By Cheri March
Ferndale might just be the perfect summer destination. We’ve got all the things that make a family vacation memorable: the relaxed pace, spectacular scenery, and close proximity to major attractions like the California Redwoods. What you won't find here? The not-so-fun stuff, like traffic, crowds, and stifling heat.
This summer, take a vacation from the ordinary and step into a simpler way of life behind the Redwood Curtain – where you can savor an ice cream cone on Victorian Main Street, enjoy the sunset at a beach you have all to yourself, and step into the easy swing of small town life, all amidst the backdrop of one of America’s most beautiful historic towns.
Here are our favorite 15 ways to experience the magic of Ferndale this summer.
1. Shop an authentic general store
Named one of America’s most charming general store by Country Living, the two-story Golden Gait Mercantile sells something for everyone, from candy, hats and antiques to local and imported specialty foods, skincare, jewelry and stationery. While there are plenty of modern treasures here, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve stepped back in time thanks to the Golden Gait Mercantile’s old-fashioned candy counter, upstairs museum complete with Victorian mannequins, and collection of authentic unopened stock from soaps to tonics. One of Ferndale’s top attractions, this classic country store is a hit with kids and a mecca for antiques aficionados.
2. Fuel your day with local flavor at Poppa Joe’s
A Ferndale institution, Poppa Joe’s is the only diner where customers arrive before staff. Local patrons with a key show up early to put on the coffee pot and start a game of poker in back, a morning ritual ever since Portuguese immigrant Joe "Poppa Joe" Alexandre co-founded the restaurant as a gathering place for locals, particularly retired dairymen like himself. Hearty breakfasts, burgers and sandwiches served up with a heaping dose of old-fashioned flavor and local history make Poppa Joe’s a Ferndale experience not to be missed.
3. Step back in time at Fern Cottage
You can tour plenty of historic homes in California, but few are still lived in by members of the same family that built them. Fern Cottage Historic District has been lovingly tended by the Russ Family since pioneers Joseph and Zipporah Russ constructed their picturesque farmhouse in 1866, and remains a treasure trove of Victorian era and early 20th Century furniture, clothing and appliances – almost all of which were purchased and used by the family. Tours take place Thurs-Sat at 11am, 12pm, 1pm and 2pm. Cost is $10 for adults, $8 for 62 and over, and free for children under 18. 2121 Centerville Road in Ferndale, FernCottage.org.
4. Try a famous Red Front Store hot dog
Partake in a time-honored Ferndale tradition: a hot dog at the Red Front Store, Ferndale’s friendly and unassuming corner convenience store. Snappy pork-chicken-beef franks pair with locally baked buns made exclusively for the Red Front from a closely guarded recipe. (The only way to obtain the secret recipe? Buy the store; it’s currently for sale, along with attached Francis Creek Inn.) Ferndale’s famous hot dogs made national news in 2015 when they helped solve a burglary; a suspect was caught on video surveillance munching one, and a local cop noticed a telling detail: the "color of [the] hot dog bun, which is the only one sold at one store in Ferndale, one block away from the crime scene." Red Front hot dogs are best enjoyed on the bench outside for excellent small town atmosphere and people watching.
5. Play bocce ball at Firemen’s Park
Round up the family for a game of bocce ball at one of three bocce courts at Firemen’s Park, located at the end of Berding Street. A casual, easy to learn game great for all ages, bocce is a distant cousin of modern bowling and shuffleboard that involves rolling balls down a lane with the aim of coming to rest near a smaller ball, the pallino. Bocce sets are available to rent at J&W Liquors on Main Street. Courts may be used with or without reservations, available through the City of Ferndale, (707) 786-9559. Along with bocce courts, family-friendly Firemen’s Park also offers picnic areas, a basketball court, children's playground and ball fields.
6. Admire hand-forged works of art at The Blacksmith Shop
The ancient art of blacksmithing is alive and well in Ferndale, where the world-famous Blacksmith Shop houses the largest collection of contemporary hand-forged iron in the United States at two Main Street locations. Featuring everything from whimsical gourmet kitchen knives to Gothic chandeliers and from fine jewelry to fireplace tools, The Blacksmith Shop is a stunning showcase of what can be conjured up with hand, hammer, and imagination – and is an international attraction for Ferndale.
7. Immerse yourself in history at Ferndale Museum
Just a block from historic Main Street, the Ferndale Museum offers a trip back to Victorian era Ferndale and Northern California that’s fun for all ages. Peer into historical exhibits of a Victorian home, blacksmith shop, and barber shop, and see displays of farming and logging equipment, working crank phones, a telephone switchboard, and an operating Bosch-Omori seismograph checked daily for earthquake recordings. Make sure to check out the expansive gift shop and bookstore for local history books, postcards, prints from local artists, and Ferndale memorabilia. 515 Shaw Ave (corner of Shaw and Third Street). Summer hours: Tues-Sat. from 11am to 4pm, Tues from 7-9pm.
8. Have a bonfire at the beach
It’s not often that you get a beach all to yourself in California, but that’s what you might find five miles from Ferndale at Centerville Beach County Park, a sandy section of coastline that stretches five miles north to the mouth of the Eel River. To the south are scenic sandstone bluffs and picturesque farmland. Centerville Beach is perfect for beachcombing, bird watching, wildlife viewing, and frolicking with furry friends (well-behaved dogs are allowed off leash here; horses are welcome as well). Load up on picnic supplies at Valley Grocery and head out in late afternoon for a quiet beach bonfire and (if you’re lucky enough to escape the fog) a spectacular sunset.
9. Get back to nature in Russ Park
Step into an ancient forest just as beautiful as any redwoods grove in Ferndale’s Russ Park, a hundred-acre bird sanctuary and stand of mature Sitka spruce trees situated along a ridge just two blocks from Main Street. More than three miles of hiking trails wind through the park, meandering past lush ferns and mossy branches, secluded Zipporah’s Pond, and stunning vistas of the Victorian Village. On-leash dogs welcome on trails. Trailhead is located past the Ferndale Cemetery, where Ocean Avenue becomes Bluff Street.
10. Explore Ferndale’s historic cemetery
Hands down one of most beautiful burials sites in California, the Ferndale Cemetery rambles up a steep hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Follow well-worn paths through crumbling headstones and ornate mausoleums flanked by mature rhododendrons that bloom bright into early summer. At the very top, you’ll step under the shade of towering Sitka spruce trees draped in ribbons of lichen, a peaceful and romantic final resting place with scenic views of the town below.
11. Listen to live local music
You can find live music in Ferndale’s cozy restaurant bars nearly any night of the week. Catch charismatic local celebrity Bill McBride and his band at the Ivanhoe Saloon on Thursdays at 6pm for cowboy music, lots of local character, and the Ivanhoe’s famous chicken cacciatore. Monday nights at VI Restaurant offer a variety of local musicians in the Tavern, plus a Mondays-only secret pizza menu; enjoy guitar or piano in the VI Dining Room on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
12. Treat yourself to old-fashioned sweets
If there’s one thing Ferndale does best, it’s dessert. It’s part of our history; known as the “Cream City,” Ferndale once supplied the finest butter and cream from local dairy farms to San Francisco. Today, enjoy a good old-fashioned ice cream cone – the essence of summer Americana – at Ferndale Pie Company. Fill a bag with sweet treats from the aforementioned Golden Gait Mercantile or at Sweetness & Light, a family-owned chocolate shop that crafts delectable truffles and candy bars in small batches. And you can’t leave Ferndale without trying the gooey pecan-caramel cinnamon rolls and other delights at Humboldt Sweets, featured on Food Network.
13. Hike the Lost Coast Headlands
Just beyond Ferndale you’ll find some of the best coastal hiking paths on the North Coast at the Lost Coast Headlands. Part of the newly expanded California Coastal National Monument, the 463-acre preserve of bluffs, mountains and beaches south of the Eel River is perfect for birdwatching, wildflower viewing, picnicking, and beachcombing. Trailheads for the Fleener Creek and Guthrie Creek hikes are located along Centerville Road, just past Centerville Beach. The Fleener Creek Trail offers a steep but quick half-mile descent to the beach below. Avoid high tide if you want to venture past the bluffs to explore. Guthrie Creek Trail is a scenic, secluded path that zigzags about a mile down to driftwood-strewn Guthrie Creek Beach. Along the way, enjoy views of headlands, bluffs and, on a clear day, Cape Mendocino. Fossils can often be found embedded in sandstone cliffs below, but watch out for falling debris; the BLM has labeled the last stretch of trail as unstable.
14. Tour Ferndale’s vibrant art scene
Ferndale might be best known as a dairy town, but it’s also home to a thriving and diverse arts culture. Fun fact: It was Ferndale artists who stepped up to save the gingerbread-adorned architecture for which Ferndale is now famous, and they’re an integral part of the community today. Spend an afternoon on a self-guided gallery tour of Main Street, starting at Redeye Laboratories, the studio and gallery of local artist and surfer Shawn Griggs, known for his dreamlike landscapes and Dias de los Muertes themed paintings and apparel. Next-door is Mind’s Eye Manufactory & Coffee Lounge, a maker’s space and third wave coffee shop with ever-changing artist exhibits and a variety of classes and workshops. Behind Mind’s Eye is Artisan Alley, an association of artists specializing in everything from stained glass to wooden model ships. Farther up Main Street you'll find even more galleries: The Blacksmith Shop, mentioned above, Ferndale Arts, a gallery cooperative of area artists, LeArt Endeavor, a showcase of handcrafted goods, and, just past the corner of Main and Shaw Avenue, Mark Hamor Studio, a gallery of local artist Mark Hamor's acrylic paintings inspired by the Northern California landscape, nature, sensuality, color and form.
15. Venture out The Wildcat
Get a taste of the rugged and remote Lost Coast when you take a day’s drive out The Wildcat, aka the Mattole Road - thirty miles of twists and hairpin turns past free-ranging cows, culminating in a steep drop down to the ocean above Sugarloaf Island at Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California, and a brief drive along the beach (the only stretch of the Lost Coast where a road actually runs along the shoreline) before veering back inland toward the tiny town of Petrolia. Stop at the public access pullout along the beach for excellent tidepooling and the occasional glimpse of wind surfers, get a hot meal at Petrolia’s Yellow Rose Bar & Grill, hike into the quaint Petrolia Pioneer Cemetery, or, if you’re feeling up for a hike, continue to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse: Turn right on Lighthouse Road and drive 5 miles to Mattole Campground, where you’ll find an information kiosk and the start of the Lost Coast Trail. Hike 3-4 miles through the sand to the “Alcatraz” of lighthouses, so nicknamed for its eery isolation. (Make sure to have a tide table because the Punta Gorda segment may be impassable at high tide.) Find the start of The Wildcat one block west of the intersection of Main Street and Ocean Avenue in Ferndale.
All photos by Leon Villagomez