We stand on a rock arch in front of the ocean

NorCal Road Trip Day 2: An Elephant Tree, a Romantic Photoshoot and a Skunk


Starting Location: Philo, CA

  • Woke up in a redwood grove
  • Got lunch and explored shops at our hotel compound
  • Drove to the coast for a photoshoot

Ending Location: Philo, CA




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After a full night of rest, we awoke to discover a magnificent view from our front door: a redwood tree with an estimated age of over 700 years. The owners of our hotel nicknamed the tree “Pachyderm” because of a burl on its trunk about 20 feet above the ground that resembled an elephant’s head. Pachyderm wasn’t the only redwood commanding our attention. An entire grove of giant redwoods surrounded us, silently welcoming us in the same way they’ve greeted visitors for centuries. Our first morning among the old trees gave us a sense of affirmation that we chose the right place to begin our adventure. 

Gallery: Pachyderm

  • A redwood with a burl shaped like an elephant head
  • We pose for a selfie in front of a redwood with a burl resembling an elephant head
  • I stand in front of a redwood with a burl resembling an elephant head
  • A couple stands in front of a redwood with a burl resembling an elephant head
  • A couple stands in front of a redwood with a burl resembling an elephant head
  • The side of a vehicle is seen in the foreground as a redwood tree stands in the background
  • A redwood with a burl shaped like an elephant head

If you read Day 1, you’re probably wondering if Rebecca ended up being alright. Well, you’ll be happy to hear Rebecca’s smile was symmetrical and her speech was not slurred the night before, so we didn’t suspect a stroke (of course, you can’t clinically rule out a stroke based on a those observations). But Rebecca was feeling much better by morning, so we took things nice and slow just to be safe. We did not want to disregard what happened, so Rebecca contacted a trusted coworker who is a “neuro guru” to get her perspective. Long story short: it might be that Rebecca’s symptoms stemmed from an autonomic nervous system that was confused by exhaustion, poor nutrition, caffeine, alcohol and motion sickness, possibly combined with a migraine. So we proceeded with caution, acutely aware of our physical limits, as we began to explore the property around our cabin.

The Madrones, a Mediterranean-inspired hotel with on-site restaurants and shops, was our first choice for lodging in Philo, but it didn’t have availability. So, we opted for The Brambles, which is owned by the same folks. It turned out to be the perfect fit for us. The Brambles is a rustic-yet-modern hideaway just down the road from The Madrones and tucked away among a secret grove of redwoods. Because of its location, it felt more private and intimate than The Madrones, which was busy during the day with guests and non-guests alike enjoying on-site offerings like The Bohemian Chemist, a cannabis apothecary. The restored wooden homestead at The Brambles was divided into three units, so we weren’t entirely alone. In fact, we made friends that first morning with a friendly couple from the Bay Area who stayed on the second story in a room only accessible via an iron spiral staircase (Hi, Brian and Nancy!).

We felt restored and rested, so we made our way over to The Madrones for lunch at Wickson. We enjoyed our wine and food on the sun-splashed patio and had great conversations with other couples, one of which had the sweetest yellow lab puppy named Tex. We missed our own dogs at home, but we got our fix by petting West Coast dogs any time we could. After lunch, curiosity drew us over to The Bohemian Chemist. The helpful man behind the counter ended up being one of the owners of The Madrones. I remember feeling impressed that an owner was still connected to the day-to-day of the place by working a cash register. It made the place seem smaller and more down home. 

Gallery: The Brambles and Madrones

  • A wooden cabin in a grove of redwoods
  • A wooden cabin in a grove of redwoods
  • A porch and a bright red door on the front of a cabin
  • Redwood trees stand behind a cabin's turret.
  • An ivy-covered facade at the hotel
  • An open door leads into a shop
  • A shot of the interior of the cannabis apothecary


That night, we had a photo session scheduled with Bry Amaya, an in-demand photographer from the Bay Area. She’d had a cancellation and was able to help us get some incredible shots at Mendocino Headlands State Park. But we didn’t have to wait until we got there to see the views. I was absolutely floored by the beauty on each side of the road as we made the drive from Philo to Mendocino. Our route took us straight through Navarro River Redwoods State Park on a narrow road surrounded by towering trees, which created a tunnel of dark reds, browns and greens. (California created their state parks like Oprah gave away cars: you get a state park, you get a state park, you get a state park!). By the time the road met Highway 1, my mouth hung open. Our view opened up to a gorgeous, rocky coastline and we drove north along the Pacific coast until we hit the small town of Mendocino.

Mendocino Headlands State Park was beautiful. Dramatic rock formations towered above the waves. Colorful wildflowers abounded, disobeying the dead dryness of California’s drought. And to my wife’s pure joy, succulents grew everywhere. They grew among the wildflowers, on the rock formations facing the ocean and—as I would see the following day—on the surfaces of tires dumped on the beach decades ago. While we were hoping to capture a picture-perfect sunset, Mendocino gave us the calming cover of Pacific Northwest fog as it rolled off the ocean and around the hills and redwood forests.

Gallery: Mendocino Photoshoot

We were mesmerized by the magic of Mendocino, captivated by the California coast and enthralled by the ancient evergreens. I felt like this place was our little secret, neglected and forgotten about by those who head south from San Francisco on Highway 1 to Big Sur, Los Angeles and the well-known wonders of Southern California. Even though it wasn’t true, I imagined this little corner of California was untouched and off the radar, protected from the logger’s lust and developer’s dreams. It was my own little North Coast nirvana.

But in reality, that nirvana lied further north. Known as The Lost Coast, it’s a stretch of mostly undeveloped and difficult-to-access coastline that Highway 1 didn’t dare disturb. The mountains of the King Range proved too expensive to build a highway through so Highway 1 bends inland and through redwood forests before returning to the coast near Eureka.

We didn’t make it to the real Lost Coast on this trip. But as the sunlight faded on a nearly empty Mendocino Headlands State Park, it felt like we’d discovered our own Lost Coast. So we said goodbye to Bry, sat down on a cliff and soaked every second in.

A view of the ocean and rock formations at dusk
Rebecca took this panorama of dusk at a foggy Mendocino Headlands State Park.

If dinner hadn’t been eventful, I would end Day 2 by saying we grabbed food, drove back to The Brambles and hit the hay. But dinner was eventful. Only one restaurant in town was still open—Patterson’s Pub, an over-21 Irish pub in a pale green cottage with an expansive outdoor beer garden and a friendly woman behind the register who seemed to know all the locals by name. We sat down on the outdoor patio. That’s when things got weird.

I don’t really know how else to tell the story so I’ll just say it: a freaking skunk walked around the corner, into the outdoor dining area and under the table of a couple who had just left! It turned around and, for a brief moment, I was afraid it was about to spray all over us. Fortunately, after scavenging for some crumbs, it left the way it came and we didn’t see it again.

The spectacle lightened the atmosphere on the patio and sparked friendly conversation between those of us who had witnessed the intrusion. It was one of those hilarious, magical wildlife encounters that happens when you’re traveling in a charming place.

And it wouldn’t be the last … 

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