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This is the lost coast

From issue 73 • Words by Yuri Hauswald w/illustrations by Matthew Burton

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It’s not easy to get “lost” in California these days, but maybe that’s because you’re not trying hard enough. Just south of the town of Ferndale, near Eureka, and north of Westport, near Fort Bragg, there’s a 120-mile stretch of rugged, remote coastline where little has changed since the area’s gigantic redwoods were just seedlings. There are only two paved roads that take you to the Lost Coast: Lighthouse Road from Petrolia to the north and Shelter Cove Road to the south. With no major highways or county thoroughfares in the area, the secluded communities and unique biomes within the area are only accessible via small mountain roads, most of which are dirt, some better maintained than others. The steepness and technical challenges of the coastal mountains made it too costly for state highway or county road builders to establish routes through the Lost Coast, leaving it the most undeveloped and remote portion of the California coast—which means it’s the perfect area to explore by bike.

The genesis of this journey, according to Miguel, a riding partner of mine for the past two decades, began when he was a college student at Humboldt State University, just beginning to experience the expansive adventures that two wheels can facilitate. “This is a trip I’ve been planning for quite some time,” he says. “I used to put skinny tires on my Novara MTB, stuff a couple king-sized Snickers in my fanny pack and head out for a day’s adventure. I’ve always loved the epic long solo days exploring…but never imagined it would be a lifelong passion.”

When pressed on what it was/is that motivates him to do these all-day epics, and in turn create this bikepacking journey down a forgotten stretch of coastline, he responds like a true adventurer: “The rush of discovery and finding limits was thrilling. The fear of maybe getting lost, breaking something, running out of food or water. These were real concerns. Nowadays, we need to amp it up a bit in our daily lives to find our limits. These four days will do just that.”

No big adventure is complete without some adversity; you just don’t expect it to be the very first step. I’m not a huge fan of small planes, which is why my heart sank when we walked onto the tarmac of the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and got a look at the aircraft we’d be taking to Arcata. If our bird, a Cessna 172, were a boat, it would be a lapstrake dinghy, which is a nice way of saying that it was really small. Our first hurdle of the day was getting the bikes in the plane, which, at first glance, seemed improbable; but with pedals, bars, forks, wheels and derailleurs off, and some Jedi Tetris packing skills, all our gear was stuffed into the tail of the Cessna. My uneasiness with flying was tempered, just a bit, by the notice on the cockpit’s flight control panel that stated boldly: “This aircraft equipped with an engine upgrade.” So we had that going for us, which was nice.

At 4,000 feet, we broke through the dense marine layer of fog that smothers the Sonoma coast and were treated to expansive azure views as far as the eye could see, with a pillowy blanket of clouds below obscuring the mountainous landscape. Radio chatter crackled over the headphones, a machine-gunfire of numbers and acronyms, a cacophony of  “foxtrots, romeos, Cessnas and lots of niners” that made no sense to me. Eventually our pilot, using instruments only, deftly dropped into miasma so thick you couldn’t see past the nose of the Cessna, which led me to let out a serious sigh of relief when he brought us safely to rest at the Arcata-Eureka airport terminal.

Our chariot awaited and Justin, the owner of Revolution Bicycles, whisked us to his shop where we hurriedly reassembled our bikes and made last-minute weight distribution adjustments to our Ortlieb bikepacking bags. A later start than anticipated meant that Miguel changed our route slightly, due to the likely lack of daylight, and so we pedaled straight out of town on Fickle Road, which, as it turns out, isn’t so fickle as it climbs more than 2,000 feet in 8 miles. Luckily, the expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, the verdant and dank redwood-lined road, and the fact that civilization quickly became a distant memory, distracted us from the effort it took to pilot our bikes eastward into the hinterland of Humboldt County.

Once known as Kleizer’s Prairie, Kneeland, California, is an unincorporated collection of ranches, a small airport, a volunteer fire department and a school that sits perched along a rolling ridgeline that peers down on the Headwaters Forest Reserve to the west. By the time we pulled into the school to refill our bottles, we were just 30 miles into what would end up being a 70-mile day. While not spoken between us, it was almost a foregone conclusion that we’d be finishing under the cover of darkness. Redwood House Road was the hidden gem of the day, a 15-mile ribbon of well maintained gravel that kinked, twisted and undulated its way to a terminus at the Van Duzen River and Highway 36—where the fading light and highway traffic forced us to put on our lights for the final 20-mile pedal to Ferndale, where a meal and a warm bed at the Victorian Inn awaited.

It’s not often you hear encyclopedic coffee knowledge and the subtleties of moving a dead body between grave sites in the same conversation, but then again it’s likely you’ve never had coffee at the Mind’s Eye Coffee Lounge in Ferndale. While the conversation may have been a bit macabre, at least the coffee was good. One thing to note about this part of Northern California is that it’s the confluence of the old, nearly extinct, boom-to-bust timber industry and the well-established, old-time dairy farms, and the newest crop on the block: marijuana. All of which means a cornucopia of creative, hearty, proud and independent folks populate this diverse region.

I have a love-hate relationship with the saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” From our first pedal stroke on Day 2 we were wet. With temperatures hovering between 34 and 50 degrees, and a route that contained over 9,000 feet of climbing packed into 78 miles, no amount of “good” clothing, and I had plenty of it on, could have saved us from the apocalyptic weather. We pedaled through emerald dairy land and the logging communities of Rio Dell and Scotia, and eventually the awe-inspiring redwoods on Avenue of the Giants, where the 2,000-year-old behemoths towered above us.

I was cracked, a bit shell shocked if you will, from the day’s effort and cold that had been clawing at us, so the near hypothermic descent off Panther Pass, where the temperature dipped to 34 degrees, didn’t help my physical or mental state in the slightest. I rolled shivering into the Honeydew Country Store and, if I hadn’t known better, would have thought I was at Cal Expo seeing the Grateful Dead—the only difference being there were no spinners or shaggy hippies selling peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches in the parking lot. Instead, there were trimmigrants. These nomadic folks—who migrate from harvest to harvest in pot’s Golden Triangle, trimming copious amounts of weed for a living—were flitting about the store and its premises. The atmosphere was a THC twilight zone of sorts that helped, for but a moment, take my mind off my frozen appendages and the daunting 25 miles we still had to go. Miguel had beat me down the pass and I could tell by the concerned look on his face, as he rushed through the store grabbing a jug of water and a Snickers bar, that we were about to go 0-2 when it came to finishing before nightfall, and that he was not going to wait for me.

After we’d been on our bikes for nearly nine hours, we rode silently without lights through the inky dusk along Kings Peak Road, a forgotten piece of rugged dirt that traces the ridgeline separating King Range National Conservation Area and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. See, Miguel’s light hadn’t charged properly and I was saving mine until things became desperate, which is exactly what they did when we finally hit pavement and were faced with the 4-mile, 2,000-foot paved descent to our final resting place for the night. Tucked in as close to my rear wheel as possible, Miguel cautiously surfed the halo of light cast behind as we precipitously dropped into Shelter Cove, where, once safe, showered and changed, we each inhaled a pizza—in bed.

I don’t know about Miguel, but I went to sleep dreading the thought of beginning the next day by climbing what we’d descended in the dark; so, before my eyes closed heavily for the night, I put out a little karmic ask for help. And, you know what, sometimes the universe listens. Our Day 3 “miracle” came in the form of a kind local, possibly a trimmigrant herself, whom we paid to shuttle us to Chemise Mountain Road, which, for our weary legs, meant that we had a fighting chance to finish the day’s 70-mile ride to Mendocino before sunset.

If there were such a thing as a gravel mecca, Usal Road, a 25-mile strip of 4×4-only dirt road that saw-blades its way along the ridgeline bordering the Sinkyone Wilderness and the Pacific Ocean, should be added to the list of sites folks flock to in rolling reverence. Along with a few intact old-growth redwood groves, along with Douglas fir, tanbark oak and terraces blanketed in coastal prairie, this zone also happens to be one of the most seismically active places on the planet, where three tectonic plates come together. After a lunch of cold pizza on the black sands of Usal Beach Campground, we made quick work of the remaining miles of dirt, somewhat saddened when we hit the tarmac of Highway 1, meaning that the dirt portion of our adventure was over for now.

Sometimes it pays not to listen to the weather forecast. What was predicted to be another cold, wet day, with headwinds, ended up being bluebird with a tailwind for our 116 miles of postcard-perfect Highway 1 that spooled out ahead of us. With the exception of a quick store stop in the hamlet of Point Arena for some water and pastries, we pedaled with a silent determination, not many words spoken between us, as we rolled through the small coastal communities of Fish Rock, Gualala, Sea Ranch and Fort Ross, the southernmost hub of Russian settlements in North America from 1812 to 1842. At Jenner, we turned inland, the smell of the barn willing our weary legs to keep pedaling. By the time we landed back in Sebastopol, legs tapped, backs sore and cups empty, our hearts were full and our passion for future adventures stoked.

Over the course of the 340 miles between Arcata and Sebastopol, we pedaled through barren, windswept rolling hills and the impressive redwoods of the Avenue of the Giants, to deserted black-stone beaches and endless stretches of pristine, rocky coastline. We also experienced distant gravel roads, the connective tissue if you will, that link many of the hidden gems that dot this forgotten region of Northern California. Bikepacking an area as remote as the Lost Coast helps find silence in our busy, hectic lives. It reminds us to find the beauty in our natural surroundings and, more importantly, that there are discoveries to be made when you get “lost” on a bike. If you want to unplug and challenge yourself with a two-wheeled journey, wander out to the Lost Coast. Just be sure to pack good clothes, to charge your lights and to bring your spirit of adventure, ’cause out there, as local lore goes, “people get weird on the edge of the continent.”

Follow on Instagram: @yhauswald; @matthewburtonillustration