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Posted February 10, 2016 by MJF Images in Photography

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Lost Coast, California   5 comments

Eel River Sunrise

Northern California’s Lost Coast is located in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties, north of San Francisco.  Steep mountains plunge down to a rocky shore.  Lonely beaches with waterfalls and good abalone hunting face out on great surfing breaks.  Just inland, wildlife abounds in the forest and small communities are separated by majestic redwood groves.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The Lost Coast includes the King Range, a rugged, steeply uplifted piece of geology with many valleys oriented parallel to the coast – a very unique situation.  California’s  western-most headland, Cape Mendocino, occupies much of the Lost Coast.  These two geographic facts give the place its isolated character.  And as usual, the geology of the region is the underlying factor driving everything.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter's sunset.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter’s sunset.

Geology

The famous San Andreas Fault, which parallels the coastline all the way north from San Francisco, leaves the coast here and merges with the offshore Cape Mendocino Fault (which runs perpendicular to the coast and out to sea).  This is where three of the Earth’s tectonic plates come together.  The North American Plate, the Pacific Plate, and the small Gorda Plate join in what geologists call a triple junction.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The slip-sliding characterized by the San Andreas to the south gives way to a subduction zone to the north.  The Gorda Plate is slipping beneath the North American Plate.  This means that a line of volcanoes lies inland.  The Cascades begin at Mount Lassen and extend north past the Canadian border.  But much closer to the coast, an enormous torquing action occurs, which is why the uplift is extreme here.  The rocks are heavily buckled and folded, forming the rugged King Range.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The coast’s spectacular scenery owes its existence to this triple junction.  Rapid uplift of a coastline is marked by frequent earthquakes and landslides, and this area is no exception.  Offshore sea stacks, for e.g., are often the result of enormous landslides in the past.  And of course landslides are often precipitated by earthquakes.  All the while erosion is taking place,  from constant wave action.  And the uplift of the coastal margin gives the waves a constant source of new rocks to erode all the time.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

I stopped in the little town of Garberville, just off Hwy. 101.  It is a typical northern California town, filled with real characters.  Not all of these people, believe it or not, are old burnt-out hippies.  For the first time during this trip, I didn’t feel out of place in my VW camper.  Now if I only had a dreadlocks wig as big as one of those giant octopuses that live in the nearby ocean, I would have fit in perfectly.  Actually the town is peaceful, with a magnificent stand of redwoods nearby in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

Then I headed over the extremely curvy and hilly two-lane that leads from Garberville out to the coast at Shelter Cove.  What a road!  The last hill descending off the King Range to the coast is extremely steep, granny gear both ways.  The little settlement of Shelter Cove is spread out, and seems to be populated by people who enjoy their isolation.  I wouldn’t necessarily call them anti-social loners, but there is a reason why they live  here.  Almost 1000 people live here, but I am sure many of the spectacularly-located houses are 2nd homes.

A beach house on the coast of California.

A beach house on the coast of California.

I experienced a nice sunset, getting there early enough to explore the rocky shore below the little park.  This park is easy to find if you turn left at the first T-junction after the big downhill.  The grassy park, set up on a terrace above the sea, is centered around the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse (see below).  It’s a simple walk down to the rocky shore from this park, and you can continue south past the boat ramp around Shelter Cove itself.  The rock is black, and forms dramatic silhouettes with the numerous tide pools.  Be careful though, and consider rubber boots if you’re planning on exploring and/or photographing.  It’s slippery and there are sneaker waves.  It’s wise to remember the venerable warning to never turn your back on the ocean.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California's Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California’s Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse

This stubby structure, which dates from 1868, did not need to be tall since it was originally placed atop a 422-foot (129 meters) cliff on Cape Mendocino.  It was shipped to the site and hauled up the steep mountainside.  The first ship sent to start construction at the site ran aground, and all supplies were lost (everyone survived though).  Over the years, the light saved many lives, and in more ways than the obvious.  For one thing it was a great lookout.  On one occasion a keeper spotted a ship that was on fire.  He brought help just in time to save all aboard.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

But the frequent earthquakes and landslides were a constant hazard, and the lighthouse was eventually abandoned in the early 1960s.  The lighthouse was later saved when a local group had it moved and restored.  For the last 12 years it has shone at Shelter Cove not far south of the Cape.  But its business end seems a bit empty without its original Fresnel lens (which was replaced years ago while it was in service).

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

I also enjoyed some time in the redwoods at Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  There is a 2-lane road (appropriately called “Avenue of the Giants”) that parallels Hwy. 101, allowing you to stop and walk through the big trees, or enjoy the beautiful Eel River (which winds its way through here on its way to the sea).

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

It’s a beautiful and remote stretch of coast, one I can highly recommend visiting.  The coast both to the south (as far as Point Reyes) and to the north (the Oregon border and beyond) is also beautiful.  I didn’t get the opportunity this time to explore the Lost Coast fully.  There are hiking and mountain biking options, plus several fire roads that take off from the Shelter Cove Road.  I encourage you to go further than I did in exploring this rugged part of the California Coast.  I know I’ll do so when I return.

The Pacific Ocean and the day's last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

The Pacific Ocean and the day’s last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

Visiting the California Coast near Big Sur   3 comments

In my last post I ranted about the crowds along this stretch of the California Coast that includes the stunning Big Sur.  Well, if you insist on visiting this area instead of the slightly superior (in my opinion) Oregon Coast, please do so during a week other than this one – the week between Christmas and New Years.  I would think much of summer would also be too crowded.  First the bad news, then the good with some recommended stops.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

CONS: ACCESS PROBLEMS

I’ve noticed many of my fellow travelers here are on a different wavelength than I am.  They’re dressed to the nines, with heels and nice clothes.  So for them a simple drive with stops to snap photos is what they’re after.  With some exceptions, this is what they get in California.  Coastal access is hampered in this state by lack of foresight.  In Oregon, during the 1960s, Governor Tom McCall passed a law that was brilliant.  In that state, nobody can own the beach; it’s all public.  You will never see a fence with no trespassing signs stretched across the sand in Oregon.

Anna's Hummingbird Feeding

Additionally, there are many many more state parks along the Oregon Coast than on the California Coast.  There are places to access the coastline here, mostly north or south of the Big Sur area.  But a combination of geography (the San Jacinto Mountains are a long and unbroken rank of mountains that keep Highway 1 well up above the ocean) along with the private property have blocked my attempts to experience this coast in the way I like.

I like to take long hikes along the coast, exploring coves and headlands.  This is harder to do here than in Oregon.  Shorter explorations can be done in California, but I’ve found that around Big Sur it’s very difficult.  The Redwood Coast is a little better in this regard.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

PROS: 

Redwoods: On the California coast, even this far south, you’ll find the famous Redwood trees.  This is, by the way, something Oregon lacks except for one place in the far south.  Of course if you really want to see the big trees, go up to the Redwood Coast, just south of the border with Oregon.

Golfing: I am not a golfer, but you could do much worse than the Monterrey Peninsula for this sport.  Pebble Beach and a plethora of other courses carpet the land.  By the way, in Oregon, Bandon is a similarly great golfing center.

Elephant Seals and Sea Otters: The stretch of coastline south of Big Sur has many places from which to see these sea creatures.  I would add gray whales to this, but you can see these giants anywhere along the west coast.  Go to Baja in Mexico if you want to get up close and personal with them in their breeding grounds.

Wine & Dine: Although wine country is inland and north from here, there is no shortage of restaurants and wine bars featuring great wines.  In fact, the fine dining in this area is pretty special.  I don’t go in for this type of thing generally, preferring funky cafes and eateries.

Moderate Winter Weather: One winter while living in Alaska I was sent to a conference at Stanford University.  Talk about being thawed out!  The winters south of San Francisco are famous for being rather warm, though big storms are not uncommon.

An Anna's hummingbird rests in the sun before an incredibly energetic feeding session.

An Anna’s hummingbird rests in the sun before an energetic feeding session.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

TRAVEL TIPS:

I will focus on photography and nature, since that is what I’m into.

  • Elephant Seals on the beach at San Simeon near the Hearst Castle: These big-nosed seals haul up on the beach and are fairly used to photographers, so you can get pretty close. Don’t get too close though. Males especially can be extremely dangerous.
  • McWay waterfall:  A gorgeous cove and waterfall are accessed by a short trail from Julia Pfeifer State Park, near Big Sur itself.  See image below.
  • The garden at the Big Sur Coast Gallery Cafe:  Up on the headland, you will pass a few lodges and restaurants.  Behind the gas station here (Big Sur’s only one), you’ll find a little cafe with good (but expensive) coffee.  There are cactus all around the place, and they dominate the garden.  But there are all sorts of plants, including those with flowers that draw hummingbirds.
  • Point Lobos:  Not far south of Carmel, you’ll find the Pt. Lobos Reserve.  Hiking trails wind through the trees, and the rocky coastline is chock full of great foregrounds for sunset shots.  This place is very popular, so if you want more solitude try…
  • The headland just south of Point Lobos:  If Pt Lobos is too crowded, go south to the very next headland, just past the public beach.  There is not much parking, but pull in on either side of the hill next to the highway.  A trail heads around on an ocean-side bench.  South of the hill, downhill toward the ocean, a bit of scrambling will take you down to a small beach. There are great tide pools. Back up on top of the bench, work your way around to the north to find all sorts of rocky foregrounds.
  • Lucia: The people at this little lodge south of Big Sur are very friendly and it is a world away from the hoity toity atmosphere of Carmel.  Their restaurant is perched well above the Pacific, with a view into a cove where sea otters play.  You’ll need a big telephoto to get photos of them though.
  • Carmel by the Sea: You’ll find plenty of eating and lodging options, all fairly spendy.  This is a fine town to stroll, but it’s crowded on holidays.  There is an oyster bar named Flaherty’s, so you know I had to visit (that’s my last name).  While it is necessarily more upscale than oyster bars should probably be (it’s Carmel after all), the food is good and the atmosphere not as stuffy as other places in this town.
  • Carmel Mission:  Especially nice if you are religious and want to attend one of the services, this old mission a few minutes west of Hwy. 1 towards Carmel by the Sea is worth a stop and a few photos.  It is well preserved.
  • Monterrey Bay Aquarium:  A can’t miss destination, this aquarium is regarded as one of the best in the country, if not the world.  It lies on the north side of the Monterrey Peninsula, facing the bay to the north.
  • Garland Ranch Regional Park:  This is a nice change from the coast, lying inland in the Carmel Valley about 10 miles from Hwy. 1.  Locals take their dogs for leash-free walks in this beautiful 4500-acre park.  It consists of valley bottom oaks and sycamores, but also ascends to 2000 feet (if you need real exercise).  There are historical remains, both American Indian and that of the Rancho Don Juan.  You can hike, bike or ride horseback on trails of varying lengths.  There is also a visitor center.
A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

So that’s it for now.  It’s a pretty subjective report I know.  If you’re not really a photo or nature geek, I would recommend some further searching of more standard travel sites.  Just try to visit during an off week.

The rocky Monterrey County, California coastline includes some granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

The rocky coast of Monterrey County, California includes granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

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