Saturday, February 27, 2016


A journey back to the earliest days of road travel

With the advent of the automobile almost a century ago, the opportunity for folks to explore the nation grew exponentially.  No longer would a trip to Yellowstone or Yosemite involve securing camping tarps to buckboards and locking down the homestead for three or four months.  Crude emigrant trails became rustic roads that would evolve into concreted (and numbered) highways.  The spectacular red rock country of Utah would be but a few days’ drive from almost anywhere.  Likewise the Grand Canyon and the Tetons, the Great Lakes and the Great Smokies.  And California’s redwoods.

(c) Benbow Inn
In those early days, lodging may still have been strapped to the Hupmobile’s bonnet or pulled behind as an early travel trailer.  But soon, enterprising folks dotted the west with elegant hostelries offering sophisticated accommodations and fine dining in some of the most remote corners of our land. 

Over time, things would continue to evolve and routes like the old US 40 over Donner Pass would become Interstate 80 and those elegant inns would fall into disrepair as motel chains with numerals in their names offered much less for much less.

Still, some of the grand hotels of the early twentieth century still stand – a few refurbished to reassume their former glory.

How many times had I cruised north on US 101 passing the Benbow Exit just south of Garberville and said to myself, “I’ve gottta check that out?”  The answer?  Too many.

A period neon sign pokes through the trees where US 101 crosses the south fork of the Eel River.  The sign simply says “Benbow Inn” and is laced with an arrow pointing toward a 20s era hotel perched on a flat above the confluence of the south fork and its east branch tributary.  It’s easy to fly by the exit.  Try not to.

Designed by Albert Farr, a Julia Morgan contemporary, and completed in 1926, the Benbow Hotel became a popular wayside for those traveling the new Redwood Highway between San Francisco and Eureka.  (Ms. Morgan designed and built her little haven just down stream – tours are available.)

Entering the heavily timbered lobby, we are informed that tea and scones are offered: “Please relax and the bell will carry your bags to your room.”  Glancing through the shadows of the vast room, simple pleasures and ornate works combine to beckon the road weary to rest: soft chairs, a welcoming fire, and that tea.

A great and elegant dining room affords views of the river and a bridge.  A varied and inviting menu complements those views, as does an extensive, multinational wine list.  The service from staff recalls the earlier era as well.  With the first sip of a north coast Pinot, we downshifted into a relaxation mode that wouldn’t leave us even two days later as we departed.

Across the historic lobby is an even-on-a-February-Thursday hoppin’ saloon with a large selection of spirits and warm vibe.  Stepping out onto the patio with a little nip of really good hooch, it is easy to imagine yourself engaged in conversation with Spencer Tracy, Alan Ladd or even Herbert Hoover or Eleanor Roosevelt as a full moon dances across the waters only a few yards away.

Early on, energy for the enterprise was provided by a small hydroelectric facility built just below the confluence.  A concrete, steel and wooden structure tamed this small section of the Eel.  The pool backed up both the south fork and the tributary forming what became known as Benbow Lake.

Likewise in 1931, a modern rock and concrete bridge spanned the becalmed east branch, it’s lovely arch accenting the stream view from the terraced hillside upon which the old hotel sits.  Just add a canoe and, say, a Mountie. (Yes, Nelson Eddy once stayed here.)

The desk clerk shares directions to interesting walks in and near the grounds adding, “This is one of those places where you could do absolutely nothing for a few days and not feel at all guilty about it.”

Indeed: the comfortable, historic rooms, the crackling fire in the lobby, the manicured grounds edging a whispering Eel River – it takes little imagination to feel you’ve shucked your 1920s duster, taking a break from the old redwood highway, and if you never got back on that highway, it’d be more than okay to stay right here.



The historic hydro dam was breached about a decade ago owing to both fishery and seismic concerns.  It is scheduled to be imploded sometime during the summer of 2016.  Understandable, but too bad.  The relic, as it sits now, is a fitting testament to the ingenuity of those pioneers of tourism early last century.  The dam site is a short walk from the Inn.

A fine day may be spent enjoying the redwood groves and trails along the famed Avenue of the Giants, about a dozen miles north on US 101, using the Inn as a home base.  Sojourning so is highly recommended.

The Benbow Inn website contains details about the old gal’s colorful history and its impact on the region.  Accommodations. Prices and menus are listed.  It may be accessed at:

© 2106
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. Looks like an awesome vintage hotel. Would love to take a road trip there