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Arcata, in Northern California, boasts fern groves, redwood forests, beaches, a charming old downtown, and eclectic shops and restaurants.

contestants in the Kinetic Sculpture Race, image
Photo caption
A homemade shark vehicle swims out in front during the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Arcata.

To understand what makes Arcata special, leave downtown. You don't have to go far—just a mile to the east of the bustling square. There you'll find the beginning of a trail that winds nearly 10 miles beneath the towering canopy of the Arcata Community Forest. With more than 600 acres of fern groves and second-growth redwoods, this sun-dappled retreat was dedicated in 1955, making it California's first city-owned forest. In 1979, the citizens of Arcata passed an initiative allowing the forest to be used for recreation, sustainable forestry, and as wildlife habitat, creating both a recreational treasure and a means of revenue to acquire more parkland. Today the forest serves as a verdant backdrop to the city—and a symbol of Arcatans' fierce determination to preserve their natural and civic treasures.

Though a morning hike in the forest is perhaps the best introduction to eco-friendly Arcata, the heart of town is Arcata Plaza, a parklike square that was created by the Union Company in 1850, back when Arcata was called Uniontown. In those days, the plaza was crowded with prospectors hoping to strike it rich in diggings on the Klamath, Trinity, and Salmon rivers. Today you'll still find a colorful mix of characters: Humboldt State University students reading on park benches, businesspeople enjoying their lunch hour, couples strolling arm in arm. The counterculture is alive and well here, so expect to see plenty of backpackers and hippies dressed in tie-dyes and carrying bedrolls. Almost everyone you pass has a ready smile.

Fronting the plaza are several beautifully restored structures, including Jacoby's Storehouse, built in 1857 with locally quarried stone and brick, and the Hotel Arcata, built in 1914. There are also several charmingly eclectic restaurants and shops. Duck into Heart Bead for an array of colorful beads from around the world, or visit Pottery Farm for exquisite hand-thrown pottery. A surprisingly sophisticated restaurant scene tempts passersby with everything from Cajun to Mexican.

When you're done prowling the square, set out on foot to explore the surrounding neighborhoods. Gorgeously detailed Victorians, craftsman bungalows, and funky cottages line the streets and are often bordered by colorful gardens, thanks to the mild climate. On sunny weekends, avid gardeners are usually at work and happy to share tips. The Chamber of Commerce map outlines a walking tour of the most prominent houses, including the home at 927 J Street where Bret Harte ("The Luck of Roaring Camp") roomed and wrote.

Historic homes aren't the only focus of Arcata's preservationist spirit. A short walk or drive south of downtown lies the 154-acre Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. You'd never guess, strolling past tidal areas filled with shorebirds, that this was once an abandoned landfill site. In the 1980s, using locally developed technologies, a coalition of scientists and community leaders brought these wetlands back to life. Arcata's treated wastewater now flows through these restored marshes into the bay. It's a bird-watcher's paradise, with more than 200 resident and seasonal species, including ospreys, red-tailed hawks, American coots, and black-crowned night herons.

Just as the marsh attracts bird-watchers, the flatlands to the west of town, called Arcata Bottoms, are perfect for cyclists. Here the countryside is as serene as any you'd find in France, and you can pedal along narrow country roads, past picturesque dairy farms, all the way to Mad River Beach. It's a perfect place to frolic along the shore, as is Clam Beach, a couple miles to the north.

Actually, frolicking is a way of life for Arcatans, particularly in the spring and summer, when the calendar is filled with events ranging from highbrow to high jinks. Memorial Day Weekend features the Kinetic Sculpture Race, with as many as 100 people-powered contraptions navigating the 38-mile course from Arcata to Ferndale. Symbolic of Arcata's free spirit, the wacky race has been run by a 75-foot-long mechanical iguana and a caveman-powered dinosaur called Tyrannosaurus Rust. Throughout the summer you can watch the Humboldt Crabs—California's oldest semipro baseball team— play at the intimate Arcata Ballpark. Humboldt State University also offers a steady lineup of cultural events, from art shows to classical concerts and live theater.

The town of Blue Lake, just to the north, boasts a school of a different sort: the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, where aspiring actors hone their juggling, tumbling, and melodramatic skills. If you're visiting Blue Lake on July 8, 9, or 15, don't miss the Parada De Rua, a fantastic, Mardi Gras-like spectacle with exotically costumed jugglers, acrobats, and musicians. While you're in Blue Lake, the Logger's Bar, which retains the character of an old Wild West saloon, is worth a visit. On your way back to Arcata, stop by the Azalea State Reserve in McKinleyville, where from May to early July you can walk through dells awash in white, pink, and purple.

To find out what's happening while you're in Arcata—and to get an insider's perspective on daily life—buy a copy of Arcata's local rag, the Arcata Eye, and treat yourself to the paper's hilarious descriptions of the town's sometimes wacky goings-on. On one recent Saturday night, the Eye reported, "Some Blakeslee Avenue residents set their driveway on fire by way of general merriment." Not long after, "Burly lads were seen picking up an economy car and moving it slightly. Does this town know how to party or what?"

It does. The bands that play Café Tomo on the plaza range from traditional Irish fiddling to pure funk and hard-driving jazz, and there's almost always dancing in the aisles. But Arcata also knows how to kick back. No visit is complete, the locals say, without a stop at the Finnish Country Sauna and Tubs. Here, in an interior garden as restful as a Zen monastery, you can relax in a private cabana with your own hot tub and sauna.

A day that begins with a hike in a misty redwood forest and ends with a soak in a hot tub—nothing could be more quintessentially Northern California. And nowhere will you find a friendlier place to savor these simple pleasures than Arcata.

Photography courtesy of Christopher, Tania, and Isabelle Luna/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in July 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.