The fog-shrouded town of Eureka, California, and its nearby neighbor, Arcata, were built by timber companies. Situated on the rugged northern coast, 225 mi/360 km north of San Francisco, the towns seem like outposts of civilization in the midst of the wilderness.

Many of the timber barons chose to live in Eureka, and it shows: The town has a good collection of Victorian architecture, with the most opulent (some might say gaudy) example being the Carson Mansion. It has become one of the most photographed Victorian homes in the world. Photographing the three-story redwood mansion is all you'll be able to do, however. It's now the home of an exclusive club, and nonmembers are not allowed inside.

Near the Carson Mansion is Old Town, the main tourist area of Eureka, containing shops, cafes and galleries housed in buildings that were once a part of Eureka's skid row. We especially like the organic chocolates at Sjaak's.

A great treat in Eureka is dinner at the Samoa Cookhouse on Woodley Island, which is reached by the Somoa Bridge. It was originally a lumber-camp cookhouse that began serving workers in 1893. Today, it cooks up some of the same hearty food that it did in its early days. There is also a museum at the cookhouse ( Woodley Island is also home to the Table Bluff Lighthouse, built in 1892. For truly fine dining, the place to go is Restaurant 301 at The Hotel Carter in Old Town.

Humboldt County, which encompasses both Eureka and Arcata, has more artists per capita than any other county in California and a fair number of marijuana farmers as well (no direct correlation has been established). The area has something of a 1960s atmosphere, and nowhere is that more clear than in Arcata, just across the bay from Eureka. The town has one of the more left-leaning governments in the U.S. and is home to the youthful population of Humboldt State University, which specializes in forestry and environmental studies.

Not surprisingly, there have been many environmental initiatives undertaken by the town, one of which is the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. Created from a former landfill, the marsh naturally treats the town's wastewater and also serves as a haven for birds and bird-watchers. Another nearby nature area is the Lanphere-Christensen Dunes Preserve, which includes sand dunes, salt marshes and a large variety of birds.

Like Eureka, the town has a good sampling of Victorian architecture and other historic buildings: Most of them can be seen on the city's self-guided walking tour. There are eclectic shops, restaurants and bars, many of them clustered around Arcata Plaza.

The town's notorious annual event is the Kinetic Grand Championship race held on Memorial Day weekend. People-powered contraptions (call them sculptures if you will) complete a 38-mi/60-km course over three days, with the highest award going not to the winner but to the contestant who comes in closest to the middle. (Understanding the logic of the race is not as important as experiencing it but, according to the race's founders, winning and losing are both extremes, therefore perfection lies somewhere in the middle.)

There are several sights of note outside both towns. Just south of Eureka, and well worth the trip, is the pastoral Victorian town of Ferndale ( It was first settled in 1864 by Danish immigrants, and it remains a thriving small town of people who gossip on street corners and take turns shuttling kids to Future Farmers of America and 4-H meetings. Stop by the Ferndale Museum for some local history, and take time to appreciate Ferndale's striking Gingerbread Mansion, which is a popular bed-and-breakfast. Another wise stop is the Loleta Cheese Factory in Loleta, which specializes in Jersey milk cheeses.

Trinidad, 12 mi/20 km north of Arcata, is a small, picturesque village that was one of the largest towns on the coast in the mid-1800s. It has an aquarium as well as two beaches and a lighthouse. A number of sport and commercial fishing boats are based in the town.

Willow Creek, 25 mi/40 km east of Arcata, is in the Six Rivers National Forest on the border of Humboldt and Trinity counties. A center for white-water rafting, several companies offer trips on the Salmon, Trinity, Klamath, Smith and Eel rivers.

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