Dear Northern California,
I’ve polluted my body—drank all of your wine, smoked all of your medical marijuana, eaten forbidden foie gras, stuffed myself to the gills with bajillion-course tasting menus slathered in butter and bone marrow and I drank your beer, so much beer. But now, now I need a retreat. A cleanse for the spirit and the body. A walk in the woods that is much more than just a walk in the woods.
And that is where your immense redwoods, your majestic coastal displays and your miles and miles of undiscovered mushroom foraging hunting grounds come in.
Few forces on earth are more regenerative than water. What I need to start this journey is a dip in a natural hot springs bath in a place of solace, beauty and desolation. Harbin Hot Springs on 5,000 acres north of Napa Valley is one of the oldest such retreats in Northern California. The place drips with delights for the senses and offers all of these things (desolation, beauty), plus a healthy dose of freedom in the liberal attitude toward public nudity taken there. The waters in the communal soaking pool come to you just as they have from the ground—at times burbling and hot, others soothingly warm and then others bracingly cold.
It’s a good start on getting a clear head. But there’s much more to be done.
Hunting mushrooms is a meditative experience. More so than even hiking itself. You are out in the woods, taking in the natural beauty of a place like Salt Point State Park on the Sonoma Coast. But all the while your senses are keyed in, your eyes scanning the ground, looking for the hedgehog, oyster, candy cap or even porcini in a haystack. Hopefully you’ve brought an experienced forager to guide you and make sure you don’t accidentally collect one of the many varieties of poison mushroom. And when you do find one that’s safe (for they almost always grow in clusters) the mycological delight is its own reward. But so is the dinner you will have later.
Mushrooms can be difficult to spot. Redwoods are not. Soaring 50 to 100 feet in the sky and growing in dense groves, the giant redwoods are a miracle of nature, though generally beyond the reach of any ordinary literal tree hugger (sometimes a trunk is so big around that 15 people could form a circle around it).
Muir Woods, a national park named for John Muir, are some of the most accessible redwood groves between San Francisco and Sonoma. And while they are very pretty (also damp) they cannot compare to the awe of the thickets in Mendocino in parks like Van Damme State Park and Jackson State Park. At the former, hiking through the adorably named pygmy forest down to the water is the attraction. It’s also where Kayak Mendocino can outfit and guide guests through sea caves. The latter is where you can get lost. Well and away California’s largest state park, more than 50,000 acres of redwoods surround the hiking paths—the only thing to be seen are redwoods soaring overheard in every direction. The dense foliage and craggy rocks feel prehistoric. Whatever thoughts previously clouded your mind evaporate once you disappear into the groves.
For virgin growth untouched by loggers (if the spiritual side of you needs such things), Hendy Woods is the place to go. Once home to a hermit named Hendy who lived in a redwood stump, the few-mile loop trail is not strenuous and offers swimming, kayaking and canoeing. To truly connect to the giants, nothing beats floating by in a canoe actually made from a redwood tree, like those supplied by Catch-a-Canoe.
What I really need now, California, is to sleep among the sequoias, feel their magic and mystery at night and listen to wind rustling their ancient branches. And Camp Navarro, which opened recently in what was once a Boy Scout Camp in the 1950s, offers all of this and more. The accommodations (cabins, tents and lodges), are just this side of rustic, though with a distinct sense of style and somewhat magical. Just like the surroundings.
901 Masonite Industrial Road, Navarro
Highway 1, Mendocino
Harbin Hot Springs
18424 Harbin Springs Rd, Middletown
Hendy Woods State Park, Philo
Jackson State Forest, Fort Bragg
Trailhead at Ft. Bragg-Willits Road
Van Damme Beach State Park, Little River
Muir Woods, Mill Valley
Salt Point State Park, Jenner
Van Damme State Park
8001 N. Highway 1, Little River
redwood photo by Max Flatow
other Photos courtesy of Kayak Mendocino and California State Parks