Miles of epic sand dunes seem like something you’re more likely to find in the desert than on Northern California’s lush redwood coast. Surprise! One of the most spectacular expanses of sand-scape you’ll ever see is in Humboldt County, just minutes by car from Old Town Eureka. The Ma-le’l Dunes North are part of the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge: 260 acres of forest, dune, and salt marsh. They’re reached only by hiking in from the parking area.
The short journey to the dunes takes you through a diverse habitat of lichen-draped forest and lush wetlands. You’ll be exploring an ancient area of land used by the Wiyot people for hunting and gathering (Wiyot people today are actively helping to protect this precious landscape). From the parking area, follow the Tsoutsgish Trail with the forest on one side and the Mad River Slough on the other. Within about a quarter mile, take the Dap Loop Trail (signed) and follow it out to the dunes, a massive area of open sand and, in all likelihood, no people … just footprints. You may feel like you’re walking on another planet.
Technically you are on the Hout Trail, and flag markers help for navigation; but a rule of thumb is head straight, out to the grassy, wind-sculpted foredunes decked in coastal wildflowers. Spur trails meander all the way to the beach for more dramatic scenery of the Pacific and its moody waters. Return the way you came, or traverse south directly across the dunes to the Kimuk Trail to make a lollipop loop of about 3 miles. Been there, dune that!
Here’s a map to the parking area of Ma-le’l Dunes North. Pick up an area map and get trail information at the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center. They have all the beta on the surrounding area and dunes. Also, you can only access the parking area for the Ma-le’l Dunes North from Friday to Monday. Tuesday through Thursday the access road is closed. No dogs.
STAY & EAT: Eureka has a great old town with lots of good dining options, including Lost Coast Brewery (the Fogcutter Double IPA is a must-try). For something smaller and more romantic, Brick & Fire is tucked in a neighborhood, has a wood-fired oven, artisan pizzas, and a stellar wine list, including Super Tuscans. Here’s more lodging information and planning.
SCENIC DRIVE BONUS: About an hour south of Eureka take the scenic route into the heart of Humboldt County! The Avenue of the Giants goes through Humboldt Redwoods State Park for nearly 32 marvelous miles. There are multiple places to pull off for hikes and explorations in redwood groves. Do not miss Founder’s Grove, where a 0.5-mile walk takes you around to some of the most impressive trees on earth, including the Dyerville Giant, a fallen behemoth and ancient relic that’s 362 feet in length, and weighs about 1,000,000 pounds. Yowza!