Sunday, August 23rd
A lot of us treat Sunday as a day of rest, whether from scriptural belief or a simple desire to read the Sunday comics in peace. The first Sunday of our travel trailer adventure was indeed restful, marked by little actual travel in terms of miles gone before we slept.
From Trinidad and the cozy confines of Emerald Forest Cabins & RVs, we would travel approximately one hour north to Elk Prairie Campground, part of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (which also includes Fern Canyon, where part of Jurassic Park: The Lost World was filmed. The coast to the redwoods, a tale of two halves, but no dinosaurs. Plus, our first experience with ‘dry camping‘ – which means no fancy water/sewer/electric hook-ups.
Trinidad, California, is a dot on the map; a beautiful, funky, fog-shrouded, green dot hard on the choppy, rocky Pacific waters, and home to Humboldt State University Telonicher Marine Lab (while currently closed to the public due to COVID-19, it’s well worth the visit when it reopens: small, compact, and educational, with a small touchpool outside that delighted our daughter when we visited a few years ago).
Trinidad also has really small streets which require thoughtful navigation when hauling a travel trailer and hunting for coffee. Now, early risers would have risen with the mist to flit down in the car to get coffee and pastries, all before hooking up the trailer and leaving by the 11 AM check out time. But that would require being an early riser, so you see our problem.
We maneuvered the trailer through the small downtown, snagging a single long parking spot around the corner from the coffee-shop we found on Yelp. Like the hunter-gatherers of old who lined up six feet apart to hunt mastodons, I strode around the corner to gather muffins and coffee from the Beachcomber Cafe, the sort of cafe whose only to-go cups are Mason jars with cloth covers (but don’t worry; that combination proved not to be the sort of latte-hand-grenade accident-in-waiting I feared it was, and was actually quite a workable delivery system for a delicious batch of foamy caffeine).
So. Coffee was secured. But even as I was waiting for the coffee to be prepared, I was mulling anxiously, for I was a little concerned about getting the trailer turned around, as the street on which we were parked was narrow, as was the perpendicular street where the cafe was located (I’m notorious for mulling).
Just ahead of where we parked, a short sloping drive to the right led to Trinidad State Beach, but trailers weren’t permitted; however, a side turning had no such prohibition. It took us to a long flat parking area that culminated with an-almost-too-good-to-be-true turnaround loop near an overlook and several benches, and a solid shoulder that gave ample space for a car and trailer to park while lined up for a straightforward exit. So never say good things never happen to good people.
After a lovely chat, we said good-bye to M’s Aunt Karen, although first we foisted an extra foam mattress topper on her that we had bought but couldn’t use. In return, we picked up an inflatable kayak we’d had shipped to her house and which we also would not use for the rest of trip. You know, a careful management and reallocation of resources.
Before leaving the Trinidad area, we stopped at Patrick’s Point State Park, a verdant, quiet promontory above the sea that includes a recreation of a Yurok village. Temporarily unhitching the trailer in an empty Visitor Center parking lot at the suggestion of a helpful Park Ranger, we wound our way through the narrow loop roads, passing the closed campgrounds and coming to the clifftop parking lot. From there, a steep, rocky path took P and me down to the shore.
It was a prototypically-lovely Northern California/Pacific Northwest beach: stony, with sharp rocks biting up through the undulating grey-green waves; mist and fog; green and burnt umber of redwood trees in the surrounding hills.
And as is often the case with these sacred sites, someone had built a cairn. Everyone loves cairns at the edge of the ocean. They just feel right.
Those rocky points are as close to a church (for me) as anything I’ve found so far in life, with something still a little wild and unpredictable possibly residing beneath the waves. If there were a God of Northern California and PNW beaches, I would suspect it would be someone like the character Raven from Snow Crash. Or maybe Jason Momoa as Aquaman.
Even out here, on the edge of the non-aquatic world, we found people clustered at the outlooks and famous Rocks (Wedding and Ceremonial). Masks were intermittent, so we didn’t stop at most locations. Even in the wild, even in a pandemic, people can’t help but attach to groups, like iron filings to a magnet. In some ways, our social nature is a weakness. If you can’t bear the silence of being on your own in the wild, how do you survive a pandemic over the long haul?
But that social nature … it also makes life worth living, except when it becomes “us-versus-them”. And remembering that life and the world is bigger than “us-versus-them” is the whole reason for trips like this – it reminds you that so many people are drawn to nature and will do what it takes to get there.
Elk Prairie Campground & Fern Canyon
North from Trinidad, we drove through the redwoods to the town of Orick, with the exact convenience store you would expect to find in the next great American short story: on the edge of the wilderness with merchandise such as matches, ice, marshmallows, camping gear, Bud Light, Mac And Cheese, and mosquito spray. Has to be a metaphor for something.
I just don’t know what yet. Maybe the myth of manifest destiny.
From Orick to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, home to Roosevelt elk and, according to Spielberg, dinosaurs.
Elk Prairie Campground was our first ‘legit’ camping experience; compared to the ‘wilderness-adjacent’ lifestyle of KOAs and RV Resorts, Elk Prairie had no pools, no hook-ups for the water/sewer/electic stuff, no convenience stores. Plus, it had bear lockers.
We arrived at the campground, followed the map down the one-way figure-eight loop to our designated site, a spacious clearing among the trees and ferns with a firepit, a picnic table, easy access to a creekside trail, and the aforementioned bear locker … and an entry angle pretty much impossible for backing in when hauling a trailer down the road following the directional signs.
We paused. We assessed. We mused. We tried. We tried again. We re-assessed.
There we were, middle of the narrow road, car and trailer sitting there like a whale trying to fit into a shopping mall parking space. A pleasant-looking white-haired couple, hearty and hale, exuding the air of RV veterans, happened by and casually nodded, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. But if you keep going to the loop, you can come back from the other direction. Just have one of you walk in front.”
Veterans of the road, casually giving us permission to just go the WRONG WAY?
For those of you who don’t know me, you won’t necessarily understand the impact this had on me, hearing older people who clearly had done this before blessing a maneuver that broke the rules. I like following rules.
And that’s what we did: we problem solved, and by coming on the site from the ‘wrong’ direction, we were able to create the angle we needed for working the trailer safely into the site, between two thick posts and a couple large stones. It wasn’t perfectly centered, and took some work and adjustments to get it level, but we did it.
And then we were in a sylvan idyll of sunlight and trees, where we could play games and breathe quiet air (and, as a non sequitur, learn that our hens decided it was time to start laying eggs).
But we had no time to laze for long. The afternoon light was a limited supply, and we wanted to see Fern Canyon, a famous trail along a creek and between steep walls covered in ferns (obviously) and moss, where hapless people were munched on by dinosaurs. The road to Fern Canyon is as compatible with trailers as a bicycle with whales, so we needed to go now when we had a spot to leave the trailer, as we would be continuing north the next day.
That road proved a challenge: steep, rutted, unpaved for miles, narrow in inconvenient places. The towering trees left it in shadows, with a ghostly-white light even touching the ferns and leaves (probably dust from the road, but eerie at the time). It dropped down over a crest and reached the coast, in places crossing streams (which made P giggle every time we splashed through water). We passed Gold Beach, a long, narrow, fog-shrouded swath of grey pebbly sand, and reached the Fern Canyon trailhead.
Fern Canyon is without exaggeration a marvel, especially on the day we visited. An easy walk over stony shores, criss-crossing the stream on bridges from wooden planks. The mist turned to raindrops in places, and I breathed deeply. Minnows and baby salmon could be seen in the deeper pools, hiding in the shade of the banks.
It feels old. You get why The Lost World filmed here.
Overall, the walk was everything we needed from a visit to nature. If you can get to Fern Canyon (and it is admittedly remote), you will be glad you did.
Before we returned to the campsite, P and I briefly walked out to Gold Beach through a labyrinth of shrubs and dunes. Why? Because a fog-shrouded stony beach was there, demanding to be trod – or in some cases, rolled in. Sand angels, anyone?
The drive back was uneventful, save for the fact that we passed the Elk Meadow, where a herd of Roosevelt elk was visible, foraging and resting in the twilight. Not quite the same experience as seeing Rocky Mountain elk taking over the entire town of Estes Park, Colorado, but impressive nonetheless.
That night we built a fire and roasted marshmallows. Now, the fire didn’t last long, and it required a lot of kindling and paper to keep it going, but it did work, and it lasted long enough for a round of s’mores.
And yes, we constructed the fire in the firepit carefully, setting up logs and cross-pieces to encourage heat to reflect off wood while still getting oxygen.
But we did get enough fire for the s’mores, and while it didn’t glow red long into the night, it was a campfire, and I did read next to it for a while after M and P slept, and I did get to look at the stars, so it totally counts. It just has a bit of an asterisk.
And the ‘dry camping’? It was fine. The travel trailer’s battery was full, so we had electricity. And we filled the water tank before arrival. And wastewater tanks can definitely hold out for at least a one-night sojourn in the wild.
It was a good day, and a good farewell to California. The next day we were heading to Oregon, where we would meet los Hermanitos.