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Adventure on Lost Coast

Lost (Coast) Weekend
Raw beauty, elk encounter banish memories of sore backs, tired feet

By Mary Lou Janson
sunset on Mendocino's Lost Coast

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This article first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner newspaper on August 6, 2000.

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park—Aching 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 until now.

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 her heels.

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 location—36 miles southwest of Garberville, the nearest town—promised 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 dinners—but everyone had to help carry supplies. For more than 20 years her company, Call of the Wild, has specialized in wilderness trips for women.

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 on—or acquire—backpacking 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 nights.

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 center—nine 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 giving chase.

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 direction—up. Two hours later we began a long, winding downhill walk to Little Jackass, a cove where the water has carved caves and cliffs into the landscape.

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.


Enjoy the beauty of Lost Coast yourself. Go to Lost Coast Beginners Backpack

Read articles about the Call of the Wild company; about our Mt Whitney trip with Outside Magazine.

Look at more photos from this trip and others in our Photo Album.

Find out more about Carole Latimer's gourmet cookbook for campers, Wilderness Cuisine.

Where to you want to go? Take a look at Destinations.

Questions or comments? E-mail us. (Note: We will not give out your e-mail address, phone number or mailing address to others.)


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