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Lost Coast Castaways
Combing California's Loneliest Shore
By Tony Huegel

Note: Be sure to visit my blog, Backcountry Byways Journal!

Ages ago, slabs of the Earth's shifting crust collided like tectonic titans battling over which would prevail in the making of Northern California's corduroy coast. Undersea plates slid beneath the continental plate, which was compressed, lifted and folded. Mountains rose. A killer fault that humans would christen with the name of a saint — San Andreas — tore the land.

When those who assembled California's spectacular Pacific Coast Highway in the 1920s and 1930s reached Mendocino County's tortured northwestern corner, they encountered a landscape so defiant that the pavers retreated inland, terminating scenic State Highway 1 at a junction with U.S. 101.

Scrap of Wilderness

Today, the scrap of wild California that the highway builders dodged has a beckoning name: the Lost Coast. Depending on whose definition one uses, the sparsely populated area can reach from Cape Mendocino roughly 70 direct miles south to Highway 1.

Purists define it more narrowly. They look to the largely unpeopled region encompassed in the north by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's 66,000-acre King Range National Conservation Area, most of which is proposed for federal wilderness status, and in the south by 7,367-acre Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. Together, these preserves link more than 50 miles of rare wilderness.

It is the largest region of spiritual, if not yet fully legislated, coastal wilderness in the state, and one of the largest in the Lower 48. In addition to its often arduous hiking trails, it is served by miles of alluring dirt roads, which can require four-wheel drive and high clearance at times, that are ideal for exploring in a 4WD-equipped sport-utility vehicle.

Coastal Journey

One cool August night I sat on a porch amid wisps of ghostly ocean fog, anticipating the roiled landscape that my family and I had come to see. In the morning my wife, Lynn, and our two children — Hannah, 13, and Land, 6 — would begin more than four days of touring the old lumber and stagecoach roads that traverse this unique remnant of the Wild West.

We'd embarked that morning from the San Francisco Bay Area and poked our way up the coast on Highway 1. About 245 miles later we docked three miles north of the old seaport village of Westport, among the luxuriant flowers at 130-year-old Howard Creek Ranch, now a B&B.

Westport is near the southern gateway to the Lost Coast, an isolated region of intimidating mountains, picturesque valleys and coastal terraces where old California stubbornly survives. We would be touring its enchanting unpaved backways, as well as its paved byways, in the comfort of Lexus' first SUV, the LX 450.

In the morning we repacked its yawning cargo area and started for the Lost Coast's southern portal, Usal (YOU-sall) Road, Mendocino County Road 431. There's a sign on the northwest side of the highway, at milepost 90.88 about 13.1 miles north of Westport. "Narrow winding road," it warns.

The dirt track ascended into restless summer fog. As we edged along a ridge we saw large stumps among purple foxglove, second-growth redwoods and Douglas firs. Soon a gap in the trees revealed brassy slopes vaulting from the cottony carpet of fog that concealed the ocean.

After five miles we crossed into the state park named for the Sinkyone people. They occupied this region for thousands of years until early settlers, loggers and federal troops hunted them to the brink of extinction. Mattole Indians lived farther north as well.

Almost six miles from the highway we passed a campground, crossed the one-lane wooden bridge over Usal Creek and reached the site of old Usal, the only place where the park has drive-in campsites.

North Coast Boom

As California's population and economy expanded in the second half of the 19th century, demand boomed for forest products of redwood and Douglas fir, and tan oak bark for tannin used in San Francisco's leather tanneries. Entrepreneurs looked to North Coast forests, watered by fog drip and 100, sometimes even 200 inches of rain a year in places.

By the 1890s treacherous little "doghole" ports along the Mendocino and Humboldt coasts were sprouting sawmills, towns, even narrow-gauge railroads to haul timber to mills and lumber to wharfs at ports like Usal, Needle Rock and Bear Harbor.

Steam-powered schooners were loaded with lumber, tanbark, wool, farm products and occasionally passengers via cable and block systems that stretched from wharfs to ships anchored away from the rocks. A similar boom happened after World War II.

Nature Reborn

Nature has been reclaiming these old ports and logging towns, where little remains but history. Usal Cove is now the southern terminus of the famous Lost Coast Trail. Backpackers can trek 52 miles between Usal, in the state park, and the mouth of the Mattole River, the northern limit of the KRNCA.

Other trails lead up the King Range's highest point, Kings Peak, which rises to 4,087 feet in less than three miles from the sea. Hikes in this steep country are strenuous. Beach treks involve coarse sand, rock-hopping, tides and rattlesnakes that laze among the driftwood.

Historic Backroads

Beyond Usal the road became a tortuous course as we climbed more than 2,000 feet to Timber Ridge. We meandered north, cautiously rounding recurrent blind curves. The road posed no challenges to the formidable Lexus as we entered dark forest on the same old stagecoach route that author Jack London and his wife, Charmian, traveled north by horse-drawn carriage in 1911 on a trip to the city of Eureka.

A vital link in the road system between Eureka and the San Francisco Bay Area in the Londons' day, the road was dappled by sunlight that leaked through the forest canopy. The views were of hot interior valleys, with occasional glimpses of foggy ocean. Branches and limbs sometimes choked the narrow roadway. Twice we edged around trees eroded from the high banks.

In 19 miles we reached the end of this exotic road, at the Four Corners junction. From here, well-maintained dirt and gravel Chemise Mountain Road goes north 6.5 miles, crossing into Humboldt County to end at paved Shelter Cove Road. To the right, Briceland Road goes to U.S. 101.

We went left, descending on Bear Harbor/Briceland Road (Mendocino County road 435) to a grassy marine terrace that lies below the mountains' escarpment like a step to a continental backdoor.

In a few miles we reached the 1920s Needle Rock ranch house, now Sinkyone's visitor center. We continued south two and a half miles more on a one-lane road that dead-ends near walk-in campsites a short way from Bear Harbor's pleasant beach.

The history of Bear Harbor and Needle Rock in ranching and lumber production reaches back to the 1870s. In 1899 a tidal wave demolished the wharf and loading chute.

Recreation Today

Now people camp, walk dark beaches, watch bobbing sea lions and migrating gray whales, glimpse rare Roosevelt elk or just gaze at the hilt of the continent. Along the Lost Coast, resource extraction is the past, recreation the future.

We followed Chemise Mountain Road north into the King Range, and in a few miles pulled into lovely Wailaki Campground. Our gas and food were low. So after setting up our tent we went looking for both down a plunging canyon that ends at the Lost Coast's only living seaside town, Shelter Cove, a retreat for about 300 castaways who like being lost.

Unpaved Kings Peak Road, called Horse Mountain Road on some maps, winds north from Shelter Cove Road. It courses along a high ridge through forest of Douglas fir, Pacific madrone, sugar pine and manzanita. In about six and a half miles a smaller dirt road, Saddle Mountain Road, branches west. It took us on a 5.7-mile loop, rising to 3,400 feet on the chaparral-covered crest of Horse Mountain Ridge.

Back on descending Kings Peak Road, brooks gurgling down from the ridge watered ferns and mossy conifers. The road switchbacked out of a canyon, and merged with civilized Wilder Ridge Road. It took us to idyllic Mattole Valley.

The Sixties Live On

Cruising on pavement, we passed balding mountaintops, old ranches and bucolic fields of tawny grass. In a few minutes we reached little Honeydew Store, at a country crossroads where folks fill up on gas and gossip. Locals were coming and going in old VW buses and Volvos, some of them crossing the Mattole River on the steel girder bridge nearby. It was a snapshot of rural California from, oh, the Forties or Fifties.

Or looking again, the Sixties and Seventies, for marijuana, introduced to the North Coast's hills and hollows when the counterculture moved "back to the land," is a well-established don't ask/don't tell part of the region's economy.

Our second night's stop, a dreary cabin, was just down the road. The woman who ran the place brought us a basket of organically grown fruit and vegetables. Lynn and I were married 15 years ago that day, down in Mendocino County, so we took the kids, our chilled bottle of Fetzer North Coast Chardonnay and our basket down to the river to toast the occasion.

Early mariners dreaded the reef and high winds off the promontory the Spanish named Punta Gorda (Fat or Massive Point), south of California's westernmost point, Cape Mendocino. Shipwrecks were common. In 1907 the Columbia went down, claiming 87 lives.

Punta Gorda Lighthouse

A lighthouse subsequently was built in this lonely locale, where the San Andreas Fault comes in from the sea. The station beamed from 1911 to 1951, when the Coast Guard abandoned it in favor of modern navigational aides.

To reach the little tower we drove north toward Petrolia on paved Mattole Road. At the river we turned west onto Lighthouse Road. Before reaching the blustery beach campground at the Mattole River's estuary, we angled left onto dirt Prosper Ridge Road. In 2.3 miles a two-track road branched right. It took us to stunning and aptly named Windy Point.

The one-mile beach hike south to the lighthouse passes some private cabins, historic ranch buildings, tidepools and rocks washed by a crashing surf. Sea lions floated among the waves. Egrets loitered in a stream. I climbed the old lighthouse's iron steps. From the tower I watched Lynn and the kids explore the beach, where the rusting hulk of an old buoy lay. Back at Windy Point, sunset was a rich dessert.

We camped at pleasant A. W. Way County Park, on Mattole Road. For a few dollars we joined the pancakes-and-eggs breakfast held every third Sunday at the Mattole Grange, a community hub.

As we pulled into tiny Petrolia, not far from where California's first commercial oil well was drilled in 1865, a little girl smiled and waved. Petrolia resides right on the San Andreas Fault. Its most prominent building is a steepled church that watches over the town from a hill. In 1992 Petrolia was rocked by a powerful 7.1 temblor centered not far away. Many buildings were badly damaged here and in Ferndale, a town north of Cape Mendocino famous for Victorian architecture. We spent the night in Ferndale, in a B&B that came with a live bat roosting in our bedroom.

Our final morning took us up Bear River Ridge, on a gentle dirt road that soars across the mountains toward U.S. 101 at the town of Rio Dell, journey's end. As I looked back from the summit I recalled the man scrubbing out a pot on the steps of the Mattole Grange. I had to agree with his lament about the Lost Coast. "Sometimes," he said, "I wish it were a little more lost."

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