t give any more. While the bulk of the fires are burning in the Eastern forests of Mendocino, there are still many natural places closer to the water that are standing strong in resistance.
When visiting the coast, as with most parts of California, be prepared to drive far to get there. The nice thing is that it doesn’t feel like a long trip; it’s designed to help you enjoy the journey. Typically, the way forward is to come over the golden gate bridge north through Sonoma County and continue until you see the wide bosom of the Pacific. At some point, we stopped counting the number of farms and vineyards – when you’re thirsty there are plenty to choose from.
Even before the chaos in Mendocino, fires had decimated much of Sonoma county; there are still plenty of vineyards that want… dammit, NEED your business. Paying for a tasting is the right way to set the tone for a trip up north and if you don’t go and pet the goats first hand (try the aged cheese, too) you won’t know what you’re missing.
While I’m certainly not a wine expert (if it’s wet, I’ll drink it), there are more than a few vineyards on the way up/down
US128 and US101 that I highly recommend on your journey to the lost coast: Novarro, Penny Royal, Toulouse (The Goose!) and Christopher Creek (Healdsburg) – all with a variety of flavor and fun. Novarro doesn’t charge for tastings and Penny Royal has wine/goat cheese pairings with a petting zoo for the kids. They make the drive pretty relaxing – just be sure to hydrate when water is available. Designated drivers are required not only for the vino; single lane highways and switchbacks in the mountains are a little harder after a few tastings. Sharing a tasting isn’t a bad idea though I can recommend another strategy: “not being in a hurry” – a simple, practical mantra that brings success most of the time.
For the outdoor enthusiast, the single best thing you can do if you’re going to be spending any time in California is to get a yearly entry pass
to all of the state parks. While expensive for a single trip, if you’re going to visit Mendocino – or Santa Cruz, or the San Gabriels more than twice a year – the pass is worth its weight in gold. Sometimes the parking lot costs can start to grow if you try and hit more than one park in a day – many parks are sandwiched quite closely on the map but the parking facilities are far enough apart that you’ll pay twice; with enough ambition, the costs can grow rapidly.
California is all about the redwoods. It’s not just that you stand in a cathedral millions of
Downhill to the waterfalls
years in the making. It’s not just that the pine needles on the ground soften every step and cushion every fall. It’s simply the filtering. The filtering of the sunlight. The filtering of the air. Mother-earth-made air filters can give years back into your lungs after eons of city living and road miles. Pine cones, ferns and all manner of smells permeate your senses and release tension you didn’t know you had. In Mendocino, nothing is too far from the coast; the cool ocean air breaking up the searing sunlight. Van Damm and Russian Gulch state parks are only a 5-10 minute drive away from the main part of town – each of these parks have plenty that makes them special. But mostly they follow a similar pattern for the beginner trail enthusiast: a modest loop course followed by a paved run-out; well-marked and no maps required.
One amazing application I downloaded before this trip was the “All Trails” iPhone app –
All Trails Guide
even without paying full price, you can carve out which routes would fit time requirements and search for proximity, reviews, and elevation profiles. For both the 8.5 mile loop in Van Dam as well as the 6.5 loop in Russian Gulch, we noted ahead of time elevation marks on the maps and when the elevation is going to stop/start so you can end the run buzzing from gravity. We also stopped to check out the Dwarf Forest – it’s amazing when you stop and consider the enormous tectonic shifts that have transpired to create such landscapes.
The entry point to each trail is largely paved and quite accessible. This makes the running fast but also a little crowded on the weekend. The good news is that at some point you will break into the forest, start to ascend uphill on more undulating hills, sweeping corners, and the occasional staircase – leaving the walkers behind.
Your hard work will pay off – once you make it to the top the return trip is simply magical – hugging the edge of a canyon with sweeping views of the forest, waterfalls, and ferns. The energy returned to you on these downhills is just incredible – running full pace down these canyons is the closest you can get to pure joy. While often grinding out my base mileage in the city, I’m not visualizing a beautiful vista. I’m visualizing these forests, the rolling hills and internalizing that energy return – pure joy.
Much of the coast is really under-developed, with views that cannot be described by
words alone. Even some of the colossal pictures we took, as amazing as they are, share no resemblance to the awe when seen first hand. Now as under-developed as it is, what’s interesting is that there are plenty of trails in the tall grass – more of a walkway than anything. They tend to sweep around the cliffs in a switchback motion to the cliffs and back again – you can definitely accumulate miles in these areas but it’s not going to be as long as in the forests. Certain sections are truly exposed – and although the cool Northern California air is exceptional – the sun is still unfiltered and will burn you to a crisp given the opportunity. Sunscreen is essential and reapplies whenever you can. NOTE: watch out for TICS – stay on the trails – don’t forget to make a note until the last day (like we did).
North and south of Mendocino proper there are TONS more options if you simply want exposed miles in the sun – in the cool fall air, I can see this being an incredible option. In Fort Bragg, you can work your way to the beach and run clear up to Oregon. South of Mendocino (2 minutes) the beaches also has trails that hug the water-ways for a good 10-20 miles. Once you’re done, take a dip in the ocean water and you’ll be shocked back to room temperature pretty quickly.
The town of Mendocino itself is pretty small and you will run into the same locals time
Breakfast in bed – yes, please.
and time again. For dinner, Cafe Beau-joule is pretty much the place to go. The little cafes are equally adorable but mostly the thing to do is to grab some wine, beer or other and sit on the coast as the sun goes down. While I’m sure AirBNB is a great option, we opted to pretend we were 65, retired and stayed at the awesome Headlands Inn (really awesome, to be honest – epic breakfasts in the morning). Picnics: yes. Some sunsets truly make you appreciate the cosmic paintbrush that we often take for granted. For all of the technology, anxiety, and stimulation in our daily lives it’s still incredible how good company, good wine, and a good sunset will keep your attention for the better part of an hour.
Go forth, into the forest and lose track of time so that you can remember once again where you left it.
Which way do these stairs go? They go up – of course.