Lost and Found

California’s ‘Lost Coast’ an easy getaway


Photo: Rhett Gause

Moving north along the steep unprotected bluffs that make up the high-tide no-pass zone.

I awoke to the sound of the ocean. Not the smooth calming sound that one might think of when pondering that cliché, but something more real. Something closer. The sound of the ocean can be as deep and conflicting as the ocean herself: peaceful but turbulent, serene but frenetic, and, to a certain degree, incomprehensible. Tonight, she is loud.

I look at my clock to see the time. 2:37 a.m. I look at Gena and she’s sound asleep. In a few hours, our alarms will go off and we will walk north along the coast several miles towards Big Flat.

For those looking to venture out from the Tahoe Basin, California’s north coast is a dream: A relatively short drive and a complete world away from our alpine paradise, a place where dry desert mountains rise 4,000 feet above the ocean and beaches run for miles. Gena and I are on the second day of a 12-day road trip, and on the first night of three nights backpacking.

Photo: Rhett Gause
Looking north towards the swell stretching all the way to Mattole

Months before, I sat in the library at Sierra Nevada College, researching for this trip. I stumbled across account after account of local Shelter Cove residents reporting “rogue waves,” crashing 60 feet beyond the waterline like a six-story building rising from the street. Every trailhead was marked “Don’t turn your back on the ocean” or “BEWARE: SNEAKER WAVES.”

We chose to set up our camp on an existing site right at the edge of the high-tide no-pass zone, one of several sections that run, for miles at a time, along steep unprotected bluffs that have been ravaged by erosion for millennia.

The Lost Coast and Kings Range are so rugged that when Highway 1 was constructed in the early twentieth century, the builders decided to completely bypass the coast and turn inland. For us to access this area we drove six hours, departing from Lake Tahoe, to Shelter Cove, Calif: Approximately 230 miles north of San Francisco via the 101.

This small fishing town, with a population of 693 people, is at the southern edge of the 68,000 acres and 35 miles of protected coastline, all of which makes up the Kings Range. It ends just west of Petrolia, Calif. The abandonment of both U.S. Highway 1’s coastal vision and early settlements in this region were eventually what led to the land being dubbed “The Lost Coast.”

In 1970, it was designated as the first National Conservation Area in the country. Between the name, the amount of untouched and wild land, the giant surf, and the alleged opportunity to witness a bear on the coast, I was smitten long before leaving Tahoe.

As we left the 101 and drove west down the long steep roads, my headlights illuminated the new- and old-growth redwoods. The trees were larger than any I had ever seen before. They are the largest trees in the world, some growing to be up to 300 feet tall, and we were in wonder as we thought about the multi-pitch rock climbs we have done that are the same height.

We slept on the side of the road that night in an old Forest Service campground. The next morning, we finished the drive into Shelter Cove, a quaint town comprised of a few hotels, an airstrip, a RV park, and a few neighborhoods. We stepped inside an oceanfront coffee shop and sifted through the ancient issues of “Surfer” magazine on the bookshelves, then hit the trail.

Black Sands Beach, located just north of “downtown” is just that – miles of shimmering, ankle-deep black sand. Remnants of centuries-old redwoods dot the coast as driftwood. We started northbound with a relatively easy pace. Gena was four months out of ACL surgery and we were walking with heavy packs in the sand. We were in no rush. It seemed as though every hundred or so feet there was a starfish washed up at the high-tide line she felt the need to rescue, so we kept our pace. When we approached the end of the “safe” zone we decided to make camp. High tide was coming in for the evening and the next section would be impassable for three miles. We spent the late hours of the afternoon laying in the sun and exploring a deep green jungle framing the nearby river canyon. We waded through the waters into the shadow of the trees.

The next morning we eat, pack, and get on our way. We are used to this routine: alpine starts, cool early morning air, silence — my favorite time of day.

We walk, hushed and in awe, under glorious natural cathedrals and spires that rise hundreds of feet in the air, sometimes full of archaic flora, casting shadows on debris fields spanning hundreds of feet. We pass waterfalls trickling down the lush jungle walls. I look south towards last night’s campground. It seems so close, but we have been walking for hours. Shoreline miles are deceiving.

“Are we even still on Earth?” Gena asks looking up.

We have to keep moving to get out of the high-tide zone in time. We approach a river crossing that marks a change in terrain. The hard-packed sand that we have been easily gliding over seems to shift to cobblestone and boulders that are almost reminiscent of a talus field found in the Sierra—only this “talus field” is battered and marbled black rock, slippery, strung with seaweed, and wet.

Photo: Rhett Gause
Established campsite at Big Flat

We continue to walk into yet another cove made up of crystal-clear tide pools and boulders.  Much to our surprise, on top of one of the larger boulders is an extremely animated group of elephant seals. Massive! Weighing up to 4,500 pounds, they are putting on quite the show as a huge group of their smaller cousins, sea lions, play underneath, acting as the audience. Gena pulls out her binoculars so we can cheat our way to the front row.

This stretch of coastline, much like Point Reyes, is one of the best locations to see and interact with natural coastal wildlife and sea life. It is a marine biologist and ecologist’s dream.

We continue onto the last mile to reach our goal for the day. We arrive on the grassy bluff, elevated from the shoreline we had been faithfully traveling. We claim a site. It feels as though we are camping at the bow of some earthly ship. Looking north, the blue, green, and turquoise waves are coming in massive sets. Eventually, the sun begins to dip, changing the light, and it turns the meadow into a golden world. We start to make dinner in a state of disbelief to the beauty that surrounds us. The golden hours go by, a time that seems to last forever, one of the longest and most memorable sunsets of my life.

The sun starts to melt and drip into the horizon as it hazily blends under the sun. It is hard to perceive what is and what isn’t. As my eye drifts down, the layers start to turn blue with the swell. They work their way, one by one, getting deeper and deeper blue, in rhythm, until they break in front of the rock where I sit. I reflect in submission to the beauty.

Living in Tahoe grants us with one of life’s greatest gifts: access to diversity, a beautiful diversity in ecosystems, both in land and water. There is a lifetime’s worth of exploration in the basin alone, but in three hours one can be in the ocean, the desert, the high Sierra, and if slightly more ambitious: some of the most pristine protected coastline in the United States. The possibilities are endless. With this gift comes responsibility. I urge those seeking adventure to do it right, to ask, “Why do I want this?” and to learn about these places. To seek ways to explore without negatively impacting the land and to become involved in the protection of wild places, even if it means making ethical decisions while exploring them, like choosing to not geotag or partake in harmful or risky behaviors for a photo op. Backcountry travel is a cocktail of planning, risk management, gritting your teeth, and pure bliss. We went to the Lost Coast to find something of ourselves in that wild land. We found so much more.