Adventure's Gold Coast

Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

Aug 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

Land of the lost: Usal Creek

LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: The world's most ogled coastline in the nation's most populous state is left to itself for 80 wild miles beginning about 50 miles north of Mendocino. In the 1920s, builders of California Highway 1 were thwarted by the awesome coastal mountains. They sent the highway over the hills to merge with U.S. 101 and left behind the Lost Coast. Dirt roads usher visitors to its north and south boundaries, and only one partially paved thoroughfare, the Briceland Road, touches its midpoint. Otherwise, the only way to see it is under your own power—most notably, via the 50-mile Lost Coast Trail.
I approached the Lost Coast from the south by turning off Highway 1 at mile marker 90.80 onto unsigned Usal Road (County Road 431), a narrow dirt track that leads six miles to Usal Camp, a primitive campground on the southern edge of 7,367-acre Sinkyone Wilderness State Park ($7 per night, bring or filter your own water). I set up camp on a sandy flat a couple hundred yards from the crashing surf and took off early the next morning to hike as much of the Lost Coast Trail as my legs would allow in one day. The trail rises 500 feet above Usal and then runs in and out of redwood groves and fir forests, up and down coastal canyons drained by streams, emerging to reveal shocking Lost Coast views—whitecapped ocean, crashing surf, sea stacks, and sheer cliffs—from meadowy bluffs. Each is a garden of green wild oats, California poppies, blue bush lupines, foxgloves, blackberry brambles, and wild purple lilies. By the time I switchbacked down to a trail camp at Little Jackass Creek, my turnaround point for the day, I'd gained and lost more than 4,000 feet in 7.5 miles. The trail continues north another 42.5 miles, a great through-hike that takes ten days. For more information, call Sinkyone Wilderness State Park at 707-986-7711 or the BLM at 707-986-5400.