Roadside America: Samoa Cookhouse, Eureka, California

There’s something about roadhouses that fascinates me. I don’t just mean dodgy watering holes of the kind Patrick Swayze kicked some butt in, but old school diners that cater to working folk. The food is often great, and there’s just something honest about them.

For over a decade, I’d longed to visit the famed Samoa Cookhouse just minutes from Eureka, California, after reading about it in a food magazine. Built in 1893, it’s at the crossroads of Northern California’s fishing and lumber industries, and the last surviving cookhouse in the West. It sounded like the kind of place I’d love, what with the communal dining hall seating and hearty, family-style prix fixe menus. There’s even a Logging Museum located at one end. The restaurant is still largely patronized by those in the industry, along with fisherman and other assorted blue-collar types.

This past July, my parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew took a family vacation up to the Klamath River. We also spent a couple of days in Eureka, using it as a base to visit the nearby Redwoods National Park. When the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” question arose, my brother (whose teenaged nickname was “Garbage Disposal”), 16-year-old nephew, and I lobbied for Samoa Cookhouse. The rest of the family wasn’t so keen on this (cholesterol level issues/desire for a light meal/finicky 12-year-old niece who subsists on white foods).

It turned out that my brother, parents, and I had actually eaten at the Cookhouse when I was about 8. It’s strange that I can’t recall the visit, because most of my memories are centered on food, even at that time in my life when I, too, refused to eat anything but starchy carbs. This made me even more curious to see what I’d apparently blocked out.Even if you don’t enjoy stuffing yourself senseless, the Cookhouse is a historian’s dream. It’s as authentic a place as you can get, right down to the red-and-white checked plastic tablecloths (my brother and I were immediately reminded of the camp we both attended as kids), utilitarian, lumber camp-style of the dining hall and friendly service.

For $15.95, you’re offered the evening’s menu: soup, salad, homemade bread (hot, exceedingly wonderful, I dare you to not fill up on it), entree (in our case, pork chops and pot roast) potato, vegetable, dessert and coffee or tea. Lunch ($12.95) is along the same lines, while breakfast ($10.95), as you’d imagine, involves massive quantities of eggs, flapjacks, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and hash browns.

The food is a key part of the Cookhouse’s appeal – from our thick, nourishing, beef-barley soup to the sublime pot roast. It’s working man’s fare, done right. But it’s so much more than just a great meal (although the original Cookhouse menu items are today considered on-trend and command top dollar at the nation’s best restaurants: freshly churned butter from the Cookhouse dairy; homemade preserves, etc.).

The Cookhouse is also a vital piece of California history that’s often overlooked. The logging legacy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in large part helped the state prosper and brought many of the immigrants who helped establish Northern California’s “melting pot” culture. If nothing else, visit the museum, which contains an astounding array of photographs, relics, and some seriously badass cross-cut saws.

To get to Samoa Cookhouse, take the Highway 255/the Samoa Bridge over the bay from Eureka, and make a left. You’ll see the white dining hall perched on a hilltop. Open seven days a week.

[Flickr image via TrishaLyn]

Damnation Creek: Hiking Old-Growth To Ocean In Redwood National Park

Tredwoodshere are few places on earth I love more than Redwoods National Park, located 325 miles north of San Francisco. Growing up, we used to drive up the coast every summer, and a few nights camping in the redwoods was always on the itinerary.

The Redwoods are actually several parks within the national and state system, all of which are managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and California Department of Parks and Recreation. Together, they comprise nearly half of the remaining old-growth redwood forest in the state.

Last month, while driving down the coast from Seattle to San Francisco, I decided I was long overdue to sleep amongst the world’s tallest trees. I booked a site at Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, just south of the dreary fishing port of Crescent City.

When I camp, I want to stay in a place that smells of wood smoke, and has sites covered in moss and ferns. I desire a forest canopy overhead, ranger talks, trailheads and wildlife lurking in the undergrowth. I do not want to see functioning cellphones, tour bus-sized RVs or swimming pools. I may be in a campground instead of the backcountry, but I have my standards.

Mill Creek, as well as Jedidiah Smith Campground (located 10 miles east of Crescent City, in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park), both meet my criteria. I’ve stayed at the Smith campground in the past, and at either place, I’d be perfectly content to sit on a stump all day, inhaling the scent of burning wood and watching the banana slugs go by.

That said, I camp so I can hike, which is why I was thrilled to discover one of the Redwood’s best trails – one of only a few with old-growth forest-to-beach access – just down the road from Mill Creek. Damnation Creek was originally used by the region’s Yurok Indians, who went to the beach to collect shellfish and seaweed.

The trail drops 1,100 feet in two miles, switchbacking through Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, ferns, and huckleberries. It’s a steep drop, but utterly breathtaking due to the cathedral-like shroud of ancient redwoods that tower over everything. Damnation Creek runs near the bottom of the trail, just before you emerge onto a bluff overlooking the sea stacks of the Pacific. If the tide is out, you can walk down to a patch of rocky beach overlooking Damnation Cove. Take a deep breath. Realize cellphones and civilization are overrated. Linger. It’s a steep hike back.

Getting there
Located eight miles south on Highway 101 from Crescent City; the Damnation Creek Trailhead and pullout is at mile marker 16, on your right. Don’t leave any valuables in your car.

[Photo credit: redwoods, Flickr user goingslo]

Visit the Tall Trees Grove in Redwood National Park, California