Friday, August 6, 2010
Road Trippin' in NoCal
with Steve McCarthy
I’d like to give you some details about what can be found between the Napa Valley and Dunsmuir. First, believe it our not, prepare for lunch. We really didn’t spot any good lunch joints along the way, so this is a good trip for a picnic. Or, you can wait until you get to Portola and find food there. There’s lots of choices from pizza to burgers to cafes that should fill the bill. The great thing about the Napa Valley is (aside from the wine) the food. There are any number of foody places to stock up on cheese, bread, and salami. the Safeway in St. Helena actually has a pretty decent selection, so stock up (you really might want to have enough for three lunches!) and find a wide spot in the road, throw out the blanket and enjoy!
NOW we can talk about breakfast. Under an hour up the road is a little town called Middletown. Not much of a place, and (surprise!) it’s halfway between Calistoga and Clearlake. On the left is a great little joint called “Beulah’s”. No kidding! This place is great! Tiny, friendly and really good pancakes! The bacon is also generous (four slices, four THICK slices!) and very tasty. The prices are better than reasonable as well.
One of the reasons I broke this trip into fairly small chunks is that there are a number of places to stop and poke around. In Portola, as I mentioned last month) is the Western Pacific RR Museum. The Western Pacific was a smaller competitor to the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific. It had it’s own route through the Sierras along the Feather River (as opposed to Donner Pass-part of the original Transcontinental Railroad, built by the Central Pacific-and then owned by the SP) and some pretty spectacular scenery of it’s own. The museum is a tribute to this lesser know railroad and has a great collection of equipment. The really cool thing is that for $150, you can actually run a real, full size locomotive! For more information, you can check their website at www.wplives.org. How can you pass up this kind of opportunity!
On the second day of the trip, I hope you didn’t eat all that salami and cheese. Eat breakfast in Portola and plan on a picnic at Mt. Lassen. This is the highlight of day two. It is well worth the $10/car fee to drive through. There is a very good visitor’s center at the lower park entrance and there are tables and chairs to have you lunch. I can’t really recommend the cafe there, it looked pretty average. The displays and history of the park however, are wonderful. It’s a good idea to get a map and get familiar with what there is to see. The variety of volcanic sites is fascinating! Be warned however, just up the road from the center are vents in the mountainside that spew sulfur laden steam. PEE-YOU! Drive slow through this part of the park (the speed limit is 35 mph and the rangers DO patrol!) and stop at the various points of interest. You also need to know that the road through the park is closed in the winter. They do get a bit of snow up there! The summit is around 8000’ so be advised of that as well.
Once you get down the backside, you will continue on Hwy 89 pretty much all the way to Dunsmuir. While the scenery is gorgeous (lots of rolling meadowlands and pine trees) there are not a lot of places to stop. The drive is pretty easy, once you get out of the mountains. One of the great sights on 89 is Mt. Shasta. As you near Dunsmuir and I-5, that old volcano looms above the road right in front of you. All alone, it just thrusts up to the sky and dominates everything. If it ever goes Mt. St. Helens, we are not only in a world of hurt, we’ll lose one of the most magnificent sights in California.
Dunsmuir is one of our favorite little towns. It’s a town created by the railroad. It was a major yard on the arduous climb up and around Mt. Shasta, but changes in both the railroad and our driving habits are killing the place. The downtown area is full of great buildings, too many of which are vacant. Poke around a bit, it is a place well worth exploring. We found a great little restaurant called “Sengthongs” that serves up a combination of Vietnamese, northern Thai, and Laotian food that is really, really good! It’s a bit on the pricey side perhaps, but well worth it. the portions are big and the selection is unusual. The husband of the chef also looks like Chuck Forward’s long lost brother!
For a place to stay, there is only one choice for us. The Cave Springs Motel. We stumbled across this place about 20 years ago and have made it our mandatory place to stay. There are two parts to this place, the standard motel type rooms, built I’d say in the 60s are nice and clean and comfortable. The other accommodations are little cabins, built in 1923 and are wonderful. Sparse, no, downright Spartan, but wonderful! The owners have made a concerted effort to preserve these gems and the experience is just like travel was WAAAAY back. there is a lean to shed/carport that will fit your Model T (or perhaps a TR3) and not much else. These clapboard cozy cabins overlook the Sacramento River out the back, and you are advised to open both front and back doors to get the benefit of the breeze to cool them down. By the way, in the summer, it can get HOT in Dunsmuir! The breeze off the river is refreshing to say the least! Inside, you will find an old iron framed bed with REAL bed springs, a small kitchen with a two burner gas “stove” that you have to light with a match. No oven. There is a sink and on the back porch is a “modern” refrigerator! No room inside for one! It’s easy to get to the kitchen, by the way, because the floor slopes quite noticeably towards the cliff overlooking the river. They even include cookware and plates and utensils and a mandatory cast iron skillet. Each cabin also has a pair of those old metal “motel chairs” on the front porch and a BBQ grill and picnic table out front. The last real upgrade these places have seen was when they decided to add that new fangled thing called “Electricity.” The wiring is all exposed and the switches date from the 30s. In addition to all this luxury, the motel offers a pool and hot tub as well as a bocce ball court and horseshoes! Talk about “Old School” recreation. It may sound like I’m making fun of the place, but believe me, I’m not. The place is a wonderful throw back and is worth staying at. Everything is wonderfully relaxed. So much so that, other people staying there will say “hello” and strike up a conversation. When’s the last time that happened at the Holiday Inn? It made me feel like I was staying at “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven Of Bliss” from the old Jean Shepard story, complete with swarms of mosquitos in the evening. The rates are also VERY reasonable. Under $60/night. They also have weekly rates if you are up for some trout fishing.
So, those are some of the gory details of the St. Helena-Dunsmuir leg of this trip. Next month, we’ll take you over the hill to the coast and Eureka. Be prepared for more mountain roads and bring a BIG appetite for the Samoa Cookhouse. Till then, keep Hitting the Road!