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Road Trip: Lose Yourself in the Wild Beauty of California’s Lost Coast

By: Bridget Clerkin August 15, 2017
California's Lost Coast is a breathtaking—and challenging—route for a roadtripper to tackle. It's a place where towering redwoods meet craggy cliffs and the Pacific's surf.

Not all those who wander are lost, but all those with wanderlust should see the Lost Coast.

The blissful stretch of Northern California is a study in rugged beauty, home of towering redwoods, mountainous coastlines, isolated surf spots, black sand beaches, and valleys strewn with mossy forests and wildflowers.

Snaking up the shore, one can understand where the region derived its nickname: it’s a place blessedly free from cell phone signals, traffic jams, and impatient cities.

Allowed to mature in all its natural glory, the area escaped the bulldozer’s clearing the path for the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) after the road’s engineers thought twice about attempting to tame such an environment. In the absence of interstate pavement, a cobbled group of local streets have instead been strung together to navigate the route, full of bumps, dips, and guardrail-free switchbacks that make the drive as wild as the scenery itself.

Most of the fun of the Lost Cost is, well, getting lost. But there are some must-see areas along the drive that any road-tripper should try to find on purpose.

Pro tip: Traveling the road between April and October will likely lead to the best weather, giving you a greater chance of sunshine and less fog and wind.

Mendocino

There’s not exactly an official start of the Lost Coast, but this picturesque town—located about 155 miles north of San Francisco—is a good launching pad from which to leave civilization.

Mendocino has its fair share of natural beauty, with a plethora of state parks, like Headlands and Russian Gulch, giving visitors a chance to see the Pacific crash against everything from forests to cliffs. But the area is also home to a number of historic buildings and a bustling art scene.

Soak in any last-minute shopping, fine dining, and local wine tasting before you leave. After that point, you’ll be much more subject to the whims of the road—and they can be pretty demanding.

Usal Road will take you most of the way north from Mendocino, and though the route can be used as a thoroughfare, travelers with the courage—and four-wheel drive—can take a number of craggy turn-offs to explore hidden nooks of coastline along the way.

King Range National Conservation Area

KingRange
Redwoods can grow up to 30 stories tall in California's King Range.

Just over a 3-hour drive north from Mendocino is the King Range National Conservation Area, where mountains, redwoods, and beaches collide in a single dazzling landscape.

The shoreline is notoriously precarious. It’s the reason the PCH was rerouted to head inland. But for anyone looking to truly get lost on their journey, the destination is more than accommodating.

Camping is widely available in the preserve—including beach camping—and hikers have plenty of trails to choose from. The Lost Coast Trail may be the most apropos, but proceed with caution: parts of it are impassible during high tide. Grab a tide map, or talk to a park ranger, before starting your journey.

If you’re looking for a slightly softer surface than sand to rest on for the night, check out the inn availability in Shelter Cove, a nearby hamlet at the foot of the King Mountains, which sits at the head of the Lost Coast Trail. The tiny town is home to more wildlife than people, and visitors can be privy to animal sightings from whales and seals to foxes, black bears, and elk.

But it certainly won’t be your last chance to glimpse wildlife or rugged landscapes along the route.

Ferndale

Just outside of the Conservation Area is a tiny town called Honeydew, where you’ll pick up Mattole Road, another coast-bound thoroughfare that will continue to steer you north.

Following the road, you’ll pass a number of wild sights, including the Punta Gorda Lighthouse—accessible by taking a westward turn at the aptly-named Lighthouse Road. At low tide, you can take the 5.5-mile hike to reach the structure, now abandoned, and otherwise so remote that state employees were once relocated there as punishment.

Along the walk, you can find any number of sea creatures in the leftover tide pools, including orange starfish, crabs, sea anemones, and sea urchins.

Back on Mattole Road, continuing north for about 45 miles, you’ll arrive in Ferndale, home to one of California’s most luxurious bed-and-breakfasts, the Gingerbread Mansion. If you want to spend big on accommodation there, you’ll have earned it. The trip north from King Range will take you through another mad stretch of driving that gives Mattole Road its local nickname: the Wildcat.

Still, there are plenty of other places to stay in the idyllic seaside town, which is also home to its own artists’ collective, a number of museums, and an annual land-sea race to northern neighbor Arcata, which commences every Memorial Day weekend.

To end your journey, you’ll also head north, and begin leaving the wilderness behind.

Eureka

Finish your trip in Eureka, a town of 27,000 that will look monumental compared to the hidden hamlets you’ve passed through on your journey. The final 19-mile stretch is easy, with Mattole dropping you back onto Highway 101, from which you can cruise into town.

The community is home to a number of attractions, including a zoo, botanical gardens, and a plethora of museums. There are also plenty of nature reserves, parks, and historic sights to see.

From the comfort of one of the town’s hotels or restaurants, you can relax and contemplate all you’ve found on your trip up the Lost Coast.

Bonus Stops

Not ready to be found yet? You’re in luck: the Lost Coast is filled with alternative routes and side-adventures for anyone interested in stretching out the ride.

GlassBeach
Glass Beach's smooth glass pieces stretch to the surf like an underfoot kaleidoscope.

Fort Bragg

Just a 10-mile jaunt from Mendocino, the city is famous for its Glass Beach, a shoreline filled with colorful, sanded down shards from the area’s past as a trash dump. You can look at, but not take, the beautiful artwork Mother Nature made from our leftovers.

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park

Home to redwoods and the King Range Mountains, this preservation is about an hour due east of Shelter Cove. Camping, hiking, biking, and all manner of outdoor activity can be enjoyed from this expansive state park.

Avenue of the Giants

Departing eastward from Shelter Cove will also lead you to the aptly named portion of the old Highway 101, a winding two-lane road bookended by redwoods, some of which stand more than 30 stories tall.

Star Wars fans may recognize the territory as the planet Endor from Return of the Jedi. In actuality, it’s called Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a spectacular 53,000 acres housing the ancient trees, a number of camp sites, and its own mysteries, such as the reality-defying area called Confusion Hill.

Arcata

Less than 8 miles north of Eureka, Arcata is essentially a sister city, with its own offerings of parks, museums, and nature reserves. The town is also home to Humboldt State University.

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