Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Mendocino
Trip Date: August 22-24
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: August 27

Seven camera club members and one associate converged on the town of Gualala near the southern border of Mendocino County on Friday, August 22. Our comfortable accommodations were made available by a member of the Golden Hills Arts Association of Milpitas. She allowed us to rent her vacation property last year, too. As usual, it was ideal!

Basically between the eight of us in the cabin there were two touring groups: one group of land tourists and a smaller group of water tourists. Saturday, our group split into the aqua and terra-firma contingents; and while the land-lubbers drove north to explore Fort Bragg, the salty dogs stopped just short of the town of Mendocino to put a canoe into the Big River.

Listed in this altogether too-long report are some of the worthwhile attractions we explored last year and this year. If you are planning a trip to Mendocino, you might just want to stop and check some of them out.

Gualala: The town of Gualala is supposedly the fastest growing community on the northern California coast. Situated close to Sea Ranch (an affluent senior community) and Ft. Ross Historic State Park. Gualala is an ideal place to stay because it is a short drive from most of the Mendocino County attractions and yet obscure enough so that nothing in town is overrun with tourists. It is a peaceful, pleasant little town. A former logging town, established in the 1860s, Gualala hit its stride after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake when the demand for redwood spiked as builders rushed to rebuild the city.

The Chapel at Sea Ranch: A few miles south of Gualala you can take a gander at the Sea Ranch Chapel, a small but amazing little nondenominational chapel, designed by San Diego artist and architect James T. Hubbell in 1984. The chapel was bankrolled by a Sea Ranch couple who wanted to have a meditational chapel close to their home. The structure won an AIA Special Award for Excellence in Craftsmanship in 1985. The structure is made mostly of local building materialsfrom its native stone foundation to the cedar and redwood frame and shingles of its soaring roof. Inside the structure, the sun filters down through stained glass windows, painting the floor with colorful designs. Most of the light streams in through a tall slit of a window with an exquisite stained glass design. The shake-covered roof soars like it is being swept upward by the wind and is accentuated by a sculptural metal element that extends upward and outward from the peak. The chapel is open to the public on days when the facility is not in use.

The rivers (Big River, Gualala River, Navarro River, Russian River): Mendocino County is also noted for its beautiful waterways, which cut through the old growth forests of Coast Redwoods and Douglas Firs (much of which have been destroyed by clear cutting). I targeted Big River for this years canoe outing. It appears that there is about seven miles of river available to canoes, kayaks and even small sail boats in the summer. During the rainy season the river becomes a surging beast that would easily swamp our small water craft.

As if by divine plan, the foggy sky opened up ten minutes before we put the keel of our canoe in the blue-green waters of Big River. The tidal surge was moving up river when we put in and the paddling was easy with the wind at our backs and the current in our favor. We ventured up two or three miles and still didnt lose the tidal advantage. Stopping for a short break, we picked some fat blackberries that were growing on the river bank, and took a sandwich break before pointing the bow of the Sea Nymph back downstream. The forest marched right down to the very edge of the river casting its cool shadows over the dusty jade colored water. The scenery was so beautiful I couldnt bear to block it from my eyes with a camera. I guess I'll have to remember it in my mind. The vast scope of the river snaking its way through the redwood and fir forest defied my limited wide-angle lens. I wanted to stay all afternoon in this verdant paradise, but we had to make it back for our barbecue dinner. We returned at a rapid pace, all three of us paddling hard, the bubbles making a gurgling sound under the bow of the aluminum boat. One of us was paddling for the bathroom and we easily overtook any boat that came into our path.

On the way to Big River I was looking for other paddling opportunities and saw several nice options, including the Gualala River and Navarro River. Much further to the south, there is the wide Russian River that spills into the sea near Jenner. That is the granddaddy of all the local rivers (with the exception of the Eel River to the north of Fort Bragg).

Perhaps for a future trip, I'll put a boat into the Gualala River, just south of town. I've heard it is a gateway to a beautiful stretch of flat water that reaches two or three miles back into the forest. The Gualala River is cut off from tidal surges in the summer by a sand barrier that blocks it from the ocean tides. It would be an ideal place to take a leisurely float!

If you want to go boating you may rent a canoe or kayak on all three of these rivers. We saw several outfitters parked near the mouths of the rivers. Kayaks rent for about $40 per day and canoes for as much as $80 a day. There were also outrigger kayaks that dont tip over, and they seemed to be very popular with the tourists on Big River.

We had so much fun on the water that we completely ignored the town of Mendocino just north of the river.

The town of Mendocino: Mendocino is the jewel in the Mendocino County crown, offering quaint views of a nearly complete Victorian seaside town. Although home to fewer than 1,000 persons, the town is heavily dependent upon its tourist trade and the movie industry. The town is full of bed-and-breakfast inns. The biggest recent economic boom to Mendocino was from the television series, Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury. That series alone (having nine complete episodes filmed in town) brought in about two million dollars of revenue. Several movies have been filmed in Mendocino or nearby communities, such as Fort Bragg. The list includes The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, Overboard (Goldie Hawn and Kirk Russell), Karate Kid III, etc.

Mendocino was founded in 1850 as a logging community, and was originally named Meiggsville. It fell on hard economic times in the 1940s and didn't revive until the arts community discovered it and transformed it into a major north coast artists community. The town hosts both the Mendocino Music Festival and the Mendocino Film Festival.

Because of its high profile, Mendocino prices are generally as spectacular as the vistas, and you can expect to pay a healthy price for gourmet foods and luxury items.

The parks near Mendocino include the Mendocino Headlands State Park, Mendocino Woodlands State Park and Russian Gulch State Park. The mouth of Big River forms the Mendocino harbor.

The Presbyterian Church in downtown Mendocino is considered one of the oldest, continuously used Protestant churches in California, dedicated July 6 of 1868. There are also a few very picturesque graveyards within the town borderssprouting abundantly with the pink blossoms of naked lady lilies during the late summer.

Fort Bragg: Further north is the largest town on the Mendocino Coast, Fort Bragg. It was originally a Civil War era military reservation and then became a lumber town and grew very large because of the lumber industry, which flourished through most of the twentieth century. Fort Bragg has a population of about 8,000. Recently, the largest lumber mill in town, the Georgia Pacific Lumber Company ceased to operate, leaving a large industrial footprint for the town to fill. The utilization of the expansive holdings of this goliath lumber company will influence the future of Fort Bragg. Plans for a marine research institute, a golf resort, a college or conference center are among the possibilities being discussed.

The Mendocino Coastal Botanical Garden is located in Ft. Bragg, as well as the large Noyo Harbor. Also along the coastline is MacKerricher State Reserve, Russian Gulch State Park, Glass Beach (a former seaside dump) and some other odd, and interesting places. It is also the terminus of the Skunk Train, a former lumber railroad line that now hauls tourists back and forth from Ukiah. And Fort Bragg is home to the North Coast Brewing Company, too.

Elk: Some of the other interesting and picturesque towns include Elk, a community of about 200 persons between Mendocino and Gualala. The town was formed when a lumber mill and railroad line were established. The growth of Elk put a small town to the north, called Cuffys Cove, completely out of business. All that is left of Cuffys Cove are two old graveyards. Elk itself became a ghost town during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the recent influx of tourists saved it.

As we drove north to Big River we were momentarily stopped on Highway 1 so the town of Elk could have its annual parade. Traffic was limited to alternate lanes with the local fire department operating an escort vehicle to bring the waiting cars through town. Technically our vehicle became part of the parade when spectators clapped for us with our boat on the top of the car. We were honored to represent Milpitas Camera Club as unofficial float during the festivities. (Too bad we forgot to bring our pirate suites, eye patches and candy to throw to the kiddies!)

If you happen to be in town when the locals arent tying up the only road, the Greenwood Creek Beach at Elk is well worth the long climb down the cliffside trail to go see it. It is one of those beaches you could just spread out a blanket and stay there all day long watching the waves break from either side of the little island in the middle of the cove.

Point Arena Lighthouse: Towering above the coastal cliffs 115 feet, the Point Arena Lighthouse is one of the tallest West Coast light stations. The light station includes a small museum and overnight lodging in the former light keepers quarters. You can climb to the top of the tower and see the six-foot diameter Frenzel lens, comprised of 666 hand-ground glass prisms. From the small window at the top of the tower you can see the spectacle of the beautiful Mendocino Coast stretching to the north and south, and the light house museum building far below you. I think the view is well worth the long climb to the top.

This year the lighthouse was closed for renovation and was sheathed in scaffolding.

Nearby at Point Arena Cove, you can go fishing from a 300-foot pier - some of the best fishing in California, according to local accounts. Or you can bird and whale watch and find seashells while combing the beaches and tide pools. There is also a restaurant in Arena Cove. To get to the pier turn off of Highway 1 onto Iverson Avenue and then right on Port Road.

Point Cabrillo Light Station: There is another small lighthouse located on Point Cabrillo, located north of the town of Mendocino. This light station was constructed in 1908 and put into service in 1909 and is far smaller than the Point Arena lighthouse.

Cemeteries and other oddities: Along Highway 1 you can find several interesting graveyards north of Elk is Cuffys Cove Catholic Cemetery and also another one; there is and excellent cemetery near the town of Manchester and others along the road just south of the Point Arena Light Station (Californias tallest lighthouse). Also near those cemeteries is the parking area for Bowling Ball Beach. And on the side of the road in the town of Manchester, are a few large, topiary trees that everyone stops to photograph. On the south end of the town, there is also an interesting mansion and a great flea market with plenty of worthless old junk to sort through! Manchester is a very odd little town.

Last year we visited the Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park, south of Mendocino, and though it was definitely odd, if really wasnt that interesting. See it if you have spare time.

Bowling Ball Beach: This year, the landlubber carpools goal was to explore Bowling Ball Beach during low tide on Sunday morning. The salty dogs made an attempt on Saturday morning, but could not find the bowling balls - most likely they were covered by the high tide.

Bowling Ball Beach is pretty obscure, but you can usually find it by looking for the cars parked next to Highway 1 at mile marker 11.41 (the Schooner Gulch parking area). You can also get to the beach from the 12.88 mile marker (the Mote Creek parking area with the sign saying Park Facing South Only). Both parking areas are attached to quarter mile trails that lead to the beach, the southern trail leads through a dense forest and the northern trail goes up and over the headlands and down a ladder. This year the north trail was closed, perhaps the ladder collapsed.

Fort Ross: On Sunday our party left a day early, stopping by Fort Ross Historic Park, an interesting and very picturesque reconstruction of a Russian fort established in 1812. Most Californians know that the state was part of the Spanish empire more than two centuries ago, but fewer are aware that Russia controlled the northern part of the state. The former Russian fortress and colony at Fort Ross was one of the southernmost holdings of the Czar. Fort Ross was established as a food-producing colony for Russias other northern outposts extending all the way up to Alaska. (With the growing season so short in Alaska, the settlements were unable to sustain themselves on the limited food they could grow.) Sea otter pelts were also harvested in great numbers at Fort Ross and were used for various purposes, including for coats and clothing.

After some initial reconnaissance missions, Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov established a colony at Fort Ross in March of 1812 with about 100 persons. After negotiating with the local Kashaya Pomo Indians, the construction of the fortress began. Soon they had built a traditional type of fort found in Alaska and Siberia stockade with blockhouses and log buildings. The fort never fired a shot in defense and was soon surrounded by a community of various types of people, including many Alaskan Indians, Europeans, creoles and the local Pomo Indians.

The presence of Fort Ross had some far reaching historical ramifications for the West Coast. The military settlement effectively stopped the Spanish from expanding their influence further north. The Russians were so well fortified and well stocked with weapons, that Spain turned its attention back toward its holdings to the south.

The influence of Fort Ross was relatively short-lived because, by 1839, the Russians were looking for someone to purchase their less-than-successful venture. France and The Hudson Bay Company in Canada both passed on the offer because it was too far south. In 1841, the wheeling, dealing Captain Sutter from Sacramento purchased the livestock and assets of the Russian-American Company (the venture company behind the experiment). The Mexican government took control of the land because it considered it as legally its own territory, and Sutter, then a Mexican citizen, agreed to pay $30,000 for the liquidation. The day before striking the deal, Sutter and the Russian representative secretly signed a contract transferring all the land from Cape Mendocino to Point Reyes stretching inland for 12 miles, to Sutter. (The deed did not surface until 1857 and caused quite a controversy at the time.)

The abandonment of Fort Ross was the milestone event that signaled the end of Russian influence in North America. Within the nineteenth century, Russia had practically abandoned all its holdings in the Pacific Northwest.

Fort Ross is about 27 miles south of Gualala and 12 miles north of Jenner. If you havent seen it, you should, because it is a very fascinating historic park and sits on some very picturesque landscape.