The name “Lost Coast” evokes waves of romantic images – beautiful sunsets, gleaming sandy beaches and wildlife bounding in and out of a frothy surf untouched by human influence. But driving in at night during a howling thunderstorm on a decrepit road that snaked past precipitous cliffs felt like a nightmare.”We’re going to die out here,” said my sister Elissa as we passed a dilapidated barn. “Jesus.”My siblings (Jeff, 20, and Elissa, 24) and I have made a peculiar habit out of celebrating landmarks in our lives: We take road trips. If someone graduates from something, we take a road trip. If someone gets a new job, we take a road trip. If one of us gets fired, we take a road trip.
Jeff’s high school graduation road trip was a year and a half overdue, so we decided to make it a doozy. He’d always dreamed of visiting the remote, foggy reaches of Northern California, so we chose California’s Lost Coast, a 40-mile stretch of wilderness in Humboldt County west of Eureka. The Kings Range Wilderness Area and Sinkyone State Park make up the longest stretch of uninhabited Pacific beach outside of Alaska and Canada; immense coastal redwoods hang off the edges of seaside cliffs, and Roosevelt elk and bears are known to prowl the beaches. In an area known for its remoteness, the Lost Coast stands head and shoulders above the rest – or rather, disappears beneath the fog. But first we had to find it. The Lost Coast represents one of the only sections of coast too rugged for the Pacific Coast Highway; engineers gave up and detoured inland. Once you leave Highway 1, the road ascends and descends over a crooked, 35-mile stretch to arrive at one of a handful of isolated trailheads and campgrounds. The last town you see is Petrolia, which, while likely quaint in the daytime, remained shuttered and dark when we passed through. We couldn’t find a single gas station, and we had half a tank.
“We’ll be fine, ” Jeff said. “We’ve got plenty of water, at least.”It took over an hour of seesawing over rough roads to reach our campground; along the way, guardrails dropped off into an abyss and sand drifted over our path. When cows popped up in the periphery of our headlights where we thought cliffs were, we didn’t know what to expect. When we arrived at our campground, the ocean waves roared loudly above the storm wind; they seemed prepared to swallow the beach and our puny Subaru. We didn’t even pitch a tent; after a camping-stove meal of ramen noodles, we each chose a corner of the car to try and fall asleep.
We awoke to clear skies and cold, crisp winds. The rocky headlands along the ocean were green as an Irish postcard, and though vast tufts of fog spilled off of the cliffs, the bright sun and the crashing ocean kept them at bay. A few cars were parked near ours, but nobody stirred in camp, and we hardly saw a soul. We saddled up for our beach hike, following the faint trail in the direction of the crashing waves. Once we arrived, the vast blue of the Pacific stretched out, ringing the black-sand beach in aqua. Ten-foot waves slammed into boulders the size of houses and enormous sections of redwood trunks that had fallen into the ocean and been spat back out. We found walking sticks and marched in shifting sand against a stiff wind, finding sea urchins and large abalone shells along the trail. Green and black cliffs towered over us, and waterfalls poured off of them and pooled at our feet. Between hillocks of sand and grass grew strands of poison oak. It was an unspoiled paradise that was as foreboding as it was enthralling.
After a few hours of hiking, I noticed something in the water. A shark fin? No – a seal, likely fishing for breakfast in the maelstrom, stopped and bobbed up and down, clearly watching the strange creatures on his beach. He floated for a good five minutes, grew tired of the goofy bipeds and disappeared. Only minutes later, a sea otter scampered out onto the beach. Startled, we gave a shout and he turned tail and tucked back into the surf. He too floated on his back for five minutes, casually navigating waves deadly to a human, waiting for us to get the hell off of his beach. We barely spoke; normally, we Alvarez sibs can’t shut the hell up, but the staggering beauty and demanding terrain of the Lost Coast demanded our full attention. At one point, we reached a 300-foot cliff that jutted out into the beach like the prow of a beached ship. When we rounded the corner, we had to communicate by hand signs and charades – the wind was so fierce, you could lean into it like a concrete wall.
We spied a lonely lighthouse in the distance – the end of the navigable trail. From there, we would have had to negotiate a rocky path 2,000 feet up into the seaside peaks. On the return trip, our path would have been deep under high tide. Despite our love affair with the Lost Coast, necessity and the road called us back home after only a few hours. On the drive back, the Treacherous Road of Death revealed itself to us. Where we thought we had passed fatal cliffs and dead man’s curves, bucolic ranchland rolled in great hills, bordered by a golden beach to the west and shady groves of redwood and Sitka spruce to the east. We stopped the car at least five times to drink in our surroundings – as we moved farther from the coast, it got harder and harder to let go. Wooly cows flanked the fences, walking toward us with curiosity and then bounding away if we made a move.
On the last fence, a young black-and-white calf stood chewing grass, staring dead at us when the rest of the herd ran away. He (or she) stood and chewed with what seemed like poise, confidence and a healthy dose of satisfaction. He seemed to understand that we had to leave, while he got to stay and live out the rest of his days on the Lost Coast. For that, he was the luckiest cow in the world, and he knew it.For more information on California’s Lost Coast, visit http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/arcata/kingrange/index.html.