Hidden away on California’s north coast is the historic town of Fort Bragg. And no, it has nothing to do with the military base in North Carolina.
It’s not easy to get to, but once you get there Fort Bragg is a great getaway to relax and recharge your batteries. About a three hour drive from the San Francisco Airport, the little town is remote, but worth the trek.
Getting there from the Willamette Valley.
You can drive to PDX or Eugene and then fly to Oakland, San Francisco or Santa Rosa –home to the Charles M Schulz airport, where you’ll be greeted by Charlie Brown and Snoopy (their creator was from Santa Rosa).
Once you’re on the ground, you’ll need a car to drive north up through the Vineyards and finally to the Redwoods and out to the coast. So the dilemma is: once you drive to the airport in Oregon, fly down to California, and then drive from the airport in California to Fort Bragg… maybe it’s easier to just drive all the way from the Willamette Valley to Fort Bragg? It definitely costs less, and if you enjoy spotty cell phone service, driving between Grants Pass and Fort Bragg is definitely for you!
Whatever you decide, once you get yourself there you’ll love it.
Fort Bragg sits near the northern end of the Mendocino coast which starts at the town of Gualala in the south and ends near Legget on the north. Legget is not exactly a town. It’s known as a “census-designated place” — whatever that is, but it IS home to some of the largest trees on earth. The last town that is actually on the coast as you drive north is Westport, 10 miles north of Fort Bragg, and there’s not a lot going on there. There are some very scenic places to stay in Westport, a great little store, a restaurant or maybe even two, but Fort Bragg is the northernmost city on the Mendocino Coast.
Historically, Fort Bragg has always played second fiddle to Mendocino in the battle for tourist dollars. Mendocino has always been billed as the romantic, artsy town with the rich history of artists, writers, musicians and generally enlightened folk. Fort Bragg has always been a blue-collar town where working people work for a living. There were even standoffs back in the day, in the middle of the highway in Fort Bragg between the “Fort Bragg Loggers” and environmentalists of “Mendo.”
The history of Fort Bragg is logging and fishing — that’s it. If you weren’t somehow involved in one of the two, you weren’t in Fort Bragg. Times have changed though, and now the logging heyday has passed. The Georgia Pacific mill that took up an area right on the water equal in size to the entire town of Fort Bragg closed up shop in the 90’s. That was a huge blow to the town that had been built by and for loggers. Most of the local logging operations sold logs to the mill in the center of town. Now loggers have to drive far and wide to deliver to mills out of the area. The fishing industry has also seen better days, in the 60’s and 70’s locals made a good living hauling in Salmon, Cod, Crab and Sea Urchin from local waters, and the more adventurous (or crazy) would haul north to Alaska and bring in big money with holds full of Salmon, Halibut, or Crab. Regulations and scarcity have brought the lucrative days of fishing out of Fort Bragg’s “Noyo Harbor” to an end as well.
It’s been a rough road for Fort Bragg, and the recession of 2008 didn’t help. Property values plummetted, and a lot of locals had to hang up the trade their families had known since grandparents arrived from Italy, Finland, or Portugal. But, like the resilient people who founded Fort Bragg, you can’t keep that place down. Now, the town has become a legitimate challenger to Mendocino in vying for tourist dollars. The mill property is still in limbo, given the environmental cleanup that’s still underway, and the fact that the huge swath of land is still owned by GP who has yet to announce any plans. But the city has built a walking path through the property, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more scenic spot anywhere.
There has always been great food in Fort Bragg, largely as a result of the aforementioned immigrants. Lodging options range from spectacular homes perched on stunning bluffs offered as rentals on VRBO.com, to the Motel 6 in the middle of town. You can spend a lot, or you can get a great deal at the Motel 6, big rooms, wifi, big TV, classic restaurant adjacent, and a pool and spa, it’s a great base for daily excursions. Recently as low as $260 for four nights on booking.com. That’s a great deal! Before it was Motel 6, the property was “The Tradewinds.” It’s a classic.
There are a ton of places to walk in Fort Bragg, on the ocean side of Hwy 1, try the “Haul Road.” Get there by Pudding Creek beach on the north end of town, just climb up the hill and you can walk out on the recently refurbished trestle bridge, or walk north to Ten-Mile Beach. It’s called the “Haul Road” because logging trucks used to haul logs along the road to the mill in town. At the north end, Ten Mile Beach lives up to its name, it’s really ten miles of beach, and you’ll often find you have it all to yourself. It’s the longest stretch of uninterrupted, remote beach in California. During world war II, Japanese submarine commanders considered coming ashore at Ten Mile, but thought again when they discovered the local residents were more heavily armed than them.
On the East side of Hwy 1, try Jughandle Reserve and it’s “ecological staircase.” You can find the entrance to the trail just south of town. On the trail that leads up into the woods, you’ll see trees ranging from old growth Redwood to the famed “Pygmy Forest” of Fort Bragg — trees that are hundreds of years old, yet stand only five or six feet tall as a result of poor, sandy soil. It’s an interesting hike, and there are great picnic spots. For details and directions, check fortbragg.com. If you want to take a great sandwich for a picnic, visit Cyrano’s on Laurel St. in the middle of town, or B&C Market on Oak St. Hint: at Cyrano’s: the “Mendo Melt” at B&C: the Tri-Tip with Horseradish Jack — you can thank us later!
If you’re more of a shopper than a hiker, just start on Main St. between Redwood and Laurel and walk all the way around the block. There are great stores, some new, and some old favorites. If you want to grab a sit-down lunch, hop across the street to the Fort Bragg Depot and you’ll find the Laurel Deli, a favorite of Locals since way back when it was actually on Laurel St. For a quick picker-upper, try the Mendocino Cookie Company in the Company Store Building. The big building on the corner of Main and Redwood actually used to be the Company Store for the Union Lumber Company way back when — check out the Madrone flooring — you’re not going to find that at Home Depot. The Mendocino Cookie company actually started in Mendocino across from the firehouse and is another favorite of the locals — and has been for years, and years. Ask for a dozen cookies to take home, and good luck getting them all the way home.
For a real taste of Fort Bragg’s heyday, drop into the “Old Milano” — it’s a watering hole that has been in Fort Bragg for years and has seen some wild nights… and days. It’s at 300 East Oak St.
For Dinner, eat what the locals eat, nothing fancy schmancy, try Jenny’s Giant Burger on Main St. at the north end of town, Lee’s Chinese on Redwood, or the best pizza on the west coast at Bernillo’s, also on Redwood.