The Anderson Valley, centered in Boonville in Mendocino County, is so remote that linguists used to visit to study “Boontling,” the dialect spoken by the inhabitants when keeping secrets from outsiders. The valley is accessible only via twisty and nausea-inducing Highway 128 at one end and the narrow “Tunnel to the Sea” through a second-growth redwood forest along the Navarro River on the other end. But if you make it over the pass, you will feel as if you have gone back in time and space to the Napa Valley as it was a half-century ago.
Here in late May, the rolling hills are just finishing with spring, looking like sun-faded green velvet curtains dropped in heaps.
Family-owned wineries make award-winning Pinot Noir and Cabernets, and the traffic is nominal, the parking easy and the tasting mostly still free.
You can buy chilled apple cider and many old-fashioned varieties of apples at the Gowan’s Oak Tree fruit stand, just next to the road in Philo surrounded by its orchards.
There’s a state park where you can see old-growth redwoods without having to take a shuttle bus with a ticket in advance. Hendy Woods State Park, which has a wonderful campground, was bequeathed to the state of California by Joshua P. Hendy; his fortune came from the steel company whose sign you can still see bordering the railway tracks in Sunnyvale. I love the local connection.
The coffee shop (there is only one, the Redwood Drive-In) has regulars instead of Wi-Fi, and you can hear the morning’s gossip about who bought Dan’s old truck or admire the fifth-grade science fair ribbon won by the owner’s grandson. It dangles from the wall along with team pictures of the Boonville Panthers basketball team and the cheerleading squad (which looks to be large enough to provide a cheerleader girlfriend for each guy on the team).
The valley can be hot in late spring and summer, so you might go for a dip in the Navarro River (access by the bridge just outside the park) or escape to the coast, with coastal scenery rivaling Big Sur, and a 30-degree drop in temperature.
You can go north at the coast to the famously quaint village of Mendocino, once an artist colony but now the home of film festivals, bed-and-breakfast inns and other trappings of cutesification. You can go farther north to Fort Bragg and the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, a floral extravaganza in spring featuring 10-foot rhododendrons and azaleas and in summer boasting dahlias and roses.
If you want more of the coastal scenery, you can cross the Highway 1 bridge heading south across the Navarro River and wind your way down to Elk (population 208). Don’t miss the left turn on the Philo-Greenwood Road or you will find yourself on a very steep, twisty section of Highway 1 with no guardrails and very few turnouts. The Philo-Greenwood Road itself is also narrow and twisty, but it’s encased in what seems like deep woods – until there is a gap and you realize that you are perched on a ridge with a steep drop on either side, with the Anderson Valley spread out like a patchwork quilt of vineyards and apple orchards on the right and the coastal view to the ocean dropping away on the left.
When out-of-state visitors come and want to visit the Napa Valley, I usually direct them to Sonoma or to the Alexander Valley north of Healdsburg instead. They come back happy with memories of the quaint Sonoma Plaza and visits to Dry Creek and the Coppola Winery Tasting Room, replete with “Godfather” memorabilia. The Anderson Valley is a bit too far for tourists and the road a bit too challenging. It is still (until now) my secret step back in time.