Exploring northern California

16:00, Oct 11 2011
WAVE GOODBYE: Riding on the beach near Fort Bragg.
WAVE GOODBYE: Riding on the beach near Fort Bragg.

Arriving into the northern California town of Mendocino in a bright red Smart car is a little like landing in a miniaturised Tardis, such is the curiosity it garners.

"What is that thing, a rollerskate?" one local chuckles, while a weathered, ratty-haired woman dressed in a felt coat, ugg boots and a red sequinned scarf circles my rental vehicle whispering, "Whooooaaaa!", clearly having some sort of acid flashback.

Born in the logging heyday of the 1860s but peaking in the 1960s when it was rediscovered by Bohemian artists, Mendocino, three hours' drive north of San Francisco, is a town frozen in time.

With pastel chocolate-box houses and wooden water towers, this quaint village perched on a peninsula overlooking the wild, woolly Pacific Ocean is seemingly uprooted from east coast Maine, impossibly endearing and as pretty as a Hollywood set.

It seems fitting, then, in this outpost of fewer than 1000 permanent residents, that I am temporarily trading in the Smart car for a more timeless form of transport - the four-legged variety.

I have been lured here by the reputation of Ricochet Ridge Ranch, widely considered among the equestrian community as one of the premier trek operators in the world, as well as by the promise of riding both on the beach and through the redwood forests that are so symbolic of this region.


With the afternoon sun victorious after a squally start to the day, it's the former attraction that Ricochet's owner, Lari Shea, is anxious for me to experience first.

"Quick, let's get you to the beach while this weather lasts," Lari, distinctively clad in red western shirt and cowboy hat, says as she greets me in the lobby of the Mendocino Hotel, my accommodation for the next few nights.

She then whisks me off to her stables 16 kilometres north in Fort Bragg. En route, this energetic, glowingly beautiful, 66-year-old dynamo shares a potted history of her credentials as one of the US's top endurance riders.

Clearly my host is a force to be reckoned with, as well as testament to the healthy, organic lifestyle that's synonymous with the Mendocino region. At Ricochet Ridge, I am introduced to my mount for the next two days, Nightcap.

A handsome Arabian gelding, there's a happy spring to his step as he picks his way along a path in MacKerricher State Park to the nearby beach, a 16-kilometre expanse of grey sand peppered with dramatic rocks and a flubber of beached sea lions.

With the tide high and the sand deep and soft, we move along slowly at first, admiring the ocean sparkling under the setting sun; but as soon as there's ample tidal flat we pick up the pace, water splashing at our feet and wind in our hair as we gallop headlong through the breakers, whooping with delight.

For many of Lari's guests, the opportunity to ride on the beach is a dream come true, the fulfilment of childhood fantasies and the definition of true freedom. Personally, however, I am just as excited about my next adventure - a full-day trail ride through California's redwoods, the ancient giants of the flora world.

A heavy mist hangs over the Mendocino headland the following morning as I make my way to another of Lari's properties, the 146-hectare Simcha Ranch, 10 kilometres north of Ricochet Ridge.

By the time we are saddled and mounted, however, the veil has lifted to reveal a soft blue sky straddling the diamond-studded sea to the west and heavily forested mountains to the east - 30,000 hectares of unlimited riding trails, comprising both private property and the adjoining Jackson State Forest.

"I'm incredibly lucky," Lari tells me as we begin our steady climb through flower-studded meadows and along cool pine paths. "I can ride all day and never come across another person."

Instead, our riding companions are creatures of the forest: those who make their presence felt - bounding deer and soaring osprey - as well as the unseen: skunk (evidenced by a pungent aroma), black bear (fresh droppings and scratches on trees) and even a mountain lion, yowling angrily as we ride past her thicket den.

Unperturbed, Nightcap and his equine buddies forge on, pausing on ridges offering spectacular photo opportunities in every direction.

We then wind back through dark, silent cathedrals of Douglas firs laced with Spanish moss and towering redwoods, age-old sentinels of unfettered strength.

"That one's around 1500 years old," Lari says as we pause before one particular giant, its girth the size of a wheat silo. Even craning my neck I can't see its tip piercing the silver canopy; I feel like Jack standing before the mythical beanstalk. Surprisingly, tears well in my eyes as I contemplate what this single organism has survived - I never thought a tree could spark such emotion in me.

But just as impressive is Lari's string of horses - unfailingly enthusiastic and incredibly fit. Their daily workouts on these trails, Lari tells me, is the best possible training for endurance racing.

At any given opportunity, they break into a canter to surge uphill; and as we pause to let them catch their breath, Lari produces an important accessory for endurance competitors - a stethoscope.

She then teaches us how to monitor our horse's heart rate; only when it drops to below 60 beats a minute should we proceed.

Although blowing heavily after a vigorous climb, Nightcap recovers quickly. Lari's horse, Rascal, on the other hand, has been out of work and takes a little longer to cool down; so we all take the opportunity to rest, soaking up the sun's rays and enjoying the expansive views.

With at least six hours' riding every day, Lari's treks are not for inexperienced or weak-willed riders - trust me, even after one day covering about 40 kilometres, your knees will be shaky and your bum a little tender as you slide out of the saddle and onto terra firma.

But with a glass of Mendocino rose in hand, the Pacific at your feet and the warmth of a trusty steed by your side, what could be sweeter pain?

The writer was a guest of Ricochet Ridge Ranch and California Tourism.


Riding there

As well as full-day, half-day and 1½-hour beach rides, Ricochet Ridge offers a six-day Redwood Coast Riding Vacation, which starts at $US2295 ($NZ2,933). This includes accommodation at the Mendocino Hotel, Hill House Inn or similar and meals. Beach rides cost from $US45 ($NZ57), with all-day private rides costing $US295 (NZ$376).


More information

California Tourism, visitcalifornia.com.

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