The Lost Coast is proof that if you don’t build it, they won’t come. What wasn't built along 90 miles of pristine California coastline north of Mendocino was a road: The topography of this brutally rugged region—steep mountain ranges abutting rocky shore—wouldn't allow it, forcing the builders of Highway 1 to make a detour far inland.
The result of this absence of asphalt is the last untamed and undeveloped stretch of coastline in California, a place so devoid of urbanization that more cows repose on its beaches than people (seriously). In fact, you can spend days roaming the coastal range and without seeing a soul, making the Lost Coast the sine qua non of romantic “get-away-from-it-all” experiences.
Despite the absence of a coastal road (aside from a brief stretch along the northern region), the Lost Coast makes for a fantastic road trip. Of the three entrance points into the region—Garberville, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and Ferndale—the most scenic route is through the State Park. Take the Humboldt Redwoods State Park turnoff on Highway 101 and follow the Mattole Road all the way to Ferndale and back onto Highway 101.
The 3- to 4-hour, 75-mile drive is incredible, transporting you through lush redwood forests, across golden meadows, and past miles of deserted beaches (well, if you don't count the cows). Be sure to start with a full tank, keep a map, binoculars and camera handy, pack a lunch, and bring a jacket if you plan to venture anywhere on foot—the ubiquitous afternoon fog is a real bone-chiller.
Along with fishing, the most popular Lost Coast activity is hiking, and the mother of all hiking trails here is the Lost Coast Trail, which passes through the King Range National Conservation Area. For people who love to hike, it’s the ultimate weekend excursion, a 25-mile one-way trek that meanders along oceanside bluffs, tidepools, and miles of pristine beaches. It’s usually done via a two-car shuttle system, though the Shelter Cove Camp Ground, Market & Deli (707/986-7474) provides maps of the King Range trails and can help arrange shuttle service.
If you would rather stick to short, easy day hikes, the best is Chemise Mountain Trail, located a few miles east of Shelter Cove. The three-mile trek only takes a few hours, and offers incredible views of lush canyons and the shimmering Pacific.
If you’re not into camping or backpacking you’ll want to head straight for Shelter Cove, the Lost Coast’s only coastal community. Situated on a small plateau overlooking the ocean, this bastion of seaside serenity consists of a hundred or so homes perched along the cliff’s edge or recessed into the hillside, as well as a half-dozen inns, a public nine-hole golf course, a few restaurants, a deli, a small campground, and a tackle shop.
Smack dab in the center of town is a small runway that is well-known among recreational pilots, who can park their planes and walk to the nearby inns and restaurants. Though many visitors come simply to relax and de-stress on the litter-free black-sand beaches, Shelter Cove also is an ideal launching point for day hikes, deep sea fishing, and wildlife viewing (an amazing seal and sea lion rookery is located at the southern end of town).
One of the benefits of being so isolated from the masses is that the Lost Coast is teeming with wildlife, both along the shore and deep in the ocean (in fact, the Lost Coast harbors the most pristine tide pools on the Pacific Coast).
If you've never been deep-sea fishing, be forewarned that it is an extremely complicated four-step process: (1) get on the fishing boat; (2) grab a pre-rigged fishing pole; (3) lower your line in the water when everyone else does; and (4) reel in the fish. Everything else, from taking the fish off the hook to cleaning it, is taken care of by the friendly deckhands, which makes deep-sea fishing pretty much idiot proof (and a whole lot of fun). To see what’s in season call Mario's Marina at 707/986-7595.
The Shelter Cove Golf Links is a fairly challenging nine hole course (par 33) that encircles the landing strip. The fairways are quite narrow, and forget about finding errant balls—the thick rough eats them for lunch. It’s popular with pilots who like to fly in for a round of golf and a steak dinner, and it’s within walking distance to all the inns and restaurants, so you don’t need to drive to get there. Okay, so it’s not Pebble Beach, but what to you expect for $10-all-day green fees.
The best (and only) restaurant on the Lost Coast is The Chart Room Restaurant, run by Jonathan & Ann Burke (Jonathan makes a mean clam chowder by the way). The menu cover the standards: seafood, steaks, pasta, sandwiches, salads fish and chips, and vegetarian and kids meals. Our home-made clam chowder is piping hot, perfect for the chilly traveler. Prime rib is available Saturday nights, and cocktails and beers from local breweries can be enjoyed on the deck. It’s typically open Saturday through Wednesday, but be sure to call ahead and make a reservation.
For less fancy fare, I highly recommend the homey little Shelter Cove Camp Ground, Market & Deli (707/986-7474), which doubles as the headquarters for the Shelter Cove community. The fish 'n' chips made from fresh rock cod are wonderful. Otherwise the menu is pretty much limited to burgers, sandwiches, potato salads and such. It’s open daily, and there’s a large deck with covered picnic benches for alfresco dining.
Snoozing seals, grazing deer, and migrating whales are just some of the sights you might see from your balcony at the Shelter Cove Oceanfront Inn, a handsome beach house-style building built smack-dab on the shoreline. Be sure to splurge on a suite, which not only has a sprawling private deck overlooking the Pacific—complete with your own gas BBQ—but a fully-equipped kitchen, living room, and king-sized bedroom as well.
Serious R&R is the theme here: soak up sun on the deck, play a round of golf across the street, or walk to the nearby black sand beach via a direct-access staircase from the inn, 'cause there ain't nothin' to do around here except relax.