How many residents of Anderson Valley have ventured farther north than Fort Bragg on Highway 1? If you have not gone farther north, here are some reasons to go.
About 14 miles from Fort Bragg, or 145 miles north of San Francisco, Westport is a tiny unincorporated town of about 60 people. The route from Fort Bragg runs along many high cliffs with shockingly dramatic views of a magnificent stretch of the Mendocino coastline. Because this area is remote the vistas are much less broken by man-made buildings and other things. Gazing out it is easy to imagine what the native people and early settlers saw. It is very rugged — it takes your breath away. If you are the driver it is difficult to stay focused on the road (as you must to avoid going over the bluff and falling many feet into the ocean). If you go be sure to continue beyond the town for a few miles — one of the most sweeping views is just north of town and not to be missed.
The first settlers to come after the native people arrived in the 1860s — mostly former seekers of the gold rush and lumbermen. Because the coast is treacherous with rocks and rough surf, the first order of business was to find a way to load goods from the shore. Potatoes were the first export loaded down a chute built in 1864. Originally sea captains shied away due to difficult seas but eventually tan bark, shingles, wool, oats, railroad ties and lumber were loaded via a second chute built in 1877 and a wharf that came later. All these rickety affairs had to be perpetually repaired as winter weather slammed them apart yearly. With access to the outside world Westport boomed, boasting a population of 4,000 and 14 saloons and other important buildings. There was even a stagecoach from Ukiah to Westport in 1883.
After the boom and into the 1950s many of these buildings burned down or collapsed from neglect. Ranches in the area continued to thrive, however, and so the town continued to exist unlike many other small coastal outposts that disappeared.
If you are interested in knowing more about the history of the town you can order Vol. #26 of the Mendocino Historical Review that includes an overview of Westport. Write P.O. Box 446, Westport, CA 95488. Send $20 for the book and shipping or you can pick up a copy at the Westport store.
Today the town’s economy is driven by its natural beauty with b&bs, a couple of Inn’s and a hotel. There is a store, a bar and a restaurant. You can walk down to the pounding ocean from anywhere in town but don’t plan on going swimming. The warning posted on the steps down to the black sand very wild beach, “Don’t go out if you have any doubt,” caught my attention. I definitely had my doubts. Nevertheless just standing there watching the waves, listening to the sounds, feeling the whippy salt air and seeing the clouds boil and scud along is very exhilarating— thrilling actually. I can’t even imagine the drama when there is a storm. Whoa! That would be spine tingling.
Walking around town the tiny post office, established in 1879, is just big enough to stand up in. Next door the quintessential American general store has a sign on the front door, “P-Push! Push it real good.” Weather-beaten plywood whales with baby whale companions appear in many places on houses and business each painted differently. Maybe this is the “logo” for Westport. The scene here is very spontaneous with few corporate trappings.
Looking up real estate there’s one house listed for $2,995,000 — 7 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms and 4,000 square feet. I don’t know where it is in town but it may be side by side with very small weathered cottages from a bygone era. These same real estate sites mentioned a category for abandoned houses. Next door to our friends’ house was a fascinating abandoned house that really intrigued me. It was a box with a completely flat roof, so practical for a rainy climate (not). This house looked like it was built by someone with absolutely no knowledge or building skills. Clearly it was build before “codes” might have caused an issue.
The house we stayed in (recently purchased by our friends) had 5 bedrooms and 3 baths and a big peaked roof with a large attic. This is the kind of house that people with large families used to build. All wood, it was completely charming and so snug especially after dark when the wind was blowing and the waves were pounding. This house was built on a grassy knoll five minutes from the ocean with a forest and big sky backdrop. It was a great place for a Thanksgiving feast. Despite the fierceness of the ocean’s roar we felt strangely soothed and lulled to sleep by it. The sunset was spectacular in dark orange and lavender and the dawn came up all pastel in soft pink and baby blue. The quality of the light out here on the very edge of the country is something that photographers and painters pray for. Our cup ran over; we were literally saturated with beauty.
If you’d like to check it out for yourself, hope that the weekend you pick is a very clear one (ours was). If you are on a budget, reserve space at the Westport Union Landing State Park or further north the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park to camp. Also available The Westport Inn, The Westport Hotel, The Inn at Newport Ranch or any number of airbnb’s or traditional vacation rentals if you can find the money.
When you drive through Fort Bragg on your way home you may find that having many amenities like coffee houses, breweries, restaurants, shops, galleries and gas stations will suddenly seen like real a luxury.
I love our valley with all my heart but occasionally dipping into the big drama that the Mendocino coast provides shakes me up and gets me going. A great resource for visiting guests. This world-class beauty is out there waiting to be seen, felt, heard, smelled and enjoyed by all of us.