In California’s Emerald Triangle, canna-sseurs toss around terms like bouquet, terroir, and appellation. Close your eyes, and you may think you’ve stumbled onto a high-end vineyard. But open your nose, and the funky musk of fresh cannabis flower gives away a startling truth: This ain’t Napa. It’s Humboldt County, home to the United States’ heritage weed crop, and a locale that’s challenging Napa as the country’s most intoxicating travel destination.
The rich, dark earth here has long nurtured top-shelf cannabis—homespun varieties dating back to the early 1970s when tree-hugging hippies grew Mexican and Afghani strains beneath towering redwood canopies. But now their children are birthing a new kind of utopia: One that’s transforming the once reclusive Humboldt vibe into California’s next hot destination for cannabis connoisseurs, adventure travelers, and foodies.
One of those children is Sunshine Johnston, owner and chief cannabis cultivator at Sunboldt Grown. She spent her tweens hiding plants beneath redwood trees and dodging feds and helicopters. She and her brother, under their mother’s tutelage, learned how to plant, grow, and eventually consume cannabis. Today, those closely traded family secrets, coupled with Johnston’s 10-year stint as a wine broker, have led to the creation of some of the region’s most respected (and coveted) strains.
“She wants to be the Dom Perignon of cannabis,” says Matt Kurth, who dabbled in the black market before launching Humboldt Cannabis Tours and organizing trips to locally owned farms and dispensaries across the valley. “She can do it too. Her products are on point.”
Kurth attributes Johnston’s success both to her back-to-the-land childhood and her biodynamic farming practices. Indeed, Johnston views soil fertility and plant growth through a lens of organic and spiritual practices. She calls it “naked cannabis”—defined by all-natural, organic strains that don’t rely on irrigation or commercial fertilizer—and on Johnston’s farm the plants grow like, well, weeds.
“It’s simple technology. I impose myself as little as possible,” says Johnston, who dries her plants 12 days, cures them for several months, and then jars and seals them after they reach peak flavor.
The 10,000-square-foot farm is known for such highly regarded varieties as Loopy Fruit, Rebel Moon, and Wanderlust. The three varieties, Johnston says, have very different tastes and effects: They’ll inspire you to reflect among the redwoods, lounge by the Eel River, or lace up your hiking boots and get moving.
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“Wine has a mouth feel. So does smoke,” she says, then rhapsodizes tasting-notes for her favorite strains. “It can be very dense like in OG, delicate like in Chemdog, or textured and velvety like in Redwood Summer.”
Pretty soon you’ll be able to stop by and see for yourself. She’s dreaming up a community sampling room, where taster-tokers will walk through sun-drenched rows of shiny green plants, learn about the curing process, and seek their perfect high or healing regimen.
Johnston’s not the only local expanding her business. Eureka City Council is considering more than a dozen cannabis-related permits from tasting rooms to cannabis juice bars. The latter is the dream of Desiree Robinson and her husband, third-generation farmer Bryan Robinson. The pair, who already run a 30,000-square-foot cannabis farm and an adjacent bud and breakfast, are opening the doors to LoDose’, a farm-to-table cannabis restaurant and juice bar, in downtown Eureka this late fall.
“We take our cannabis leaves from our farms and juice them,” she says, explaining that cannabis juice can’t get you high. It’s processed without heat, so you still get benefits like decreased inflammation, easier sleep, and reduced chronic pain without transforming THCa into THC and its psychotropic effects.
The Robinsons are hellbent on creating an upscale cannabis tourism scene. They already have plans to expand LoDose’ and add an adjacent dispensary and smoking lounge. And they hope to open a tasting room on their farm and offer canna cruises on the high seas of Humboldt Bay.
Local pioneers like Johnston and the Robinsons, and packagers like Kurth, intend to show tourists that Humboldt is no longer a rough-and-tumble patchwork of illegal grows and counterculture, but instead a premium destination. One that starts with the valley’s best-in-class cannabis, but also includes California’s revered Bucksport oysters, legendary Lost Coast, and ancient redwood forests. Book it!