Mendocino National Forest – Late Winter

Well I stopped writing one here after I returned from my big around the world trip in 2016, but I didn’t actually exploring and going on new adventures. I just stopped documenting it (something I now regret). But I’m vowing to make it more regular again, and I’m starting with a trip Kayla (my wife), Crosby (my dog), and I went on last weekend to the Mendocino National Forest.

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The Mendocino National Forest is absolutely huge at 1 million acres and is located about 4 hours north and east of where we live in San Francisco. I was planning to go on a hunting trip in this area last fall but the August Complex Fire, which ended up being the largest wildfire in California history, was burned large parts of this area and made it totally inaccessible. One fun fact about this national forest is that it is the only national forest in California (out of 20) that does not have a paved road running through it. Just old dirt forest service and logging roads.

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The first thing I noticed when we left the little reservation town of Covelo and drove up in to the mountains is how isolated and wild this area is. Though it’s only about 4 hours from one of the largest cities in the US, you feel like you’re at the edge of the world. It’s a 1.5-2 hour drive from the 101, and even that part of the 101 is no longer a freeway (does not have exits, does have stop signs), but just a little road that passes through tiny towns like Laytonville (population 1200).

Seeking out isolated, untouched, wild places is definitely one of the things I enjoy most in life, so I was grew more and more excited as we ascended deeper and deeper in to the mountains. I did have one slight anxiety though, which is our van (we call him Yoshi). He’s a 1991 Mitsubishi Delica imported from Japan. He’s right hand drive, 4×4, diesel, and overall a really cool van I’ve taken on trips many tips ranging from Baja to Oregon. As Yoshi has grown older, however, he’s had more and more issues with overheating. This was our first trip since replacing the thermostat and hoses, so I was hopeful that he would keep cool but definitely not 100% confident.

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The second thing I noticed as we left society further in our rearview mirror was that, at least in the area we were driving through (National Forest route M1), the damage from the fire was not as bad as I expected. A lot of the small brush and trees appeared to have been burned, and some of the larger trees had char marks, but most of the medium to large timber seemed unscathed. I certainly did not feel the sense of utter devastation I’ve encountered in some other areas that have had large wild fires like this (such as parts of Sonoma County after the Tubby Fire).

Yoshi got warm on the climb but overall performed well and we found our first campsite on Etsel Ridge near the northern border of the Yuki Wilderness. We found an area that was mostly blocked form the west wind but it still got extremely cold as the sun dropped. I’m not sure exactly how cold it was but I’d guess it bottomed out around 20 degrees based on how solid our water was frozen in the morning. When it’s that cold it’s not super conducive to hanging around outside, so after we finished out curry we got in to that van to play some cards and hit the hay.

Campsite #1

Campsite #1

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In the morning I got a fire going to help us thaw out and took in the view out to the west. I was hoping to scope some deer form the ridge but unfortunately forgot my binoculars and wasn’t able to see anything with my naked eye. Crosby was especially cold and playing fetch constantly was the only way he could stay warm (he won’t get anywhere near the fire).

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Our plan was to spend a couple days driving towards Lake Pillsburry, which is about 45 miles to the south, so after breakfast we packed up and started on our way. After about 10 miles, however, we encountered some snow that turned out to be much deeper than we expected and got Yoshi stuck. At this point we were about 20 miles from anything resembling civilization, and since I’d forgotten my shovel, our only option was to dig ourselves out using sticks. We hadn’t seen any signs of other people this entire time, so we weren’t planning on getting any assistance, but after about 10 minutes of digging a nice couple wandered over from across a meadow and offered us their shovel. This was a pleasant and welcome surprise. They then decided to drive over to us in their 4×4 F-150 and promptly got stuck. I’m not exactly sure whey they decided to drive in to the snow. When they tried to back up their front hub broke and they were firmly stuck in the snow without 4WD. Now we had two vehicles stuck in the snow, one shovel, and 4 people who were not excited to be spending their Saturday afternoon digging out snow. Luckily we both had coolers full of beer. Yoshi is small and light, and we able to fairly easily push him out of the snow and get back to dry road. The F-150 was a different beast, and after all digging and pushing for about 20 minutes, James and Megan decided to call some friends to come help. They’re from a small town relatively close to this area and luckily have some very nice friends. We made a fire, became fast friends, and waited for about 2 hour until their friends arrived with an even bigger truck. They were able to pull the truck out of the snow, and after exchanging numbers and promising to hangout again sometime, we went our separate ways.

Yoshi stuck, Crosby was not helpful with the digging

Yoshi stuck, Crosby was not helpful with the digging

With our plans to traverse the forest to the south scuttled, we drove back north and made camp in an area called Grizzly Flat. We had enough day light to get a bike in ride so we explored the area a bit more before making dinner and settling in to camp. Luckily Saturday night was not nearly as windy or cold as Friday so we are able to hang by the fire past dark and play some cards while enjoying our Carnet Sauvignon (camping in the wood is no reason to not drink good wine).

Camp 2

Camp 2

In the morning we went on a beautiful hike up above the Eel River and then headed home. We made one pitstop at a brewery in Willits that our new friends had recommended called Northspur Brewery. It was fantastic and I highly recommend a stop there if you’re ever passing through that area.

After the trip I’m not convinced that the deer hunting in this area is great. We did see some deer, but also saw a lot of signs of the area being heavily hunted. It’s beautiful and remote however, and I’d love to explore more of it off the road next time.