Northern California – San Francisco to Eureka

Northern California – San Francisco to Eureka

Our most recent summer destination was northern California. After a terrifying flight and unexpected landing in Colorado, we finally made it to San Francisco. Glad to be on land again and anxious to begin our ten-day driving tour, we threw the bags and kids in the rental and took off. We had 10 days to drive a loop from San Francisco north to the Redwoods, east to Mt. Shasta and then back south through Lassen Volcano. It was a whirlwind tour, with probably enough content for a whole book! But I’ll give you the abbreviated highlights from our favorite parts of the trip. Here is our leg along the northern California coast:

 

Baker Beach

Boy standing on Baker Beach near Golden Gate Bridge

As this was our third trip to San Francisco, we only allotted two days in and around the city – our first and last days. This was just enough time to hit our favorite spots, starting with Baker Beach. On a Friday after lunch, the parking lot and beach were packed to capacity. Kids in bathing suits were playing in the sand and dipping their toes in the frigid water. Being from the South and used to much warmer weather, we shivered in our jeans and jackets. But we didn’t come here to go swimming. Besides the cold, the waves are pretty rough. We came here for the photo op. It’s one of the best places to capture a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides, it gave our five-year-old some much needed time to run around and dig in the sand.

 

The Pelican Inn

The Pelican Inn near Muir Beach

We had a little time before our 6 p.m. parking appointment at Muir Woods. (Yes, in case you haven’t heard, you now need to schedule a time to visit Muir Woods and either reserve a parking spot or a shuttle.) So with time to kill and dinner on our minds, we swung by The Pelican Inn for fish & chips and an English dip sandwich. In between bites, the kids chased birds around the garden, and we watched horses trotting down the road, probably taking their riders to nearby Muir Beach.

 

Muir Woods National Monument

Redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument

Next up was Muir Woods National Monument. It’s a great, brief introduction to the redwoods before viewing the giants up north. I originally was bummed to get such a late time slot at Muir Woods, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The national monument is open until 8 p.m. during the summer and normally packed. When we arrived, we got a parking spot right up front and practically had the place to ourselves. It’s hard to really experience nature when you’re surrounded by people, so this was perfect. I had printed Junior Ranger booklets back in New Orleans, so armed with their packets and pencils, we stepped into the woods.

As close as Muir Woods is to bustling San Francisco, it feels like you’re worlds apart. The main trail is straight in and out, about an hour and half if you go to the end and back. It’s nicely paved, each side of the trail flanking a stream running down the middle. With the redwoods towering above us, we felt very small next to the tallest living things in the world. As the light dimmed, we finished our hike, and Park Rangers swore the kids in as the newest Junior Rangers.

 

Muir Beach

View of Muir Beach

On our way out, we stopped by Muir Beach. It was a short trail down to the water, where groups of kids were huddled around bonfires. Hoards of pelicans flew overhead. My oldest counted over 500 before we finally dragged them away. We still needed to make it to Petaluma for the night.

 

Luther Burbank Home & Gardens

Spineless cactus at Luther Burbank Home & Gardens

The Pelican Inn was our one splurge on eating out, but now we had to get serious about food. Finding a Trader Joe’s in Santa Rosa, we picked up breakfast and plenty of road trip snacks and had a little picnic at Luther Burbank Home and Gardens. It was early morning, and our only company was the groundskeeper, who welcomed us to enjoy the gardens. Luther Burbank had a 50-year career as a horticulturist, developing many new plants throughout his life. My husband, Paul, is an avid gardener himself. Our little patch of land in New Orleans is exploding with colors and hundreds of plants. And his pride and joy is his spineless cactus, created by none other than Luther Burbank. (It’s also a favorite snack for our red-footed tortoise!)

We couldn’t stay long, though, as we needed to make it all the way past Eureka before nightfall – with several stops planned along the way… Here are some of our favorites:

 

Hwy. 1 Beaches & Ocean Views

Navarro Point

People walking to coast view at Navarro Point

Driving west from Cloverdale along Hwy. 128, the road winds past small vineyards tucked away in hidden hills. You then pass through Navarro River Redwoods State Park, where for 11 miles, second growth redwoods crowd right next to the highway. And then it opens up to Hwy. 1, and the Pacific Ocean glistens before you. We parked at Navarro Point Preserve and hiked the trail through the wildflowers. The reward was expansive ocean views high atop a cliff, with sea lions playing on the rocks below us.

View of northern California coast at Navarro Point

 

MacKerricher State Park
View of Glass Beach, Northern California coast

In Fort Bragg, MacKerricher State Park manages nine miles of the coastline. Highly popular Glass Beach was once a dump site following the 1906 great earthquake. Apparently the townspeople hoped that the trash would wash away, but instead the stubborn ocean kept washing it back on the beach. A hundred years later, all that remains are the handfuls of colorful sea glass littering the beach. Take all the pictures you like, but as this is a state park, you’re not allowed to leave with any glass.

Sea glass found at Glass Beach on Mendocino Coast

At the main entrance to MacKerricher, visitors are greeted by an impressive whale skeleton. The road brings you around to the beach and a trail to Laguna Point. The seal watching station here offered one of the best views of both harbor seals and sea lions lounging on the rocks before us.

Whale skeleton at MacKerricher State Park

Hwy. 1 north from Fort Bragg offered breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean around every turn. The road then turned inland back to Hwy. 101. Much of this stretch – 31 miles – is mirrored by the Avenue of the Giants. We had driven this route years before, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to take it again. Our Airbnb in McKinleyville awaited. It was indeed a “Charming Farm Barn Loft,” and anyone traveling in the area should check it out.

Farm animals at Airbnb in McKinleyville

 

 

Fishing the Buffalo National River & Other Arkansas Highlights

Fishing the Buffalo National River & Other Arkansas Highlights

When the invitation arrived to my nephew’s wedding in rural Arkansas, we immediately decided to extend our stay and do some exploring. We booked a little cabin in Gaither, just north of the Buffalo National River where cattle seemed to outnumber the people. It was a great location, though, for a quick drive to several of the river’s access points. The Buffalo, America’s first national river, runs wild and undammed for 135 miles. Much of it is dominated by large bluffs, a beautiful backdrop to the river itself. It was May, and the weather here was already sweltering. But the water was cool and refreshing, and the kids played for hours by the shallow edge and fished in the deeper waters by the bluff.

 

Eden Falls

We started on the west side of the river in Lost Valley, taking a short 2-mile round trip hike to Eden Falls. About halfway to the falls, we came to Natural Bridge, where a small waterfall fell into a shallow pool (pictured above). The boys immediately threw off their shoes and splashed in the water. The rocks here were very slippery, so we had a few falls and bruises, but it didn’t deter from the fun.

Continuing on, we passed some great boulders for climbing on our way to Cob Cave, so named from the corn cobs left behind by Native Americans and later found here by archaeologists. It’s a large bluff shelter—a good spot to hide from the rain and with many nooks and crannies for exploring. The shelter leads you on to 53-foot-high Eden Falls, which was not more than a trickle when we visited, but grows in size after a good rain. My husband and our oldest son continued up the hill to another small cave (flashlights needed) and an indoor waterfall, while the rest of us sat by the deep pool at the bottom of Eden Falls, watching a rather large salamander make his way across the rocks.

 

Blanchard Springs Caverns

Nearly a two-hour drive from our Airbnb in Gaither, Blanchard Springs Caverns was definitely worth the time in the car. We booked the one-hour Dripstone tour, and as we had time to kill before the tour started, we took a short drive and small hike to Blanchard Springs. Here the water gushes out of a large crack in a rock wall, forming a creek that eventually flows to Mirror Lake. In our race back to the caverns to make our tour slot, our oldest fell off the path and rolled down the bumpy hillside to the creek below. Fortunately, he came out fairly unscathed, but soaking wet. And with the average temperature in the caverns being at 58 degrees, we had to make a quick detour by the gift shop for some dry clothes.

The tour begins with everyone piling into an elevator and heading deep underground. This trail goes through two of the large, upper rooms of the cavern, and every curve of the path revealed new formations. Some were so massive, you couldn’t quite understand their size until you were standing right next to them. And then others were so slight, you felt like if you breathed on them, they would break in half. The whole experience is rather unreal, like walking through an underground castle built by nature over thousand of years—one drip at a time.

Roark Bluff & Triple Falls

The next morning, we awoke with the Buffalo calling us back. We headed toward Ponca and Steel Creek Campground, pulling the fishing poles out for a morning in the river under the shadow of Roark Bluff. Besides the fish, we had quite a few animal encounters here, including crawfish and several snakes winding their way across the water.

Then we took the dirt road down to Kyles Landing, another canoe launch and camping site. We couldn’t help but drive up the road to Camp Orr, a boy scout camp featured in Boys’ Life Magazine, one of our first introductions to the Buffalo River. We figured with an Eagle Scout and two boy scouts in the car, we were cleared for a quick peak! After sneaking out, we stopped at the bottom of the hill near the trailhead for Triple Falls. Turning our backs on the Buffalo, we hiked inland toward Triple Falls (also known as Twin Falls). There’s some impressive shots of this waterfall cascading over the top of the bluff after a nice rain, but alas, we saw a much smaller waterfall. But the area was completely secluded, perfect for a picnic, and ripe for exploring. And, it turns out, there were fish in that pool, which the kids worked for hours to try and catch.

 

Eureka Springs

Breaking away from the Buffalo, we took a day trip to Eureka Springs—the aptly named town boasting 66 natural springs within city limits. Fifteen of them are located throughout the historic district, each one tucked away within a beautiful pocket park. We drove the trolley route around the historic loop, stopping to take countless pictures of the Victorian homes and gurgling springs. The terrain is very hilly here, and the roads snake over and around the hills. We stopped high on a hilltop for lunch at the Crescent Hotel, opened in 1886 to cater to tourists visiting Eureka Springs for the town’s healing waters. The Sky Bar Gourmet Pizza restaurant not only left us with full bellies, but a bird’s eye view of the city below. The boys were a bit nervous walking the hallways, though, as the Crescent is often dubbed “America’s Most Haunted Hotel.”

Continuing on the loop, we parked by the Carnegie Library on Spring Street and burned off some calories by walking downhill toward Main. The shops here line both sides of the street, and we took our time window shopping, stopping to by some books and, of course, in the candy shop. Yes, those are candy necklaces they’ve got around their necks!

We couldn’t leave without visiting Thorncrown Chapel. Surrounded by woods, this beautiful chapel has “425 windows and over 6,000 square feet of glass.” It’s truly an amazing piece of architecture, and worth the detour if you are in the area.

 

One Last Look at the Buffalo