I left the house at 6 a.m. to pick up Natalie and drive south for the tenth and final Sea-to-Summit Challenge. She is a great adventure partner, always up for anything. If you've been following this series, you might remember she was my companion for the 90-mile Grasshopper Peak challenge ("Sea to Summit: Grasshopper Peak," Oct. 21, 2021). We loaded a small cooler and were off.
It takes about two hours to drive from Eureka to Tolkan Campground on the ridge above Shelter Cove near the King Range Wilderness. The King Range mountains are unique and rugged, pitching steeply up almost directly from the ocean. The area is home to the Mattole and Sinkyone tribes. It is also adjacent to the Mendocino Triple Junction, a meeting of three tectonic plates: the Gorda, the North American and the Pacific. The Gorda Plate is subducting under the North American Plate, while converging with the Pacific Plate. This unique junction prompts heightened seismic activity, high heat flow and even the extrusion of volcanic rocks. The junction has been moving slowly north from the Los Angeles area for 25 million-30 million years, and I like how small I feel in regard to this time scale.
We strategically planned to park at the campground, ride bikes downhill to meet the ocean, then retrace our steps and pass the car before humbly ascending King Peak. I followed Natalie down the steep, winding road toward Shelter Cove. The descent was one I'd always wanted to do but I had never wanted to pay the price of coming back up. After getting a little tangled in road construction detours, we reached Black Sands Beach on a splendid, sunny, late August day.
The rocky beach curves north with the familiar Lost Coast Trail and otherwise untamed coastline. We touched the cold, salty water, gazed at the navy blue horizon and turned to pedal up the infamous hill. The detour forced by road construction was even steeper than the main road, and I was huffing and puffing trying to keep up with Natalie. She always says she hasn't been riding much but then I see her 20 meters ahead of me, her steady cadence rhythmically spinning while I question my life choices between whimpering breaths.
By the time we reached the car, I was ready for a break and a stretch of the knees. We had already gone 18 miles and climbed about 3,000 feet, but still had a ways to go by bike and on foot. I naively asked Natalie if she thought one water bottle would be enough for our next leg, forgetting that she is a camel who never brings enough water, but somehow always survives and never ever complains. She said one would probably be enough, so I left with my one water bottle, underestimating the task ahead of us for the hundredth time in my life, but probably not the last.
King Peak Road rolls up and down as it gains elevation toward the trailhead. Carefully stashing our bikes, we changed shoes and started hiking through scratchy manzanitas in the bright August sun. The ever-dramatic California landscapes spread out to the north and south, the forested slopes mingled with dry prairies and oak woodlands, all shoulder-to-shoulder with the ocean. After 2½ miles, we reached the top, where there is a platform that would be ideal for stargazing. The 360-degree views were worth every twinge of muscle. The ocean's bright blue contrasted the red soil and rock, and coastal scrub covered the hills near us, except where it was too steep and loose for plant life.
The hike back down involved a little bit of survival mode for me and we both wondered why we didn't bring beer. But conversation helped the time go by. We talked about our various adventures, misadventures and her dad's biathlon competitions. I had sort of forgotten about the length of time (i.e. daylight) needed for the return trip and we needed to hustle a bit.
We finished the hiking section, grabbed our bikes and started pedaling. I promptly ran out of water like a damn fool. I bookended this adventure series nicely with the first sea to summit on Bald Mountain, where I also ran out of water ("Sea to Summit Part 1: Bald Mountain," April 22, 2021). I have no idea why I didn't just bring another bottle; it's not like it's that heavy, after considering the weight of my 30-pound bike. Ugh. Alas, lessons.
The dusty gravel and dried, late-season Spikenard berries mirrored my parched throat as we climbed steep pitches I hadn't noticed going the other direction. My pace slowed to approximately match that of the tectonic plates. When we reached the car, I was so parched and exasperated that I chugged a Steelhead Pale Ale — fast enough that I couldn't believe it was suddenly empty. After some enthusiastic high-fives and dance moves, we watched the sun set and wondered why we didn't bring camping equipment. We had climbed 8,500 feet over 47 miles. If there was a flat section on this journey, neither of us could remember it. I got home at 10:30 p.m., recounted the day's adventure for my husband and fell asleep mid-sentence.
I thought about the nine peaks I had previously ascended in remote corners of this incredible county I am lucky to call home. This little adventure series had come to mean more to me than I realized — it gave me objectives and purpose, motivation and awe. It came at a time when I, and much of the world, were floundering in mid-pandemic unknowns. I wouldn't have otherwise explored these remote locales of Humboldt County, and they each left me with more respect and love for our little slice of the world than I thought possible.
Hollie Ernest (she/her) is a botanist and forestry technician. She is writing a book about her international bike adventures, gardening and exploring the corners of Northern California. Find her on Instagram @Hollie_holly.