The most attractive and enjoyable town on the far north coast of California, Arcata (pop. 17,231) makes the best first (or last, depending upon the direction you’re traveling) overnight stop south of the Oregon border. The presence of Humboldt State University’s campus on the hills above US-101 accounts for the town’s youthful, nonconformist energy. Cafés, bookstores, bars, and crafts shops surround the lively Arcata Plaza, two blocks west of US-101 at 9th and G Streets, incongruously graced by palm trees and a statue of President McKinley. The Utne Reader once rated Arcata as the most enlightened town in California. Spending even a little time in this vibrant, cooperative Ecotopia may make you wonder whether or not you really do have to race back to the big-city 9-to-5 grind.

You can admire the town’s many elaborate Victorian-era cottages, hunt wild mushrooms, clamber over sand dunes, or hike in the redwoods. Afterward, relax with a cup of tea or, better yet, a soak in a hot tub at homey Café Mokka (495 J St., 707/822-2228), the coast’s only combo sauna and espresso bar. Just off the plaza, Jambalaya Arcata (915 H St., 707/822-4766) is a nightclub serving burgers, pizza, microbrew beers, and, of course, jambalaya. More good food, good beer, and good live music are on the menu at the popular “HumBrews,” a.k.a. the Humboldt Brews (856 10th St., 707/826-2739). For a complete selection of foodstuffs and supplies, and more insight into the local community, head to the large and stylish North Coast Co-op (811 I St.), a block north of the plaza.

For a place to stay, the centrally located Hotel Arcata (708 9th St., 707/826-0217 or 800/344-1221, $97 and up) is right on the plaza, or you can take your pick of the usual motels along US-101.

Map of Pacific Coast through Northern California.
Map of Pacific Coast through Northern California.