A local’s guide to a weekend in Arcata, California

Emily Denny/Staff

Located about 250 miles north of San Francisco is the small town of Arcata. Arcata can seem as different from the Bay Area as it gets, and if you are feeling overwhelmed with your busy schedule, the crowded city streets and the constant noises, it can be the perfect escape — which is why when I returned home for a quick weekend, I was reminded just why.

A lonely highway

The most direct route to Arcata is Highway 101 North. I have so many memories of driving this road from Arcata to San Francisco on road trips: a long five hours in the car, watching the world become a little more crowded with buildings, people and highways. But this time, I drove in reverse. As I went further north, I watched as the world grew greener and greener. Trees slowly replaced people; gas stations became fewer, and tall buildings became mountains. I drove past Bigfoot souvenir shops and over bridges that towered above emerald rivers. When I was greeted by a wall of fog and was only able to make out the silhouettes of the massive trees along the lonely highway, I knew Arcata was close.

Bagels and murals

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If you have ever met anyone from Arcata, they will tell you about Los Bagels, the best bagel shop around. And after returning home, this was my very first stop. As I sat eating my bagel, I looked up at the mural that’s painted on the wall facing the shop. Painted are locals dancing in a small-town square. They greet one another and smile at their simple yet colorful community. It’s a scene I grew up studying every time I was at Los Bagels, always trying to discover something new. Once again I found myself studying the mural, but this time I noticed how much it reflected the very place I sat in. Around me were also locals smiling, greeting one another in a small, but colorful town. I always wondered why that mural was painted there, and now it began to make a little more sense.

An ancient forest

After bagels, I headed to the Arcata Community Forest, located just up the hill from the shop. Families, drum-playing hippies and dogs decorated the grassy field, all of which are surrounded by a wall of old-growth redwoods. As I entered the forest, I remembered all the times I spent running through these trails, playing hide-and-seek behind the giant trees, climbing to the top of the redwood stumps and looking down on the forest below me. This time, as I walked along the trail, I looked up and wondered how this ancient but living place could exist so close to the lively town just down the hill.

Farm roads and freezing tides

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Finally, I drove to Mad River Beach, a quiet spot only accessible down old farm roads in the Arcata Bottoms. As I drove to the beach, the smells of salty air and farms outside reminded me of my old Sunday afternoon rituals: wet dogs, wagging tails and sandy feet. Once I got to the beach, I sat down on the warm sand and watched the sandpipers run back and forth as the freezing tide rolled in and out.

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Just five hours south of this very coast, the world would grow a little more crowded and a little less green. Just a few 100 miles back, there was a place so different from the one I sat in. Soon I’d have to leave this foggy shore and return to the busy streets, but it was comforting to know an escape such as Arcata would always be just up the coast.

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected].