Updated: Jan 23, 2021
One of the best parts of living in Fort Bragg, so isolated from the rest of the world, is being surrounded by beautiful, protected, public lands. If you’re ever wondering what to do on a day off the answer is usually five miles down the road. This particular LandSeaMISadventure started on a Monday evening, when we were looking to fill some time and work up an appetite before stopping by our favorite little fish stand. We’ve explored our park for weeks but haven’t ventured into any of our sister parks along the coast. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, where we were almost placed, started calling our names. The visitors center is about a half a mile from the parking lot on a paved trail, or 3/4 miles down an “unimproved” hiking trail. Unimproved,,,, is what I would call an understatement. We opted for paved and were glad we did when we saw the signs cautioning us about Nathaniel’s greatest fear, ticks, and the mountain lions who frequent the area in search of prey. It warned us to “keep children close, as mountain lions are especially fond of them.” It read like a joke poster on Disney’s “Jungle Cruise.” The paved route has vacation cottages dusted along the way, with wraparound porches and sprawling lawns. One such house hosted two men puffing on cigars outside. They called to us, “Hey! What do you have a mask on for? The air is clean out here!” I responded truthfully, “Sir, my face is cold!” Coming from Chicago you’d think I would be adapted to the wet, cold blanket that sits on the Mendocino coast year round, but my years in Florida have softened my system. I was wishing for my jacket a quarter mile behind me tucked safely in the car.
Reaching the lighthouse was an accomplishment, it shone its beacon through the fog across the point and into the treacherous waves. They pounded on the rocks with force we could hear back from the parking lot. The point itself was stunning even through the layer of grey. Harbor seals splashed below us, with a few hauled out onto the rocks. The first I’ve seen out of the water since arriving here! Pelicans, loud gulls, and cormorants swirled above us. Off in the distance we could hear sea lions bellowing. “Nathaniel,” I said, “they’re calling me. Let’s take the rough trail back so we can get a look.” Barely convinced, he followed me into the field.
“Trail” is a very loosely applied word. Not only is it unmarked, but over the years visitors have carved their own paths along the coastline, leaving a spiderweb of connecting and dead end paths that may or may not deliver you at your intended destination. Distracted by the beauty of the walk, herds of deer leaping into the distance, waves crashing, wildflowers blooming, we lost the thickest branch of dirt and found ourselves on a side vein with no indication of which way we should head next. In fact, markers that indicated past human presence, like flat rocks lining the path or a dilapidated boardwalk to cross a stream only led us further away from our route home. I’ll admit we stumbled into the most gorgeous hidden meadows, walking under trees curved into an archway above us, feeling like some live-action California version of Snow White meandering through the woods. Until we were deposited at the end of this modern romance into an open field where all signs of previous humans passing through before us had stopped. Not only that, but it seemed like the forest we walked out of had somehow disappeared behind us. Being five feet tall surrounded by four feet of grass puts all my prey instincts on high alert. The warnings of mountain lions rang loudly in my mind as we carefully tread over poop. Is that…. yep. Definitely carnivore poop. After passing three or four clusters and realizing maybe that opening in the bushes is not our exit plan, but instead a hiding spot for a very angry kitty, we hightailed it as far to the edge of the field as we could go.
My family will tell you that directions aren’t my strong suit. When I should turn around and retrace my steps, something in my brain tells me to forge on. Which we did, until we finally ran into a familiar object ahead of us. Comforting and yet discouraging: a fence. Following this we hoped would at least bring us to a road where we could find our way, and maybe some cell phone service to guide us. Poor Nathaniel in his shorts behind me oscillated between mumbling about ticks under his breath like Gollum, and singing the El Dorado soundtrack as we “blazed our trail.” It’s hard to be downhearted with him along, even the most tiring mishaps turn into adventures. About half a mile of trudging later we scaled a dilapidated wooden fence to reach the county road that would take us back to the safety of our car. Collapsing in the front seat, buckling up, and dreaming of the warm golden fish and chips ahead of us at Sea Pal, we made a mental note to stay on marked trails from now on, or at least, get a compass. Oh, and we never saw the damned sea lions in the end!