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Lost Coast Triology: Part Three



If you really desire to fall of the map, head down to Sinkyone State Park. It has an almost mythical quality to it, starting with the drive in. From the north, narrow paved roads give way to one lane of dirt a few miles from the rustic visitor's center at Needle Rock. The muddy strip hugs precipitous drops, leaving you thankful for the fog that obscures the abyss below. Remember Johnny Depp in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow? It wouldn't be a stretch to say that portions of that gothically-dark landscape could easily be transposed here when the fog is drifting.

One day, instead of driving the roads, I will connect the strip on foot that ties together the northern Lost Coast at Black Sands Beach to the southern Lost Coast at Needle Rock. If anyone out there has done this shoot me an e-mail, I would love to hear about it.

One day, too, I will connect it all. I can't think of a much better week - covering 50 miles on foot, all the way from the mouth of the Mattole to Usal campground at the terminus of Sinkyone State Park. But for a two-day adventure it is hard to beat the 17 miles that roll up and down the Coast Range peaks, in mirrored but more static representation of the swells offshore.

The greatest similarity between the northern and southern Lost Coast sections is in the name only. The northern 25 miles offer minutes off the sand, while hiking the lower 17 the opposite is true. On the Coastal Trail through the Sinkyone, sand and salt water coalesce as distant visions, viewed from 1,000-foot bluffs between swirls of fog. Only a few times does the trail come near the surf at wave level, and these are at creeks that have split the bluffs. Map reading can get dizzying while following the trail as it bisects the near tangle of topographical lines. Knees and calves are put to the test, making trekking poles a seriously wise investment.

The history here is fascinating. A railroad and even a high-wire chute was used to deliver Doug fir and redwood timber out of the rugged hills to offshore schooners in the late 1800s. Then, in the 1980s, environmental activists worked to save Sally Bell Grove from the axe, as it was still being logged then. Thanks to their efforts, today there are still rare patches of old growth nestled within the park.

Just last year, HR 233 granted much of Sinkyone State Park designation as a federally recognized and protected Wilderness. Years of hard work have gone into erasing old logging roads and restoring the watersheds. With so much yearly rain, the area has rebounded well - some invasive pampas grass and a few concrete footings and old fence posts was about all the lingering impacts I have seen.

In contrast with the monotone fog that is fairly ubiquitous, the rest of the landscape is rich with color. Elevation gain and contour allows for some incredible diversity. Chaparral regions merge with thick Doug fir and redwood forest, sycamores line riparian areas and with each of these habitats are multitudes of flowering plants, birds and larger critters with sharp teeth and horns. Being a bit of a closet botanist, I found myself last trip staring three feet in front of me the first few miles, trying to figure out the flowers and plants. Stricken with tunnel vision, it wasn't until I was within spitting distance of a huge bull elk that I saw him. Luckily, a friendly Doug fir offered its branches as a vertical escape route.

Rut season, heading into fall, is a tense time for elk, as harems are being built and males fight each other for dominance. Territory issues mean that you may find yourself wishing you could fly to get clear of a charging elk. Your chances to return unscathed improve greatly if you bring a hiking partner that can't run quite as fast as you.

A bear canister is always easier than trying to hang food, and they are rentable at the local BLM office - well worth the slim investment for a good night's sleep. I have not seen bear on this section, although there are warning signs posted - a good thing, because the elk have always been plentiful and are exciting enough.

Just east of the State Park is the Sinkyone InterTribal Park. It's not yet open to the public, but plans are in the works to connect trails to it from the west. The InterTribal Park is owned and administered by a consortium of local native tribes and exists to help promote North Coast Native education by providing a link to history and culture in a natural environment. Hunting, ceremonies and restoration projects have provided not only a bridge to sustain aspects of culture, but jobs for many local natives. In a few years, when the trails are connected, the general public will gain some access and opportunities to learn about native culture as well.

It is exciting for me, after a day or two hiking, to gain insight about the realities of native peoples and others that live or made their living off a wild and rugged land. Local author Ray Raphael has a great book about the region - An Everyday History of Somewhere - that really brings home what was happening and what it took to survive out here. From harvesters of tan oak bark to loggers, it allows a very personal glimpse into the lives of many of the individuals and what they had to endure to survive. This vicarious historical adventuring helps me put into perspective my "fears" about the unknown when I bed down for the night and hear a thrashing in the brush.

Humans have done a great job surviving for thousands of years with the slimmest of essentials. It amazes me how quickly we can transition to an existence with the vast majority of our time spent inside our permanent homes and cars. But what is equally amazing is how comfortable it feels to shed the concrete and asphalt yoke after just a couple of days outside.

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