Friends and family often ask us how we choose our destinations. We set out on our trip with a few main goal posts that set a general direction to head in, but we make many, many stops in between. We choose these stops by pulling up a map and looking for a big green spot (parks are shown as green on the map) in the rough direction we need to head. Bonus points if that green spot is National Forest or BLM land, where camping is super cheap or even free. After over a month of mostly relatively expensive state parks, we were ready for some cheaper camping and jumped at the opportunity to visit a large green spot managed by BLM that is a day’s drive from Manchester Beach, King Range National Conservation Area: The Lost Coast.

Highways run along the coast throughout the majority of California, but between Fort Bragg and Eureka the highway circles inland away from the ocean. Twenty-five miles of mountainous coastland is “lost” to development, because the land is too steep and unstable. This stretch of coastal wilderness, the longest stretch of undeveloped beach-front land in the country, lies near the Menodocino Triple Junction. Three tectonic plates intersect here, the North American, Pacific, and Gorda plates, which explains the instability of the land. Activity along these faults pushes the land up at a rate of 13 inches per 1000 years, a similar rate to the rise of the Himalayas. The King Range rises abruptly out of the sea in a geologic phenomenon found in few places in the world. The tallest peak of the range, King Peak, reaches up to 4087 feet, the summit less than three miles from the ocean. Strong winds and rain blowing in off the Pacific Ocean erode the peak as fast as it rises, keeping the summit elevation relatively constant compared to the rate at which the land raises.

We set up camp at the easily accessible Wailaki Campground for the first few nights. We were the only campers in this campground or the neighboring Nadelos Tenting Area on that first night, though a few other campers joined us the following day. We attempted to pay $8 per night fee, but the self-pay drop box was broken and there were no envelopes at the campground so there was no where to place our payment. I even tried the Nadelos Tenting Area, which had an intact dropbox but no envelopes, so we gave up and ended up with an expectedly free campsite!

Our first full day at King Range I took my bicycle and attempted to ride to the beach at Shelter Cove. There were so few people in the campground, I thought there could not possibly be much traffic on the narrow winding road down to the beach on a Thursday. I did not realize that Shelter Cove is a town, a small piece of private land in the midst of the King Range National Conservation Area. I shared the narrow road with many more vehicles than I had anticipated, and the road is steep, dropping over 1500 feet in under three miles. Much steeper than my small-wheeled folding bike gearing is designed to handle. After about a mile coasting down toward the ocean, I got a look at the water. I had already descended a lot of elevation, yet once I could see the water, I realized there was a lot more to go. I finally decided to abort my mission, because I wouldn’t be able to ride all the way back up and I didn’t like walking on the side of the road with so many cars passing. I gave up and turned back, walking in one place but mostly managing to cycle back up the steep road.

Steep grade, little bicycle. Not the best combination.

Steep grade, little bicycle. Not the best combination. [John here: it’s not the bike, it’s the gearing.]

On the second day, I did the more reasonable activity and went for a hike. A short spur trail connects the Wailaki Campground and Nadelos Tenting Area to the long-distance Lost Coast Trail. To give you an idea about this trail, I’ll share a quote from a review on Yelp: “The way most hikes in my experience work is that you climb for several miles and get rewarded with grand sweeping views. The Lost Coast is a bit different. It’s mostly flat and instead of long climbs rewarded with breathtaking views, it’s mostly sand and loose rocks rewarded with solid ground. You know how after being thirsty forever, you understand how delicious water tastes? Well, after walking on sand for 5-6 miles, you understand how delicious solid ground feels beneath your feet.” I had a very bad early hiking experience trying to walk to a lighthouse on miles of sand, so I really appreciate how hard it is to hike on sand, and I fully empathize with this reviewer. The Chemise Mountain section that I hiked is one of those rewarding sections of solid ground, passing under the shade of Douglas Fir and Pacific Madrone trees.

After three nights we checked out of Wailaki Campground and planned to drive to the Lightening Trailhead, the closest trailhead to King Peak. On the way, we took a detour to see the beach that I was unable to cycle to. First stop was Black Sands Beach, the southern terminus of the northern section of the Lost Coast Trail, which follows along the coast for 24 miles up to the mouth of the Mattole River. I insisted on the stop because I wanted to see the black sands!

Black sands beach.

Black sands beach.

Parking for the Black Sands Beach trailhead is at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach. A well-worn trail leads down to the sand. The smell of licorice was thick in the air as we walked toward the beach, the scent emanating from the wild fennel growing densely around the trail. We encountered a warning sign about the size and power of the waves on the beach, and knew we were in for a treat akin to the waves at Manchester Beach.

The beach is just as awesome as we expected. A barren expanse of dark sand, made even more striking by the surprising dearth of kelp and other sea-refuge that washes ashore on most beaches. Gigantically huge waves roll in from the sea. Each wave pauses at the shoreline to gather water, looking like a monster rearing up. Eventually the wave monster strikes, and the powerful hands of the sea pound the black pebble beach, reaching up along the ground toward the base of the mountains.

Warning...you are about to see some big waves! Don't let them take you way.

Warning…you are about to see some big waves! Don’t let them wash you away.

Monster wave. The waves gather up and raise out of water like a huge monster rearing up to attack. The monster pictured is just about to snap forward.

The waves gather up and raise out of water like a huge monster rearing up to attack. The monster pictured is just about to snap forward, with jaws open.

The force of the wave's impact hurls a blanket of mist into the air.

The force of the wave’s impact hurls a blanket of mist into the air.

After getting our fill of the barren black sand beach, we walked back up to the van and drove around to Mal Coombs Park for an ocean-side picnic lunch. The Cape Mendocino lighthouse sits in this park. It was moved here from its original location about 40 miles north by a group of citizens who wanted to preserve the historic structure. Volunteers lead tours of the lighthouse during the summer. It was not yet open for the season when we were there, but we lucked out as a docent was on site waiting for a specially-arranged tour group. The docent let us take a look inside.

Lighthouse at Mal Coombs Beach.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse at its current home, Mal Coombs Beach.

We ate lunch at a picnic table near the lighthouse and brought out the binoculars to look for whales. Looking for whales on a vast expanse of ocean through binoculars with a small viewing angle is pretty difficult, but we did manage to find a pod of dolphins, hopping along in the distance. Later in the day I did glimpse whales, with the help of an excited woman who pointed them out to me. After lunch, we walked to the water where sea life abounds.

Lunchtime with ocean view.

Lunchtime with ocean view.

Beach cove.

Beach cove near Mal Coombs Park.

Rocky beach covered in sea-life rich tidal pools.

The rocky beach is covered in sea-life rich tidal pools.

The tidal pools are teaming with small sea life, such as these snails.

The tidal pools are teaming with small sea life, such as these snails…

And this little blue crab.

and this little blue crab.

Watching seals through binoculars.

I really enjoyed watching the huge group of harbor seals playing and sunning in this cove.

Mama seal protecting her little baby seal.

A mama seal protects her baby (zoom into the center of the photo to see them).

If you zoom in on the rock with the birds on it you will see several large seals sunning themselves.

Seals sunning on a rock, shared with birds. The seals are below the left hump and in the saddle between the two peaks.

A visit to Shelter Cove was definitely worth the detour for the sea life viewing. The variety and quantity of creatures was astounding – from whales migrating by to the teeny snails in the tidal pools, everywhere we looked life was on display. The group of 50 or so harbor seals were a special highlight – they are fun to watch, both when they are gracefully swimming underwater an when they are awkwardly flopping around on shore. The Cove is so close to the mountains we were on a rugged mountain road just a few minutes after pulling away from the beautiful beach – the Lost Coast is a very special place!

April 30 – May 3, 2014

2 Thoughts on “California’s Lost Coast Part 1: Shelter Cove

  1. WOW. Lovely. Love the waves. I am so behind in this blog that I had no idea you were still traveling!!!

    • Hi Rita…sorry for the confusion. We are not still traveling, I just am still trying to record the rest of our adventures while they are still [relatively] fresh in my mind. The more time that passes, the harder it is to write, though. I put the actual dates at the very bottom of the entry.

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