Escape: Fort Bragg

Posted on December 19, 2011

Slow down and enjoy the holidays with a visit to this little city on the North Coast.

Skunk Train
Skunk Train

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Mendocino gets all the attention, with its whitewashed charm and boutiques, but this time, we’re going to cruise right on by and head straight for the no-nonsense segment of the North Coast. Fort Bragg, about 10 miles north of Mendocino, is a fishing and lumber town of about 6,500 residents who have seen both those industries all but shut down. Tourism is going strong, though, and Fort Bragg invites visitors to shop its spruced-up downtown, walk its refurbished log-haul trestle, dine in its restaurants, explore its beaches and harbor, and learn about its redwood forests with a ride on a local locomotive.

Winter on the North Coast can surprise visitors with brilliantly sunny days. But the region does see most of its rain between November and January, so bring the slickers and umbrellas and be ready to snuggle up inside a pretty inn if things get too frightful.

Ride Into the Redwoods
In the late 1800s, the Skunk line of the California Western Railroad carried massive redwood logs out of the forests to the coast. In 1904, passenger service was employed to tote people to and from cabins and camps that freckled the forest, and in 1911, service was extended to Willits. Today, the Redwood Route remains, but the Skunk Train primarily carries tourists instead of locals and the days of hauling logs are long gone. The typical run travels about 20 miles into the redwoods to Northspur—a shady outpost along the Noyo River—then turns around and comes back. Railroad buffs will appreciate the vintage 1925 M-100 and 1935 M-300 motorcars, and the 1924 Baldwin steam engine that handles Northspur Steam trips. History lovers will enjoy the shpiel by the conductor, who recites a colorful narrative about the redwood forests, historic settlements and natural landmarks the train passes—including an 1,100-year-old redwood behemoth and numerous “fairy rings,” where the trees have reproduced in a perfect circle. Tunnels and bridges add to the journey’s authenticity and scenic value; this is really a beautiful and informative four-hour ride. Watch for deer as you roll through the Pudding Creek estuary and the Noyo Canyon, and imagine what it must have been like, riding the train to the summer cabin in the woods. (Some people still do it; the train drops passengers—or sometimes just groceries—at some of the remote cabins along the route.) On weekends during December and the five weekdays leading up to Christmas, the Christmas Train departs the Fort Bragg Depot at 4 p.m. and takes passengers on a 90-minute ride with Santa, elves, storytellers and musicians, and cookies and cocoa add to the fun. Christmas Train tickets are $24 for children 2 to 12, $34 for adults.

Shop Downtown Fort Bragg
Highway 1 runs right into downtown, past motels and chain fast food spots, and eventually brings drivers to a quaint collection of shops and restaurants at the north end of town. Park the car and take to your legs. Start with a cone crammed with handmade ice cream from Cowlicks and finish it off while you window shop along Main, Redwood, Laurel, Pine and Franklin streets. Wander through galleries, including Partners and Edgewater. On Franklin Street, relax in Cheshire Bookshop, which sells new books and includes a section celebrating Mendocino County writers. Be sure to greet Pippin, the resident tabby cat. Across the street, hit Racines for art supplies, unique greeting cards, journals and one-of-a-kind papers (including “poo-poo paper,” made from elephant droppings). Around the corner, Pippi’s Longstocking is great fun for socks hounds, Andrea Luna worth browsing for one-of-a-kind, funky fashions and Toto Zaida for clothing for “women of average and large size.” If the Shoe Fits, a consignment shop, carries far more than just shoes—clothing, jewelry and artsy accessories, too. On Main Street, Depot Mall and the historic Union Lumber Company Store buildings house some gift shops, art galleries and several places to grab a bite, including Laurel Deli & Desserts (best clam chowder we’ve found on the North Coast) at the Depot, and Mendocino Cookie Company and Living Light International raw foods cafe and shop (try the Orange Jewels smoothie) at the Company Store. Across the street, Roundman’s Smokehouse will delight the smoked-food fan with fish, meats and cheeses.


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