West of Westhaven: A Walk Along Trinidad Scenic Drive

By Hans Lechner

Spring, 1998

Written for Ben Benion and Jerry Rhodes

American Places West


The sky was completely blue with the exception of a few cumulus clouds that were forming as the marine air rose over the Coast Ranges.  My backyard thermometer read a pleasant 70 degrees, and a slight breath of wind came from the northwest.  A ridge of high pressure had given Arcata its first sunny day in over a week.  It was a Saturday and a perfect day for the beach.  

I stood on the freeway entrance at Sunset Drive in Arcata, my extended right thump pointed north, and “Westhaven” was written in black on a piece of cardboard, which I clenched in my left hand.  Eleven miles north of Arcata, off Westhaven is Trinidad Scenic Drive, my intended destination.

For those who don’t know, Trinidad Scenic Drive is a three-mile strip that parallels the coast from Moonstone Beach to the town of Trinidad.  The road runs anywhere from 50 to 200 feet above the shores of the Pacific on a precipitous slope that is constantly eroding.  About 55 feet above the road, Sitka spruce hang by their roots to the retreating bluff and redwood homes with decks on stilts look out to sea.  Below the road, a rugged rocky coast emerges from the sea after a 30-mile break of long sandy beaches to the south. 

The long beaches in Humboldt County are much different than those in, say, Orange County.  This is a result of the different tectonic forces involved.  In Southern California most of the faults are like the San Andreas, a right Lateral transform type.  The North American Plate slides south past the Pacific Plate; there are no compressional forces exerted that would cause the coast to emerge from the sea.  Without this compression, wave and tide action can straighten and flatten the shores unhindered, forming beaches such as Long Beach and Huntington.  This is not the Case on the North Coast, Where towering bluffs and slipping slopes abound

About 200 miles offshore, two leagues under the sea and pushing east is the Gorda Plate.  The more buoyant North American Plate creeps east over the Gorda about a centimeter per year.  The Gorda, being heavier, slowly sinks into the Cascadia Subduction Zone through the bowels of the earth.  These opposing forces have formed the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, and the Coast Ranges.

Humboldt County has a few long sandy beaches—Mad River and Clam Beach being the two most popular.  However, they differ from those in Southern California, for they are an accumulation of sand and sediments provided by the area’s numerous rivers and deposited on a fairly straight, easily eroded portion of the coast.  At the back of the beach, away from the water, undulating dunes are held in place by European beach grass.  Closer to the water, pieces of driftwood of every size, also provided by the rivers, litter the beach.  No, the beaches here do not resemble those in Southern California.

Hitchhiking in Humboldt is also different.  The fear of picking up, or being picked up by a deranged lunatic, is less intense here.  I had been standing on the freeway entrance less than 10 minutes when a yellow pickup truck pulled over.  As I approached it, I noticed a surfboard and a full-length wetsuit in the bed of the truck.  I saw the driver’s arm reach over and unlock the passenger door, and when I opened it I was greeted with a warm smile.  “I’m going to Westhaven.  Hop in,” the driver said.  I did so and we sped off down the freeway.  “You gonna do some surfing?”  I inquired.  “Yeah,” he answered, “at Camel Rock, it’s got a killer break.”  He was a young guy, about twenty-seven; he drove with both hands on the wheel, and the gold ring on his finger indicated he was married.  He rolled down the window and the roar of the incoming air was the only sound I heard for the duration of the drive.  In the side view mirror, I could see the cuff of his wetsuit sticking up above the side of the truck, and I wondered if it was enough to keep a body warm when surfing in California’s cold coastal waters.

We pulled off the freeway at Westhaven, I climbed out of the truck at the stop sign, bade him farewell, and watched as he turned left, then right around the corner and out of sight.

            I now faced the option of turning right and walking up the winding road into Westhaven, or turning left and walking down Trinidad Scenic Drive.  I had walked through Westhaven once before and seen a good portion of the small community.  It numbers about 200 scattered homes and one general store nestled under the canopy of a second – and third growth forest.  The unofficial land mark is a 200-foot tall snag (standing dead tree), which is found in what little is left of the community grove.  Within the last few years the tree was listed by the California Department of Fish and Game as a habitat for red-tailed hawks and several species of woodpecker, protecting it from future logging.  When I discovered the tree, I walked the 27 paces around its circumference looking straight up the entire time.  I was not fortunate enough to catch glimpse of a hawk, but I did hear the rhythmic tapping of a woodpecker busy at work.  On the north side of the snag a short trail leads to the remains of Simpson Lumber Company truck #135.  The truck sits rusting in the salty air, and the thorny vines of the blackberry bushes grip it in a loving embrace.  Due south of the truck, about a third of a mile, is Westhaven’s private reserve.  No, not the beer but the water.  This 500,000-gallon reservoir is the pride and joy of Westhaven.  In 1967, 120 homeowners pooled their money and purchased the lot at the top of 4th street.  Seven men with two tractors spent more than 85 weekends digging the 130-foot-long, 80-foot-wide, 15-foot-deep hole that is used for storing the community’s water.  It took another three months to dig the 7000 feet of trench needed to pipe the water to the parched residents.  Today, surrounded by reeds and redwoods, the captured water sits calm and still, the silence of the forest broken only by the hum of the busy pumping station.  Fifty paces due north of the Simpson truck, a small trail vanishes into the forest.  The trail leads down to a small creek, over a large log, and back up to the intersection of 5th and Westhaven.  From the crest of 5th street, Clam Beach and its long sandy shores, which stretch south from the Little River to the Mad, are visible.  The white lines of broken waves seem to conform to the curvature of the beach below. 

After a brief jog west under the highway I met Trinidad Scenic Drive and began to perambulate north up the coast.  It’s fortunate that I was on foot, for the term “drive” in Trinidad Scenic Drive is misleading.  What is left of the three-mile, two-lane road is so weathered and worn that any attempt to pass by car could seriously damage a vehicle’s suspension and possibly jeopardize one’s life.  The slope that the road crosses has been identified by geologists as unstable, with landslide and slumping problems.  The road has been closed a mile and a half north of Westhaven Drive ever since a portion disappeared down the cliff.

It’s no surprise that this road is slowly slipping away, for it is built on the notorious Franciscan melange – a mishmash of rock scraped from the ocean floor around 150 million years ago and eventually pushed out of the water to form the Coast Ranges.  Sea floor basalt, graywacke, and chert are a few components of this group.  Trinidad Scenic Drive happens to be positioned on this hodgepodge of rocks, and a particular portion of this formation is a crumbly conglomerate of sand, gravel, silt, and clay that ashes away rather easily.  These marine sediments are made unstable when the vegetation is replaced with asphalt and concrete.  Runoff increased, roadside gullies appear, the soil becomes saturated, and eventually gravity pulls the earth down.  Sometimes the earth flows onto the road, and other times it slides down the hill.

The goose bumps on my arms and legs seemed to melt away as I rounded the bend and emerged from the cool shade of the forest onto the sun-baked coast.  The ocean was now visible.  A dark aquamarine faded into an even darker blue that stretched to the horizon and ended at the thin line separating the sky from the water.  I stood at the edge of the bluff, where the road bends to the north, and looked out to sea.  The lapel of my unbuttoned windbreaker flapped vigorously in the cool onshore breeze.  I could see a mist rising off the water and the smell of salt was in the air.  As I watched the endless succession of waves, it occurred to me that these same forces have been shaping this coast for more than 100 million years, and will continue for a 100 million more.  I was brought out of my trance when a VW Bug buzzed around the corner.  I turned away from the bluff and continued walking north. 

When I reached Houda Point, the same VW Bug was parked perpendicular to the chain barrier that separated the parking lot from the point, and a few spaces down sat the yellow pickup that had brought me here.  Two guys were removing surfboards from the racks on the Bug.  Their wetsuits hung down around their legs, and I assumed that it was the amount of paddling against the surf that gave them such well defined upper bodies. 

I walked on to the stone parapet and absorbed the magnificent view of Trinidad Head to the north, Clam Beach to the south, and Camel Rock straight ahead.  I paused to read the historical plaque that the California Coastal Conservancy had placed on the point.

Houda Point was once known as Houda’s Landing, and the bulbous rock that protrudes out to sea once housed a high-line crane that lowered pallets of redwood shingles to waiting schooners below.  Honda Cove is a sheltered beach that is relatively free of rocks.  It is here that the schooners would have dropped anchor to receive their payload.  The plaque that commemorates this historic operation provides a short description and an artist’s rendition of how this scene may have appeared.  Camel Rock, which sits a hundred yards off shore, is also acknowledged on the plaque, in both the drawing and the text.

From the first glimpse of the double humped mass it is apparent why it has been named Camel Rock.  This resistant rock sticks 60 feet out of the sea and gives the appearance of a swimming Bactrian camel.  It is famous for its large breeding colonies of leach petrel, as well as the forked-tailed petrel, western gull, pelagic cormorant, and other shorebirds.

Aside from being a breeding ground for seafowl, Camel Rock is a geographic anomaly.  The United States Geologic Survey topographic quadrangle of Trinidad locates it about a mile north of Houda Point, offshore from Baker Beach, and the rock at Houda Point is officially listed as Little River Rock.  To add to the confusion, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chart lists the rock off Baker Beach as Double Rock, and near Houda Point is Little River Rock.  They don’t include a Camel Rock.  Many of Humboldt’s surfers and locals agree that the suggestive appearance of the twin humps has earned it the unofficial title of Camel Rock, which is now synonymous with Houda Point.

With that confusion out of the way, I left my vantage point on the stone bastion and made my way along the trail that leads to the top of the pear-shaped point.  I chose to bypass the two trails that lead down to the beaches on either side of the point and instead made my way to the top and sat for a breather on the last of three concrete benches along the trail.  It was here on this peak that the crane once sat.  The trail leading down the south slope ends about 25 feet above the water of Honda Cove and about 100 yards out at sea near where the schooners once landed.  This pocket of water is now a feeding ground for surfers hungry for waves. 

I sat on the shear rock face and watched the surfers do their thing.  I was close enough to see the determination in their eyes but unable to identify the friendly face that gave me a ride.  After 20 minutes of awe and 10 minutes of envy, I picked myself up and continued my journey north up the coast. 

My next stop was Tepona Point at Luffenholtz Park. I hustled through the crowded parking lot and made my way out to the tip of this finger-like projection.  At the end of the peninsula a plethora of sea stacks sits upon the water.  Pilot Rock is the most obvious, for it looms high in the distance, close to a mile offshore.  It stands in front of the line of rocks, like a strong leader, and accepts the punishment that the ocean has to offer.  Salmon fishermen, returning to Trinidad, use the rock as a beacon to help pilot their vessels to the safety of the harbor.

I looked south toward Houda Point.  I scanned the view north across the horizon.  I paused briefly and stared at Pilot Rock, and then transfixed my gaze on Trinidad Head.  Houda Point and Pilot Rock, although much smaller, are remarkably similar in shape to that of Trinidad Head.  The rock type and forces of erosion must be remarkably similar as well.

Headlands and sea stacks are common features along cliff-dominated coastlines such as this.  As waves attack the bluffs, the weaker, less resistant rocks waste away.  Eventually indentations and coves form along the coast.  The barrage of waves continues to pound against the sides of the more resistant bluffs, forming sea caves and eventually arches.  The waves continue their assault on the coast and arches collapse, leaving isolated stacks in the water.  This stretch of coast is an excellent example of this geomorphic process.

Someday Pilot Rock will be reclaimed by the sea and sucked into the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Trinidad Head will be only an offshore remnant of coast that once extended west.

From Tepona Point I walked 200 yards north up Scenic Drive to the trailhead for Luffenholtz Beach.  There were no cars in the small parking area, so it was likely I would have the beach all to myself.  I have had an affinity for Luffenholtz since the first time I came here, almost two years ago.  When the trickling of the creek is in tune with the sweeping of the waves it composes a symphony of sounds that can soothe the soul.

I descended the steep set of stairs and landed on the beach near Luffenholtz Creek.  My first impression of the creek was in late summer when it was nothing more than a mere trickle of water flowing through a steep canyon in the bluffs and slowly winding its way to the ocean.  April showers had increased the volume of runoff, and the water was now rushing down the canyon and had cut a sinuous path deep into the sands of the beach.  The six-foot plank that once provided dry passage across the creek was nowhere to be seen, and the only way to the other side was a hopscotch pattern across the rocks in the stream.  Since the tide seemed to be coming in and the beach was slowly disappearing, I chose to stay on the dry side.

I stood and watched as the water of the creek clashed with the waves of the ocean in a turbulent collision of the hydrologic cycle.  A white froth had formed and was beginning to wash on to shore.  It stuck to the rocks and gave the appearance of fresh snow.  I sat and watched the creek for a while longer, building a dam to change its coarse.  I realized that it was well past noon and I needed to get on the move.

From Luffenholtz, I made my way another half-mile north until I reached the end of the road.  Well, it’s not really the end, but it’s where the road is missing.  At least

twenty yards of asphalt, both lanes included, have fallen down the slope.  I cautiously walked out to the middle of the slide, my feet sinking into the soft saturated soil with every step.  The scarp of the road revealed a stratified layer cake of asphalts over three feet thick.

I decided not to continue any farther north up the road, for it diverges from the coastline and heads back into the shade of the forest.  The traffic increases along with the amount of roadside trash.  North of Baker Beach, beyond the fallen road, is what I call Trinidad “not so” Scenic Drive.  I turned back and went down the trail leading to the north side of Baker Beach. 

A look down the 100-foot, near vertical slope at Baker Beach will reveal the rusted guardrail of old Highway 101, clinging by its bolts to the disintegrating slope.  The rail – actually it’s more of a cable, hangs about 10 feet down the cliff, almost entirely hidden by the blackberry bushes and red alders growing around it.

Baker Beach is a sort of pocket beach, set back in a crescent-shaped cove.  The beach is sandy and fairly free from rocks, which makes it a good frisbee beach.  During low tide, tidal pools are revealed and ochre sea stars, purple urchins, spiny anemone, sea snails, and hermit crabs can all be found in their underwater habitat.

Unfortunately, the tide was still rising and the pools were submerged.  I did have the beach to myself, not that it really mattered, so I undressed and went for a brief swim.  The water was absolutely biting, but I wasn’t surprised.  The California Current, which flows south from Alaska before turning at the Equator, keeps the West Coast cool all year long.

After sunning on a rock, I was warm and ready to leave.  I headed to the southern end of the beach, for I knew there was a trail that led back to the road.  Not being able to locate the trail, I opted for a route that went through a young colony of alders.  Red alders are a good indicator of a recent landslide.  The slope rested at the angle of repose and looked like an easy 80-foot climb.  I realized I was wrong within the first few feet.  It was on my sixth step that my foot sank past my ankle in a grayish, blue claylike goo.  The sheared serpentinite, faultzone material – the blue goo of the Franciscan melange – was all over my boots.  A third of the way up the slope the trail became apparent, and I found my way to the road.

The sun was only a few feet above the horizon, and I was more than a mile from the freeway and without a ride.  I started walking south.  The sinking sun caused my stretching shadow to creep up the bluff on my left.  This drew my attention to the golden hue of the marine terrace deposits.  I noticed at the top of the bluff the exposed roots of a leaning spruce.  How long has that tree been hanging like that?  How long before it falls?  As I stumbled over a large crack in the road, I wondered how long before it is pulled into the sea.  It’s just a matter of time.

I passed Tepona Point; there were no cars in the lot so I walked on.  I reached Houda Point and chose not to disturb the elderly couple that was looking out to sea.  I walked down the forested section of Scenic Drive, Past the houses on my right and past Westhaven Drive to my left and on to Moonstone Beach.

Surely there would be someone at Moonstone who would be willing to give me a ride.  I passed the defiant homes that sat upon the bluffs, down the driveway past Merrimen’s Restaurant, and into the parking lot of Moonstone Beach.

The lot was crowded with cars and the beach with people.  There was still about a half an hour of light left, so I decided to go onto the beach.  I have always thought that Moonstone Beach derived its name from the dark, massive boulders that rest on the sand.  Certainly these angular rocks are not of this world.  These boulders, or knockers as geologists term them, are resistant pieces of Greenstone, which rest in a matrix of melange.  The waves and weather have washed away the softer rock and left these monstrous blocks.  Actually the beach gets its name from a type of blue feldspar that is found only on this and a few other beaches in California; if you’re luckier than I, you might even find a piece of this elusive rock. 

These giant knockers are an automatic attraction.  Children and adults alike are drawn to the rocks by an urge to climb.  From a distance it appears to be easy, but closer inspection reveals a smooth, steep surface that makes climbing difficult.  I had to circle the knockers several times before I found a rope that was secured to the top.  The peak is only about 20 feet high, but the view is spectacular. 

Moonstone Beach has become a playground for Humboldt thrill-seekers. The mouth of Little River provides a turbulent channel for kayakers to surf.  The resistant bluffs, which stretch the length of the beach, provide a 60-foot vertical ascent for those who are daring.  And the worn-out coves offer some shelter from the wind and a bit of privacy on a popular beach.  There is even a sea cave on the north end of the beach for those with an inclination for spelunking.

As the sun began to dip below the horizon, the people on the beach stopped to watch another day come to a close.  When the sun had vanished, I eased myself down the rope and jumped from about 15 feet up.  The sands of Moonstone were soft enough to break my fall.  I used my legs one more time to carry me to the parking lot.  As the people returned to their vehicles, I started looking for a friendly face.  I asked a young lady, who wore a pleasant smile if I could get a ride back to Arcata, and she said yes. 

As we merged onto Highway 101 and crossed over Little River, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Moonstone.  I thought about the things I had seen that day: sea stacks, headlands, coves and caves, beaches, bluffs, rivers and waves.  I thought about the expanse of time it took to create such features, the millions of years of uplift and erosion.  In less than 24 hours I had seen a strip of coast that took Mother Nature eons of time to design.  The beach is a dynamic place, constantly changing from day to day.  The wind never stops blowing, the waves never stop rolling, and the shores are never the same.