“There’s a history of booms and busts here,” said Otis Brown, the resident storyteller at the Inn at Newport Ranch. “Fish, lumber, cannabis—and we’ll see about ecotourism.” He was shouting bits of local lore as he navigated a Kawasaki UTV around the inn’s 2,000 acres of private trails, passing stumps of redwood trees that were cut down 150 years ago, many with their inner layers eaten out by enterprising black bears. We whizzed by the house of the hotel’s closest neighbor, who Otis said was John Gray, author of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus self-help books.
In the mid-19th century, Newport, just outside present-day Fort Bragg, was a tiny logging community. When the loggers left town after a few decades, dairy and fruit farmers took over. Once the farmers cleared out too, about a century ago, the area became a haven for a certain kind of dissident thinker drawn to its remoteness. In 1941, a group of these new residents, scattered across several counties in northernmost California and southern Oregon, launched a failed bid to create a new state called Jefferson. That secessionist energy has remained at a low simmer ever since, drawing utopianists, pot growers, and other practitioners of alternative lifestyles. Every few decades—most recently around the time of the 2016 election—it rises to a gentle boil.
In the 1980s, Will Jackson, a Manhattan-based banker, saw a listing in the Wall Street Journal for a 100-acre coastal Northern California property that was priced the same as a single acre in the Hamptons. He bought it. A few years on, he purchased the adjacent lots, hoping to build a lodge with a back-to-the-land ethos. In 2015, he opened the Inn at Newport Ranch. I had come to Jackson’s hotel with my best friend, Windy Chien, on a road trip that took us from her home in San Francisco to the Oregon border. We were chasing the spirit of the Lost Coast, a 25-mile stretch of prime California coastal land that starts just north of the Inn at Newport Ranch. No major roads access it, making this corner of the most populous state surprisingly unexplored.
That has long been central to its appeal with certain kinds of committed adventurers, like rogue surfers looking for undiscovered waves or hard-core hikers who don’t mind timing their treks with low tide. But in this moment, when the more physical space you have the better, that’s a selling point for us all. These empty landscapes aren’t just a bonus during our era of COVID-19, but also an antidote to the kind of Instagram-driven travel where every stellar view or destination restaurant seems overcrowded and overhyped. This is not Big Sur, which can feel like a Hollywood playground, or the coast of Marin or Sonoma County, where techies flock to keep it real, but a more gothic version of sunny, coastal California.
We eased our way toward the Pacific via the Anderson Valley, about two and a half hours north of San Francisco, along a winding 35-mile stretch of Highway 128. The isolationist element is alive and well in the local newspaper, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which has revolving mottoes: “America’s Last Newspaper” and “Fanning the Flames of Discontent.” But now the valley is home to an up-and-coming wine scene. It feels like Napa must have in the 1970s, or Sonoma in the 1990s: funky, unpolished, mom-and-pop. “Tasting rooms have doubled in the last 12 years,” said Paula Viehmann after bringing us a flight of pinot noirs to sip at Goldeneye, a winery and tasting room in the tiny town of Philo.
We only had to go next door to spend the night. Jim Roberts and Brian Adkinson, owners of The Madrones, have built a kind of Mediterranean-inspired compound with guest rooms (mine was their former living room); four tasting rooms; and a restaurant whose chefs, Alexa Newman and Rodney Workman, are Chez Panisse alumni. The Bohemian Chemist, the on-site spa and cannabis apothecary, is unlike other dispensaries that I’ve visited, which usually look like old-school head shops or Apple stores. The owners purchased the fittings from an Art Deco pharmacy in Hungary. I bought a THC bath bomb that was so effective at chilling me out that I spent five minutes after my soak looking for my glasses until I realized they were still on my face.
On our way out of town the next day, we stopped by the Bewildered Pig. The restaurant, run by Janelle Weaver, who cooks, and her partner in work and life, Daniel Townsend, occupies a converted Craftsman-style home surrounded by rows of cacti, with a Tesla charger in the parking lot. We crashed an alfresco gathering of Weaver and Townsend’s friends and neighbors and restaurant suppliers, and were invited to stay for what turned into a long and lazy six-course lunch with wine pairings. Everyone we met that day had chosen the Anderson Valley not for its convenience—you might have to drive 45 minutes to buy groceries—but because they wanted to be there. I began to understand why as I ate one of the best meals of my life: shaved matsutake and yuzu persimmon salad, baby artichoke soup with fermented mushrooms, pork belly with lemongrass and turnips, pecan shortbread that was almost savory.
At golden hour we left the valley and drove through groves of redwoods toward the coast. As we approached, frothy sprays of waves crashed against a cluster of sea stacks. “Those rocks,” Windy says, “look like a Yeats poem. Slouching towards Mendocino.”
We stopped by the Sotheby’s real estate office in the town of Mendocino, a quaint and cliffside community with a white chapel and clapboard cottages that feel more Cape Cod than California, on our way up to the Inn at Newport Ranch. Most of the properties for sale were well into the seven figures, and inventory in the age of the pandemic was low. When we got to the inn, I pretended that it was my own compound. It’s built in the coastal-ranch style using reclaimed redwood and is home to a restaurant run by Adam Stacy, a former executive sous chef with Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. Our dinner of sturgeon caviar on sourdough rounds and abalone and locally foraged mushrooms was briny and earthy and captured this place where the sea meets the forest.
There were windows everywhere to make the most of the views. To the east I saw golden hills, dotted with cows and strategically placed picnic tables—Jackson, the owner, is passionate about picnicking—which gave way to deep and dense forest. On my UTV tour of those woods with Otis, we passed not only redwoods but also rare California nutmeg trees, nettles, and sorrel. To the west, right in front of the inn, was the Pacific. Otis said migrating whales come up right to the cliffs—so close that his wife, Sally, who also works for the inn, claims she has smelled whale breath. When a storm is coming, they send notices out to all the guests and employees, and everyone gathers in the lodge with a glass of whiskey to watch the waves crash all the way up and over the cliff’s edge.
Windy woke up at dawn to soak in the view. I was outside watching a cook walk down to the kitchen garden to gather some salad greens when Windy returned, reporting that it was so beautiful and overwhelming she’d cried. She immediately booked a whole week so that she could bring her boyfriend. I thought I could see the ocean just fine from where I was, but I followed her advice and walked over to one of several benches; each seemed placed in the exact right spot for viewing a specific rock or seeing a wave break in a particularly dramatic fashion. I watched a slice of sun cut through the overcast sky, its rays shooting into the dark sea. I sat there, smelling the tang of the ocean and listening to the rhythmic sound of the waves against the rocks. Soon enough I, too, was in an altered, exalted state.
As Windy and I pushed north into Humboldt County, there were suddenly a lot more Trump signs, even though the election had come and gone, alongside billboards advertising seasonal work harvesting cannabis. It’s a place of strange mixes. We drove through Ferndale, a small town known for its perfect specimens of Victorian architecture. The Victoriana continued at the Inn at 2nd & C in downtown Eureka, where my room was painted a deep purple. I thought it looked psychedelic, but Windy thought it looked like the bedroom of Jo March from Little Women.
The redwoods, which are everywhere in Humboldt, long ago spawned a cottage industry. There are tourist shops every few miles selling wood carvings, and signs for drive-through trees for photo ops. We drove the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of the old Highway 101. The trees grow so close to the sides of this narrow, two-lane road and extend so high into the sky that it’s like driving through a wood-paneled tunnel. I have to admit, at the outset I was a bit blasé about the prospect of seeing the giant redwoods. I grew up with a redwood tree in my father’s front yard. The Sequoia sempervirens are majestic, and, as old-growth trees, they have been around since before the time of Christ. But they weren’t, for me, novel.
Thankfully, I had Windy with me, who geeks out over all things nature. She had been telling me all week long about Richard Preston’s book The Wild Trees, and the botanists who study the flora and fauna that only grow in the forest canopy. Another book she loved was The Overstory, Richard Powers’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about five different trees, including a centuries-old redwood. On our way out of Eureka to the alluvial flats of Redwood National Park and adjacent state parks, which hold the highest concentration of these massive trees left on earth, we listened to an audio version of a recent New York Times Magazine profile of the Canadian forest researcher Suzanne Simard, who was the basis for a character in The Overstory. I was ready to experience the trees anew.
In Orick, about an hour south of the Oregon border, we turned into a parking lot in front of a group of cabins where an ominous hand-painted sign read, “Elk Are Wild Animals. By Entering You Acknowledge All Liability.” We didn’t see any elk, but we did find Justin Legge, a lanky, fleece-clad naturalist who would be our guide on a trek through the park. He led us on a hike that included rapidfire asides about the 19th-century naturalist John Muir and his enthusiasm for the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who never visited California but for whom the county, bay, and nearby university were named. Justin told nonstop jokes with a loud, infectious laugh, pausing to pick and smell laurel leaves. He and Windy immediately liked each other, talking as I trailed behind about whether people from The Wild Trees still lived in the area.
Redwood National Park and its environs aren’t like, say, Yosemite. There are no hotels or restaurants to attract tourists, and barely any signs to hint at all the park contains. “The trees here are 200 percent larger in biomass than the ones along the Avenue of the Giants,” Justin said. He pointed out where scenes were filmed for the second Jurassic Park movie, which I never knew had a redwood moment, and discussed research on the interconnectedness of trees in a forest. “I love how altruistic and community-minded they are,” he said.
We were really there to see Ilúvatar, which was named after J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish word for “creator of the universe.” It was, famously, once on the cover of National Geographic, and is the largest tree in the park. It’s 320 feet tall, weighs almost a million pounds, and has a forest canopy that fills 30,000 cubic yards of space. What looks like one huge fused trunk from afar is actually, Justin said, made up of about 220 vertical trunks. Those are all impressive figures, but it’s only when experiencing it in person with no one but the three of us around that the tree’s real power comes through. It was like standing in front of a living skyscraper, so grand it’s scary.
I was torn on how closely guarded the location of the tree was. “It’s a secret on purpose,” Justin said. In this era of everything being accessible all the time, I liked that if you wanted to see the giant redwoods in this area, you had to know where to look, or at least how to look for them. I couldn’t remember a time I’d been to a national park that felt so rugged. I guess Ilúvatar and the redwoods were like so many of the delights in this part of the state: hiding in plain sight. They’re there for anyone who is willing to put in a little effort.
This article appeared in the April 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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