Largest town on the north coast
The largest town on the north coast, Eureka’s main appeal is its stock of over a hundred preserved Victorian homes. The pick of the bunch is the 1885 Carson Mansion (http://www.ingomar.org/photos-mansion.html), 143 M Street, a rococo riot of painted window-frames, turrets and towers, which you should see even if you by-pass the rest.
Eureka’s once rough-and-ready waterfront district is in the throes of change, with trendy galleries, boutiques and restaurants appearing in its century-old warehouses – rich territory for a souvenir hunt. Close by, the Clarke Historical Museum (http://www.clarkemuseum.org), 240 E Street, boasts an absorbing display of basketry from the Native American tribes of the Pacific North West alongside the usual pioneer-era knick-knacks. On the town’s southern edge, Fort Humboldt State Historic Park preserves the remains of Fort Humboldt, erected in 1853 to deter Native American incursions into white homesteads and these days serving as a routine museum carrying displays on the fort’s military links and the local lumber trade.
Detour – Ferndale and The Lost Coast
An immaculately preserved Victorian village originally settled by Scandinavian dairy farmers, Ferndale, on Hwy-1 18 miles south of Eureka, grew fat on the proceeds of butter production and acquired (and retains) many picture-postcard Queen Anne homes, the grandest of which were nicknamed “butter palaces.” Besides the wonderfully elaborate old wooden homes, the village keeps a mighty stash of antiques and period furnishings from the thriving days of yore at the Ferndale Museum (http://www.ferndale-museum.org), 515 Shaw Avenue.
Continue south from Ferndale along Mattole Road and you enter the Lost Coast, where a handful of tiny communities sit beside – or at the end of – bumpy, gravel roads and count themselves lucky to see more than a dozen visitors a day.
The story might have been different. One Lost Coast hamlet, Petrolia, grew up in the 1860s around California’s first oil well but any prospect of a Los Angeles-like evolution was ended by the area’s remoteness and rough terrain.
Further south, Shelter Cove sits on a sandy bay beneath tall granite headlands and holds supply shops for those planning an assault on the nearby Sinkyone Wilderness State Park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=429). Not named in jest, only well- equipped hikers should think about tackling the park’s longer trails. If the weather is amenable, however, call at the visitors’ center and spend a few hours exploring the parks less arduous sections – the rewards are unparalleled views of mountain peaks and glistening ocean.
The Lost Coast can be entered or left from the south, using Old Briceland Road or Thorne Road, both off Hwy-101 near Garberville.
Detour – The Samoa Peninsula
A short drive from Eureka along Hwy-255 reaches the Samoa Peninsula, a slender strip of sand dunes and not much else which shelters Humboldt Bay from the worst furies of the Pacific. Here, the Samoa Cookhouse (http://www.samoacookhouse.net) satiated the gargantuan appetites of lumber workers from the 1880s. Still a functioning diner, the cookhouse also has a room of photos and ageing cutlery to mark its place in local folklore.