This Coastal California Getaway Is the Big Sur You Haven’t Heard of . . . Yet
While the Mendocino Complex Fire ravaged parts of California, this transporting Mendocino coastal community was untouched, affording visitors a step-back-in-time retreat to get away from it all.
Sadly, California has made headlines this year for its record-breaking fire season: The Mendocino Complex Fire, which burned through more than 459,000 acres, was the largest fire in state history. However, despite the disaster’s name, little of the fire affected Mendocino County itself (instead, it was concentrated in a more remote part of the state, encompassing Lake, Colusa, and Glenn counties, as well as a less-populated section of Mendocino County). For travelers wanting to explore this section of the Northern California coastline, businesses along the Mendocino coast remain mercifully unaffected by the fires, and the air quality is clear. In fact, visiting right now and giving a boost to the tourism industry is one of the best ways to help out the local economy.
In particular, one town on Mendocino’s south coast is worth visiting now more than ever: the progressive, close-knit community of artists and craftspeople found at Elk. Located roughly 150 miles north of San Francisco and 15 miles south of the town of Mendocino, this once-bustling, late 19th-century logging settlement is today one of the smallest enclaves along the Northern California coast, with just 250 residents.
Despite its small size, Elk has it all: driftwood-strewn beaches, art galleries, world-class dining—only without the hype of other coastal towns like Mendocino and Big Sur.
Situated on a secluded stretch of Highway 1, where the Navarro River spills into the Pacific, Elk’s vistas are composed of hilly pastures and redwood forest on one side and ocean bluffs and boundless shoreline on the other. This wild, rugged place—also known by its original name, Greenwood—is a step-back-in-time locale where residents still give out their phone numbers as four digits, where cell phone and internet service is spotty, and where urban dwellers can go to truly escape from it all (one of the last such seaside escapes set within driving distance of the Bay Area—albeit at three hours–plus of drive time, along sometimes winding roads). Despite its small size, Elk has it all: driftwood-strewn beaches, art galleries, world-class dining—only without the hype of other coastal towns like Mendocino and Big Sur.
Even with its charmingly slow pace, Elk has received an infusion of fresh energy over the last year, thanks to a handful of new businesses that have debuted (along with more slated for 2019). Here’s what to expect of the new additions to town, as well as a primer on things to do to truly reboot during a break in Elk.
What to Do in Elk
The biggest attraction in town is Greenwood State Beach, a top spot for boating, fishing, diving, kayaking, and beach walks. It’s accessible via a half-mile trail down to the Pacific-fronting shores, a favorite stretch for beachcombing treasures like sea urchin, abalone shells, and driftwood. Or stick to the top of the bluff, where picnic benches boast clear views of the ocean’s scenic rock arches and sea stacks.
Also worth a peek is the Greenwood Museum and Visitor Center. Occupying part of the town’s original late 19th-century post office, it features photographs of early settlers, lumber camp artifacts, period furnishings, and a mural that depicts Elk’s Greenwood Wharf as it stood in the 1800s.
Where to Shop in Elk
The Artist’s Collective in Elk showcases fine art from a group of some 30 Mendocino-area artists. Get a sense of the local arts scene here while chatting with one of the collective’s artists on duty.
Or try Matson Mercantile (dubbed “The Merc” by locals), which sells everything from housewares and loose-leaf teas to gardening tools and hardware supplies. It’s owned by the Matsons, a family that’s been involved in the Elk community for well over 100 years.
View this post on Instagram If you’ve been to the old Elk Garage office, you will be impressed to see what Mike and crew did to reimagine and renovate for the @matsonmercantile. The Merc is looking beautiful and filling up with all sorts of great hardware, home, and garden products! #elkgarage #elkcalifornia #themerc #renovation #makeover #shoplocal #familybusiness A post shared by Matson Mercantile (@matsonmercantile) on Jan 7, 2018 at 3:58pm PST
Where to Eat in Elk
At the new Restaurant at the Harbor House, chef Matthew Kammerer (formerly executive sous chef at the Michelin three-starred Saison in San Francisco) serves a tasting menu that highlights the hyperlocal ingredients of Mendocino’s south coast (an à la carte lunch option has recently debuted, too). Kammerer and his team harvest sea lettuces, kelp, and ocean water daily to make compound butters, breads, broths, and sea salt. With his elemental, naturalistic cuisine—made entirely from ingredients sourced within 50 miles—the chef is single-handedly putting Elk on the dining map. The equally ambitious beverage program focuses on handcrafted, small-production wines, ciders, and beers, highlighting many from California’s nearby Anderson Valley.
Queenie’s Roadhouse Cafe is Elk’s main breakfast and lunch hangout. Once a livery stable and Studebaker showroom, its current old-school diner incarnation is filled with teal and yellow Formica tables, a wood-burning stove, and vintage photographs lining the walls. While locals favor the homemade corned beef hash and patty melt, healthy options like organic vegan tofu veggie stir-fry also make the menu. Don’t leave without ordering one of the flaky fruit scones, which chef and owner Lynn Derrick (better known as “Queenie”) bakes fresh daily.
At Greenwood Pier Restaurant, which reopened in May following renovations inside the soon-to-debut Greenwood Pier Inn, chef Brian Tingle offers a rotating menu of budget-friendly, boarding house-style dinners. Grab a table by the window and make your way through the $19.95 four-course menu, which might include salad, soup, roast chicken with linguine and vegetables, and a vanilla Napoleon for dessert, as it did on one recent night.
For a quick hit, The Elk Store sells groceries, coffee, locally made condiments, and baked goods sourced from nearby bakeries. It’s particularly beloved for its made-to-order sandwiches, like the “Albion,” a sandwich starring a vegan sunflower seed “cutlet,” and the “Torta,” made with house-smoked tri-tip. The wine section is just as tempting, with its wide selection of Anderson Valley wines.
Where to Stay in Elk
Perched on a secluded bluff, the historic, 102-year-old, craftsman-style Harbor House Inn, designed by notable architect Louis Christian Mullgardt, was once a posh private home that’s since been transformed into a luxury inn. Following eight years of extensive renovations, it reopened for business this summer with five guest rooms and four cottage suites. The five-acre property includes an outdoor patio with ocean views, as well as gardens, orchards, a waterfall, and a private beach for guests’ use.
Another option is the Elk Cove Inn & Spa, a bed-and-breakfast set within a craftsman-style mansion dating to 1883. This pet-friendly inn boasts a breakfast buffet, complimentary happy hour each afternoon, a spa that features organic oils and salts, and private stairs to access a quiet stretch of beach in the cove below.