the loneliest trail
If there truly is a place left in California to “get away from it all,” the Lost Coast Trail might be it.
While campsites in Yosemite often sell out months in advance, and other well-known natural destinations are getting loved to death, our hiking party walked the entire length of this little-known wilderness area and encountered barely a dozen other people. This unique corner of the Golden State has managed to stay pristine and intact mostly by staying, well, lost.
This part of California has stayed isolated due to the unconquerable nature of the Kings Range. Highway survey crews searched high and low for a passable route through the area, finally giving up and pushing state Highway 101 inland. This left an entire portion of the north coast unreachable by automobile and development.
The hiker looking to explore the entire 25 miles of the seaside segment of the trail has the choice of starting at either the north trailhead (four miles outside the town of Petrolia) or the south trailhead (the town of Shelter Cove). We decided to go from north to south after our research revealed that winds on this part of the coast tend to go in that direction.
Hiking at an unhurried pace put us at the now-abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse for our first night of camping. A sign explains that keepers often loathed an assignment there, nicknaming it “the loneliest lighthouse in the world.” Lighthouse fans might debate this claim if comparing its location to Tillamook Rock off the coast of Oregon, or Stannard Rock, 40 miles out into Lake Superior. Nevertheless, it was a long way from anything resembling a settlement, and “lonely’ somehow fit.
This was also our first encounter with the driftwood “surfer shelters” built on the entire length of the trail. My hiking partners had their choice of three of these structures resembling beach forts, while I jumped at the only chance I’d probably ever have to sleep in a real lighthouse. The 50-knot winds, ceaseless waves and almost-full moon illuminating the cast-iron light room, which once contained a 2,000-pound Fresnel lens, reminded me I was a visitor out of time, just passing through..
One of the more challenging aspects of the trail are the periodic stretches impassable during high tide. We encountered the first of these segments on day two. Tide charts obtained in advance from the Park Service clearly showed the times we wouldn’t want to be caught in those sections, and we planned our day accordingly.
Day two also took us past “Sea Lion Gulch,” where offshore rocks are home to dozens of sea lions and their pups basking in the warm sun. At least 50 percent of the trail was on sand or directly following the beach, which makes progress more of a challenge. Our party found that hiking on sand works muscles that somehow escape any efforts for preparation; we all slept well that night.
The Kings Range has many more trails to explore, all more or less branching off the main trail to create shorter loops east along streams and ridge crests, making it all the more accessible to hikers with time restraints or more limited physical aspirations.
After spending some time around Arcata, where the rainy season can make Seattle look like a drought zone, I was surprised to find how dry the Kings Range is. Due to a meteorological phenomenon beyond my realm of knowledge, precipitation seems to make its way south then shoots out to sea around Cape Mendocino.
The only saving grace to the 90-plus degree days we experienced were the cooling breezes of the ocean. Our short side trips into the hills afforded breathtaking views, but left us hurrying back to the natural air-conditioning the Pacific Ocean provided.
One of the first things on a hiker’s mind is water, and the LCT seems to be designed by nature to fill this need. In most spots, no more than a mile separates bubbling freshwater streams and lush mini-oases. It’s unfortunate that no place is really safe to drink untreated water – this was no exception. We stopped several times a day to fill our water bottles with water run through the portable filter we brought along.
Meals were planned in advance, with each of us responsible for our own snacks. (Mine lasted until the end of day two.) One of the only required regulations we found on the trail, and were thankful to have followed, was the use of bear-proof canisters. (These are roughly the size of a 5-gallon propane tank and are available to rent at the Petrolia General Store for a $5 deposit, refundable upon return).
In the past couple of years, black bears have started associating people with food and become a lot more aggressive about raiding camps. Our last night out, we were warned by a Bureau of Land Management crew leader that a bear had been making its rounds, hitting every campsite in the area for the past two weeks.
Sure enough, Mr. Bear paid us a late-night visit, only to find everything edible locked tight in our sturdy, well-designed canisters. Hopefully, after enough fruitless attempts for a free meal, this association will diminish and the bears will go elsewhere.
Our journey ended in the costal village of Shelter Cove. At a leisurely pace, it took us four days to complete the hike; we were told most through hikers finish in three.
Arrangements should be made in advance to return to your car. We decided to hitchhike back to the parking area near the trailhead; for the less adventurous (or perhaps smarter), a second car or pick-up person is the best way to go.
In a time when Americans are looking for getaways closer to home, the Lost Coast Trail is the best of both worlds, a unique personal wilderness experience within reach.
Brenton Netz of Grass Valley is a student at California State University at Chico.
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A slight chance of rain will enter Grass Valley’s forecast before temperatures jump back into the high 90s, the National Weather Service said.