Arcata, California: Marching to the Beat of Its Own Drum

Story by staff writer Judy Clement Wall. Photos Copyright © Judy Clement Wall.

I’VE BEEN PUZZLING over what to say about Arcata, California, which is where I’ve stayed both times I visited Humboldt County, about 300 miles north of San Francisco.

I could call it a university town and that would be true, but also, somehow, a mischaracterization. I could call it a mountain town and that would be true too, but definitely not the whole story. I could accurately call it quaint, rustic, rugged, gorgeous, ramshackle. It’s artsy in a fine-gallery-meets-sidewalk-artist sort of way. It’s a counter-culture hippie town, full of music and bookstores, rowdy bars, serene coffee shops and wonderful restaurants featuring organic, locally grown food.

Tin Can Bookstore, Arcata, California

Tin Can is a used book store - my favorite indoor place in Arcata

It’s a friendly, earthy town that is consciously earth-friendly. I wrote about their unique marshlands. They also have, within their city limits, 2100 acres of forestland, including the Redwood Community Forest which I’ve hiked a few times now. (Hiking Trails of Humboldt, California) It’s beautiful, the trails popular with hikers, joggers, mountain bikers . . . and transients.

Arcata Redwood Forest

Arcata Redwood forest and stream

That’s another fact about Arcata. It seems to attract an eclectic sort of nomad population. I’m not sure why that is. I looked it up on the internet, and Wikitravel said, “Due to its tolerant residents, Arcata attracts a large transient population.” Fair enough. I can certainly see the attraction.

Love graffiti near Humboldt State University

Love graffiti near Humboldt State University

Everything in Arcata is walking distance from everything else in Arcata. You can easily walk from the marshlands to the forests, from the old Victorian houses (many of them Bed & Breakfasts now), to the university dorms, from the coastal outskirts of town to the plaza at Arcata’s center.

On the outskirts

Both times I’ve stayed there, the plaza buzzed with life. Students and families sit on benches or lay out on the grass. Musicians play and sing, sometimes as part of an actual show and sometimes, it seems, gathering spontaneously, bringing the air itself to life.

Downtown Arcata, The Plaza

Downtown Arcata, the plaza

I believe the magic of Arcata lies in the fact that it defies my attempts to define it. Everything I’ve said about it is accurate, and none of it quite captures the town’s spirit, its essential nature. If a town can be thought of as “indie,” Arcata is that. It is arrestingly beautiful, surprising, sleepy and kinetic. It’s an entire town, it seems to me, marching to the beat of its own drum.

Left: Sign on a water pipe store. | Right: Steps down into the forest.

I’m smitten, no doubt about it. There’s such a strong sense of place there, a sort of music that resonates in me. And that march?

It’s really much more of a dance.



Hiking Trails of Humboldt, California

Judy Clement Wall at Patrick's Point, Wedding Rock, Humboldt, California

j at Patrick's Point State Park, California


Judy Clement Wall (aka j) is a freelance writer who lives, works and plays in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s in love with the California coast; everything from combing the beaches of San Diego to hiking the coastal trails of Humboldt County. You can read and link to more of her work through her blog, Zebra Sounds.

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  2. Sounds like a lovely town. Being a foodie, I’d love to try the restaurants….but I’m also a reader! I suspect if we were there at the same time, we’d meet up at the Tin Can!

  3. Judy,
    I love to visit just this sort of town. Its sounds both fun and relaxing. What a great place to contact the peace and nature of the trails, and forest. A day spent hiking and exploring, then back to the town for a nice meal in the evening. Sounds like the perfect waltz to me!
    Your photos are great!
    I especially like the one of the backpacks and the loyal hiker’s friend, just waiting for his owner! That single picture tells a whole story all by itself! I’d love to hear it!

    • It is fun and relaxing. It has this weird kinetic sort of energy that I love. But if you want to hang out, lie on the grass, sip wine or coffee at the cafe, listen to street music… it’s perfect for that too. I think the hippie in me is drawn to Arcata.

  4. Wow Judy, this town sounds amazing. Thanks for writing about it.

    • It is kind of amazing. I don’t think it’s for everyone. My VERY conservative-in-every-way father, for instance, probably wouldn’t like it. But I LOVE it. (Thank you for reading it!)

  5. Please know that I used to live in Arcata and this description of its quaint-yet-arcane milieu is spot-on. The Tin Can was always my favorite bookstore too!

    I hope you got a chance to go to Abruzzi in the Jacoby Storehouse, as that still remains one of my favorite restaurants ever–though my mouth waters remembering the pot stickers from Hunan Village (up on the hill), too.

    It’s a wonderful place to live and I miss it all the time, so thanks for this little trip in the wayback machine. 🙂

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