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Arcata Travel Guide

What to Do in Arcata, CA
The Most Unusual City in North America

This Arcata, California travel guide should enrich the experience of travelers staying as little as one night.

Arcata has to be one of the most interesting small cities in the U.S. For example, Arcata

  • Elected the first Green Party controlled city council in the U.S.,
  • "Banned" nuclear weapons within city limits,
  • Maintains a redwood forest within city limits, and
  • Sponsors a triathlon, the Kinetic Sculpture Race described below, that is simply over the top.

We start with the sights you willl see approaching Arcata, and then give optional activities—what to do—some of which can be done in as little as an evening if you are just spending one night.

Directions to Arcata from Eureka

From U.S. Highway 101 in Eureka, turn north onto State Highway 255. If you have been traveling northbound on 101, that means turning left onto 255.

Take 255 as it crosses Humboldt Bay—the largest port between Portland and San Francisco Bay—and then follow highway 255 east toward Arcata. Watch for bicyclists and traffic speed patrols.

From the south, this is the most scenic route into Arcata.

Once in Arcata, turn left onto G Street at the light.

Continue north on G to the Arcata Plaza between 8th and 9th streets.

Approaching Arcata

As you travel along Highway 255, you’ll begin to see Arcata in the distance at the base of redwood covered hills, as well as some former timber mills.

With its position on Humboldt Bay, Arcata was once a major port to transport redwood lumber, as well as to provision gold mining operations in the interior mountains. This is the background of a city that is now one of the “greenest” on the planet.

Some of the more modest homes in Arcata formerly housed workers at the mills and docks.

Humboldt State University

On the hillside above Arcata, the most picturesque buildings belong to Humboldt State University, home of the Fighting Lumberjacks or just “Jacks,” whose campus contains an unusual combination of redwood groves and palm trees.

Humboldt State students enter with the highest ACT and SAT scores in the Cal State system. Many major or minor in studies related to the natural world, such as environmental science, environmental resource engineering, forestry, watershed management, fire ecology, fisheries biology, rangeland resource sciences, wildlife, and oceanography.

You wlll find more information about “HSU” below.

Arcata Community Forest

To the right of the university on the hill, the Arcata Community Forest stands proud.

The old lumber town of Arcata operates its forest by the German model with selective cutting (not clear cutting) that pays a few city bills but generally preserves the natural setting. Nevertheless, the logging of any redwood tree remains controversal in Arcata.

You can access this forest by driving east on 14th Street once in town.

Note that many trails are steep and the trees are second growth. (The property was logged before city ownership.) Although there are better trails in area state parks, heavily used and convenient trails in Arcata Community Forest do much to help keep Arcatians fit.

Arcata Plaza, 9th and G

The Arcata Plaza, the center of Arcata life, has palms and a controversial and ironic for liberal Arcata statue of William McKinley—the Republican president best known for leading the U.S. into a war with Spain, for annexing Hawaii, and for being assassinated by an anarchist while in office—that someone or another is always trying to convince the city to get rid of.

Enjoy a pleasant stroll around the Plaza, surrounded by historic buildings and great people watching. Notice that Jacoby’s Storehouse on the south side of the Plaza is not made out of wood—unusual for historic buildings in Arcata and other towns in the area.

The Plaza offers intermittent Wi-Fi reception, which seems stronger in its southwestern corner.

The term “plaza” for the central square does not mean that the Spanish founded Arcata. As Americans poured into the formally Mexican Southwest, they adopted words like plaza and rodeo, as they still do.

“It’s the last high school fiesta of the year.”
—Jeff Spicoli

Although the plaza area is generally safe, do not leave valuables visible in your vehicle or its doors unlocked.

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Special events in Arcata

Watch for special events in lively Arcata all year.

Queen of all happenings is the 42-mile “World Championship” Kinetic Sculpture Race (the link shows a video of the 2007 race, not as you might think some 1967 one, which opens with sound) from Arcata to Ferndale crossing Humboldt Bay, the mouth of the Eel River at the Pacific, and some huge sand dunes that line Humboldt Bay.

All this takes 3 days. The annual "running” takes place on the last weekend in May. The Kinetic Sculpture Race is a wild event that you will never forget!

In a race also known as the “Triathlon of the Art World,” the out-of-this-world looking or more simply built utilitarian vehicles, designed to travel on water, pavement, dirt, and sand, and to be powered only by humans, inspired “Junkyard Wars” and similar television shows.

Enjoy a large photo of one handsome entrant. All entries are powered by humans, not machines.

Bizarre as all this may seem to some people, you will seldom see such an awesome display of human creative intelligence. Considering that the U.S. Coast Guard spent some 100 million tax dollars in recent years to upgrade eight small cutters that thereafter could not operate and must be scrapped, these Kinetic folks on limited resources are doing just fine.

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What to do in Arcata all year

Arcata provides a great place to bed down for a night or more on a trip up or down the coast. See the accommodation page.

There’s much that can be done in Arcata within a short time, and this list will help you choose.

The U.S. 101 freeway bisects Arcata from south to north, which makes it easy to get around. However, knowing the politics of this city, you have to wonder how this freeway was ever pushed through town.

Arcata Chamber of Commerce, 1635 Heindon

The friendly Arcata Chamber provides Arcata visitor information and serves as the official California Welcome Center for northwestern California. Ask them anything.

To reach the center, drive north on the U.S. 101 freeway, and use the combination exit for Janes Road and Giuntoli Lane.

Drive around the roundabout (watch the yield signs) to head west over the freeway on Janes Road.

After continuing west through another roundabout, almost immediately turn left onto Heindon Road before the Quality Inn. Why the Chamber picked this difficult to access location I do not know.

Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, south end G Street

I will wager that you have never been told to visit a sewage disposal center, but that is the main function of the Arcata March and Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the most innovative such facilities in the world. Arcata goes organic even with its sewers.

You cannot tell the source of the water while there, however.

There’s an interpretative center and a variety of trails through the marsh. Click the link above to learn how the facility works.

The only downside is garbage left behind at illegal transient campsites that you may encounter, as you walk the trails through the marsh.

Arcata Community Pool, 1150 16th Street

If you and your kids enjoy swimming, you may be getting a bit stir crazy driving the redwood coast, where ocean water and air temperatures are usually too cold to swim and wherre major rivers like the Eel nearly dry up by early summer.

No worries! Arcata has a fine indoor aquatic center near downtown, with lap swimming all-day and evening and with ample times for child’s play. There’s even a waterslide to enjoy, as well as a sauna and outdoor hot tub for adults. Alternatives significantly reduce chlorine use.

Call the Arcata Community Pool, which is adjacent to the high school, at 707 822-6801 for current hours. Most mornings, the pool typically opens at 5:30 A.M., which lets you fit in a swim before getting on with your day.

Arcata City Council meetings, City Hall, 736 F Street

In 1996, Arcata became the first city in the U.S. to elect a Green Party majority. In 2007, the “Greens” regained a majority on the city council.

Even without a local Republican and Libertarian input—Republicans may be all but extinct in overwhelmingly left leaning Arcata—no known sightings recently—Arcata City Council meetings are vibrant and sometimes fun. There is usually plenty of robust input from the audience.

It is really uplifting to observe so many people participating in their local government, in contrast to so many communities. Not just in the council meetings but also in numerous city commissions, committees and taskforces.

Perhaps the most stimulating or unusual of these committee sessions, which are also open to the public, are the

  • Democracy and Corporations Committee, rather a stacked deck that helps keep Wal-Mart and other national chains out of town, but also decimates the local sales tax base, 
  • Homeless Services Plan Task Force, an infamous body that has often descended to near anarchy,
  • Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission, and
  • Planning Commission, frequently active as Arcata struggles to provide more housing in a “Let’s limit growth environment.”

For a complete list, see Part 8: Humboldt and Mendocino counties in depth.

Council meetings are usually held on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 7 P.M., but special meetings may also be scheduled. Call 707 822-5953 to confirm dates and times.

These meetings are terrific for teenagers studying civics, but NOTE! some parents may find that the language used by a few audience members during heated arguments unsuitable for their children.

Arcata Eye newspaper

2014 Update: Sadly, the "Eye" has closed upon the retirement of its editor.

The Eye was the quintessential muckraking small town newspaper and I enjoyed it immensely.

Farmers Market on the Plaza, 9th and G

On Saturday mornings usually from mid-April into mid-November from 9 a.m to 2 p.m., perhaps the largest mostly organic farmers market in the nation sets up on the Plaza often with entertainment.

The local climate is positively ideal for providing produce for this venue. More than 100 local farms participate at some point during the season.

Golden Harvest Cafe, 1062 G Street

You’ll find this beloved Arcata restaurant just north of the Plaza.

Although not gourmet, the Golden Harvest Cafe serves delicious veggie and non-veggie food for breakfast and lunch in a venue that "says" Arcata. The link goes to a review of Golden Harvest.

Both locals and Humboldt State University students pack the seats.

Humboldt Crabs baseball, 9th and F

Humboldt County residents love their oldest continuously operating collegiate summer baseball team in the country. See link for schedule.

As a semi-pro team, the Humboldt Crabs allows players to show off to the minors and majors.

The atmosphere in the tobacco-free stadium is pure Americana. The “Crab Grass Band” entertains at many games.

Humboldt State University, LK Wood Blvd., north of 14th

Humboldt State University dominates the town, but also attracts some controversy.

One of the latest spates involves what many call the ugly new welcoming gates, one of which is on LK Wood Boulevard, just north of 14th Street.

These gates, some say, with their rather unappealing color (which hopefully will fade) do not really match the mission-style architecture of Founder’s Hall, the most beloved building on campus, as was promised.

Judge for yourself, as you have a pleasant walk around the central campus.

Humboldt State University, with its position above Arcata overlooking the bay and with its Mediterranean-style buildings set among other styles in redwoods and palms, bears a striking resemblance to the UC Berkeley campus on a smaller scale.

Directions to Humboldt State University

As you head north on G Street in Arcata, take the exit marked “Humboldt State University,” which leads you straight onto LK Wood Boulevard and past the new welcome gate.

Turn right off LK Wood onto Plaza Avenue, although you may have to find parking elsewhere.

At the library, walk east from the end of Plaza Avenue. In other words, walk as if Plaza Avenue continued in the same direction.

In the distance directly ahead of you, the bookstore at the University Center has great souvenirs, including a large selection of Humboldt State psychedelic t-shirts, which somehow seem totally appropriate in this town.

You willl find Founders Hall in back of the bookstore.

Mad River County Beach

Although it usually lacks warm beach weather (to put it mildly), Arcata has a pleasant natural beach, the Mad River County Beach at the mouth of the Mad River.

From the corner of Janes Road and Heindon Lane (see the Arcata Chamber of Commerce above), head north on Heindon. Turn left on Miller Lane. Then go north on Mad River Road. Carefully follow Mad River Road as it changes directions several times on its way to the beach.

From the parking area, walk over the dunes to the beach. Please avoid stepping on plant life.

The dunes line the coast all the way down to Humboldt Bay.

Mosgo’s Coffee House, 2461 Alliance Road

Nonprofit Mosgo’s Coffee House, an Internet cafe in the Westwood Center, offers free Wi-Fi access and inexpensive beverages and snacks, including delicious hot apple cider.

In my opinion, this very friendly spot provides the best place for free Wi-Fi in Arcata.

With live music several nights a week, you may find Mosgo’s less crowded during the day. Call 707 826-1195 for hours.

From the Plaza, drive west on 9th Street, then north on K Street, which veers left onto Alliance Road at 13th Street. The Westwood strip mall and Mosgo’s will pop up on your left.

Go on to Part 8: Humboldt and Mendocino counties in depth for more information about this area.

Or, go on to Part 9: Arcata to Redwood National Park, and continue your redwoods and Mendocino scenic drive!

Mendocino scenic drive space bar

Part 1: Redwood and Mendocino scenic drive introduction,
Part 2: Directions from San Francisco to Mendocino,
Part 3: Mendocino scenic drive,
Part 4: Avenue of the Giants scenic drive,
Part 5: Avenue of the Giants scenic drive (continued),
Part 6: Scenic drive from Avenue of the Giants to Arcata,
Part 7: Arcata travel guide – what to do,
Part 8: Humboldt and Mendocino counties in depth,
Part 9: Scenic drive from Arcata to Redwood National Park,
Part 10: From Redwood National Park to San Francisco,
Part 11: Motels and hotels along your redwood scenic drive,
Part 12: Camping along your redwood scenic drive, and
Part 13: Mendocino and Redwood parks airport choices.


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