May 15 – 17, 2022, California.
King Range NCA first appeared on my radar a few years ago when I was planning a trip up the California. I was looking for free or cheap places to camp and wasn’t coming up with much until I stumbled upon the NCA.
King Range is a National Conservation Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. This mountain range runs along part of the northern California coast. It has a few different pay campgrounds ($8 a night), and wilderness camping options. I marked it on my map and then Covid took over everyone’s lives and we didn’t go.
When we left our friends’ house in Lake County California back in May of this year it was still on my map. We decided to go.
Honestly, I just thought it’d be a blip in our travels, just one more place that we have spent the night on the way to somewhere else. We were already a little behind on our projected Canada crossing date for the beginning of our journey to Alaska and we were planning to spend some time at Redwood National Park. King Range ended up exceeding my expectations. We spent 3 nights.
We arrived late in the afternoon so we headed to the first campground we came to in the NCA, Wailaki, on the east side of the range. All of the campgrounds in King Range are first come first serve – so we thought we might be taking a little chance by arriving so tardy. But when we got there only a few campsites were occupied.
The next morning we took a trail right out of Wailaki up to the top of the range. We thought we’d have views of the water but no luck. It was a pleasant hike and we enjoyed spotting some new wildlife to post on our iNaturalist account.
After our hike, we left the campsite and drove towards the ocean to the nearest town, Shelter Cove. There we found the parking lot for the Black Sands Beach Trailhead and reconnected (via the internet) to the world for a little bit while we decided where to go next. On the north end of the NCA was another $8 campground, Mattole, and it was right on the beach. It was close to a two-hour drive and again we risked not snagging a first come first serve site but we decided to wing it.
The drive to Mattole was arduous. We left the boundaries of the NCA and went up over the mountain. The road was unpaved, rough, often quite narrow, and sometimes steep. I hoped that the drive was worth it.
(All pics are click to enlarge. Once you have them enlarged you can view them in a slide show. Also, you can hover over the pics to see captions.)
Mattole was a lot fuller than Wailaki but only had a few vehicles in it. Most of the campers here were backpackers. This campground is the jumping-off point for the Lost Coast Trail.
Of course, I knew nothing of the trail before we arrived except to see its name on the map. A kiosk filled me in on all the details. The trail runs about 24.6 miles along the beach. Typically it takes about 3 days to hike (one way). Some parts of the trail are only passable at high tide.
We weren’t interested in a multi-day hike but luckily there was a day version of 6.4 miles round trip from the campground to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse. We checked the tide chart posted at the kiosk and made a plan for the next day.
We rose early to start at low tide. Several of the backpackers had already set out. We headed for the beach. Everywhere we looked the morning light was stunning on the wet sand and the exposed rocky shoreline. We stopped and peered into fascinating tide pools, snapping pics of creatures we would ID later. We heard the distinctive sounds of seals barking. Scanning the water for their location, we kept hiking until we spotted them covering a big rock close enough to shore that we could watch their antics through binoculars. Every step of the way was so interesting I thought we wouldn’t make it to the lighthouse before the tide rose to impassible levels.
But our pace, although slow, kept ahead of the tide. The lighthouse finally appeared in the distance. By now the breeze that had been following us down the beach was blowing pretty good and walking in the soft wet sand was starting to get harder. The trail left the beach and we waded through tall wildflowers bringing us to the old signal beacon. It was hard to know what to do first when we got to the lighthouse. The building begged to be explored but the beach in front of it was full of bellowing Elephant Seals. We decided to sit down and have a little lunch.
By the time we started our return trip we were pretty tired. The wind had picked up even more and we were walking into it. Our boots sunk into the wet sand. We stopped to see the sea lions on the big rock again. They were still barking but had all moved into different positions. More hikers, day-trippers, and backpackers, appeared passing us in the other direction. Eventually, I spotted a trail above the beach. It wasn’t quite as sandy, a little more protected from the wind and somewhat easier to traverse.
Back at the campground, our day wasn’t quite over. After a rest, we hiked up to a river and down the road and the surprises of King Range and the Lost Coast Trail just kept coming.
The Lost Coast Trail was really a magical experience. I feel like I am sharing a secret that someone is going to admonish me about later. But like everything else out there, it is ready to be discovered, you just have to get out there, take a chance, and do it.