Way up on California’s North Coast, the former timber town of Fort Bragg is reinventing itself as a haven for foodies, beer lovers, and thrill-seekers. Here’s our four-day weekend guide to maximize your thrills.
Jeff Laxier’s rules are unbreakable and a little bit nerve-racking. Before I can take his three-hour lesson in ocean whitewater kayaking, I must don a full-body wetsuit (with booties), a life jacket, and a helmet. What have I gotten myself into?
But it all makes sense after we paddle out into the middle of Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor and start contemplating the formidable sandstone “sea stacks” that punctuate California’s North Coast shoreline. These are nasty rocks, encrusted with barnacles and seemingly lethal to any fool bold enough to try to swim around them. Laxier, the co-proprietor of Liquid Fusion Kayaking, is about to teach me the art of what he calls rock gardening—that is, riding the whitewater that swirls around these sea stacks in a festival of adrenaline and spray. If it looks dangerous, that’s because it is, a little, although Laxier swears that injuries are rare. I tighten the straps on my helmet.
Two hours into the lesson, the moment of truth comes. I have the forward tip of my kayak pointed at a cut in the rock about twice as wide as my craft. Laxier is watching the waves behind me, waiting for the perfect swell. He whistles, yells “go!” and I start paddling madly, straight for the rock’s crenellation of doom. A fraction of a second before all is lost, I feel the wave crest beneath me, and I’m hurled several feet above the spine of the rock in a roiling cloud of foam and flume. It is the most fun I’ve had in longer than I can remember.
And it’s just one way to have fun in Fort Bragg, a coastal enclave 165 miles north of San Francisco. All of the standard pleasures of Northern California are within easy reach of this town of 7,300: fantastic craft beer; an assortment of cannabis dispensaries; wineries with astonishing ocean views; hiking, biking, and fishing. But what makes Fort Bragg stand out from the more manicured tourist destinations farther south in Sonoma and Napa counties are the rough edges: the harsh coast, the chilly summer fog, a general sense of redwood noir generated by a rundown economy that hasn’t yet figured out the 21st century.
But all of this is a feature, not a bug. Fort Bragg feels real, alive, and responsive to its environment in a way that wine country does not. Ocean whitewater kayaking—a passionate embrace of a coastline not usually considered user-friendly—captures the essential ambiguities of Fort Bragg better than anything else I encountered. It’s a place where, unlike most other seaside California communities, there is actually room to try something new.
For two decades, Fort Bragg has been facing an existential challenge. The turn-of-the-century collapse of the local timber industry, by far the biggest employer in area, gutted the economy. The town itself, a collection of unremarkable one- and two-story buildings wrapped around the Pacific Coast Highway, is hardly what you’d call charming. The question lurking beneath the surface of every conversation with local restaurant owners, beermakers, and outdoors gurus is clear: How can the city encourage the growth in tourism that it desperately needs without sanding away the rough edges that make it an enthralling change of pace in the first place?
Should the future bank on old California nostalgia, like the Skunk Train that zips along restored logging railroad tracks into the gorgeous remains of the giant redwood forests that were the original economic reason for this town’s being? Or should Fort Bragg go all-in on the new, betting on establishments like the Living Light Culinary Institute, a cooking school that is reputedly the birthplace of raw vegan gourmet cuisine? In fact, it’s doing both.
The old Georgia-Pacific mill occupied hundreds of acres of prime coastline between downtown Fort Bragg and miles of primeval bluffs. That acreage provides a rare opportunity for forward-thinking development. The first stage, a seven-mile-long coastal trail that was completed in 2015, delivers breathtaking ocean views for hikers and bikers with a sense of peace and intimacy simply unavailable farther south. Other plans include a center for marine science and a possible expansion of the Skunk Train rail line. While we were sipping vintage reds together at her Pacific Star Winery, winemaker Sally Ottoson, a third-generation Fort Bragg resident whose father worked all his life at a mill, suggested an aquarium to rival Monterey’s famous complex.
Laxier, for his part, told me that “Fort Bragg’s rugged beauty cannot be harnessed completely.” He is confident that a healthy future is within Fort Bragg’s grasp—if we just listen to what the wild terrain has to tell us. Indeed, ocean kayaking, as taught by Laxier, requires indoctrination in a potent philosophy of life. Avoiding disaster means being willing to surrender to the power of the waves. “You’ve got to feel the pulse of the ocean,” Laxier said. What he means is that it is a fool’s errand to try to impose your will on the North Pacific Ocean. The trick is to align yourself with its impetuous force, to keep, through tiny spontaneous adjustments of paddle and body weight, your kayak in the flow. It’s easy enough to extend that principle to encompass Fort Bragg’s challenge. Work with the water and not against it.
The 4-Day Weekend in Fort Bragg
Where to Stay
Noyo Harbor Inn’s service is epitomized by the thoughtful provision of earplugs—to fend off the cacophony of a local pack of barking sea lions (from $235). The Beachcomber Motel offers cruiser bike rentals (from $159).
Where to Eat and Drink
Where to Catch a Buzz
North Coast Brewery is one of the oldest of California’s craft brewers. Pacific Star Winery offers whale-watching views and bonfires at night. Sovereign Dispensary supplies the finest cannabis products of the Emerald Triangle.
What to Do
…Cycling along the coastal trail. Be careful not to crash while gawking at the epic views.
…Wandering the State Marine Conservation Area, a swath of true NorCal wildness, with nary a footprint to be found.
…Getting into a kayak and playing chicken with the whitewater.