Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wait, hold on, let me find my notes...

This is the latest entry in my occasional series on backpacking adventures! I don't think that anything will top my Yosemite trip last fall, but it also convinced me that taking time to go out exploring in the wilderness can be profoundly rewarding. For my next excursion, I was fascinated by what I'd heard of the Lost Coast. I don't know anyone who has actually hiked it, but several of my backpacking friends know it by reputation as one of the most remote and isolated places one can go. It seemed like the perfect place to try next - it has mountains, but is primarily focused along an uninterrupted stretch of the Pacific coast, and so would be quite unlike my treks in Coe, Yosemite, or Ohlone.

Since I'm a nerd, I get nearly as much pleasure out of planning for trips as actually taking them. Here, I'd started doing casual research on the Lost Coast in the fall of 2010, and began seriously preparing in the spring of this year. One of my first decisions was just how far to go. Technically, the Lost Coast stretches through two distinct management zones: the federal Bureau of Land Management operates the King Range wilderness in the north, while California's state park system operates Sinkyone in the south. The two reaches of the trail are roughly equal in length, but pretty different in character and policy. I got the impression that the King Range's coast is much more exposed, with flat beaches running level to the ocean, while Sinkyone had a more rugged and forested character. Also, the King Range is entirely wilderness, where you can camp anywhere (following a few simple guidelines), while Sinkyone requires you to use established backpackers' camps. I was tempted to through-hike the two reaches, but two things gave me pause. First, the length - it looked like it would take eight days of hiking to do the whole thing (three days for King Range, three days for Sinkyone, one day to connect the two, and one day for a trip up King Peak). That's probably doable, but still a long time; it would mean losing my recovery weekend after the hike, and carrying a ton of food with me. Secondly, you can't really, actually through-hike it. The village of Shelter Cove interrupts the hike halfway through, roughly (but not exactly) dividing the King Range from the Sinkyone portions. That would mean a full day of hiking off trails to connect them... not a whole lot of fun.

So, I eventually decided to just do the King Range portion. It sounded like the coolest part, and (relatively) simple to plan for. To help bulk up the time a bit, I'd indulge in a trip (sans full backpack) up to the top of King Peak, a signature 4088-foot-tall mountain just three miles from the ocean.

I started collecting literature. There are several good web sites and blogs that discuss the Lost Coast Trail in general or describe particular experiences hiking it. Books like the Hiker's Hip Pocket Guide helped me get a feel for the terrain I'd be encountering. I picked up a pretty good map from Wilderness Press that displayed both the King Range and the Sinkyone parts of the park. I also sent $5 to the BLM for their map, which I'd heard was superior to the Wilderness Press one. They sent me back a packet full of literature, a postcard, a tide table book for 2011, and hiking guides, but no map. Sigh.

When the hike got closer, I started to look into transit. Most people hike the coast one-way, generally from north to south in order to have the wind at your back. Doing this requires a shuttle, and shuttling isn't easy: the trailheads are only 28 miles across on the coast, but driving takes either 50 miles (if you have 4-wheel drive and a high carriage) or 85 miles (if you're in a standard passenger car like me), over rough mountain road. Oh, yeah, and you need another car to shuttle, and I'd be doing this solo. Fortunately, several folks operate shuttle services: they're certified by the BLM but run independently. I got in touch with a lady named Roxanne and we scheduled my trip.

In the week before leaving, I followed my standard preparation techniques. I stocked up on instant oatmeal, tea, dried fruit and trek mix from Trader Joe's. For this trip I picked up a few Mountain House freeze-dried meals from Sports Basement; I probably could have gotten away with using Indian Fare from Trader Joe's, but since I would have to use a bear can I wanted to get as compact as possible. The day before the trip, I swung by Safeway to grab some preservative-laden pita pockets, peanut butter, and Peanut Butter M&Ms.

My packing list was the same as what I take on my mountain-based hikes; the only difference was that I tossed in a paperback ("Burning Chrome"), since the days are long and I thought I'd have time to read in camp.

The drive up was long but quite pleasant. I made it out of the city a bit after 7, and never hit any really slow points. I had just recently driven Highway One along the coast with my parents, which was absolutely stunning but would take too much time for my appointment, so I took 101, which is still very scenic. I don't generally like driving, but these are the roads that make me change my mind: uncrowded, fast, with wide-open views and interesting terrain.

I exited at Garberville and began making my way through town. I grabbed a bit more gas at the Chevron, but no too much - I'd seen it for 50 cents cheaper in Willits, and knew that I wanted to fill up there on the way home. After working my way through Garberville, I continued along a highway to Redway, then hit Briceland road as I started towards the coast in earnest.

The road to Shelter Cove is very winding, narrow, and steep, but totally doable even in a small car like mine. Early on you go through Humboldt Redwood State Park, a small but cool-looking dark forest. I kept my eye open for the Bureau of Land Management's King Range Field Office, where I'd be picking up my bear can. Their address is in Whitehorn, but you don't follow Briceland Thorn Road when it branches off left to Whitehorn; instead you keep curving to the right on Shelter Cove Road. After passing the Whitehorn Post Office, there are a couple of rough roads to your left, followed by a sign and good pavement for the BLM. I didn't spend much time there, but they seem to have a nice big facility, along with a bunch of displays and the expected literature and stuff. I picked up my bear can, hopped back in my car, and continued on my way.

The last stretch to Shelter Cove is the steepest, and the signs warn you to shift to a lower gear. The first big downhill stretch was signed at 25MPH; I did this in my lowest gear, which tops out at around 20MPH. The second big stretch was 35MPH; I did this in my intermediate gear, which maxes at around that speed. Once I hit Shelter Cove proper I switched back to my normal gear... there are still some steep stretches, but they're shorter once you're in town so you don't need to worry (much) about burning out your breaks.

Overall, I was quite happy with the signage - all the way from 101 to Black Sands Beach, they either sign it clearly or else the route is just obvious. I'd budgeted 5 hours to make the trip from home, and given myself an extra 1 hour buffer in case I encountered traffic or other difficulties; I ended up with about an hour to spare until my 1pm pickup. I tried checking in with Roxanne, but found that I had no service - no surprise there, I hadn't picked up a signal in Garberville either. (I love T-Mobile, but they are the fourth-largest carrier for a reason.)

I spent some time gasping in awe at the ocean from the scenic overlook by the beach, then grabbed my lunch and tromped down the sidewalk to walk onto the beach. The weather was simply stunning: totally clear blue skies, nice and warm without being hot. A strong wind was whipping down from the northwest, which just made everything more exhilarating. I started to grin as I munched my sandwich. Yes.... I had a good feeling about this trip.

I picked up a trail permit from the self-service box, walked back to the parking lot, and was filling it out when Roxanne arrived. She suggested that I re-park my car in a more visible location, then we loaded up my pack and headed out. (She was driving a nice old pickup, and had a nifty interior compartment in the flatbed that held my pack in place. Good to see specialization at work!)

As you probably know if you're reading this blog, I'm not exactly a sparkling conversationalist, but chatting with Roxanne was great... she had a ton of useful insights into the area (where she's lived for a long time) and the trail, but for the most part we talked about regular stuff: kids, weather, food, city life versus rural life, pot farms, language, books. The hours flew by, and soon she was giving me a few final tips on how to tackle the first part of the trail.

I set off, and it was absolutely amazing. Most of the trip is already chronicled on my Picasa album for the hike, so I won't repeat everything here. Instead, here are a few more or less random thoughts on the trail.
  • The setting itself is very wild and undeveloped, but the trail was much busier than I expected. Not exactly crowded, but I ran into multiple groups of folks each day that I hiked the coast, including two very large groups of about a dozen people and several more singles and pairs. It's less crowded than, say, the lower part of Yosemite, but a bit busier than when I hiked Ten Lakes or Ohlone, and far busier than my trips to Coe's backcountry.
  • That said, once you head inland, everyone goes away. On my one solid day of mountain hiking (up Rattlesnake Ridge and King Crest to King Peak), I didn't see another soul, or any evidence of other hikers.
  • And, of course, the people you see on trails are always good folks.
  • I can confirm that, yes, there are bears. This was the opposite of my Yosemite trip, where I never saw bears but had evidence that they were busy while I was asleep. Here, I saw both prints and beasts, but no camp incursions.
  • Hiking on the coast requires traversing a lot of different terrain. Sometimes you'll have a choice, based on where you hike. Other times all the surface will be the same. The best is dirt; in a few places you can head a little ways inland, generally up a short slope, and walk a nice trail that parallels the coast; these often run through meadows, and have great views of the ocean. The next best is wet sand; on a receding tide, you can walk just above the surfline for a fairly stable and firm surface. Then come small pebbles, which skitter a bit and slow you down but are solid to walk on. Then come large boulders, which require careful steps but are a lot of fun. The worst is a toss-up between dry sand and small boulders. Dry sand is monotonous and boring, slows you down a lot, and eventually tires you out. Small boulders give you better footing, but require really careful concentration.
  • I was pretty lucky with weather. The first two days were clear and sunny with almost no clouds. The third day was heavily overcast and cloudy. The fourth day started cloudy but mostly cleared up. From what I understand, fog is very common, but other than the third day I didn't see much of it.
  • The wind was EXTREMELY strong on my first day, and yes, it was blowing in the expected north-to-south direction. It was almost perfectly calm the rest of the time. Overall, I probably would have been fine going south-north or out-and-back if I'd wanted to, but not if every day had been like the first.
  • Chilling on the beach is incredibly relaxing. I highly recommend it. Also good: lots of sunscreen.
  • No bugs on the beach, but I did run across a few ticks in the woods.
  • The tide tables are handy to have, but try to be flexible about it. I usually was able to line things up so I started hiking a risky stretch shortly after high tide, as it was going out. There was really just one part where the tide level was an issue, and even there I would have been able to walk it if I'd waited a little longer. So, know when the tides are, but don't freak out about stuff.
  • Temperatures were quite nice. I usually started the day with a cotton (I know, I know) button-down long-sleeve shirt over a cotton (yes, yes, I know) t-shirt; after an hour or so, I'd strip off the long-sleeve and stay in the t-shirt the rest of the day.  I'd occasionally pull the long-sleeve back on if it got sufficiently windy. I did bring along a warm hoodie that I wore in camp, both mornings and evenings.
  • My trip up Rattlesnake Ridge trail was stupidly slow. I tend to average about 2mph when backpacking, even when lugging excess weight uphill.  For this, though, it took me over four hours to go under six miles! Part of that is due to the temporary condition of the trail - they haven't done anything with it since winter, and it takes a while to navigate the fallen trees. Also, there's some creek fording required early on, and if the creek levels fall in summer, you might be able to just hop across. Still, considering that I wasn't even carrying a full pack (I did this as a day trip with a base station at Big Flat Creek), I feel ashamed of my performance.
After finishing the hike, I was happy to see that my car had emerged completely untouched, just a bit dustier. On my way out I stopped in Garberville for some yummy tacos at the Aztec Grill (in the Chevron!); I noticed that my T-Mobile phone was suddenly working again, so I'm not sure why I wasn't able to get coverage earlier.

Like I said before, the hike was a great, unique experience. There are very few opportunities in the continental US to have a wilderness backpacking experience next to the ocean, and I'm delighted that I was able to participate in one of them. It didn't quite surpass my sheer joy in Yosemite, but it runs a very close second.

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