Hiking California's Lost Coast

If you spend much time cruising around California's coastal cities, it might seem as if the state's coastline is one massive urban sprawl from San Diego to San Francisco.

The fact is, there are painfully few places left along the coast where you can really get away from it all. But among those that remain, Northern California's Lost Coast is an epic reminder of how pristine and isolated the coast can be.

And what a challenge to the adventure-minded.

The Lost Coast is the last remaining stretch of pristine coastline in the state of California, a 27-mile ribbon of sandy and rocky beach, towered over by green grassy bluffs dressed in full bloom. The state park has been set aside from development as a preserve where lovers of the outdoors and nature buffs can get a taste of what California used to be like a hundred or more years ago.

Where else can you can walk for hours and be completely alone, or set up camp near the purr of the ocean waves and be miles away from residential development? Or where you will never hear the sound of a jackhammer or the bleat of a car horn? Hiking the Lost Coast is the best way to experience what this part of the state has to offer.

Three couples, my wife and I started our three-day traverse at Shelter Cove, an old fishing village nestled along the coast, and the only organized community in the area. We then made our way to the mouth of the Mattole River, where we parked, prepped our gear and filled our water bottles.

Our destination for that first day was the Punta Gorda lighthouse ruins, which lie about 3 miles south along a narrow, but well-trodden trail. The lighthouse was built in 1910 after 87 people died in a maritime tragedy aboard the ship Columbia. We camped at the ruins that first night, cooking on the beach and dozing to the chatter of seabirds. In the morning, we were off, hiking down the coast, sometimes crossing grueling stretches of soft sand that was hard on the ankles.

On the second day, the trail took us to the high country. This is sometimes necessary because no continuous route exists along the coast. In fact, in some places the cliffs can rise 1,000 feet and overall elevation gain along the trail can be as high as 8,000 feet, carrying you up and down across the jagged coastline.

We forded three creeks, and after several miles reached a steep rise at a place called Sea Lion Gulch where, true to its name, a large herd of sea lions moaned and belched like a pack of sea mammal fraternity brothers.

We stopped at the top of the bluff and had lunch, basking in the delicious California sunshine and remarking how amazing it was that so far we'd not seen other souls. We continued on and dropped back down onto the beach, where we encountered a sea lion cub stranded on the beach. We thought at first that he was dead, and so I got close to him to try and determine if he was breathing.

When I was about 2 feet away, he reared back violently and bared his teeth letting go with a furious roar that probably took several years off my life. But he was probably more scared than I was, as he made a beeline for the sea and soon was gone underneath the water.

We camped that night on the beach and dined on pre-packaged camp food. Under the glow of the moon that evening I think we each dreamed of burgers and fries.

Raining on Our Parade

On our last day, it started to rain, making the hike a laborious trudge. We had about 10 miles to go and we hardly spoke to one another. Our packs seemed to grow heavier as we trundled along, with water soaking us to the skin. We walked for several hours and the rain kept coming down in awful sheets that seemed to scream as they fell.

At this point, we decided that what we were doing was miserable. Our sole purpose in life was to get to the end of the trail, to find warmth and dryness. Except for one thing: it was kind of fun. In a way it was the most unfun fun I've ever had. Everyone was miserable, everyone hated the weatherman for telling us three days before that the skies would be "partly cloudy". But the reality was that we were having a great experience, something none of would trade away for another day at the office.

We hiked and we hiked. My feet ached horribly and my back hurt. My legs felt rubbery, like they were going to give out at any minute. Everyone wanted to complain, but since everyone knew the only thing to do was to walk, no one did complain. It would only be over when we reached the end.

We tried to keep together, but some moved faster than others. I looked back at a friend and his girlfriend, covering themselves with camouflage tarps as they walked. They were way behind us, lost like guerillas in the mist.

It was almost anti-climactic to finally reach the end of the trail where a dirt road sloped up into the forest. This is it, we wondered? After the long slog through the rain, we thought we somehow deserved better. A hot tub and a beer garden, perhaps?

We rested and spent the next day in San Francisco. We sat on a wall in the marina and watched the wind-surfers ride the heady winds that ripped up through the bay. It was a pleasing moment, and one that brought to mind a fine axiom of outdoors travel: Sometimes the best trips are the ones that are over.

Getting There

There are several ways to drive to the Lost Coast. If you're coming from the south, Usal Road branches off Highway 1, three miles north of the hamlet and the ghost town of Rockport. This road is unsigned and unpaved. For the first 6 miles, Usal Road winds and rises to more than 1,000 feet and then descends to the Usal Beach Campsite. If you own a 4-wheel drive vehicle, there is great access from the north. Access is best during the dry summer and fall months. The Mattole Road runs south from the Victorian town of Ferndale, past Cape Mendocino and on toward Shelter Cove the only community on the Lost Coast.

Another route from the east and Highway 101, take either the Garberville exit, and drive through Redway. Turn west on Briceland Road. After 12 miles, make a left at the fork to Whitethorn. One mile past Whitethorn the pavement ends but you continue on the dirt road for another 3.5 miles to Four Corners junction. Left is Usal Rd.

Right is a road climbing into the mountains. Drive straight ahead and you come — in another 3.5 miles — to the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park Visitor Center where you can get trail maps and campsite information. There are camping areas at Needle Rock near the visitor center where trails lead to the beach and at the Jones Beach site. There are drive-in campsites four miles south of Needle Rock — at Bear Harbor. This is where the road ends and the Lost Coast Trail begins.

For more information check out the California State Parks Web site: www.parks.ca.gov/

Lodging:

Camping is a requirement once you begin your trek, but If you don't want to camp in Shelter Cover, and are interested in a hotel, there are several options available:

Shelter Cove Motor Inn 707-986-7521 Wave Drive Ocean-front units with a view.

Shelter Cove Beachcomber Inn 707-986-7733 Shelter Cove Rd. Units with brass beds, fireplaces, stoves and kitchens on

For a bite to eat in Shelter Cove, try: Mario's Restaurant 533 Machi Rd Shelter Cove, CA 95589 (707) 986-1401 Fax (707) 986-1145 www.mariosofsheltercove.com/