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Wildest Coastline in California

August 09, 1992|JOHN McKINNEY

Shipwrecks, a variety of marine life and magnificent black-sand beaches are some of the attractions of the King Range National Conservation Area, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and containing what many hikers consider the wildest coastline in California.

The Mattole River marks the northern boundary of the area, which is about 220 miles north of San Francisco. From the trail head at the Mouth of the Mattole Recreation Site, the Lost Coast Trail travels 24 miles along the beach to Shelter Cove.

The sleepy, storybook hamlet of Petrolia, near the river mouth, was the site of the state's first producing oil wells, drilled here in 1865. Leland Stanford's Mattole Petroleum Co. had the most successful well--Union Well, which produced a hundred barrels of oil at a one-barrel-a-day pace.

After the oil boom ended, settlers came to Mattole Valley to take advantage of the fertile farmland and rich pasture. Mattole Valley is one of the wettest places on the Pacific Coast. The town of Honeydew, just north of the King Range, records an average of more than 100 inches of rain a year. During extremely wet years, more than 200 inches of rain may fall on the Lost Coast.

Unfortunately, adjacent grazing and logging have taken their toll on the Mattole River. As heavy rains washed the denuded hillside to the sea, millions of cubic yards of rock and gravel were dumped into the Mattole. Gravel bars formed, which altered the course of the river. Time, nature and the efforts of property owners, conservation groups and the Bureau of Land Management are slowly healing the Mattole, but the river will continue to meander off course for many more years.

California's best beach backpacking trip is the trek from the mouth of the Mattole to Shelter Cove. A more moderate journey of three miles along Lost Coast Trail takes the hiker to the abandoned Coast Guard Lighthouse at Punta Gorda.

In 1911, after several ships were wrecked on the rocks and reefs off the King Range Coast, a lighthouse was built a mile south of Punta Gorda--whose name means "massive point." The lighthouse, which shined its warning beacon for four decades, shut down in 1951 due to high maintenance costs.

The beach is backed by the steep peaks of the King Range, which seems to rise straight from the sea. This abrupt rise is unsurpassed on California's coast, and is found in few places in the world. Kings Peak, at 4,087 feet the highest summit in the range, is less than three miles from the ocean.

You can enjoy a wonderful weekend, or even weeklong backpacking trips through the King Range and along the beach. Trails connect the Lost Coast Trail beach route with the inland King Crest Trail and allow you to fashion a hike of anywhere from 5 to 50 miles in length. Ask the Bureau of Land Management for suggestions and for the latest update on trail conditions.

Petrolia, jump-off point for the Lost Coast Trail, got a rude awakening earlier this year when a severe earthquake shook the community, along with the much-better-known and far more touristy Ferndale. The April quake rattled residences and destroyed Petrolia's general store and post office. The land management's outdoor recreation planner Bruce Cann reports that the King Range trail system was not damaged by the earthquake.

Directions to trail head: From Highway 101 in Fortuna, take the Ferndale exit and follow the signs some 37 miles to Petrolia. Turn west on Lighthouse Road and follow it five miles to its end at the Mouth of the Mattole Recreation Site, where you'll find picnic tables, cooking grills, restrooms and drinking water.

The hike: Before heading south, walk a quarter-mile north to the mouth of the river. Sea gulls and osprey circle overhead. Harbor seals frequent the tidal area where the Mattole meets the Pacific.

Hike south along the wild coast. The low dunes in the back of the beach are dotted in spring with sea rocket and sand verbena. Thin waterfalls cascade over the steep cliffs to the beach.

Two miles from the trail head, you'll round Punta Gorda, which serves as a rookery for sea lions. A mile south of the point is the old Punta Gorda Lighthouse. Beyond is another 20 miles of beach, the wildest in California.

Northern California's Lost Coast / Lost Coast Trail Where: King Range National Conservation Area. Distance: From Mattole River to Punta Gorda Lighthouse, 6 miles round trip. Terrain: Long, driftwood-stewn beach backed by dramatic mountains. Highlights: Wildest, most isolated beach in California. For more information: Contact the Arcata Resource Area, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1125 16th St., Room 219, Arcata, Calif. 95521, (707) 822-7648

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