to the Bone: Backpacking Northern California's Lost Coast
thing I did after leaving the trailhead parking lot at Black Sands Beach
was, ironically, to take off my pack, sit down on it, and then remove my
hiking boots. The thought of feeling the sand between my toes was just
too exquisite to pass up.
I tied my boots to the outside of my pack, hoisted it onto my back, and
started up the beach. I was invigorated and ready for adventure. The warm
afternoon sun shone down upon my face, and hiking through the sand was
like a free foot massage. My two-week backpacking trip on the King Range
of Northern California's Lost Coast was off to a perfect start.
I planned to hike north the first week about twenty miles, taking plenty
of time to enjoy the beautiful and dramatic scenery along the way. Then
I would tramp more than 3,000 feet up the coastal range rising out of
the ocean, and spend the second week hiking south, back to my starting
Problem was, it was February. The Lost Coast can, on a wet year, see more
than 200 inches of rainfall. It's one of the wettest places in the country.
So why did I decide to go in the middle of winter, at the peak of the
rainy season? Because I like to tempt adversity. Because I had a gut feeling
that it would stay warm and sunny. Mostly, I realize in retrospect, because
I just wasn't thinking.
No Road Along the Coast
The Lost Coast - including the King Range National Conservation Area and
the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park-is the longest stretch of coastline
in the continental United States without a road alongside it. Highways
1 and 101 both turn inland to avoid the area, since they were unable to
construct a highway over the rugged mountain range. This has kept it for
the most part cut off from development, other than the small community
of Shelter Cove.
When I finally arrived at Horse Creek five miles north of the trailhead,
my calves were burning. Most of the hike along the King Range is on the
beach, since the steep cliffs near the ocean are too severe for a trail.
It is advised to bring a tide-book along, since high tides can sometimes
engulf the beach, leaving hikers either stranded on the rocks or else
isolated somewhere along the coast.
Still barefoot and enjoying the sand, despite my sore legs, I unbuckled
my pack, set it down on the beach and then leaned back against it and
watched the waves for a while, as the sun slowly sank into the ocean.
It was one of those moments to cherish: watching the glowing sun sink
into the ocean, the pristine beach stretching in both directions, jagged
mountains rising behind me, and not another soul in sight.
The next day was, once again, gloriously sunny. Since I was in no hurry,
I decided to rest that day. I read, went for a day hike up the coast,
and even braved the frigid waters and did some cautious bodysurfing.
An Ominious Fog
Later that evening, however, conditions changed. An ominous fog descended
onto the beach and engulfed me, and it started to mist slightly. I crawled
into my tent, hoping it was just some light precipitation that would quickly
Little did I know, however, that I'd seen the last of the sun for
the next week. Later that evening, the mist developed into a steady sprinkle.
The next morning, I awoke to full-blown rain pelting my tent.
I packed up and started hiking north through the sand. It felt good to
put my muscles to the test. And despite the steady downpour and low-lying
clouds, the scenery was still breathtaking. The gray skies even intensified
the contrast between the looming mountains and churning ocean. I saw a
few seals playing in the waves, watching me curiously as I hiked along.
Hiking was slow due to the sand and the intensifying storm. I had high
hopes that things would dry out by the following day, since my tent was
wet and my gear was also getting damp, as I didn't have a waterproof cover
for my pack. Also, my one pair of pants was soaked through, since I hadn't
brought rain paints.
I spent that night at Saddle Creek. The next morning, eerily, little had
changed. The rain seemed neither to have lessened nor increased from its
I hiked the next two days through the relentless storm. I camped by the
beach once again, where a thin trail seemed to go straight up the side
of the steep coastal mountains. This was the point at which I would ascend
the coastal mountain range, and turn south along the ridge for the rest
of my adventure.
A Ceaseless Downpour
The next day was stormier than ever. I realized at this point that I was
in a bit of a predicament. My gear was dangerously wet, posing a threat
of hypothermia if I didn't somehow dry it out. I checked my map, and found
a jeep road at the top of the ridge, that led eventually to a paved road.
I noted this as an alternative route out of the mountains. Then I packed
up, and began hiking the steep grade away from the roar of the ocean,
as the rain continued its ceaseless downpour.
After five or six hours of uphill trudging, I reached the top of the ridge
and the trail junction. This course would commit me to at least another
four days of hiking. I was exhausted, soaking wet, my hands and face were
chilled, and ironically I was now out of drinking water, despite that
falling all around me. The steep angle of the grade had yielded no streams
for me to refill my water bottle. With all this in mind, I made the choice
to abandon my itinerary, and take the jeep trail, which would hopefully
lead me back to civilization and out of the storm.
I hiked on and on through the onslaught of rain. At least now it was mostly
downhill. I went into a trance of sorts, in which I lost all measure of
time or distance. I hardly felt my wet, tired legs, or the water dripping
down my neck, soaking my shirt.
Finally, as the light of day was beginning to dim, I came to the paved
road and I wasn't sure where the road led in either direction. With no
time to think, I simply made a choice and continued hiking.
Soon it was dark, and I was getting scared. I was on the brink of collapse,
I could barely feel my legs, I was cold and soaked to the bone, and certain
that everything in my pack was also wet, including my precious sleeping
bag. But I kept hiking, having few other options, waiting for a car to
come along so that I could hitch to the closest town of Garberville and
get a hotel room.
A Car Comes Along
Finally, a car came along. I put out my thumb-but it didn't stop. Not
a surprise. Even I would be hesitant to pick up a hitchhiker in the dark,
in a driving rainstorm in the middle of nowhere.
I was now desperate. Having no apparent alternatives, I began looking
off the road for somewhere to set up my tent, hoping I would somehow be
able to survive the night. As I was about to stumble off into the dark
woods, I saw another light in the distance, and heard a vehicle approaching.
As it came closer, I noticed it was a pickup. I waved my arms as its headlights
blinded me through the rain-and it stopped. I opened the side door of
the rusty, beat-up truck. Sitting in the driver's seat was a scraggly
old man with a beer in his hand.
"Man, fellah, you looks like you must be wet." he drawled, clearly
drunk. He said it purely as an observation, as if he'd pulled over merely
to take a look at me, having not yet hypothesized that I might need help.
"Uh, yes," I said, stuttering through cold lips, trying to speak
clearly before he drove off and left me there to my doom. "I need
to get to Garberville, so that I can find a hotel for the night."
"Garberville?" he said dubiously. "Shit, that's thirty
miles! Who you gonna find a ride with out here at this time of night?"
He paused for a minute and took a sip of his beer, thinking, as if he
were trying to drum up a ride for me. "Well, heck, if all you need
is a place to stay, I guess you could crash at my place."
I was in the truck, my pack on my lap, before he had the chance to reconsider.
We drove a few miles down the road, where he turned onto a dirt road.
Finally we came to a run-down, yet cozy-looking wooden cabin.
"Well, this is my home sweet home," he said. "Not much
to brag about, but it does the job, ya know."
I slept warm, dry and content on his couch that night beside a crackling
fire. The next morning, I thanked him profusely, and hitchhiked back home -- grateful
to be alive, and resolving that the next time I ventured into the wilderness,
I'd be more prepared for whatever circumstances might come my way.
Morris is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon, and an enthusiastic
backpacker and traveler. He is the author
of "Kundalini and the Art of Being" (Station Hill Press). To download a free electronic copy of the author's collection of travel
stories, "Wanderluster--An Adventure Travel Guidebook," please
visit his website.