Southern portion of the Lost Coast
HIGHLIGHTS: About 225 miles north of San Francisco, the rugged King Range forces the highway inland, leaving a 60-mile stretch of wilderness called the Lost Coast. The northern half of the Lost Coast lies in the King Range National Conservation Area. The southern half lies in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.
For thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived, the Sinkyone Indians lived on this part of the coast. They occupied permanent villages beside streams and rivers, and moved out in family groups to hunt and forage in the hills during the summer. They fished, gathered seaweed and shellfish, hunted seals and sea lions, and harvested the occasional dead whale washed on shore. All kinds of fish were caught, but the seasonal salmon run was especially important.
Today, the Lost Coast Trail follows the whole length of the rugged Sinkyone coastline. Gray whales pass by during the winter and early spring. Roosevelt elk roam the grasslands. Sea lions and harbor seals hang out in rocky coves. It’s an arresting landscape, with canyons, arches, tide pools, sea stacks, seasonal wildflowers, waterfalls, and dark sand beaches. On a sunny day, the sea looks turquoise. “You almost feel like you’re in the Hawaiian Islands,” says Ranger Josh Ertl. The 7,500-acre park also features twisted and windswept redwoods ranging from 1 to 10 feet in diameter.
Some aspects of the Sinkyone keep crowds away. Its trails are steep and its campgrounds are primitive. There’s no potable water and you have to haul out your own trash. The park’s twisty dirt roads are impassable for passenger cars when wet. More than a few visitors have had to stay an extra day or two because a mudslide or fallen tree closed their road home. “The Sinkyone lets you go when it wants to let you go,” Ertl says. In other words, it’s a real wilderness.
ACTIVITIES: Hiking, camping, horseback riding, backpacking and fishing.
- Bicycles are allowed on park roads, but not on single-track trails. The 5.4-mile ride from Needle Rock Visitor Center to Orchard Creek and back is particularly scenic. As you pedal your way up and down 900 feet of elevation gain and loss, you’ll venture into grasslands, forests, and deep canyons, with splendid views of the coast. You might also spot some of the park’s Roosevelt elk. For safety, please keep your distance.
- Equestrians can ride on park roads, and on the 4.5-mile-long single-track trail from Bear Harbor to Wheeler. Other single-track trails in the park are not open to horses. Equestrian camping is permitted at Wheeler and Usal Beach.
Just for Kids
- Needle Rock Visitor Center has good hands-on displays for children.
- You and your kids also can consult the California State Parks’ Adventure Guide. Download a copy (external link), pick it up at the visitor center, or call 916-653-8959 to order.
- Before heading to the park—or after you return—explore the Redwoods Learning Center. It offers fun, redwoods-themed activities, classroom tools, and ways to get involved in redwoods protection. Redwoods bingo, anyone?
VISITOR CENTER: At the north end of the park (just off Briceland Road) is the Needle Rock Visitor Center. In an historic ranch house, this facility lives up to its Lost Coast reputation: the road is unpaved for the last 3.5 miles, there’s no phone, cell-phone reception is poor, and it’s open only when staffing is available.
CAMPGROUNDS: To arrange for a camping permit for a group of nine or more people, contact the park office at 707-986-7711 or make arrangements at the Needle Rock Visitor Center. In wet weather roads may be impassable. RVs and trailers are not recommended in any season.
- The park’s campsites are all primitive: they have fire rings and pit toilets and sometimes tables. There are no developed water sources, so be prepared to purify the water from creeks or springs, or bring your own drinking water.
- Trail camps are $5 a night. The Park’s three “environmental” campgrounds, Bear Harbor, Orchard, and Railroad, are $25 a night. They’re more or less 3 miles from the Needle Rock Visitor Center. The camp closest to the visitor center, Needle Rock Barn, will keep you out of the rain for a fee of $35.
- The park’s only drive-in sites, at Usal Beach Campground, are $25 a night. RVs and trailers are not advised because of the twisty, narrow entrance road.
- Equestrian camping is permitted at Usal Beach and Wheeler campgrounds.
- You can register and pay for any of these sites at Needle Rock Visitor Center or Usal Beach Campground. All are first-come, first-served.
TRAILS: Some 22 miles of the Lost Coast Trail thread through the 7,800-acre Sinkyone, with views of up to a hundred miles along the California coast. About 3 miles of trail head north from the visitor center. This is the gentlest option, and probably the best for day-hikers. About 19 miles of trail head south.
From Needle Rock Visitor Center, hiking north is generally easier than hiking south. From the south entrance at Usal Beach Campground, almost every hike is at least moderately difficult because of the wrinkled terrain.
- Needle Rock Visitor Center to Jones Beach (2 miles round-trip): From Needle Rock Visitor Center, hike north 1 mile on the Lost Coast Trail. On the east, you’ll pass Barn and Streamside camps, as well as the coastal bluffs. On the west at the beginning of the hike, you’ll see a dark sand beach and the ocean surging through Needle Rock. After about a mile, you’ll come to the eucalyptus grove sheltering Jones Beach Campground. Turn left on the quarter-mile spur trail to Jones Beach. Return the way you came.
- Needle Rock Visitor Center to Whale Gulch (4.5 miles round-trip): Follow the Lost Coast Trail north, as described above. After Jones Beach, continue another mile and a quarter through a marsh, a lofty overlook, a lagoon, and scenic Whale Gulch. Return the way you came, or continue on to Chemise Mountain and the King Range National Conservation Area.
- Needle Rock Visitor Center to Orchard Creek or Bear Harbor (5.4–6.2 miles round-trip): The dirt road connecting Needle Rock Visitor Center with Orchard Creek and Bear Harbor provides scenic seaside hiking in good weather. (It is not currently open to motor vehicles.) Turn back at Orchard Creek, or go on to Bear Harbor for another 0.4 miles. Faint traces of Bear Harbor & Eel River Railroad, built to haul timber in the 1800s, are still visible. A wharf at Bear Harbor was destroyed by a storm in 1899.
- Usal Beach Campground to Anderson Gulch (10 miles round-trip with 2,200 feet up and down): Start at the north end of Usal Beach Campground. After two steep uphill climbs and a traverse, you’ll be just below 1,320-foot Timber Point. Next, the trail takes you on a roller-coaster walk down into and up out of Dark Gulch and Anderson Gulch. Stop at scenic Anderson Gulch and return the way you came.
- Needle Rock Visitor Center to Usal Beach, or Usal Beach to Needle Rock Visitor Center (19.4 miles one-way, multiday trip, 6,000 feet up and down): Starting either at the Needle Rock Visitor Center or at Usal Beach, you can sample 19.4 miles of the Lost Coast Trail. There’s a lot of elevation change, so bring trekking poles and don’t expect fast progress. Plan to camp at least a night or two along the way. The route passes through seasonal wildflowers and three stands of old-growth redwoods. It also provides excellent whale– and elk-watching opportunities. Colors are so bright in the spring, you may think you’ve been transported to the tropics. There’s a camp host at Needle Rock, but no park staff or volunteers stationed at Usal Beach. For a car shuttle, contact Lost Coast Trail Transport Service (external link).
- Usal Beach to the mouth of the Mattole River (more than 50 miles one way, a week or more): This is the ultimate Lost Coast Trail trek, walking up the coast through Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and King Range National Conservation Area. On the state-park section, camps are close to the beach, but most of hiking is inland. There’s lots of steep up and down—6,000 feet in all—but your progress will not be affected by tides. The King Range section is more about squishy, slanted beach walking. In some places, you’ll need to cross a rushing stream without a bridge (in the wet season) or wait for a high tide to pass. The two stretches are different, but both offer plenty of challenge.
MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: Migrating gray whales pass by Sinkyone during the winter and early spring. Sea lions and harbor seals hang out at Little Jackass Cove year-round. There are also canyons, tide pools, arches, sea stacks and waterfalls. “Any time you’re out there, you’ll notice something new,” says Ranger Tyson Young, who has worked in the area since 1999.
HIDDEN GEM: A herd of Roosevelt elk roams Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. The local herd was exterminated more than a century ago, but these transplants from Prairie Creek State Park are thriving.
FEATURES ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: None.
DOGS: Not allowed on trails or dirt roads. On leash elsewhere. In tent or vehicle at night.
ENTRANCE FEE: $6 for day-use vehicle entry; no charge to walk or bike into the park.
- Call the park office at 707-986-7711 or (if the ranger is away) call Richardson Grove at 707-247-3318. Or write to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, c/o Richardson Grove State Park, 1600 U.S. Highway 101 #8, Garberville, CA 95542.
- The Sinkyone Wilderness State Park brochure offers information on the park’s natural and cultural history as well as tips for planning your visit.
- Visit the state park website (external link)
- If you have an hour: You may want to save the Sinkyone for another trip. Both the north and south entrances are a long drive from the main highway—some of it on narrow, winding dirt roads.
- If you have half a day: Drive to Needle Rock Visitor Center and hike north to Jones Beach and back.
- If you have a full day: Drive to Needle Rock Visitor Center and hike north to Whale Gulch and back. Or hike south to Wheeler and back.
- If you have several days: Backpack 19.4 miles of the Lost Coast Trail, from Usal Beach to Needle Rock. Or go all the way to the Mattole River in the King Range Conservation Area—a distance of more than 50 miles.
EAT: If passing through Garberville, try the biscuits and gravy at the Eel Cafe (external link).
If you’re passing through Fort Bragg, Regan Ranoa, Outreach Manager, suggests the North Coast Brewing Company (external link) for a great place to grab some chow and taste the local beer. For a lovely view of the Noyo Harbor, try Silvers at the Wharf (external link).
STOP: In Fort Bragg, Regan recommends stopping for a lovely train ride on the historical Skunk Train through the ancient redwood forest (external link).
FAVORITE HIKE: Serious outdoor enthusiasts should try the Lost Coast Trail, which travels the length of Sinkyone State Park north through King Range National Conservation Area. The 60-mile trail makes an ideal week-long backpacking adventure.
FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTION: The wildlife and the sea! Roosevelt elk, harbor seals, sea lions, gulls and pelicans are all here.
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