June 23, 2020
With both of us feeling the travel itch again, we decided to take a trip in our own “backyard” and see parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. Turns out that’s a really big backyard. The forecast for home was five straight days of 100+ degree weather and the cool coast and mountains beckoned. Our original plan was to do a loop that would start by heading northwest to the Oregon coast, then east and farther north to Glacier National Park, then south to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, before looping home through Nevada.
Rainy, cold weather in Idaho and Montana ultimately led us to skip Glacier, add Utah, and make a large figure-eight through the states. Having the flexibility to change plans on a dime allowed us to visit some amazing places and find mostly great weather the whole way.
After a flurry of activity to get ready to leave home, we were ready for a journey of what ended up being about 3,500 miles.
To the Coast
The closest coast is about 3 1/2 hours from us and we knew that’s where the beginning of cool weather would start, so we decided to cross the coastal range and come out around Eureka, California since we’d never had a chance to explore it.
All went well until we turned off the interstate near Redding and headed west past Whiskeytown Lake. It was nearly 100 degrees at noon when we stopped for 20 minutes for road construction in the baking heat.
What we didn’t know was that the State of California apparently loves to pick one highway and focus on it until all the work is done. That meant no fewer than eight areas along the way where we stopped and waited for pilot cars to take us through some pretty heavy-duty construction. California has some of the best roads we’ve ever seen but the price for that is that many roads are in a constant state of repair or improvement. One of the last construction stops was just on the eastern side of the coastal range where temperatures hovered around 101 degrees and we kept the AC blasting to prevent us from roasting. I felt for the road crew, especially the flaggers under the blazing sun.
Once we were underway again, a transformation took place over the next 125 miles. The road followed the Trinity River and wound up and down across the coastal range until it spat us out on Hwy 101 just north of Eureka, where it was still sunny but the temperature had fallen to 63 degrees – an almost 40-degree difference from inland.
We parked and walked around Eureka feeling chilled, because we were still wearing our summer shorts and t-shirts. Eureka looked like it would be a fun place to explore after Covid, with a hip culture, street art, and Victorian buildings in the old part of town, but it was almost devoid of people and most were wearing masks. We made it a point not to go in any of the few open stores and gave a wide berth to people we met on the street. We promised ourselves we’d come back when the town was ready for visitors.
After Eureka, we headed to the northernmost coat of California, the Pacific Ocean waves crashing. We pulled into a beachside rest stop to use the bathroom (and hand sanitizer, which would become the norm throughout the trip) and as we were walking by a nearby picnic table we were greeted by a woman on horseback leading a pretty yearling and chasing a miniature white and brown spotted horse. It was almost comical. She apologized as she grabbed the tiny horse’s lead off the ground and trotted a hundred yards to the beach, where she joined a few more riders. We smiled at each other—this is going to be a fun trip!
The drive up Hwy 101 in California is pretty spectacular, with ocean views off to the left and the coastal range on the right. The highway passes through some small towns in between, hustling drivers along at 65 mph. At one point, there’s a choice to make – do you continue on 101 or exit to the Redwoods Scenic Parkway. No question for us. The parkway is only about ten miles long and deposits cars back on Hwy 101, but the drives are worlds apart.
Almost instantly the road passes giant redwoods and there are several trails along the way that lead into groves of the giant trees. Despite the sun shining in all its glory, the drive is mostly shaded by 200–350 feet tall trees, many larger around than a semi-trailer. The road through the redwoods is quiet, smells fresh and feels ancient. Drivers smile and wave and people parked near the trails speak in hushed voices. There’s a certain reverence for the forest giants and you leave the scenic road feeling just a little more relaxed, filled with a measure of awe.
Back on the Hwy 101, we briefly continued north into Oregon and went a short distance before we turned off and headed east up the Chetco River where we had heard of free camping right on the river, courtesy of the National Forest Service. The paved road followed the river as it tumbled out of the mountains. About 15 minutes later we turned onto a small road that led to the river and suddenly found ourselves on Redwood Bar, a wide part of the Chetco canyon made up of smooth baseball-to-football-sized river rocks, next to the river. We drove a few hundred yards and backed the truck up to a section of rapids on the river. It was beautiful with a 100-foot tall canyon on one side and the bar on the other with the river splitting it
After we explored the area a little, we relaxed over a dinner of leftover chicken and salad and eventually crawled into the truck and fell asleep to the sound of the river as the sun set.