I recently returned from a trip to the Lost Coast Trail and northern California. I went with my friend Mike who had long wanted to hike the Lost Coast Trail, and with no real vacation plans of my own, I decided to join.
Philadelphia? Yes, that is where the journey began. Mike lives in Philly and I drove down the night before for our early flight the following morning. As I drove to his neighborhood, my windows were up, doors locked, I made no eye contact. After all, Philly has a reputation for being a cauldron of anarchy. But then I noticed something-people were walking along the streets, eating outside at cafes and restaurants. Later that night, we walked to get something to eat. Everyone was outside, eating, playing music, riding their bikes. There was a real artistic vibe to the place. I felt safe and noted how people of different races and ethnicities interacted with each other. I was impressed. The whole city seemed to be under construction with new skyscrapers, lofts, and condos. Sure, Philly still has its problems, but it has changed dramatically for the better in the last ten years. I’d like to see more of the city. I even parked my car along the street for the week I was away. I was expecting to have to buy a new car when I got back. It wasn’t touched.
We flew into Oakland and stayed with Mike’s friends for the night. They were great and made some delicious vegetarian dishes that even this meat-eater enjoyed. Berkeley is a nice town. The bay was beautiful and the breeze made the weather enjoyable. We left the next day and hoped to go to Muir Woods, but the place was too crowded, so we headed to the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands to enjoy the great views of San Francisco and the coast.
Next was the drive north along the coast to see the impressive views of cliffs, beaches, and coves. This is a beautiful drive. The countryside comprised of tan fields of dried grass and small groves of old oak trees dotting the hills and valleys. We reached MacKerricher State Park to camp, where we saw a great sunset and some seals. We made our way north to the Kings Range and the Lost Coast.
Richardson Grove State Park
We stopped here to see the redwoods. We had to pay $8 to enter the park, and since you can see the redwoods for free in many other places, it probably wasn’t worth it. Regardless, the trees were impressive although the busy highway through the woods detracted from the setting.
The Kings Range are coastal mountains that rise to over 4,000 feet only a few miles from the Lost Coast. They have steep ridges and gorges. This is also a very geologically active area- an earthquake in the 1990s lifted the land by four feet. It is a beautiful, wild place where the people seem to live by their own rules, in a good way. Driving the backroads it was common to smell people smoking marijuana. I was intrigued by a small school named the Whale Gulch School; it reminded me of the one-room schoolhouses of generations ago. We camped at Nadelos Campground and did a hike on the mountain section of the Lost Coast Trail to Nick’s Camp, where we enjoyed great views of the ocean. The trees and shrubs had this odd, smooth, purplish bark. The campground was primitive, but quite nice.
Lost Coast Trail
We traveled to the isolated ocean-side village of Shelter Cove to begin the famed Lost Coast Trail. Due to the long and very expensive shuttle, we decided to do an out and back hike to Big Flat along the coast. The coastal scenery was impressive as towering mountains rose from the ocean along steep, narrow ridges. This really isn’t a trail- it simply follows the shore. We soon encountered a dead, beached whale rotting on the sand. Seagulls surrounded the carcass and the rangers told us bears go down to the whale at night to feed. The walking was slow and tedious over the sand and loose gravel. As we hiked, the wind picked up and we had to hike against it. At one place, seals slept on rocks in the surf. We made it to Big Flat where, as the name implies, are flat meadows and a stream that flows down from the mountains. We set up camp out of the wind along the creek with views of the ocean. The place felt primeval. I followed the trail further north, passing a gravel airstrip and small cottage. The trail continued over meadows with superb views; it was nice not to have to walk on sand. The wind was strong as it blew off the ocean. I retraced my steps back to camp. There was a seal on the beach that seemed ill; it didn’t want to go in the water and seemed too tired to react to my presence. I checked on it later, but it was gone.
I was surprised by the number of hikers on this trail. Campsites were at a premium and we saw one group with twenty people. We started a small fire and enjoyed the sunset. The next morning we starting hiking a little late to let the tide move out. Along the way we saw a sea otter with a fish on the beach, it quickly ran into the ocean among the kelp beds. The return hike was easier since the wind was at our backs, but the sand made it slow going. We passed the dead whale and returned to our car.
Some things about this trail:
- Keep an eye on the tide charts. On our hike, the tide was lowest in the afternoon, but high in the morning. Since the trail is nothing more than the shore, it may be difficult to hike in some spots at high tide (although if the ocean is calm, you may still be able to get through).
- This really isn’t a trail in the normal sense; it follows the coast, but does go inland in a few places across meadows. There are few signs, no blazes.
- The walking is tedious due to the sand and gravel. I didn’t wear gaiters, rather, I had long pants on. That was sufficient to keep the sand out of my shoes.
- The scenery is excellent with the coast, cliffs, and mountains. The trail does have a primeval feel, to see a place as it always has been.
- The trail was more crowded than I expected. I also expected the trail to be more isolated. Shelter Cove remained in sight for much of our hike, and Big Flat had a gravel airstrip and a house.
- Keep an eye on the ocean for any sudden, big waves. Also, keep some distance from the cliffs, which are actively eroding. Stones, sand, debris often falls from the cliffs. Stones are perched precariously along the cliffs.
- The trail has great opportunities to see wildlife, we saw seals and a sea otter. Not to mention the whale.
- The ocean is not safe for swimming due to the surf and drop-offs.
- Prevailing winds blow south on the trail. Winds seemed to pick up through the afternoon, but died down at evening.
- Do not hike this trail during storms.
- Big Flat was a great place to camp with vast meadows, plenty of driftwood to burn, several sites, and a stream that forms a pool at the beach where you can swim. Several campsites are exposed to the wind.
- The trail north of Big Flat may have been the best section I hiked. The trail stayed inland, crossed meadows, and provided non-stop views.
- For me, the best views were at Shelter Cove and north of Big Flat.
- Bugs were not an issue.
- There was plenty of fresh water along the trail thanks to all the streams and springs that came down from the mountains.
- Overall, I recommend this trail. It is a beautiful place.
Redwoods National Park
The massive trees are spiritual. We hiked the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. We then drove the Bald Hills Road, something that few people do. It was a beautiful skyline road with non-stop views from vast meadows speckled with wildflowers.
We camped at Gold Bluffs Beach, which offered a beautiful beach and a great sunset. Nearby is the famous Fern Canyon. This is a remarkable place, about 70 feet deep, with walls covered in ferns. The trail followed the creek up into the canyon, crossing the water over boardwalks. Springs dripped down the canyon walls as pine and fir trees grew overhead. Apparently, a scene from Jurassic Park was filmed here.
Back at the campground I heard some elk bugling. A few minutes later, to massive bull elk walked down the road behind our campsite.
Weaverville and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
We then drove east into the mountains along the beautiful Trinity River with its deep gorges and rapids. We reached the small town of Weaverville. The plan was to hike into the Trinity Alps, but the weather had turned with clouds, rain, and snow at higher elevations. We drove to the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area to hike to two waterfalls, including the impressive Whiskeytown Falls. The streams in this area kind of reminded me of the Appalachians with lush greenery.
Weaverville is a nice town with some good restaurants. The Weaverville Joss House is a Chinese temple built in the late 1800s and hauled in pieces across the mountains to be re-assembled. It was the worship place for three religions. It had a fascinating history. Old wallpaper had Chinese writing, which were the logs and records kept of the community.
The rain continued and we drove north to Castle Crags State Park. While beautiful, the mountains were cloaked in clouds.
We drove to Weed, California and ate at the Mt. Shasta Brewing Company.
The next day we saw the McCloud River middle falls and stopped by impressive Burney Falls, as the water tumbled down the cliff from out of the ground.
We drove down to Lassen Volcanic National Park with the hope to do the scenic drive. However, due to the recent snow, the road was closed, so we drove back to Oakland, but not before stopping at Corning, CA to eat at a great Chinese restaurant.
We flew back the next morning. A trip to remember.