Where the remote town of Elk, California is concerned — plunk in the middle of the Mendocino County coast — let’s just say that the journey is the destination. It’s three hours north of San Francisco by car, or just shy of two hours from Santa Rosa’s small airport.
In other words, it’s up there. Which is exactly why you should get away from it all and go.
We get to Elk, where Adam’s dad lives, almost the same way every time:
We choose a three-day weekend. We fly out of Burbank Airport on Southwest, an hour’s inexpensive and direct flight to Oakland. We rent a car, spend the night at Adam’s mom and stepdad’s cozy, Emeryville-adjacent Victorian, linger over breakfast, then hit the road by 10am.
However, since chance are you and my mother-in-law are perfect strangers to one another, I’d suggest that you opt to spend the night at the Hilton Garden Inn by the Bay Bridge, or simply book a flight that arrives in the morning.
There’s a $4 toll on the 101, but otherwise it’s an hour’s smooth sailing through Marin and Sonoma Counties. Just after Cloverdale, you’ll hit the 128, which is absolutely stunning…and somewhat endless.
Note: Flying into the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa doesn’t save you the 128 leg of the trip, only the hour prior on the 101. Alaska Airlines serves this airport with direct flights to/from Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Seattle and Las Vegas, and none are particularly inexpensive.
Like a long backdrop for The Lord of the Rings, the 128 winds relentlessly through craggy forests of moss-crusted oaks, fields of tumbled boulders, and rugged farmland dotted with apple trees, grape vines, mini-horses and woolly sheep. The air here is fresh and cool, even in summer, and colors are soft and muted.
About 45 minutes in, you come to a small slice of wine country known as the Yorkville Highlands. During our last spin through in January 2009, we stopped at our favorite in the area, the Maple Creek Winery. After driving up their always-impressive, 1/4-mile paved driveway, we were greeted in the parking lot by the two resident dogs, Sheriff and Lucy, chatted with the guy behind the counter (a recent transplant from Missouri), and swept out with our usual fistful of Artevino label wines. Their Symphony 2007 is a light, crisp white blend, excellent with spicy food. Their reds aren’t as strong, but still beat the pants off the chalky syrah at nearby Meyer Family Cellars; surprising, since the latter is owned by the scion of Silver Oak Cellars, a Napa standout.
Here in pioneer country, though, there’s no accounting for pedigree.
The first big town on the 128 is Boonville, famous in these parts for its general store, Mendocino County Fair, and unique language, known as “Boontling.”
Boonville’s reasons for having its own language are:
- It’s squarely set in the blissful middle of nowhere;
- Locals in the booming 1880s didn’t want to be understood by fancy-pants newcomers.
We’ve always stopped here for provisions at the Boonville General Store, but now there’s also the tony Mosswood Market. Either place will get you a swanky sandwich with organic produce or a bottle of something made with Calistoga’s mineral water, but the cheese and espresso at the General Store are a cut above, while at Mosswood, there’s access to more than one bathroom stall.
From Boonville, you have three choices of how to get to Elk, and the coast:
- VERSION 1: PHILO-GREENWOOD ROAD
- Driving time to Elk: 30 minutes
A few miles past Boonville, at the next town of Philo, turn left to take the Philo-Greenwood Road. This shady back-road, originally a logging cut-through to the coast, wends over an old wooden bridge, past clapboard farmhouses and heirloom apple orchards, and the virgin redwood forest at Hendy Woods State Park before gently depositing you directly in Elk, beside the Pacific Ocean.
Less than one block to the left is the Elk Cove Inn; the rest of downtown Elk is to the right.
- VERSION 2: MOUNTAIN VIEW ROAD
- Driving time to Elk: 30-40 minutes
From the center of Boonville, take a left onto the Mountain View Road. We just took this route for the first time in January 2009, and it’s invigorating and dramatic. Winding through pine forests and valleys, past soaring mountains with names like Sugarloaf and Dry Bridge, whistling along to Zero 7′s Throw It All Away with the windows rolled down, we grinned like fools…and barely encountered another soul.
The road ends at Highway 1 in the town of Manchester (home of Manchester State Park), several miles south of Elk. Take a right. Highway 1 runs alongside pounding surf and long stretches of blustery beach that blend into cliffside, rolling farmland, replete with with dairy cows and bounding deer.
In our opinion, views here run neck-and-neck with Big Sur. And here, there’s a hell of a lot less traffic.
About one mile south of Elk, you’ll see a lone, gorgeous redwood house perched on a cliff, with a graceful loop of cove below. Enjoy the view from the turnout and don’t head down to the beach; the owner, a wealthy Elk local, has been known to spy on those who invade his land with a loaded shotgun.
After about ten more curves up a steady climb, you’ll see the Elk Cove Inn on your left.
- VERSION 3: THE 128 to HIGHWAY 1
- Driving time to Elk: 40 minutes
Continue on the 128 past through the heart of the Anderson Valley wine country, through the 11-mile cathedral grove of ancient trees in the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, along the muddy green Navarro River, and at last to the coast. At Highway 1, take a left. (Stay straight to head up to Mendocino.)
The clifftop ocean scenery, straight out of Ansel Adams’ photos, is entirely real. Stop long enough at a turnout on a sunny day, and as you stare out into the endless horizon, you’re sure to see a whale’s flipping tail just beyond the craggy black rocks jutting straight from the sea.
A mile shy of Elk, look for Cuffey’s Cove on the left. Elk’s 19th-century lumber success rang the death knell for this unfortunate town by draining its labor force, but a disastrous fire in 1886 nailed its coffin; all that now remains of the settlement is a picturesque/creepy cemetery. Ostensibly a Catholic burial ground with poignant ocean views, there’s a also a mysterious, grave-less section for druids, a smattering of Veterans of Foreign Wars, and a tragic handful of children who never lived past their infancy.
Within a minute, you’ve entered the outskirts of Elk — your tip-off will be real estate signs offering lots in chunks of 40 acres or more. Downtown begins with a small monastery, the Harbor House Inn and Sandpiper House, and a one-room schoolhouse. The Greenwood Pier and Elk Cove Inn are at the other end of town…about a block away.
* To see more of our photos from these areas, click here.