The Lost Coast
The Lost Coast. A wild section of California that many have never heard of, few can locate on a map, and is one of California’s least-ridden and best adventure rides. The Lost Coast I’m referring to is the section of coastline that lies roughly between Ferndale to the north and Usal Beach to the south, and west of Highway 101. The distance traveled is approximately 120 miles and I prefer to travel it north to south, as the route gets more difficult this direction, with a great payoff of a black sand beach at the finish.
I begin my day in the victorian-themed town of Ferndale. A town where residents take to the morning streets so their dogs can greet each other over breakfast and coffee. Ferndale was settled in 1852 and features descendants from all walks of life such as Danish, Swedish, Irish, Italian, German, and Canadian. They contributed to the various dairies and creameries that were originally in the area and developed many innovations in the dairy industry.
Leaving Ferndale along Mattole Road, it’s not even a mile before I’m in the low hanging clouds of the coastal ranges along Wildcat Ridge passing Sugarloaf Mountain. The road is tailor made for an adventure bike. The asphalt is undulating and the many patches and so-called repairs add to the unevenness of the road, making use of my long travel suspension. It’s easy to see why the state never invested in trying to bring routes across this section of coastline. The elevation changes are as dramatic as the views.
I wind my way up and over many ridges and valleys, past farms and cows grazing in the grasslands that were cleared of brush so many years ago by those early settlers. Coming down into Capetown, a settlement long disappeared and remembered mostly just in name and a by couple houses, I pass over the Bear River on its way to the ocean. There’s one final ridge to crest before descending dramatically to the beach below. Once at sea level, I drive the next 6 miles along the longest stretch of privately owned beach in California. Dedicated to cattle ranching, it is the only place I’ve seen cows along the surf before. California truly does make happy cows.
The strong, black licorice smell of the fennel plants that grow along the road fill every breath I take. The rugged coastline full of rocks protects the black sand beaches. Rich in iron ore, the lighter white sands are stripped away over time leaving the heavier black sand behind. As I turn inland, this will be the last time I’m this close to the shoreline until I reach my approximate halfway point at Shelter Cove.
My next stop is the town of Petrolia. Named, as you would guess, from the word petroleum. A hint at its beginnings from which it sprouted. Petrolia is the site in which the first oil well was drilled in California. The site eventually dried up but the memory remains. Today, the town supports a few hundred people and I chat with a lady and her daughter at a food cart making breakfast bagels and eggs. We talk about what it’s like to live in a small town away from major conveniences and what people do for income. These days, marijuana farming is becoming a major industry with the widespread legalization of the product. There is a small store here that you can get supplies if you plan to camp and I think one fuel pump, although I didn’t use it.
Half way between Petrolia and Shelter Cove, I pass through Honeydew. Don’t sneeze or you’ll miss it. At this location I have a choice to make. I can either continue to Shelter Cove or turn northeast through the Humbolt Redwoods State Park and out to Highway 101. I’ve been that way before and there is a nice small campground and a beautiful grove of Redwoods.
I’m continuing south along Wilder Ridge Road about seven and a half miles until King Peak Road splits to the right. King Peak Road winds for 12 more miles of mixed pavement and dirt and dumps me out to the main route into and out of Shelter Cove. It’s been raining now for miles and the fog is thick.
Heading into Shelter Cove I need a top off on fuel just in case I have to backtrack from the next long section. It runs me $7.10 a gallon. Welcome to rural California during record high gas prices.
In Shelter Cove there is a fantastic deli that also serves a great cheeseburger and loaded fries. I’m just in time to catch the local 4th of July parade doing the lap around the airport. Fire trucks, ATVs, golf carts and bicycles all decorated throwing candy to the onlookers. A real small town quintessential gathering. I take shelter from the rain in a covered picnic area outside the deli to eat and plan the next section of the route along Usal Road. This is really the section that I care about and what I’ve come to experience.
Leaving Shelter Cove you climb steeply from the coast up the face of the mountain until you turn on Chemise Mountain Road which will eventually turn into Usal Road not too far down the way. I ride about six and a half miles before I need to make a big decision. At an intersection called Four Corners, you have three options other than to turn around. Go right, and you’ll arrive at the Lost Coast Campground. Go left and the road curves back and meets back up with Shelter Cove Road. Go straight and you are warned by signs to proceed at your own risk, the road is unmaintained, etc. I’ve driven this section in my truck so I more or less knew what to expect, however I underestimated the difficulty of riding it not only in the rain, but after it had been raining for hours.
Usal Road is 25 miles of one of the most remote roads in the state. Cell signal is mostly nonexistent. I definitely had the feeling that the only people that travel this road are those that are 4-wheeling and those that need to ditch a stolen vehicle. There are in fact several vehicles that have been abandoned along the route, the forest slowly reclaiming them each year.
The road in dry weather is a phenomenal trail that has many elevation changes, switchbacks, and uneven terrain. Branches and bushes overhang into the trail because it doesn’t see enough traffic to keep them at bay. The consistency of the dirt is generally excellent as well. But today is not a dry day and what one road can be described as in dry weather can change dramatically when exposed to hours of rainfall. Every uphill and downhill section sports it’s own miniature creek that runs to a low spot. That low spot fills with muddy water until it eventually spills over down into the forest. The traction in most areas is almost zero, even with soft compound knobbies. I spend the next few hours either sliding down slopes or spinning my rear tire trying to get up hills. My bike is well over 600 pounds and it lets me know it with every slide. I have zero confidence in my front tire traction. Every turn and direction change is done with the absolute minimum necessary deflection of the front tire to prevent the bike from simply deciding it doesn’t want me on board. It’s a fun challenge to slide down a hill and have both tires following separate paths down the ruts, and see if I can maintain balance all the way to the bottom without crashing. It actually turns into a fantastic study of balance and brake management in near zero traction. The hills are another obstacle. Each climb is unknown, so I can’t determine how far it goes, how steep it will get, or exactly which side of the trail will be best. I start to learn traction quality by the color, shade, and texture of the soil. There is soil that is pretty consistent and won’t kill me, and there are spots that are so slick it’s like axle grease on sheet metal. Every mile feels like 20 in the rain and each time I make a climb that levels out at the top I stop and turn the bike off. I sit in the rain thankful to make it up another grade, and zoom in on my map to study the route’s contour lines to get a feel if the trail goes up or down, trying to psych myself up to go on. I can’t ride with my visor down, it’s too wet to see out of so I take dozens of branches and bundles of wet leaves to my face and eyes. I have no options. The trail dictates where I can and cannot go, and when it’s this slick sometimes the only option is to pick the line, gas it, and close my eyes before hitting the branch. I put my head down and let the helmet deflect the blows.
By the time I have 10 miles to go to reach the beach, everything I’m wearing is in a battle with either water or mud. The back half of the bike is all one color and even Gortex is having a hard time keeping up with the demands of preventing water from soaking my base layers. The rain never eases.
I watch the GPS and count down every tenth of a mile until I finally reach Usal Beach. Tonight is the 4th of July and there are already a large component of locals setting up for the evening shenanigans. They have come from the main road only a few miles to the south. I know it won’t be a quiet night but I pick a spot in the woods away from the beach bonfires and illegal mortar shells, and put up a tarp between four perfectly spaced trees. I’m glad I carried this tarp for the last 12,000 miles now. I then can take my time putting up my tent under the tarp knowing I’ll stay dry in the continued downpour. The rain can not dampen the spirts of people launching bombs bursting in air, that is evident. Luckily after the massive bonfires have been reduced to smoldering mud piles and all the fireworks have been fired, most people retreat home and out of the rain. I enjoy a dry evening in my tent and wait out the rain as it never lets up until 10am the next morning. It’s about 6 miles of muddy road to meet the Pacific Coast Highway and continue my journey south to San Francisco.
The Lost Coast has been an adventure. Tourism has yet to tighten its grip on it like it has in so many places in California. It remains a wild and remote destination, that begs you to slow down and absorb the details instead of blasting through with your hair on fire trying to lay down miles.
I hope you get the chance to explore it and if you do Usal Road solo in the wet on a big bike, congrats, that’s an experience. It was for me.