The California state park ranger at the entrance to the half-open Salt Point State Park was skeptical when I told her I had come halfway across the country to hunt for mushrooms.
"Season's over," she said, with a dismissive wave. "I doubt you'll find anything." Instead, she advised me to visit the park's stark shoreline of honeycombed sandstone cliffs, where the wind was kicking up impressive waves.
When I'd planned my camper van trip up the Northern California coast, I had hoped to find a mushroom motherlode, eat an amazing farm-to-table meal and wake up in a wild place every morning.
Reality, it turned out, was messier. Foraging was restricted, fancy restaurants were closed in the offseason, and stealth camping didn't feel safe to me as a solo female traveler — so I stuck to the state and county parks.
In five days exploring the Sonoma and Mendocino coast, I experienced the highs and lows of van life: white-knuckle drives with soaring coastal views, quiet towns friendly to rumpled travelers, and nights camping near the ocean's roar, where I huddled in my mummy sack as temperatures plunged to 38 degrees.
My trip was postponed for a month as drought-busting atmospheric rivers slammed the state, washing out highways, toppling trees and closing parks. In early February, when I arrived at Salt Point, the region was limping back to life.
A perilous drive
The journey began at Escape Campervans in the Bay Area. My home for the next five nights would be a Ford Transit Connect with a double mattress, a propane stove and a pullout cooler for my food.
After a pilgrimage to the Berkeley Bowl food co-op, I cleared the bridge to Marin County ahead of rush hour. Google reported that I had plenty of time to reach my campsite before sundown.
North of Bodega Bay, two-lane Hwy. 1 hugs the coast, with cliffs dropping off just feet from the blacktop. I snapped exuberant photos of the horizon, the dark boulders and foaming surf. After three months of winter at home, I felt my shoulders open, my lungs expand.
Then the climbs grew steeper, as the road switchbacked up to overlooks and plunged down to pocket beaches. The Ford Transit groaned through hairpin turns, traffic stacking up in my wake. I crept up the coast.
My first-night destination was Stillwater Cove Regional Park. I found a largely empty park with every campsite marked as reserved, a move to deter freeloaders.
At the camp kiosk, a flyer warned "No Mushroom Picking Allowed." The hot showers in the unheated washroom required $2 in quarters. It was too dark and cold to figure out my stove.
Into the woods
Before heading up the coast, I had contacted Jenna Hinshaw, founder of Forage Mendocino, for a guided mushroom hunt. We met in the heart of Mendocino mushroom country on the second day of my trip.
As I climbed into her car for a drive up a muddy forest road, Hinshaw swept tiny candy cap mushrooms off her dashboard. The back of her car was filled with racks of mushrooms in various stages of dehydration.
We were inland, among Douglas fir, redwood and pine, on land her dad had purchased decades ago for a song. If Mendocino's spas and gourmet restaurants are one face of the coast, here was another: families stitching together a life on the boom-or-bust slopes of California's central spine.
A recent drenching meant we didn't come up empty-handed: We filled two baskets with leggy yellowfoot chanterelles, a few late-season hedgehogs and a riffle of black trumpets.
As we wrapped up the hunt, Hinshaw offered me an Oregon black truffle. I had no way to keep it fresh — the potency drops almost immediately — so I handed it back, but not before breathing in its earthy, cacao musk.
Later, at Frankie's coffee shop in Mendocino, I tried my first candy cap ice cream, its hint of maple syrup another taste of the forest floor.
Tidepooling, dark skies
On my third day, I drove to MacKerricher State Park to check out its tidepools. The website still listed the campground as closed, but at the entrance kiosk I spotted a whiteboard with names and campsites.
The only employee in sight was a naturalist with a selfie stick, livestreaming a classroom talk. Giant piles of downed branches hinted at the recent storms. I hit the shore for a hike on a long stretch of boardwalk with hills sloping down to black sand beach.
I was in luck: I was able to make a campsite reservation by phone. A campground host checked me in, telling me how she traded her home for an RV and now spends months at state parks, where she gets free electricity for a few volunteer hours a day. "And you don't have to clean toilets," she said.
At a beach near my campsite, a young couple navigated pitted boulders, accumulating a stack of abalone shells. The sun sank into a cloud layer, pink shading to purple then deep red, each tint reflected in a hundred tidepool mirrors. At a rocky island just offshore, a colony of sea lions hauled out for the night.
It was pitch black by 6 p.m.
I walked out to the grassy meadow that separated the campground from the shore. A mist had risen along the boardwalk. I caught the giant shadow of a rabbit, twitching from my flashlight beam back to safety.
Overhead, the sky was jeweled with constellations. My ears filled with the ocean's roar. Nearby, I sensed the rabbit, our warm, mammal hearts pulsing under the cold immensity of the stars.
The final day of my trip found me at the Arena Market and Cafe in Port Arena — my go-to spot for a cup of homemade soup, charging my phone, and chatting with locals.
That night, at Gualala Point Regional Park, I curled up in my mummy sack in the dark. Deep in a valley with no Wi-Fi, my download of the science fiction novel "On a Red Station, Drifting" stopped scrolling after one chapter.
I lay on my thin mattress, dreaming of the hot shower and delicious dim sum waiting for me in San Francisco.
At 5 a.m., I woke in darkness to begin my journey home. High in the redwoods, the hoot of a barred owl sent tingles down my spine.
If you go
Camping: Sonoma County Parks ($48/night), California State Parks ($48/night) and Caspar Beach RV park ($55/night).