Lost Coast Romance

Hiking the California Coastal Trail through the wilds of Humboldt County

The Lost Coast - even the name sounds dramatic and romantic, especially in a state as heavily populated as California.

California's Lost Coast certainly qualifies as a dramatic landscape. It stretches roughly 80 miles along a rugged, lightly traveled coast, backed by a dozen peaks rising more than 2000 feet, crowned by the 4,087-foot hulk of Kings Peak. Two dozen year-round streams cascade down deep, steep-walled canyons in a landscape so rugged the highway builders just shook their heads and went elsewhere. Of the four roads that reach this wild coast, two are one-lane dirt and all are twisting and steep. Yes, dramatic fits as does remote.

Whether the Lost Coast qualifies as romantic depends upon your point of view. Do you like to carry a backpack? Will you still like it when you're walking on miles of shifting sand or over high ridges? Can you forego the simple pleasures of civilization? Tables, chairs, hot showers and beds are all in very short supply along the Lost Coast. We find the Lost Coast romantic, but romance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Now for the facts. The California Coastal Trail runs the entire length of the Lost Coast, roughly 64 miles of the trail. First it passes along 24-1/2 miles of wilderness beach in King Range National Conservation Area where in some places you have firm footing on dirt road or trail. In a few places you'll be scrambling over slippery rocks, but most of the way you walk on beach sand, firm in places and miserably soft in others. The trail then leaves the beach to follow a paved road 4-1/2 miles over a 2000-foot high ridge ? the Alternate Route is both steeper and harder. Leaving the road, the hiker takes to the high country because no continuous route exists along the coast where cliffs rise as high as 1000 feet. The cumulative elevation gain is 8000 feet, with even more elevation loss. Fortunately you never climb more than 1450 feet before making a major descent. Slightly more than half way along the Lost Coast, though, the trail offers a glorious respite, winding through gorgeous coastal terrain at the heart of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park for 2-1/2 miles with only 500 feet of elevation change.

Worthy of Wilderness Protection
The rugged and remote Lost Coast offers North America's largest span of pristine beach and shoreline on the Pacific Coast outside of Alaska and Canada. Public lands here include 60,000-acre King Range National Conservation Area and 7400-acre Sinkyone Wilderness State Park together stretching 40 miles along the coast. If you study the maps however, you'll see that the true geographic province of the Lost Coast extends another 24 miles north to Centerville Beach, held primarily in private ranch lands, and 16 miles farther south to Hardy Creek, mostly private timber lands. Altogether California's Lost Coast sprawls a phenomenal 80 miles along the shore of the nation's most populous state!

The federal government first recognized the area's remarkable scenic and biological values in 1929 when it withdrew public domain lands here from sale. Congress created the King Range Conservation Area in 1970. When I first visited the Lost Coast in the 1970s, plans were already afoot to protect much of the King Range as designated wilderness. Unfortunately, the King Range remains unprotected more than twenty years later.

Meanwhile during the 1970s, California State Parks began protecting the southern Lost Coast. In what was then called the Bear Harbor Project, the state acquired the remote Stewart Ranch in Mendocino County's northwesternmost corner. They changed the name to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park when the park was officially established in 1977, recognizing and striving to protect its essential wilderness values.

The park's southern neighbor, Georgia-Pacific Corporation, saw the Lost Coast in a different light. Several thousand acres of the company's coastal lands still held virgin forests of massive redwoods, firs and spruces in 1979. These forests had survived because they were remote, even though sawmills had operated within 5 miles of them, at Usal around 1900 and Wheeler in the 1950s. Georgia Pacific quietly began cutting these giants in 1980.

Not until autumn 1983 did word spread around the north coast of the last immense virgin trees around Usal falling to the chainsaws Then about 200 action-oriented environmentalists moved to stop the cutting along Wheeler Road. They came to the Lost Coast under cover of darkness. When the loggers came to work at dawn, they found people blocking their way to the standing giants. After many showdowns and the death of many more giants, a court injunction halted logging. The last groves, most notably the Sally Bell Grove, were finally saved when the Trust for Public Land purchased the surrounding lands. Of the 7100 acres bought by TPL, Sinkyone State Park gained 3000, extending it south to Usal. In 1996 the other 4000 acres became Sinkyone Intertribal Park where, in the nation's first intertribal park, major plant and watershed restoration are occurring.

While this controversy raged around the Lost Coast's southern end, the Bureau of Land Management, managers of the King Range, have slowly added to public lands there. Congress has already established 4000-acre Chemise Mountain Primitive Area just north of the Sinkyone. BLM proposes a 37,000-acre King Range Wilderness Area. One stumbling block to wilderness designation has been BLM's long-standing policy to allow off-road vehicles on 31/2 miles of beach at the King Range's southern end. In 1997 BLM proposed closing that area to vehicles. A final decision is expected shortly. Cross your fingers: a big chunk of the Lost Coast may finally become the King Range Wilderness Area.

We most heartily recommend that hardy souls visit the Lost Coast, but being prepared and physically fit are essential for hiking the entire Lost Coast. So is having enough time. We suggest at least seven days to walk the entire 64 miles. The other choice is hiking the Lost Coast in smaller pieces. We've selected three day hikes along the northern part of the Lost Coast. You can take them all at once, or one at a time: they're all superb. . .

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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