This past weekend, Justin and I visited one of our favorite beaches: Wright’s Beach. For those not totally familiar with the Sonoma Coast, this beach (which in many map searches only comes up as part of the Sonoma Coast SP), is located about midway between Bodega Bay and Jenner. It is just slightly north of the tiny town of Carmet.
It is, in many ways, a jewel. That’s saying a bit, given the beauty of the Sonoma Coast, in general. it has a few things in its favor: camping, rock-hounding, and it is dog-friendly. A few years ago (2008, when California was on fire), my vacation plans to visit Big Sur went… well, up in smoke. As I searched for new places, which, time after time, also caught fire, I was left with the Sonoma Coast being one of the few places that were still accessible. I inquired at several Yahoo! Groups what the rock-hounding possibilities, I was guided toward Wright’s Beach. Back then, we did not camp there, as there were no sites available, but we did do a couple of day-trips and fell in love with the jewel sands, the lack of crowds, and the aforementioned dog-friendliness.
Three years later, my son and I finally managed a weekend trip. As I said, it’s not easy to get a place there, as it seems to have a cult following. I was lucky enough to get in, but we had two different sites for two nights. Yes, it is that popular, especially among those in the know that October is the “real summer” on the California Coast — much better chances of avoiding wind-and-fog chill.
The split reservation gave me a chance to evaluate the two loops. Tthere are only 25 campsites. Numbers 1-18 are the lower loop, the rest on the upper. All the sites are most suited for RVers (most have paved pads), but tents work as well (Justin and I are tent-campers). The bathrooms are clean, the hosts are friendly enough, but warning: there are no showers (though you can use the showers at the Bodega Dunes campground, 4.5 miles south). This was okay for Justin and me for a weekend, but my ex-wife would not have enjoyed this.
Both loops are close enough to the ocean to hear booming surf, and remote enough to see wildlife (we saw a raccoon, a deer and a variety of birds; we heard a barn owl circling and screeching both nights). The upper loop seems somewhat quiter, where the lower loop is the “party loop.” That said, the partiers were pretty respectful, and wound things down by about 10:30 Saturday night.
Now for the beach…
The sand varies from coarse sand to small gravel, and is composed mainly of polished pebbles of jasper and chert. Agates and jade can also be found. It is a rock-hound’s and a psammophile’s dream. We saw both hobbyists. When you see an adult on his or her belly in a gravel bar, face pressed close, and gently moving individual pebbles about with a finger, you know what you’ve found (in most cases, anyway). We ran into one nice lady from near our neck of the woods who is a member of the Roseville Rock Rollers and we sat and had a wonderful rock conversation.
For ourselves, we found several fine examples of colorful jasper and a few agates. This time I did not find any jade. That is okay. I have learned that rock-hounding is not the same as rock-finding, and a bad day of rock-finding can be a fine day of rock-hounding (especially when it is done at the beach). I also found a nice assortment of crab carapaces. Evidently the little critters are molting, which means the gulls are enjoying soft-shell crab.
Dogs are very welcome here, and we saw plenty, mostly friendly. If your pooch loves to dig or run, (s)he will love it.
Of course, this being a State Beach, the scenery is also an attraction. Like most of the NorCal coastline, it is rugged and rough (more on that later). Sea-stacks stud the water offshore, here and also at several adjacent beaches. In the event that it is clear, like it was for us, they can provide a stunning back-drop for beautiful sunsets. They also provide roosts for an assortment of gull, cormorants, pelicans and other sea-birds.
Some of the nearer sea-stacks sport an interesting and relatively rare for of kelp: the sea-palm Sea palms (Postelsia palmaeformis). This kelp actually spends most of its life above the surf-line, and takes a serious beating from the surf, and yet manages to stay upright. That is a testament to the toughness of agar. They are edible, but are protected completely in BC, Washington and Oregon. In California only commercial harvesting is allowed — recreational harvesting is prohibited (who says we are business unfriendly?). Native Americans are allowed to take them now, I believe, but it was a ridiculous legal battle for that to become a reality.
Now, as you can plainly see, the waves here are a bit rough. An acquaintance calls this beach “Death Beach.” I don’t know if this is because the cliff at the southern end is called Death Rock, or because of the drownings. Or perhaps, the two are related. In any case, a tremendous number of people have drowned here. I’ve heard anything from 57 to 126. I haven’t been able to substantiate the number (due to State Budget cutbacks, this beach shares rangers with the larger Bodega Dunes, and I saw one on one occasion, and did not think to ask). One camper mentioned that 6 people drowned last year. Again, this is unconfirmed, but the beach is clearly dangerous if not treated with respect and caution. The beach face is steep, the undertow is vicious and the waves have a short, hard break. Many are sneaker waves. Assuming that the high number is the correct one, Justin and I very nearly saw victims 127-129. Several out-of-shape teenage girls were body surfing and two were suddenly pulled back and tumbled. Even had they been strong swimmers, they would not have been fight it, but at least they would not have panicked. The third one to nearly die was the one who went after them. They were all supremely lucky that they were tumbled back onto the beach.
This provided me two teachable moments for Justin. First, the “No Swimming…” signs are there for a reason. Second, don’t become a dead hero. Lifesaving is treacherous business in calm water, even if you are trained (people panic and pull you under). With currents you can’t fight, you sometimes (unfortunately) need to let people suffer the consequences of their actions. I sincerely hope I am never put into that position when the outcome is fatal, particularly with someone I care about, but I have learned the hard way that some people cannot be saved from their own stupidity.
So…, if you are prepared to respect and appreciate the higher power of nature, this is a wonderful beach, and has lots to offer the outdoor enthusiast, the beach aficionado, the rock-hound, the hound-dog. If your aim is to swim, body surf or play wave-tag, there are better beaches, but to me this is a quintessential NorCal beach. And it is not on the list of State Parks to be closed (which I shan’t rant about today).
For a complete picture set, see:
(Portuguese Beach, just a mile or so to the south)
Vacation on the Humboldt Coast, August 2011
This year, for our vacation, my son, Justin, and I decided to explore a portion of the Humboldt Coast. The siren songs of Agate Beach and Trinidad Beach jasper have been in our ears for some time now. Additionally, a dear friend and fellow photographer has been extolling Trinidad’s virtues ever since I have mentioned a desire to visit. Her pictures of the area certainly piqued my interest further….
For my pictures, please see:
Justin returned from his mother’s house at 8:30 AM. I finished packing the car, and we (including Buddy and Buster, the wonder-wieners) were on the road by 10:15. Heading north in I-5, we were filled with excitement. In spite of the mild summer we have been experiencing in Davis, the air was hazy, and it became quickly evident that the northern valley (which does not receive the cooling Delta Breeze that we do) has not enjoyed this to the same extent. Within an hour from home, the temperatures were in the mid-90s (Davis had a forecast high of 88°F for that day), and the Coast Range, quite close to the freeway, was not clearly visible. The Sutter Buttes, also, were only visible in silhouette. When we reached Redding at 12:30, it was a sweltering 99°F, and the only thing I could see of Mount Shasta was a fuzzy outline of its snow-capped peak.
We turned west into the Trinity Alps. The three hour drive through the mountains on highway 299 was gorgeous and surprisingly hot. The temperatures hovered in the mid-to-high 90s until we were within about 10 miles of Arcata, at which point they dropped rapidly.
For lunch we stopped at Bagdad, on the Trinity River. I wanted to do a quick search for jade, but the area was designed for boat access of the river. Reaching the rocks would have required a swim.
All along the drive I saw numerous possibilities for future camping trips along the Trinity River (jade hunting kayak-trips, perhaps?). I imagine near Willow Creek will be the place, as it closer to the coast and somewhat cooler.
We arrived at about 5PM and set up camp. The campsite was nice: large and relatively private, secluded in ferns and bishop pines.
After set-up, we took a quick trek to Agate Beach (about a mile from our campsite), and found some goodies – mostly jasper.
I woke up at about 6:00, mainly to the sounds of crows, ravens, Stellar’s jays, spotted owls and woodpeckers as well as a few unidentified birds. There were very few human sounds. The noisy revelers were still asleep and the early risers respected the quiet. I stayed in my sleeping bag, listening, until about 7:00, and then got up for breakfast. I realized then that I’d forgotten to bring my coffee (d’oh!), but green tea was just fine.
At 9:00, Justin woke, and had his breakfast. Afterward, we proceeded to Sumeg Village (a model Yurok village), where a program was put on by local Yuroks. A tour of the village was performed by Skip: a Yurok as well a Park Ranger, which provided an interesting perspective (and one that was more accurate than the usual anthropological approach, I imagine). We learned, for instance that Yurok houses have small round door designed to keep bears out. Yurok tools were chiefly constructed of elk horn, rather than stone. Also, since Yuroks consider all things alive and imbued with spirit, represent physical features in things they build. For instance, every Yurok canoe has structures representing a nose, heart, lungs and kidneys – the essential organs.
Following the tour, we were treated to Yurok songs and prayers to prepare us for a salmon feast. The salmon was delicious, slowly spit-roasted over a redwood charcoal pit. I even partook of what is considered a delicacy – the head, which was moist and quite delicious, particularly the cheek meat.
Well-fortified after lunch, Justin and I biked into Trinidad, about 5 miles away. This turned out to be slightly more challenging than I imagined. Although Justin and I are both avid bikers, I did not have my regular bike – a cargo bike is too large for my roof rack. Instead, I was riding Justin’s “spare” bike, which even at its tallest setting is too small for me. Unlike Davis, Trinidad actually has hills, which are quite tough to bike when your knees are nearly smacking you in the chin.
Upon returning, we headed to Agate Beach for our first serious agate hunt. We hit a beach packed with agate hunters, over half of whom were armed with “agate scoops” – essentially three-foot-long slotted spoons. Most of these were identical and presumably purchased. A few, though, were creatively home-made: one was constructed of a golf club handle and a small kitchen sieve, another of a wooden dowel and a kitty litter scoop. These folks had a distinct advantage as they were able to reach agates that were further away without diving for them. Most of these folks also seemed focused only on agates. Many had pint-sized Ziploc bags significantly filled with agates.
I, on the other hand, found two agates. This is probably due to several factors. I do not seem to have “the eye.” Many of the hunters have been coming here for years and know what to look for, and take only agates. I, on the other hand, was distracted by the amazing array of jasper and jade that can also be found (in fact, they are more plentiful than agates). Also, without a scoop, I simply could not reach many of the agates that I did spot, since they do not remain in one place for long before the next wave moves them again.
Speaking of jasper, I found one piece of classic brecciated tan and pink Trinidad jasper with a gorgeous seam of agate running through it. More common are pieces with brown or tan landscapes and blue sky in colors reminiscent of Rocky Butte jasper from Oregon.
At Justin’s insistence, I woke him up early for some just-past-sunrise, low-tide “agateering.” The beach already sported the hard-core hunters. As we searched, I chatted with a few of these old-timers. One was a San Francisco man who has been coming with his family every year for 40 years. Amazingly, he was not aware that there is also an Agate Beach in Bolinas. In any case, he shared some of his hints: the area where the water is an inch or two deep is best. The agates are briefly still, and give off a blue “glow.” This did not help me greatly, as every blue glow I saw was either 20 feet away, in someone’s scoop, or a “false positive” – grey chert. I again found jasper and jade more frequently than agate (once again, I found two agates, which were slightly larger than the previous day’s finds).
By about 10:00, the morning fog had almost completely burned away making all the stones on the beach sparkle in a very distracting manner. Nevertheless, after lunch, Justin and I joined a ranger-led hunt. Her presentation confirmed my suspicions about two brown stones I had found in the morning – they are petrified wood. During this hunt I actually found three agates (!), two more pieces of petrified wood (okay, auto complete just tried to turn that into petrified woodpeckers, which would be an extremely cool find), and a fairly large black piece of whalebone (a piece of rib, perhaps?).
Justin found several agates and an egg-shaped piece of Trinidad jasper that makes me drool (see the pictures link to see it).
That night, our campfire was slightly less relaxing than usual since we had some new neighbors: one family began arguing the moment they pulled in, another had three small squalling children that went on shrieking for hours…
Monday morning dawned perfectly clear. Justin once again slept in. After a short morning agate hunt (I again found two), we opted for a road-trip to Fern Canyon. On the way, we stopped for pictures of one of the local herds of Roosevelt elk. They were amazing to see, but at about half a mile distant, so I don’t think we got a full appreciation of how huge these beautiful critters are. Getting to Fern Canyon involved driving along eight miles of bumpy and dusty, but decently graded, dirt road and making four water crossings. The ranger assured me that my car (not a four-wheel drive) could make it, but the first one made me a bit nervous. Luckily the crossing contained sufficient gravel that tires did not sink into mud.
The short hike (no dogs allowed) at Fern Canyon (where parts of the Jurassic Park movies were filmed) was totally worth the bouncy drive. We first crossed a meadow with a very clear creek, tall bushy horsetails, prolific wild-flowers and dozens of dragonflies (black saddlebags, I’m fairly sure) that absolutely refused to land and pose for pictures. The canyon itself is only half a mile long: a deep trench lined with four different species of ferns (so that’s how it got its name) and waterfalls. Downed logs were decorated with mosses and unusual fungi, including one growing a red, brain-shaped jelly fungus of some sort. At the end of the canyon Justin and I opted for the loop hike ascending what one kid described as the “endless stairs” for a small wood-land like. We crossed another meadow with numerous dragonflies (some sort of darner this time, I believe), which were equally camera-shy. This is a perfect flip-flop hike: wet and not at all difficult.
After this hike, we decided to head to Big Lagoon, a dog-friendly beach. One of the Patrick’s Point rangers had told us that nearly every beach in Humboldt County, with the exception of Agate Beach is dog-friendly. She had also told that many local search for agates there when it isn’t sandy, since there are fewer people. It was sandy. A sign sported a very amusing typo in reference to dogs (see pictures).
The beach excursion did not last long, since the dogs were being brats, escaping their harnesses repeatedly. Justin and I opted for a hike at the camp-ground instead. We toured the Yurok ceremonial rock, and then explored Mussel Rock, Lookout Rock and the Wedding Rock.
At night the kids across the way cried and screamed for three hours. Lovely.
Another early-morning agate expedition. It started off foggy, but by 9:00 the fog was down to thin wisps. This was apparently good for Justin’s “agate-eye,” as he found a good 20 pieces, including two that resemble faces. I found four agates, but struck an absolute jade-jackpot. I talked with an old-timer couple, who, like me, had a more eclectic focus, also pursuing jade and jasper. The man told me that the blue and brown Oregon-jasper-like pieces I had been finding could often be cut to reveal black agate in thunderegg-like formations. I will have to try it.
After brunch, Justin participated in a Junior Ranger “slug slam” program where we learned that slugs breathe through a hole in the side of their heads, and we also made artificial “slug-slime” – yellow oobleck.
Next on the agenda was a trip to Trinidad. We arrived to perfectly clear weather and headed to the lighthouse overlooking the bay. I have to say that this is one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. This place seriously gives Kauai a run for its money in terms of sheer, breath-taking scenic beauty. I vowed on the spot that we will return next year. Since the dogs had been brats on the beach the day before, we decided that they would not be going to the beach today. To make up for this, we took them for a nice hike of Trinidad Head. This was a long enough hike to tire them out (Buddy, the 14 year-old, had to be carried for the last bit). The views were stunning, and I saw many wildflowers with which I am not familiar
The next item on the agenda was exploring Trinidad State Beach which contains spectacular boulders of multicolored jasper with tafoni-like features, caves and off-shore sea-stacks, one of which is 10 acres in size and covered in bishop pine. The beach also contains a creek that is the source of Trinidad Beach jasper. I managed to find three pieces. Two look promising, but one revealed many fractures after I cleaned the creek-slime. No worries. We will return here! When I know whether I picked well, I can get more. I also lugged a few 30-pound landscape boulders through a half mile of deep sand. A very good work-out.
Our last full day dawned to weather that is more typical than what we had been experiencing: heavy fog. Our last agate hunt lasted only about two hours. The fog wasn’t burning off, and Justin was thoroughly chilled. During our time there, I did have the time to speak to an old-timer, who claimed that agates are getting more rare with more people coming. He claimed that it used to be possible to find 100 – 150 agates in an hour, and that he is lucky to find 20 or 30 a day now.
After warming the boy up with oatmeal and green tea, we decided that an inland hike of the big trees would be in order. Once 101 turned inland after Orick, it soon became sunny.
Parking at Big Trees, we found a nice, shady spot for “the boys,” since dogs are not allowed on the trails. We picked a nice 6-mile hike off the map and got going. Evidently this map marked trails “as the crow flies,” since it did not show switch-backs, which expanded the hike to at least 10 miles and made it moderately strenuous. It was Justin’s first exposure to totally wild, dense vegetation, and he became convinced that we were lost, and was visibly relieved with every trail-marking sign.
This hike earned us a substantial dinner, so we headed to eat at the Trinidad Eatery and Gallery, which had been recommended by a friend (the same friend who raved about Trinidad itself). Justin and I shared a plate of calamari for the appetizer, followed by clam chowder for him and an excellent cioppino for me. For dessert we split some dynamite blackberry cobbler.
Justin fell asleep by 8:30, and I read by the campfire. The screaming, sobbing kids were gone!
Homeward-bound. The last day of vacation is always a melancholy event. I am usually blissful from the experience, but sad to be leaving. This time was no exception. After one last hike of the campground trails, Justin and I packed and headed out, opting for the highway 101 to 20 route, to make the trip a loop. Just like 299, this is a beautiful drive, though much of it seems studded with tourist traps (Bigfoot themed and redwood themed). I saw many possibilities for future explorations of the area, and also managed to lose count of the number of times we crossed the Eel river (Justin insists it was 29).
Much of this drive was quite a bit cooler than the trip in, until we neared Laytonville, and from there until past Clear Lake and Williams, temperatures hovered near 100°F. As we drove south on I-5, it cooled very gradually until we hit Woodland, which is apparently as far as the Delta Breeze reaches.
Justin’s favorite hot-and-sour soup welcomed us back to town. Everyone (including the dogs) took a thorough shower and relaxed in our own beds.
I am very grateful for this experience.
Stephan in Davis, CA.