A couple of trails sample Benbow Lake State Recreation Area, offering the hiker great views of the lake. If a 2.5 mile hike isn’t enough exercise, try swimming or canoeing on the lake or tackling the park’s par exercise course, located along the picnic area. Canoes and pedal boats are available for rent.
Benbow Lake is a summer-only attraction: the Eel River is dammed from Memorial Day to Labor Day, creating a lake that’s very popular with swimmers and canoeists. During this time, park staff offers guided “canoe hikes”–fun and educational excursions on the lake.
In the 1920s, the Pratt family constructed a steam-driven sawmill on one side of the Eel River, while the Benbow family constructed a hotel/resort. Fortunately, not all the scenery went through the mill, so that in 1926 when the large Tudor-style Benbow Inn opened for business, its setting on the South Fork of the Eel River was still beautiful. Hollywood celebs frequented the inn back then, as did Herbert Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Walter Benbow and his family built a dam across the Eel in 1932. The resulting lake was an immediate attraction. The dam also generated power for a time and was sold to PG&E in 1947. The utility generated electricity a few more years before turning the dam over to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Benbow Lake Recreation Area today consists of 1,200 acres of riverfront, meadows and redwood groves. The park is quite the regional cultural center, and hosts a summer arts festival, a Shakespeare Festival, and concerts.
Some visitors like to stay for more than a day and select a favorite site at the park campground. The lovely Benbow Inn is still welcoming guests for those who choose to rough-it in style.
Directions: From Highway 101, two miles south of Garberville, take the Benbow exit, following the frontage road to the park.