Wild and Wet Winter: Top Five Winter Activities for Outdoor Enthusiasts
The rugged coastline of Del Norte County has been hammered into shape by a thousand winters’ pounding surf and pouring rain, its landscape sliced and slivered by fierce, frothing rivers and waves of cascading runoff.
Every winter, this wet, wild landscape lures thrill seekers and nature lovers alike to Del Norte County to see and experience the awesome power of Mother Nature in action. Whether by paddling the roaring, swollen waters of the Smith River or catching a glimpse of a majestic gray whale passing through on its annual 6,000-mile swim to Mexico, winter in Del Norte County brings out the unspoiled beauty and raw adventure of life where the redwoods meet the sea. Here are five of the best ways to experience the exhilaration of winter in Del Norte County:
1. Paddle Ferocious Winter Whitewater
Any true whitewater lover or adrenaline addict should make a pilgrimage to the Smith River, the largest undammed river in California. This crystal-clear river flows freely with the ebb and flow of rainwater, swelling riotously in the winter to create a path of rapids that are never the same twice. Paddle a section twice or twenty times and you will navigate new boulder gardens and discover new rapid formations each time. As the water level rises from winter rains, paddlers can explore the heart of the forest through the many seasonal creeks that sprout from the river. The Smith’s three forks snake through the pristine Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park for an unparalleled forest view, if you can take your eyes off of the churning rapids long enough to take a look!
2. Swing a Fly or Cast a Line for Salmon and Steelhead Trout
As the temperature drops and the water level rises, the Smith and Klamath rivers will become choked with the slick, shiny bodies of salmon and steelhead trout packed shoulder-to-shoulder as they fight their way upstream to spawn. The Smith River is the only river in California where you can keep a native steelhead, a testament to the careful habitat management has made Del Norte County one of the premier salmon and steelhead fishing spots in California. In fact, the largest steelhead ever caught was nabbed in the Smith River, weighing in at a whopping 27 pounds, 4 ounces! In the neighboring Klamath River, the steelhead tend to be smaller, but they make up for their size in sheer numbers. The smaller fish pack the river to the gills each winter, creating a utopia for fly fishermen and ultra-light gear enthusiasts on the Klamath’s lower forks. While planning your trip, make sure to be informed about local and state regulations and required licensing.
3. Spot Gray Whales on their Annual Migration
As the weather turns cold each year, thousands of gray whales swim more than 6,000 miles from the chilly waters of Alaska’s Bering and Chukchi Seas to give birth and seek mates in the warm lagoons of Baja California. The whales log an incredible 80 miles each day during their trip, eating little and seldom resting. These gentle giants are usually spotted less than five miles offshore from Crescent City and are easily identifiable by their distinctive V-shaped spout. Whale watching season in Crescent City peaks in late December and early January as the whales pass by on their journey, and then again in late March as they head back up to Alaska. For the best chance of glimpsing a gray whale, grab a pair of binoculars and be on the lookout in the morning or early afternoon, when the sun is at your back. Curious and playful, gray whales will often pop their heads out of water to take a look around or dive down quickly with a dramatic flourish of the tail.
4. Ride Wild Winter Waves
Legend has it that the wetsuit was invented on Crescent City’s famous South Beach, where the water temperature rarely hits the 60-degree mark. Brave the chilly winter waters, however, and you will be generously rewarded with consistent swells and empty beaches well worth the price of a few goosebumps. The cool waters off of Del Norte County have lured surfers north since the sport’s inception, with surfers from novices to pros drawn to the widely varied coastline of Del Norte County. Beginners can get their feet wet on the forgiving waves at downtown’s South Beach, while more experienced surfers can try out the prime winter swells that break at Garth’s Reef or Point St. George.
5. Hunt for Morals and Matsutake on the Forest Floor
Peer into the damp shadows of any forest in Del Norte County during the winter and you will probably see a few people picking their way slowly through the lush undergrowth far off any trail, baskets on their arms and noses nearly touching the ground. These intrepid forest sleuths are hunting for edible mushrooms, which thrive in the thick, wet layer of dirt and decaying vegetation that blankets the forest floors. Hidden within this loose layer of earth, a thick, cobweb-like mass called a mycelium is the primary body of the fungus; the occasional mushroom that pops up through the dirt carries the organism’s reproductive spores. Mushrooms come in a rainbow of colors, sizes, shapes, smells and—most importantly—tastes, and the hope of bringing home a hand-picked tasty treat is what sends determined mushroom hunters into the wet forests each winter.
Chanterelles, boletes, chicken of the woods, honey, morels, oysters, matsutake, corals, bear’s head and many other varieties of mushrooms all flourish in Del Norte County, but many inedible and toxic mushrooms grow here as well, so don’t eat any mushrooms you cannot identify with certainty.