For the past few years, around Thanksgiving time, I made the trek up to Mendocino National Forest from the Bay Area.
I went back up there recently with my boyfriend. He was the first person to take me camping in that forest about three years ago. Back then, I was pretty new to California and hadn’t done anything really outdoorsy since I was kid. But I moved to the Bay Area because of its beauty, and Mendocino was new and exciting to me.
We drove down red-clay dirt roads, through quiet green meadows surrounded by tall mountains and found a clearing in a secluded part of the woods to camp. We also began a new tradition for us: cutting down one of the forest’s small pine trees to use as a Christmas tree at home.
Since then, I’ve been to this forest at least half a dozen times. I’ve solo camped. I've taken friends and family. I even got my car stuck out there once on an off-highway vehicle road and had to backpack 12 miles to the forest’s main road where I eventually hitchhiked to the town of Upper Lake. That’s a story for another time. You could say I’ve had some real California experiences there.
So I felt crushed this past summer when I first heard that Mendocino National Forest was on fire.
Over the course of days, and then weeks, I saw the Mendocino Complex Fire slowly consume parts of the forest I knew well: the main road we first drove down, the hiking trail at Deafy Glade, and my favorite campground, Letts Lake.
The Mendocino Complex Fire ended up becoming the largest wildfire on record in California. It burned more than 450,000 acres. To give you some perspective, that’s about the size of all of Contra Costa County. Most of this massive wildfire burned inside of Mendocino National Forest.
But last month a small part of the forest that was in the fire zone reopened to the public. On the first free weekend I had off, my boyfriend and I drove up.
Returning to the Fire Zone
We enter on the Southwestern end of the forest, near the town of Potter Valley. It’s a place we've been to before and it largely looks the same. The forest floor is covered in dry, golden grass and the Manzanita, oak trees and baby pines that line the road seem alive and well.
We pass the old Soda Creek Store, where I once tried to pet the store owner’s dog, and the one dirt landing strip of the Gravelly Valley Airport. We stop at one of the only open campgrounds to eat lunch and look at the map.
We settle on trying out some new areas of the forest we’ve never been to before: Little Round Mountain and Hull Mountain. And after gathering our bearings, we head north.
It’s not long before we see the forest has changed. We drive across what looked like a fire break where bushes and trees had been cut down, lying on the side of the road. And then we pass an entire section of forest where the trees look like black sticks. Some of them still have shriveled up, burned leaves on them.
It's eerie and sad to see a large part of the forest like this.
But as we start to climb up Hull Mountain things begin to change. The fire didn't get this far, and I can't stop commenting on just how beautiful the landscape is. It’s fall, so the dark-green mountainside is dotted with patches of red and yellow.
We drive to the peak, where it's windy and get out to take in the view.
The view here is breathtaking. I can see nearly all of what the fire took away, but I also see what's left, too: miles of gorgeous, untouched wilderness.
It was heartbreaking to see parts of the forest I love blackened and dead. But if it wasn't for the wildfire, I never would have discovered the beauty that the rest of Mendocino National Forest has to offer.
If there's one thing I know for sure from reporting on wildfires, it's that the natural landscape that burned in the forest, the places that I hold dear, will come back healthier and stronger.