Drenched to the Bone: Backpacking Northern California’s Lost Coast

By Gabriel Morris

Backpackers on Black Sand Beach
Backpackers on Black Sand Beach

The first 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.

Hiking North

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 point.

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.

Shelter Cover
Shelter Cover

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.

View from the King Range
View from the King Range

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 pass.

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 steady downpour.

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 Lost Coast
The Lost Coast

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.

The Paved Road

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.

Gabriel 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.

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