Get lost on California’s Lost Coast and enjoy the solitude

The view from the King Crest Trail 4,000 feet above the shoreline in the King Range mountains on the Lost Coast was clear this mid-November day.
The view from the King Crest Trail 4,000 feet above the shoreline in the King Range mountains on the Lost Coast was clear this mid-November day.

The Japanese have this wonderfully descriptive phrase, shinrin-yoku, used for the sublime experience of being immersed in nature, completely enveloped in the lush natural world. Roughly translated, it means “forest bath.”

When you go to the Lost Coast, when you step foot onto the slopes of the tectonically active King Range and ramble amid the gnarled madrones and Douglas fir, when you scramble over downed tanoaks twice your height blocking the way, when the sword fern grows so wild it obscures the path, when you reach the rocky beach of compressed shale and greywacke that gives way as the surf pounds near high tide, you are, indeed, submerged in nature’s bounty, blissfully absorbed in a transcendent landscape.

Given the time of year, particularly the off-peak winter and early spring seasons, the depth of solitude found at the Lost Coast only heightens the experience. Nary another soul will be encountered on the 16-mile, point-to-point trek that starts deep in the forest, ascends to the 4,000-foot King Peak – where Lassen can be seen to the northeast and the Pacific Ocean to the west, and you marvel at the play of light through the trees and off the water – then down to the shore and a 5-mile jaunt back to civilization, the enclave of Shelter Cove.

Though many choose to take a car shuttle to the mouth of the Mattole River and spend several days backpacking and camping while heading south 24.6 miles to Black Sands Beach, you get a more memorable sensory adventure with the less-trod option of taking the van up the twisty dirt roads and being dropped off smack in the middle of a mountain range that geologists say is one of the most unstable areas in the world, given that three tectonic plates meet just offshore. It’s a day trip that will get you back before dinner, if you plan around high tide.

Even if you’re among the few of the 24,000 yearly tourists here who do not come solely to hike and camp, even if your idea of the great outdoors is sipping chardonnay on a restaurant patio as the breakers crash and recede below, a more fitting place cannot be found to snip that digital umbilical chord of modern life than staying at one of the remotest locales in the state in southern Humboldt County.

As tourist Carrie Edge of Alma, Ga., hopping from boulder to boulder on Black Sands Beach after snagging a tidal-hewn piece of driftwood that would sell for big bucks at a boutique, said, “You don’t even need to go far to see amazing things you’ve never seen before. I mean, the mountains, they are right next to the ocean. Breathtaking.”

With such beauty comes inherent peril. That’s something you need to realize about the Lost Coast before coming: Don’t expect to be pampered.

This has nothing to do with the accommodations – the beachfront hotels range from lovely to functional, and the few restaurants serve typical resort fare – but rather it’s the elements you’ll be facing. The Lost Coast, as its name implies, can be as harsh and forbidding as it is beautiful, the fast-changing meteorological elements and that nexus of shifting plates under foot make you respect nature as well as marvel at it. Signs throughout Shelter Cove, population 693, warn of earthquakes and tsunamis, insidious things called “rogue” or “sleeper” waves, how you are to “never turn your back on the ocean,” and, as the Bureau of Land Management kindly points out, bears think nothing of coming down to the beach to snack on your provisions. Maps denote large swaths of the coastline “impassable at high tide.”

Lest you think these warnings are overstatements given out of an abundance of caution, Gary Pritchard-Peterson, the BLM’s King Range manager, says otherwise.

“There have been a number of people washed off the beach, and there have been a number of fatalities,” he said. “The signs are there for a reason.”

And if you’re still not convinced of the Lost Coast’s reputation, take a look at a map. Notice how Highway 1, which runs parallel to the coast almost all the way from Southern California, makes a sudden and abrupt right-hand turn inland about 30 miles north of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County? That’s because engineers building the highway in 1919 found the coastal area so forbidding that they did a dog-leg inland and joined Highway 1 with Highway 101 at Leggett.

To this day, there are only paved two roads that take you to the Lost Coast: Lighthouse Road from Petrolia to the north; Shelter Cove Road to the south.

Many seeking to get Lost

Warnings, however, should not dissuade you from a true shinrin-yoku experience. Just heed the signs, know the risks, be well-armed with water, food and a map, and then go get “lost.”

You’ll be part of a growing cadre of outdoors enthusiasts who flock here, mostly in summer and early fall but, given drought conditions, well into winter, too. The Lost Coast, especially the 1,200 acres of the beach area from Mattole to Buck Creek, has become such an attraction that Pritchard-Peterson says the BLM is working on a new management plan that, if implemented, would for the first time charge a fee for campers and day-use hikers.

“The reason people are coming to the Lost Coast is eliminated by other people,” he said. “What I mean is, you go to the wilderness to experience solitude and get away from civilization, and then you have people all around you. This past year, we’ve had our highest overnight visitation, ever.”

The influx of wilderness seekers has proved a boon to Sherri Luallin, who runs Lost Coast Shuttle, which ferries hikers on a two-hour drive north to Mattole, for $200, or $150 to go inland for a 90-minute drive to be dropped off at the Lightning Trailhead, the closest approach to King Peak. She has three vehicles going per day at the height of summer but, even in mid-November, she still gets several fares a week.

Luallin is, in many ways, a typical Lost Coast denizen who looked to change her life. She arrived in Ettersburg, a speck of a town northeast of Shelter Cove, 13 years ago from her native Ozark Mountains in Missouri to “get away from the bad winters.” She eventually came up with the business plan of shuttling hikers and campers so they could do point-to-point treks along the beach and inland, and like any tour guide, she relates the geologic and arboristic features of the Lost Coast.

“This place kind of reminds me of the Ozarks,” she said, her twang still strong even after all these years, “except for that big blue thing to the west.”

That blue thing, of course, would be the Pacific Ocean, the body of water at which Luallin picked you up. As she made the left-hand turn off Shelter Cove Road, the last the car’s steel-belted radials will see of asphalt for a long time, she talked about how the area’s logging history fortunately didn’t quite clear-cut the area. She pointed out the proliferation of tanoak beech trees, their pale trunks stark against the surrounding verdancy of fir and oak.

She had the radio tuned to KMUD, the local public-access station with studios in Redway. The morning DJ is speaking about the homeless situation in Humboldt County and how it’s tied to the “emerald triangle” economy – marijuana cultivation. Many “drifters” apparently converge in these hills during harvest season, and get paid with the crop itself. Some, the radio said, never leave.

Luallin shook her head. She was none too pleased about the marijuana growers, how much water the operations suck up, and the environmental damage to the hillside. Like everyone else in the county, though, she just shrugs and knows the growing is entrenched not only in the area’s economy but its culture.

“You take a wrong turn on one of these side trails or roads,” she said, jerking her thumb back to a junction shooting off to the right of the main dirt path, “you’re liable to be met by a guy holding a shotgun. This is big business. I do OK, too.”

It took you a split second to realize she was talking about her shuttle service doing well, not another, uh, side business.

“It’s tailing off a bit now, near winter, but I did drop off four people in Mattole a couple of days ago to do the Lost Coast Trail (along the beach),” she said. “That’s overwhelmingly the most popular. This is the first time in a while, maybe six months, I’ve driven up here to Lightning (Trailhead). We’ll see about the road condition. Usually, this time of year, you’ve got streams to cross. I’ll just take it slow. But it’s been so dry. Last year, just 60 inches. I barely got by. I rely on spring water for my house. Hoping for a better year.”

When she reached the first stream crossing, she down-shifted her four-wheel drive, but there was barely a trickle, nothing much to ford. Upon reaching the Lightning Trailhead, she wished you well and eyed suspiciously your slim hydration pack, holding 30 ounces of water and two Clif bars.

“Sure you got enough water?” she asked, before hopping back in the SUV and leaving a cloud of dust behind. “Maybe you should’ve brought some (trekking) poles.”

You had told her your detailed route, just in case, and she made sure you wrote it down on the back-country permit the BLM provided at the trailhead.

Goal: Reach beach before high tide

The plan was to take it slowly, enjoy that sublime shinrin-yoku experience, yet still keep an eye on the clock, knowing that high tide was scheduled by 12:22 p.m. That would allow slightly under four hours to make it past the point of the beach south of Buck Creek that the BLM deems “impassable at high tide.” And, from speaking with the BLM manager, that was not hyperbole; people have been lost to “sleeper waves”– 6- to 12-foot swells that sneak in to a regular set of waves. But only the first 1.9 miles of the beach from Buck Creek heading toward Black Sands was considered impassable; the last 3 miles, you might get your shoes and shorts wet but not get dragged out to sea.

It was an odd, slightly helpless feeling, being dropped off and watching your ride recede into the distance. Perambulation was your only way back; best set off at once. The initial climb is 2.5 miles of single-track switchbacks along steep slopes through curtains of tanoak, oak and fir. Not even a mile into it, you’ve already shed your windbreaker and Lycra base layer. A T-shirt sufficed, the notorious Lost Coast fog and wind strangely absent.

Without the howl of a gale, or the chatter of other trail users, or even the overhead drone of commercial airplane going past, the soundtrack slowed and became more nuanced, approaching something like, in classical music terms, a calando. All you could hear was your accelerated breathing, the crunch of your soles on fir cones; all you could see was the stanchions of tanoak with the first lambent beams of the morning bleeding through and the wafting of parachuting oak leaves settling near your feet.

Approaching King Peak, at 4,088 feet, tree-dwindled and chaparral-dominated, you encounter 360-degree vistas. Atop the observation deck, the only man-made structure on the trail – other than the occasional handy wooden directional posts – the view brought to life the cliché “sweeping.” Sure, you could spend your time gawking at the dark curve of the shoreline and the Pacific, tinted periwinkle blue in this early light.

Better, though, to peer in a north-south direction, to look at the King Range itself, those stark, jutting formations that stretch for miles. You don’t have to be a plate-tectonic geologist to marvel at the formations, result of periodic violent clashing of Earth’s crusts. You recall reading in one of the guidebooks that these hills rise as much as 12 feet every thousand years or so. Remember that 1992 earthquake that rocked Petrolia? That 6.9 temblor alone added 3 feet to King Peak, according to news accounts.

You tried not to consult your watch on King Peak, but as you looked down to the black beach and detected the slightest ripple of a wave breaking, you know high tide awaits if you dawdle.

The subsequent 4.5-mile ridgeline trek down from the peak and along the King Crest Trail figured to be the most tranquil and easiest part, since you lose elevation, but not drastically. But your complacency proved unfounded. This is the Lost Coast, remember, best not to be complacent. The single-track wove through heavy, dense foliage and gorgeous red-bark madrones, some of the tallest madrones you had ever seen.

Not all the trees, however, remained upright. At one point, storms had knocked down a row of trees, covering the trail. You could not go around it, given a steep drop-off; you had to climb over it. This occurred no fewer than three times on that stretch. At the last, you tried to contort your body through gaps in the fallen branches and got your T-shirt snagged on a stubborn twig. It took, embarrassed to admit, five minutes to free yourself.

In time, the King Crest Trail turns into a dirt fire road. That was the good news. The not-so-good news was another 800-foot climb to the junction with the Buck Creek Trail. You endured that and figured to cruise the downhill for 3.6 miles to the ocean.

Again, you figured wrong. That 3.6 miles, mostly single-track until the end, is such a steep descent that accelerating too fast could send you careening down to the dull roar of Buck Creek far below. Best to take it slowly, slower even than on the uphills. At points, you wished you had packed a machete to chop through the overgrown foliage, much of it thorn-laden.

If this trek were a shinrin-yoku, then this was the part of the “bath” where nature uses a luffa to scrub your epidermis raw.

Still, even the painful parts of the Buck Creek Trail had its beauty, notably the screensaver-type views of the beach below, growing more and more distinct.

High tide beckons

You hit the beach just before 11 a.m. The BLM recommends not to be walking on the “impassable” stretches on “for an hour on either side of high tide.” You did the math and figured you could easily cover 1.9 miles in 22 minutes. You were a Southern California kid; you grew up running on beaches.

Except, well, there was no sand. Just black rocks. Beautiful black rocks, slick with surf. Some were as large and round as basketballs, some jagged and in shards. Footing proved to be difficult; trekking poles might have been welcomed. Yet, even as you felt the need to make good time around the bend and south of the unmarked boundary for the “impassable at high tide” section, you had to stop and marvel at the foamy surf as it slid between rocks and found tributaries back again. The waves roared in like some rampaging beast, slathering for fresh kill, but then receded over the rocks making a sound like polite applause, as if congratulating you for enduring the tidal onslaught.

Near noon, you were close to the end of the danger zone, but the breakers were starting to assert themselves, and you had one last cliff edge to shimmy past. A rock the size of a Subaru jutted, and the surf crashed against it and smothered the rock as if it were a pebble. By the time the water reached you, it was waist-deep. Intimidating, and this wasn’t even high tide.

By the time the really high water arrived, you were walking on what you might truly define as a beach – namely, sand and about 50 feet of shoreline to absorb the waves. The wind had yet to even ripple your T-shirt, and the noon sun was sending temperatures near 70 – crazy warm, for mid-November. You picked up a piece of driftwood, the perfect walking stick for the final stretch on soft sand.

Humanity returned the closer you got to Black Sands Beach, where your car awaited. You ran into a local mom, Wendy Kornberg, coaxing her toddler daughter off the beach and into the car. She mentioned, “We saw a sea otter out there. Never seen one in Shelter Cove before. It’s gone now.”

You saw lots, experienced lots, during your four-hour shinrin-yoku on the Lost Coast. But you missed the sea otter.

A reason to return.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 5 north to Highway 20 west to Highway 101 north. Exit at Redwood Drive in Garberville and travel west 22 miles on Briceland Road and then Shelter Cove Road.

Hotels: The Tides: 59 Surf Point Road.; Inn of the Lost Coast: 205 Wave Drive.; Shelter Cove Oceanfront Inn: 26 Seal Drive.

Restaurants: Cove Restaurant (at Shelter Cove Oceanfront Inn). 707-986-1197; Delgada Pizza: (at Inn of the Lost Coast) (707) 986-7672

King Range Conservation Area trails and camping information:

Lost Coast Shuttle Service:; (707) 986-7437