ORICK, Calif. — The summer of 1985 would have to be rated special for visitors in the Redwood Empire of Northern California.
It's the summer of the Skunk and the Eel, as well as for the opening of a new $1.5-million Visitor Information Center just in time to serve what is expected to be a record-setting season of travel among the tallest of all life forms on earth.
In 1968 the long years of work by conservationists resulted in the establishment of Redwood National Park linking three state parks into a UNESCO World Heritage Site "significant to all nations."
This summer, efforts beginning with the establishment of the national park have culminated in the opening of the new Visitor Information Center that will make it easier to share the redwood story with visitors from around the world.
The center is near Orick at the southern entrance to the park. From here visitors will be helped with self-guiding materials, displays, interpretive programs and marked walking trails to explore wonders too often bypassed.
A trail for the blind starts close to the Information Center. Sturdy ropes on both sides of the walking path guide sightless visitors through the trees. Markers beside the trail tell the redwood story in Braille.
To make it easier to linger longer, every county of the Redwood Empire has new bed-and-breakfast inns that add more choices for overnighting at some of the most delightful hideaways in the West.
Year of the Train
Helping to build visitor interest this summer is the Year of the Train celebration along the Redwood Coast, humorously aimed in promotional efforts at "skunk and eel lovers." This is a timely Northern California counterpart to Germany's Year of the Train commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first steam engine in Bavaria.
The California Western Railway's Skunk Line is celebrating the 100th birthday of its founding by a lumber company in 1885. Lumbering and the fragrance of a skunk disturbed by a falling tree aren't likely to impact this summer's rail buffs and vacationing families along the 40-mile redwood run between Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast and Willits on U.S. 101.
More than 100,000 visitors annually ride the Skunk Line. Their number will be increased during this anniversary year as word spreads that the Old 45 steam locomotive restored last summer will share the line with its diesel counterpart this year. It is scheduled to pull passenger cars every Thursday and Friday until Sept. 15.
Since May 15, the Skunk Line has been joined as a visitor attraction by the Eel River Line of the Redwood Coast Railway Company over a 145-mile, seven-hour route between Willits and Eureka.
Vintage cars on this run are from such rail classics as the Santa Fe Chief and the Shasta Daylight. They include a buffet diner, a first-class parlor lounge and a dome car.
View of the Redwoods
The Eel is protected as a "wild and scenic river." The North Coast Daylight trip along it gives passengers a view of the redwoods and canyon country that few visitors have seen. There are 25 tunnels and 29 bridges to make this run possible.
Rail travel through the redwoods phases harmoniously with the 359 miles of Redwood Highway, U.S. 101 between San Francisco and Crescent City.
We're continually tempted to stop and vacation at so many places along the way. This autumn we'll tandem-bicycle the route just to enjoy it more slowly.
Who could cross Golden Gate Bridge and want to speed through Marin County from Sausalito and Muir Woods to Mt. Tamalpais and over to Stinson Beach and Point Reyes?
Once you can get through Sonoma County and the inevitable detours into Napa Valley, you're ready for what the new "Visitors Guide to the Redwood Empire" presents as an overview of "the full Redwood Experience."
This begins at Santa Rosa and leads into the big groves of the Eel River Valley. Above Garberville we like to detour at Phillipsville into the parallel 25 miles of scenic highway California 254, the Avenue of the Giants. At Founder's Grove you will become part of the story of the three men who founded the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1918. Trees in this memorial grove tower above 340 feet.
From Founder's Grove, a five-mile trail leads west into Rockefeller Grove, called "the finest forest on earth." This route continues along the Mattole River into the outreach of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point of the continental United States, through tucked-away communities such as Honeydew, Petrolia and Capetown.
After the past mild winter, silence becomes mystical in the coastal redwoods. The ground cover of redwood sorrel grew early and muffles footsteps. Drive on through Ferndale and its Victorian homes to rejoin U.S. 101 below Eureka.