Let the Pilgrimage Begin

The future of cannabis tourism

By Nora Mounce  

Motor racing fans sojourn to Monaco to see the track at Monte Carlo. Young art students live to see a Rothko at the MOMA in New York City. Oenophiles vacation to the vineyards of Burgundy, Rioja and the Napa Valley to taste the artistic process behind the world’s greatest wines. The need to follow a passion to its source is an archetypal human desire. For those who admire the lore and raw power of cannabis, nothing can compare to a pilgrimage to Humboldt County.  

As cannabis legalization slowly, permanently, alters the bedrock economy of the entire Emerald Triangle, many fear a devastating fallout for rural Northern California. Though legalization ushers in a host of benefits to the environment and cannabis users, a 30 percent tax rate is setting up traditional cultivators for a hard go. Armed with legitimate bank accounts and social media fluency, new investors are entering the legal market. Cannabis start-ups are renting commercial buildings in urban cities and industrial parks across California. Suddenly, the geographic virtues that made Humboldt an ideal location to covertly grow marijuana are major hurdles for logistics and distribution.

The recently opened Wonder Log Dispensary at tourist attraction One Log House. / Amy Kumler.

Embedded within this paradox, the allure of Humboldt’s secret paradise is unalterable — a fable rooted in reality. While legalization will undoubtedly bring radical change, the region’s renowned cannabis is finally a shareable experience. Humboldt’s illicit history has always stirred up intrigue, but in 2018 legalization has become a platform to promote Humboldt’s rebellious history and counter culture ways. As cannabis tourism heats up across the Golden State, farmers and community leaders are gearing up to host tourists like never before. 

“We want to show off the old grandpa on the porch with chickens in the yard and reggae blaring, talking about protecting the earth,” says Matt Kurth, the owner and operator of Humboldt Cannabis Tours. An effusive cannabis advocate, Kurth is committed to helping mom-and-pop cannabis farms survive the economic transition. Leading tours that showcase the pastoral charms of farm life, Kurth wants tourists to experience what he calls “the real Humboldt.” After a stop at a local dispensary in Eureka or Garberville, Kurth plans to load up his guests and shuttle them down country roads to Humboldt’s legacy farms. For most visitors, it will be their first time witnessing bushy green cannabis plants growing openly in the sunshine.

Since launching his business in 2017, Kurth has fielded calls from canna-curious tourists across the world. An uncharted permitting process has delayed the launch of actual farm tours but Kurth and other tourism operators are working with the county to cement legal opportunities. A dense set of regulations continues to hamper farmers as well, as many are still waiting for the bureaucratic green light. Regionally, the energy behind cannabis tourism is mounting, supported by the strength of a community ready to share authentic stories and one-of-kind experiences. 

“Our story is about beautiful lands, protecting our watershed and sustainable practices of all kinds,” explains Laura Lasseter, the board president of the Southern Humboldt Business and Visitors Bureau (SHBVB). A nonprofit created to ensure cannabis is positively represented in the Humboldt visitor experience, Lasseter believes that Humboldt’s breathtaking scenery distinguishes it from other cannabis destinations. A fifth generation Humboldt resident, Lasseter argues that the Lost Coast and the Humboldt Redwoods State Park are natural wonders unlike anyplace in the world. To protect these virtues, the SHBVB is partnering with local law enforcement, the Bureau of Land Management and environmental conservation groups to ensure that tourists are educated on proper etiquette. While many hope that tourism will help sustain the rural economy, ecologically sensitive development is essential. A key part of the SHBVB’s marketing message is the community’s priority on protecting Humboldt’s wild beauty and fragile ecosystem. 

“Holding onto our culture and beliefs by doing what’s right — that’s the story we want to share,” says Lasseter. Along with the SHBVB, the Humboldt County’s Grower’s Alliance (HCGA) is a nonprofit working, “To preserve, protect and enhance Humboldt County’s world-renowned cannabis industry.” By collaborating with local government on key issues like improving roads and regulating on-site consumption, the organizations are preparing the never-before-seen face of the cannabis industry for show time. 

Geodesic dome tent at Camp Emerald Resort. / Amy Kumler.

Still, the skeptics are numerous. Many cite Humboldt’s remote location and infamous rough edges as the reason that cannabis tourists will choose shinier, more accessible destinations like Sonoma and San Diego. Locals have scoffed at the idea of tourists driving for hours to trudge through muddy farms just to smoke some weed. But outside the cannabis world, recent headlines suggest otherwise: The Lonely Planet announced the Redwood Coast (indicating Humboldt and its northern neighbor, Del Norte County) as America’s No. 1 destination to visit in 2018. The travel giant gave a small nod to legalization, writing, “The draw of the Redwood Coast far surpasses change in this [cannabis] industry, inviting travelers to achieve the ultimate California mellow with its quirky shops, brewpubs, coffee roasters and oyster happy hours.” Lasseter says that the Lonely Planet recognition has kicked her organization into high gear. But typecasting Humboldt as a funky outdoor paradise in spite of the weed thing, is a dangerous approach. “Denouncing cannabis would be ignoring part of our heritage and our legacy,” says Lasseter.

Part of that heritage is undoubtedly the people: Jen Aspuria and Daniel Kulchin are the co-owners of Emerald Organics Cooperative, a permitted farm located in Briceland. The couple met while watching their teenage children snowboard competitively in Lake Tahoe. Aspuria views many parallels between Humboldt and Tahoe. “In South Lake, we have a saying that it’s ‘poverty with a view.’ People here (in Humboldt) are not wealthy. If our communities don’t latch on to tourism, I don’t know what we’ll do,” explains Aspuria. Acknowledging that Humboldt’s beaches and forests are pristine due to human scarcity and that, “some aspects of tourism do suck,” Aspuria is enthusiastic about the potential to harness the good stuff. 

“We have to see how cannabis fits the picture. Humboldt has always had such a reputation. Let people come here, have a positive experience and go home. They always go home,” says Aspuria. 

As a teenager, one of Aspuria’s most positive experiences was at summer camp in the Sierra Nevadas. Wanting to recreate that “special camp energy,” Aspuria and Kulchin have launched Emerald Camp Resort, a luxury glamping experience on their cannabis farm. While still awaiting final signatures on their permitted campground, the couple has already built three of five Geodesic domes on their 10-acre property. At the main farmhouse, guests can enjoy the pool, hot tub, basketball court and trampoline and gather together for organic, catered meals. As a private property, cannabis consumption is allowed, encouraged by the 10,000 square feet of sun-grown cannabis. Scattered across the property, each dome sits on a private platform and is outfitted with beautiful cork flooring, electricity, air conditioning and organic linens. 

“My vision was a beautiful lavish bed that’s nothing like what you get in a hotel,” says Aspuria. In the remote areas of the county, where nearly all permitted cannabis farms are concentrated, a lack of quality lodging is a problem for any tourist. While hotels like the Inn of the Lost Coast and the Benbow Inn welcome tourists, it’s unforeseen how consumption and cannabis-infused events will function in public environs. “My friends in New York City are amazed by the idea of getting to come here and smoke comfortably on our farm,” explains Aspuria. 

At the recently renovated Inn at 2nd & C in Old Town Eureka, co-owner Jenny Metz is also enthusiastic about the intersection of tourists and cannabis. While current regulations prevent her upscale 23-room hotel from adopting the ‘bud and breakfast’ model, she has a healthy outlook toward a sustainable future for cannabis. Located across the street from Humboldt Cannabis Tours new office, Metz says that the two businesses will collaborate to meet all their guests needs. An environmentalist who has lived in Humboldt for 23 years, Metz is excited to promote the positive side of the cannabis industry. When regulations allow, Metz plans to offer in-house spa treatments using cannabis-infused bath products. 

One Log House in Piercy. / Amy Kumler.

Slowly and steadily, public access to the delicacies of Humboldt’s cannabis culture will be available to tourists in a variety of ways. In a mash-up of cultural icons, Wonderland Nursery, one of Humboldt’s best known farm supply stores, recently relocated to the One Log House in southern Humboldt. A world-famous tourist attraction located in Piercy, the 32-by-7-foot log house was carved from a 2,100-year-old redwood tree in 1946. Now the home of Wonder Log Dispensary, owner Kevin Jodrey plans to develop a lounge and cannabis museum on the property. “If we do this right, we’ll create an experience that lots of people can enjoy,” explains Jodrey’s son, Nocona.  

Farther north in Arcata, Juli Eagle is the owner of Table Collective, a rotating culinary pop-up that hosts creative chefs at unique locations throughout the region. Eagle designs her events to “showcase Humboldt County in a lovely and intimate manner,” an ideal platform for high culture cannabis events. “I think many chefs are curious about working with the plant,” says Eagle, who hopes to bring well-known cannabis brands and infused dinners to the Table Collective. Future events set among the verdant fauna of Humboldt’s farms seem like a natural progression. 

In 2013, long before infused dinner parties were on the menu, writer Emily Brady published Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, chronicling her year enmeshed in cannabis culture. Reflecting on Humboldt’s current prospects, she writes, “It’s invaluable to learn about the different ways to grow and process cannabis, so that consumers can make informed decisions about the products they purchase.” Believing that Humboldt has paid a heavy price for its dependence on an illegal crop, Brady is happy to see legalization, and cannabis tourism, finally arrive. 

“I grew up in Napa where millions of people visit every year to learn how wine is made,” explains Brady. Her comparison of boutique cannabis to California’s wine country is made often, but rightly so. As the legal cannabis industry grows, a huge marketing opportunity lies in educating consumers on sustainable growing practices and the myriad of extracts, oils, tinctures and edibles available in the recreational marketplace. As Brady points out, there’s no place better than Humboldt for such experiential learning to take place. “Visitors will have the chance to learn about the history of prohibition from the folks who grew undercover and ran from helicopters. They have all these wild and wacky stories,” says Brady. “All of this in one of the most beautiful places on earth.” she adds. 

While the challenges and detractors are numerous, mimicry of Humboldt County’s rugged Pacific coastline, majestic redwoods and cannabis legacy is impossible. Coupled with the growing number of permitted cannabis farms and innovative “ganjapreneurs”, the region is ready to welcome a new green rush. 

“On our worst days, Humboldt County is drop dead gorgeous,” says Aspuria. “People from all over the world want to come here.”