A wild ride exploring the Lost Coast

Humboldt County Fairgrounds Campground The day dawned brilliant and sunny this morning, without a trace of fog.  But it was COLD and WINDY!  Much too cold to even think of dropping a kayak into the water, so we went with our next plan for a day trip to explore the Lost Coast.  If you look at a map of California, south of Eureka and north of Fort Bragg, you will see a large hump jutting westward into the Pacific. This area is so wild and rugged that in the 1920’s, when they built the Coast Highway in Northern California, the engineers determined that the stretch of coastline through the King Range was entirely too rugged for a road.  This huge expanse of wild land was isolated and became known as the “Lost Coast”.

Lost CoastWe read about the “Lost Coast Loop” in our favorite local publication “101 Things to Do in Humboldt County”.  What the wonderful write-up didn’t include was the rugged nature of the narrow roads leading to our destinations.  In addition to the 100 mile loop, we also wanted to explore Shelter Cove, an isolated paradise that boasted a tea house, an RV park, a lighthouse, and a community of 900 rugged souls.  It is the jump-off point for magnificent wilderness hiking on the California Coast Trail through the King Range, and famous for sea cave kayaking along the wild coast.

clean as a whistle company town of scotiaWe started our day with a simple drive south on Highway 101, stopping in to check out the perfectly pristine company town of Scotia. Even though it is steeped in logging history, (the first company bunkhouse was built in 1884), the town also has a bright future thanks to the ecologically minded folks who are part of the “Town of Scotia Company, LLC” who now actually own the town. Driving through in the morning sun was like stepping back in time to the 50’s, with perfect little houses, clean yards and streets, and well maintained buildings.  This isn’t always the case in this part of California, with the other extreme including a lifetime’s worth of trash as yard art.

wild ride to Shelter Cove We skipped the amazing “Avenue of the Giants”, since we drove that road last fall, and continued on to the town of Redway. While the write-up in the magazine was glowing, the town itself didn’t seem to sparkle enough to warrant a stop before we headed out west on Redway Road to find Shelter Cove. The map showed 21 miles ahead, with what appeared to be a very winding road.  I must say, there wasn’t a word about this being a scary road for RV’s, with an RV park at the final destination, but as adventurous as Mo and I are with the MoHo, we wouldn’t attempt a trip down this incredibly narrow and steep road to the Lost Coast.

the tidepools at sheltered Cove Once at Shelter Cove, the ocean was gorgeous, the skies were crystal clear, and the wind was howling.  We took photos of the 1886 Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, relocated here from the Cape in 1998.  A pictorial history of the relocation is displayed on signs around the lighthouse.  Cape Mendocino is the westernmost point on the coast of  California. It has been a landmark since the 16th century when the Manila Galleons would reach the coast here following the prevailing westerlies all the way across the Pacific, then make their way down the coast all the way to Acapulco, Mexico.

Lost coast (13) We found a small curved bay below the cliffs with seals romping in the surf, somewhat protected from the wind.  We checked out the RV Park and had some great fish and chips at the Shelter Cove RV Campstore and Deli, and laughed at the tee shirts that said “I drove to Shelter Cove RV Park and survived”. 

After our great lunch, we drove around the town toward the Black Sand Beach.  The area is filled with some truly lovely homes, and with a population of 900 people, we wondered just how often those people managed to drive back to town.  It took us an hour and a half to drive that 21 miles to Redway, and that isn’t exactly a destination city. Black Sand Beach was gorgeous, with black volcanic perfectly smoothed pebbles along the upper reaches grading to fine black volcanic sand at the water’s edge.  The wind was still howling, so Mo stayed in the car with Abby while I walked down to the beach for photos.

the sands are truly black  By the time we got back to Redway, it was close to 3:30.  Even though the Lost Coast Loop was estimated to be a 3 hour drive, we weren’t about to miss it.  We had no idea our little foray to Shelter Cove would take up this much of the day. The first part of the route meandered through thick dark redwoods in the Rockefeller Grove, part of Humboldt Redwood State Park.  There were places where the trees were so close to the road we were sure that the MoHo wouldn’t have fit through, but then later we saw a couple of trucks winding their way around, so I suppose it might have made it.

wild ride to PetroliaOnce more we started up switchbacks and grades that were mind boggeldy steep. This part of California is wilder and more rugged than anything I have traveled, including some of the back roads in the Sierra’s.  Offshore of Cape Mendocino lies the Mendocino Triple Junction, a geologic triple junction where three tectonic plates come together. This explains the extreme complexity of the King Range and the wild ups and downs and arounds required to traverse the landscape.

time for a break from the road! I don’t think we have traveled so many ups that required downs, over and over again, anywhere.  Finally we reached the community of Honeydew, with a couple of houses situated along the Mattole River. The road followed the river through the gorgeous Mattole River Valley for 15 more miles before we reached Petrolia.  Petrolia is a place that lives in mythic proportions in my earth scientist soul, since it is the heart of the Triple Junction, and when I watch California earthquakes, Petrolia is always there, popping and shaking, and possibly predicting the big subduction quake that will eventually come.

Petrolia has an estimated population of 300-500 people and is also known for it’s ecologically minded residents and proximity to the Lost Coast Wilderness Area, one of the largest wilderness areas and the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States. Travel magazines have called this area “too lovely to be believed, perhaps too beautiful to last”.  I would agree with it’s recognition as the top “still wild” place in California.

sure glad we didn't have the motorhome! The Mattole River flows through Petrolia and is one of only a handful of undammed rivers left in the country. Petrolia is five miles (8 km) from the Pacific Ocean, where there is located the start of a 25-mile (40 km) section of beach protected by the King Range National Conservation Area and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, and the Punta Gorda lighthouse, one requiring a rugged three mile hike to even see. The Mattole River is home to a variety of California wildlife, including otters, Roosevelt elk,  black-tailed deer, steelhead trout,  more than 250 bird species, and an endangered salmon that was the subject of Totem Salmon, a book about the community’s attempts over two decades to preserve the Mattole salmon. It is also one of the few remaining areas with virgin old-growth stands of Douglas fir in California.

1171854946_400bdfcb50_b As sunset approached, we wound our way down to a long stretch of road that paralleled the beach and stopped for a photo of Shiprock before climbing a grade that had to be more than 16 percent. There wasn’t a grade sign in sight, and in the dim evening light, a photo wouldn’t have come close to showing just how wild it was. This photo of  Sugar Loaf, at the westernmost edge of Cape Mendocino nearby, was taken from the internet with kudos to the Flickr photographer since I it wasn’t light enough for us to photograph as we passed.

in the middle of nowhere, the gorgeous Mattole River ValleyBy the time we reached Cape Town, just a ranch house in a small river valley leading to the sea, and climbed up another wild grade, the darkness was thickening.  The road followed a high ridge for a long time before dropping like a rock into the town of Ferndale.  It was a surprise to realize that we were just half a mile from the fairgrounds and home.  Mo did the driving to Shelter Cove and I drove the Lost Coast Loop.  I have to say that Mo is probably the better passenger in these conditions.  She didn’t whimper once.

Here’s an article by someone with more time than I have to write about this amazing trip. I would highly recommend it for an view of a wild part of California few people ever see.  I would also say whatever you do, don’t take a motorhome on this road, ever!  Funny thing, as Mo and I were getting close to Ferndale, we saw an older  Class C motorhome headed back the way we had come.  We still wonder if he had a clue of what he was getting into, and it was already dark!  There was no other destination on that road before the 20 percent grade down to the beach.sunset at Cape Mendocino, wildest place I have been to on the California coast

For more of our photos of this day exploring the Lost Coast, click here

Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

9 thoughts on “A wild ride exploring the Lost Coast”

  1. Sounds like a nice place to visit.
    Thanks for the comment on the satellite phone, I have heard about the SPOT and it is definitely much cheaper than a satellite phone. I think my daughter will want to know where I am, especially if I'm not getting cell service.


  2. Oh man, I sooooo want to go! I've been looking up places overseas since our trip but this is just as beautiful as any other place!!! Even better that it's Wild.


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