Musing on Managed Experiences

On our last day in California, we stopped to pee at Trees of Mystery, a roadside attraction showcasing redwoods, a gondola called the Sky Trail, and, of course, a gift shop. I remember visiting this over 20 years ago with my parents, the most vivid memories being the giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox out front.

Trees of Mystery is now the very definition of a tourist trap (its Wikipedia page makes that clear), though I suspect when it opened, which I believe was originally in the 40s, it actually served a purpose — this was not well-managed parkland at the time, and Trees of Mystery offered folks who weren’t super outdoorsy the ability to see and learn about redwoods.

It’s purpose these days is less clear. With the establishment of Redwood National Park (in 1968), and the various state parks that comprise it, you can now have a well-managed, lowkey, redwood forest experience for free. At Prairie Creek, you can walk along the Revelation Trail and have a walk very similar to what people continue to pay $15 a head for at Trees of Mystery. I would argue that the real mystery is, why are people willing to spend so much money for something they can get for free?

The most obvious answer is marketing — Trees of Mystery has two giant statues out front, and you’ll find their brochures 100 miles in any direction. Prairie Creek State Park is not unknown, but doesn’t really engage in “outreach”. The next answer that comes to mind is safety/security. I think many see National Parks as unruly, unclear, potentially wild places. Whereas, a roadside attraction charging $15 will clearly be a safe, clear, managed experience. I suspect many don’t trust themselves to get the most out of a National Park, and would fear spending a lot of time being lost or confused. For $15, you’re guaranteed a focused experience that you’ll get *something* out of.

Road Trip 2010, Part 1: Redwoods

On Tuesday, May 18, the family (Stacy, Jules, Milo, and myself) loaded up the Subaru Outback and headed north for a two-week road trip. Our itinerary includes the California Redwood Coast, Oregon Central Coast, Portland, and probably Crater Lake on the return (subject to change depending on weather).

This is our first big trip since Jules was born. For our last big trip, two weeks in Ireland and Scotland, Jules joined us in utero. Stacy and I have a history of road trips, though we knew it would be different with our son along for the ride. The most notable change is that we are staying for three nights in each place we visit, and doing little day adventures from those bases. Covering ground took a back seat to the hassles of loading and unloading. The other is that we have to factor in nap time into our timing planning, which means we can’t do a whole lot in the middle of the day.

Stacy had never seen giant California Redwoods, so we made our first port of call Trinidad, CA, an historic town north of Arcata and south of the bulk of Redwood National Park.


We stayed in Emerald Forest, a pleasant collection of cabins and campgrounds, where we realized our first tactical error: motel rooms of a size that was fine when it was just the two of us (even with a dog) are barely tenable with the toddler (who sleeps in a Pack-and-Play). By the time this became apparent, we were SOL, as they had only two dog-friendly rooms, and the other was reserved. So, for our first three nights, we all slept together in the same room, which meant that Stacy and I pretty much had to go to bed when Jules did (at around 8pm). Since we couldn’t turn on any lights, we couldn’t read as we might normally… so we watched downloaded TV in the dark.


The Redwood Coast is a region not known for it’s culinary savoir-faire, but we managed quite well. The real find was The Beachcomber Cafe, a coffeehouse and bakery just in town. The coffee was excellent (and, writing this a few days after we left Trinidad, we still haven’t found any comparable), and the scones they put out every morning were to die for. These are not dry flavorless bricks. These are rich, buttery, and delightful.

Our first two dinners were in Arcata, the college town of Humboldt State. There was Japhy’s, a hippie-ish noodle joint that served tasty food quite cheap (though I preferred the Thai green curry over rice to the noodles). And the next night was 3 Foods, a somewhat pretentious, but remarkably tasty, mid-scale restaurant that catered more to the local professoriate. Each night we ate ice cream, first night at Arcata Scoop, second at Bon Boniere, and both were fine, but nothing special. (As were two other restaurants: Trinidad Bay Eatery for an underwhelming breakfast, and the Samoa Cookhouse for an underwhelming dinner.)

On this leg, we stopped in both Eureka and Arcata, two towns very close to one another. Eureka left me cold — very little charm, and we decided to skip it for meals and activities. Arcata was much more pleasant — charming little town with a cute town square, and the college gives it just enough sophistication to be interesting.

Patrick’s Point State Park and Redwood National Park

The real reason for this stop was the outdoors, and we got a great dose of that. It rained much of the time (as it seems to do in the Very Northern California and Oregon coasts), but we were graced with sunshine our first afternoon, and took in the sights at Patrick’s Point State Park in Trinidad. It’s a very manageably-sized park, with a “rim trail” that offers gorgeous ocean views.

Our second full day was rain-free, and so we headed for the Redwoods. We bee-lined for the Klamath area, and headed west to the Coastal Trail for a drive along the coast. We made a brief detour at the World War II radar station disguised as a farm house (perhaps not the best disguise, as it’s not really farmable land), which was disappointing because there’s not much to see–everything is boarded up. We then stopped at the High Bluff Overlook, which afforded the most dramatic vista we’d see that day:

High Bluff Overlook

We then headed for Prairie Creek, where we briefly hiked the Prairie Creek Trail, an excursion cut short first by Jules’ fussiness, and then his falling asleep in the hiking backpack he rides:

Jules naps

After everyone napped, we opted to hike Trillium Falls, a beautiful path near Elk Meadow.

Trillium falls

We can say, in no uncertain terms, that we satisfied our redwoods jones. If you’ve never wandered among them, do so.

Traveling with Jules

In terms of traveling with Jules, there are some things to report. Having a separate room for him to sleep in is becoming mandatory (we’re staying in a “suite” in Oregon, and the difference has been remarkable). iPad is a family road trip’s best friend — we loaded it up with Pixar films, hung it from the backseat, and Jules goes hyp-mo-tized for hours watching it:

iPad makes travel easier. on Twitpic

Naptime has been pretty easy to plan around — thankfully he’ll sleep in the car, so it doesn’t have to stop our days. And on days when we’re near our motel room, it turns out that when he wants to sleep, so do I! (I’ve recorded more 90 minute naps this week than I have in the past year, if not longer.)

Probably the biggest change from prior trips is that we’re housebound from about 8pm-on.

Traveling with Milo

Not much to say here. He’s a small dog who is fine in the car. Finding places to stay can be a little more challenging, but not too bad — I think lodgers are having to face the fact that Americans love their dogs.

There haven’t been many off-leash areas we could take him. The best was Clam Beach in McKinleyville. When it’s not spitting rain (as it was our first time there), it’s an utterly delightful spot, as Milo can attest:

Run Milo!

Next up

Leaving redwoods country, we headed north up the coast to Newport, OR. Somehow, we hadn’t realized just what a long drive that was going to be. Anyway, our Oregon experience will be another post.