From atop Fernbridge, crossing the Eel River, you see pasturelands bounded by fences. Dotted here and there are barns and farm buildings. Grazing cattle are busy turning green grass and grain into milk and cheese. The cows are Ferndale’s stock-in-trade, milk on the hoof. There are small historical family-run farms; others are part of larger creamery operations. All are the backbone of Cream Town, or Ferndale, California.
When founders Willard Allard, Seth Shaw, and Stephen Shaw first canoed through the river, creeks, and wetlands of the valley, it was covered with tree ferns. Those prehistoric-looking plants must have been the inspiration for Ferndale’s name.
The ambitious men believed the land to be perfect for farming. So they cleared and settled what is now Ferndale. Other European immigrants came to the region and established farms and dairies.
Ferndale was founded in 1852. Coincidentally, the California Gold Rush had started in 1848. San Francisco needed food for the thousands of people sailing into San Francisco Bay, hoping to strike rich in the Sierra goldfields.
To feed the city’s hoards, Ferndale’s produce was taken to Centerville. After that, it was transferred to ships offshore then sailed south to San Francisco’s hungry gold miners. Known as Cream City, the dairy produced by Ferndale farmers was in demand and continues to be sought-after today.
1. Meet The People
Ferndale is the friendliest small town in northern California. The population of just over 1,300 are hard-working, tenacious individuals. You will be welcomed with warm greetings by folks that love to share their story and the story of Ferndale’s “never say die” spirit.
The village sits at the juncture of three tectonic plates. As a result, Ferndale, one of the most active earthquake zones in the U.S., is infamous for shaking, rocking, and rolling. Add to that forest fires that have burned through the region’s vast redwood and conifer stands. This valley has experienced natural disasters, recovered, and rebuilt — never giving up.
2. Visit Victorian Masterpieces
Ferndale is a bit like a Victorian architecture museum. Painstakingly maintained, Ferndale has one of the largest collections of Victorians in California. Locally called Butterfat Palaces, most buildings were built in the Victorian era from the wealth made from dairies and creameries.
Most folks think of the gingerbread-painted ladies like the aptly named Gingerbread Mansion. It was built in 1899 by physician Hogan Ring to be his family home and medical offices. The front is a Queen Ann style with touches of Eastlake. Additions in the back that became a hospital are serviceable and straightforward.
See the Gingerbread Mansion and many others while walking around the Victorian village of Ferndale — they are all over.
To get started, I suggest the Main Street Walking Tour, an easy five-block walk. I think it works best if you walk down one side on Main, then at the end, cross the street and walk back to the start. Take your time, stop, and admire the homes that attract you. Don’t be surprised if someone comes to the gate to say hello and tell you the history of their beloved Victorian home.
Find a map and legend for the Main Street Walking Tour and a Ferndale Driving Tour on the back page of The Ferndale Enterprise, Souvenir Edition. Feel free to wander up and down the streets of Ferndale. Don’t worry, you won’t get lost, it’s a tiny town.
3. Parks, Parks, And More Parks
The village of Ferndale has three parks within its city limits. Then there are the colossal state and national parks that cover the region.
Called “Ferndale’s Nature Preserve,” this 105-acre park is home to flora and fauna native to this part of northern California. Several hiking and biking trails offer an outing for folks of all abilities. Look for a map noting trail length and altitude gain at the trailhead.
Russ Park is peaceful. Bird songs echo throughout the forest. You’ll encounter the occasional hikers and it can be a bit damp when the fog moves in. Dress in layers and wear sturdy walking or hiking shoes. I found a lightweight rain-resistant jacket was handy. In summer, be prepared for biting insects. In all seasons, be on the lookout for wildlife. These woodlands are their home.
Fireman’s Park is where Ferndale hosts team sports like baseball and soccer. In addition, you will find bocce ball lanes, a kid’s playground, and a lively community center. All are welcome to watch a game or join a community event. If you’d like to try bocce for yourself, walk down the hill to J&W Liquors on Main Street. There you can rent a Bocce set — $5 for the day. What a bargain.
City Hall Park
City Hall Park is a triangular park; Main Street runs along one side. There are beautiful flower gardens, benches, and green lawns. A gazebo shelters a plaque honoring Ferndale “for their innovative and lasting contributions to the dairy industry and their role as a transportation and shipping center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” (A complete list of historic markers, purpose, and locations can be found here.)
Parks Surrounding Ferndale
To the east of Ferndale are redwood and conifer forests. Millions of acres of wilderness are part of national and state park systems. The activities and experiences will immerse you in northern California’s most treasured jewel — redwoods.
4. Find Ferndale Museum
Small town museums are treasure chests. Ferndale Museum is precisely that. The history of this farming region is proudly exhibited. High-quality dairy and abundant timber became industries. Communities grew and prospered. Many innovations got their start in Ferndale. Logging, dairy, and transportation benefitted.
Displays of milking equipment show innovations that changed the way farmers worked. Intermingled are artifacts from the lumber industry, including a slice from a giant redwood. Its rings are studded with labels indicating significant events through the ages.
5. Admire A Memorial Garden
Ferndale Historic Cemetery is a landscaped garden with native plants and trees. Among the flora are the final resting places of local families. Beginning at the gate, a block off Main past the Victorian Inn, the climb to the highest point of the cemetery is worth the effort for the panoramic view of Ferndale.
6. Find A Quilt
Like all pioneer communities, quiltmaking has a strong history in Ferndale. The local quilter’s guild has painted quilt blocks on some of the basin’s historic barns.
The Barn Quilt Trail is accessible by car or bicycle. The track takes you into the countryside, searching for barns displaying a quilt block. As you meander, you’ll see cows, calves, sheep, and maybe lamas.
The displayed quilt block was selected by the barn’s owner. The blocks honor Ferndale founders and the land. The Redwood Empire’s Quilter’s Guild paints the colorful patterns on the barns.
7. Hang Out Under A Bridge
The “Queen of Bridges,” as Fernbridge is known, is the gateway to Ferndale. Built in 1911, it is the longest-operating poured-concrete bridge in the world.
A dirt road turnoff leads to a parking area on the southeast side of the bridge. From there, you can walk and explore the riverbanks.
Pro Tip: This is not a swimming or fishing area, so stay on dry land. However, it’s a photographer’s dream. When there is no wind, the sunrise can yield a spectacular reflection of the bridge crossing the Eel River.
8. Do Some Main Street Shopping
Explore Golden Gait Mercantile, a general store from the olden days. You will easily spend a couple of hours at the Mercantile. Be transported to your childhood through the toys, candy, and wooden floors.
It’s a bit of a museum with displays of vintage merchandise. I went home “over packed” after seeing local canned fruits and veggies. I didn’t wait until I got home to open the pickles.
Ring’s Rexall is California’s oldest drugstore. Come here to fill a prescription, pick up that forgotten shampoo, find a postcard, or add to your cookie jar collection. Ring’s is a general store and a pharmacy.
9. Watch A Sunset On The Beach
Twenty minutes from downtown Ferndale is a long, lazy, sand beach. Centerville Beach County Park is a great place to enjoy the sunset, birding, or beachcombing. Off-road parking is available, but no facilities, so bring your picnic and beverage and sip the sun down.
A car is almost essential when touring Ferndale. When you stay in town, you can walk to most of my suggestions. But getting there will require wheels; Ferndale is off the beaten path. The drive either from the north or south is part of the experience as you pass through miles and miles of redwood and conifer forests.
From Highway 101, take State Highway 211, cross the Eel river over Fernbridge and drive directly to Ferndale. Stop along the way when you see “scenic drive” or “scenic overlook” signs. They are all spectacular.
Ferndale gets my vote for the friendliest town in northern California. Easy-going locals welcome everyone to their charming Victorian village.
Only touching on things to do in Ferndale, there’s historic Victorian lodging, camping, glamping, a repertory theater, parades, festivals, exceptional eateries, hiking, kayaking, birding, forest bathing, and much more for you to explore.
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