This article first appeared in the San Francisco
Examiner newspaper on August 6, 2000.
Sinkyone Wilderness State ParkAching from the
more than 40-pound load I'd strapped on four hours earlier, I felt
each footstep as I struggled up the heavily forested hills of California's
Lost Coast, north of Mendocino. The final half-mile to the trail head
near the Needle Rock Visitor Center gradually leveled, making it a
little easier to lurch along the dirt path.
I had been backpacking through Sinkyone Wilderness
State Park for three days with six other women when, without warning,
I walked into a sparse clearing and found myself eye-to-eye with
about a dozen Roosevelt elk.
They were contentedly chewing on foliage along
the edge of the dusty trail, but directly ahead were four husky
bulls staring back at Maureen and me, the stragglers of our group.
For a few seconds, we all froze. Not wanting to
draw attention, we kept still while stealing occasional glances
at the powerful-looking creatures. No dainty deer, these males can
weigh up to 1,000 pounds.
Add to that weight advantage a pair of sturdy antlers,
and we were suddenly in no hurry to finish our hike. Rangers warned
us when we first arrived at the park that it was mating season,
a time when the male elk are testy and territorial and don't take
kindly to other males who try to woo away their females.
We witnessed just how boisterous bulls can be when
we first arrived at the Bear Harbor trail head near the park's visitor
center. We unloaded coolers and stuffed gear into bloated backpacks
for the hike to our camp under the watchful eye of a bull elk and
his harem reposing in the shade about 75 feet from our cars. Parked
in a clearing bordered by hills, we had no place to hide.
An uninvited buck arrived, and suddenly both males
bellowed and charged. Using their antlers as battering rams, they
clashed and bashed until the interloper withdrew in defeat.
With that confrontation, and the rangers' warnings
fresh in our memories, Maureen and I knew that elk in rut could
be unpredictable and dangerous. We had avoided any close encounters
Fortunately, as we watched, waited and wondered
what to do, the creatures lost interest in us and gradually drifted
off to nibble under the alder trees scattered around us. We made
our move, stealthily creeping past the elk enclave, heads down and
eyes averted. With the elk still leisurely lunching nearby, Maureen
suddenly picked up speed and power-walked away. I followed hot on
It was an anxious end to a perfect weekend trip.
Hiking the Lost Coast had appealed to my wanderlust for some time.
The name alone intrigued me. The remote location36 miles southwest
of Garberville, the nearest townpromised true wilderness.
This one stretch of the California coastline is too rugged for Highway
1 to follow, so hiking the pristine, twisting trails is the only
way to view the raw cliffs, black sand beaches and redwood forests.
Since the time when Sinkyone Indians occupied this
area, there has been sporadic activity, ranging from logging to
farming. Traces of railroad right-of-ways remain, but the area is
blissfully free of all but the most rudimentary facilities, such
as the occasional outhouse.
Eager to experience this other California, I borrowed
a backpack, signed up for a group trip and took off for my first
real wilderness experience.
The leader and camp cook, Carole Latimer, provided
tents, cooking pots and utensils, and food for breakfasts and dinnersbut
everyone had to help carry supplies. For more than 20 years her
company, Call of the Wild, has specialized in wilderness trips for
The adventure began Thursday evening with a four-hour
caravan north from the Bay Area to Richardson Grove State Park,
just off U.S. 101 south of Garberville. While pitching tents by
the glow of flashlights and a campfire, my camp mates and I compared
careers and camping experiences before crawling into our tents and
trying to sleep despite the roar of trucks along the highway.
The lure of a back-country escape and need to brush
up onor acquirebackpacking skills had brought us together
from various parts of California and Nevada. The group included
two college students, a founding member of a Silicon Valley start-up
company, an accountant with the Nevada Gaming Commission, an attorney
with California's Prison Parole Board, Latimer and me.
We would penetrate only a small portion of the
22 miles of Lost Coast Trail that stretches from Usal Campground
to the south to the entrance of the King Range National Conservation
Area near Whale Gulch. We planned to drive to the Bear Harbor trail
head and hike more than 4 miles to Wheeler Camp, our home for two
Early Friday morning, we drove to Garberville for
gas and continued west, threading through increasingly smaller towns
such as Briceland and Whitethorn, to the Needle Rock entrance to
Sinkyone. Any hopes of a last latte were quickly dashed as we snaked
through settlements too small to offer even a convenience store.
About an hour passed as paved roads turned to narrow
strips of dirt and rocks, and neighborhoods shrunk from clusters
of homes to single houses separated by forests and farmland.
Our caravan slowed to a crawl as we cautiously
navigated the steep, harrowing path downhill to the visitors centernine
jarring miles. By the time we paid entrance fees and parked at the
trail head, the early afternoon sun was blazing against a blue sky.
With provisions loaded and packs strapped on, we
began the arduous hike to our campsite. Initially, the trail was
wide and sunny, lined with low-lying ferns. The moderate inclines
were manageable, giving us confidence.
Within the first hour, the trail alternated between
steep open grasslands and even steeper redwood stands. Branches
created an overhead canopy that kept us cool as we marched through
the towering trees. I stopped on a bluff hundreds of feet above
the coast. The jagged cliffs and beautiful blue-green waters that
make this raw coastline comparable to parts of Hawaii mesmerized
me. Refreshed by the beauty around me, I pushed ahead.
We reached Wheeler Camp just in time to gather
wood, purify water hauled from a nearby creek, and set up tents
before the blue sky burst into bands of gold and pink as the sun
began to set.
For two nights, we occupied a driftwood-strewn
campsite at Wheeler Beach. While day hikes are possible from Bear
Harbor as well as the park's Usal entrance, backpacking is well
worth the effort. You can linger leisurely along a stream, study
tide pools and watch for sea lions (or, at certain times of the
year, passing whales) without having to hurry back at the end of
the day. And only those overnighting see deer nibble on grass as
the sun sets over the black-sand beach.
The bright light of a full moon, howling winds and
waves slapping at the sand made sleep a little difficult at first,
but finally I slept so soundly that when the wind pulled one of
the tents free from its stakes, I didn't even hear the other campers
Saturday morning, half of us set out on another
hike while the others relaxed by the beach. We traded our big bundles
for compact day packs, but even with the lighter loads, the trail
was so rigorous that it was impossible to breathe and talk at the
same time. At times I thought about sitting down and sliding, it
was so steep.
Again we walked through heavily shaded forests,
on paths carved into mountainsides that seemed to go only one directionup.
Two hours later we began a long, winding downhill walk to Little
Jackass, a cove where the water has carved caves and cliffs into
We sprawled on the sand to devour lunch and look
for sea lions. But that day we had the beach to ourselves, except
for a few birds.
Exhausted, the four of us let the hot sand soothe
our sore muscles. After rinsing our faces and feet in the cold ocean
water, we resumed the up-and-down march back to Wheeler.
At our final dinner, we watched the campfire flames
for hours, talking about returning to this primitive, private spot
for a longer trip. As the last light faded and stars appeared, we
laughed at our bug bites, compared sunburns and relished the ruggedness
of the adventure.
When recalling our Lost Coast weekend, images of
the ancient redwood trees, foaming blue-green water, stunning rock
formations and black sand-even the elk-come rushing back. Memories
of sore backs and tired feet are quickly forgotten.