There is no fast lane—only slow and slower—on Highway 1 as it curls along the Northern California coast. When it eases into Elk, population 250, the pace becomes so leisurely that the traveler feels an urge to stop. This former lumber town, 15 miles south of Mendocino, has scenery as beautiful as that of its better-known neighbor but without the congestion from tourist crowds. It's a sleepy getaway perched on bluffs above a jagged shoreline, a place for sunset walks along the water and lazy mornings over coffee in bed-and-breakfasts with ocean views.
Strolling through Elk you see Victorian homes built in the late 1800s, when lumber barons like L.E. White made fortunes cutting down redwoods and sending them by sea to San Francisco. Back then Elk was known as Greenwood, in honor of an early settler family; the name changed to Elk in 1887 in part because, well, there were a lot of elk.
On this stretch of the coast, you can kayak in and out of sea caves and through kelp forests. Force 10, a local kayak company, will provide you with customized tours and experienced guides. (707) 877-3505, www.force10tours.com.
The elk are gone today, as are the lumberyards. The last one closed in 1964. By the early 1970s, Elk had become a hippie stronghold. But the area has recently taken on an upscale tone, with fine dining at Harbor House Inn, serving California cuisine that emphasizes local fresh and organic ingredients, or Victorian Gardens in the nearby town of Manchester, offering regional Italian fare. The budget conscious can also eat well at Bridget Dolan's Pub, featuring fish-and-chips and Guinness on tap.
For history buffs, the Greenwood State Beach Visitors Center Museum in the middle of town (open weekends only) has an impressive collection of books and photographs, as well as a mural documenting Elk's history. Just up the road, along a bend in the coast called Cuffey's Cove, stands a Catholic cemetery where many of the town's early residents are buried. It's a peaceful spot that looks out on the water and deep into Elk's rich past.
If you decide to spend the night, check out the Elk Cove Inn & Spa, a sumptuous bed-and-breakfast that once served as the executive suites for the L.E. White Lumber Company. Or stay at the Greenwood Pier Inn on the edge of cliffs overlooking the Pacific and be lulled to sleep by the sound of waves below.
Photography by MacDuff Everton
This article was first published in November 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Area code is 707 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Mendocino & Sonoma Coast map and Northern California & Nevada TourBook. The Mendocino Coast Glove Box Guide by Bob Lorentzen is also available at www.boredfeet.com.
Bridget Dolan's Pub 5910 S. Hwy. 1, 877-1820.
Harbor House Also an inn. 5600 S. Hwy. 1, (800) 720-7474.
Victorian Gardens 14409 S. Hwy. 1, Manchester, 882-3606.