SHELTER COVE — When the early sunlight washed over our beach campsite on our first night on California’s Lost Coast, we could see why it’s called one of the nation’s premier hiking routes.
We could see, moreover, why this junction of ocean, dark sand and mountains is called “Lost.”
It’s not really lost. It’s as isolated as a long stretch of California coast can get.
The steep mountains plunging into a deep sea along a trail made impassable by tides has repulsed plans for highways, development and businesses.
As the September morning sunlight burned off the mist, our group of four could see long wide beaches and mountains stretching for miles with no sign of human intervention.
What we couldn’t see was how grueling the flat terrain can be for hikers.
Our plan to cover the 25 miles of trail in three or four days didn’t sound difficult when we started out.
We were soon to discover the rugged terrain that defeated road builders can leave you exhausted from boot-grabbing wet sand, scaling wet rocks and boulders and rogue waves that can send you dashing for refuge with a 40-pound pack on your back.
An unusually warm front welcomed us with 70-degree beach weather in the morning.
Our hired van driver was waiting near the town of Shelter Cove to ferry us on a two-hour drive to the trail’s northern end.
This would allow us to walk the trail with the wind at our backs, and our car would be waiting for us when we reached the end of our trip.
We rolled into the tiny community of Whitethorn to get a stove-fire permit and bearproof food canisters at the office of the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM, the agency of “leftover” lands in America’s early history, inherited the Lost Coast because the terrain was considered hostile to development.
Congress saw scenic value to the land, and in 1970 made the Kings Range, including most of the Lost Coast, the first National Conservation Area in America as it was studied for a future wilderness.
The woman at the BLM counter cautioned us sternly: Watch for bears and rogue waves, and study the tide book to know when to pass the three sections of trails that disappear and reappear daily with tides.
A little more than three years ago, a rogue wave swept three members of a school group to their deaths.
After our van drive to the northern trail terminus at Mattole south of Ferndale, we paid the driver, strapped on our packs and started out on a trail that was more sand than dirt.
Sea lions popped from the surf to check us out.
Lines of pelicans glided over the water.
Waves flung big rocks around with a gurgling noise that sounded like giant ice cubes clinking.
Driftwood and rocks covered large areas, the jetsam of fierce storms over decades.
The abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse gave another reminder of the Lost Coast’s isolation.
Considered the Alcatraz of California’s early lighthouse system, it had no electric service even though it operated until 1950.
We reached the first tide zone at the right time of afternoon to pass, but then the hiking route turned into an obstacle course.
Our feet sunk into wet, mudlike sand that resisted each effort to pull out.
Rock and boulder fields were taxing as well. Hikers must lunge, leap, twist and stretch on the only path between the ocean and mountains.
We were fit but middle-aged guys reminiscing about the firm feel of a dirt trail.
We cleared the tidal area with barely enough energy to heave our packs into one of the Tinkertoy huts, erected of driftwood as refuge from the rain and winds that blast the coast.
I slept in one, soothed by the sound of the waves and the sight of a full moon arcing its way over the steep mountain to set into the ocean before sunrise.
Only one other group was camping within sight.
We marveled at how so much coast has so few signs of people.
Our second day out had more long stretches of foot-grabbing sand, creeks to ford, and large stones.
On the third day, we encountered the trickiest tidal zone of all.
One member of our group had a tidal book and global positioning system device and guided us to arrive as the tide started to recede from a narrow rocky point that waves crash against.
I now clearly understand why Highway 1 turns several miles inland here. When Caltrans builders reached the Lost Coast, they abandoned hope of conquering the area.
We studied the pattern of waves and tried to time our scampers over the rocky point, one by one.
The waves soaked my foot as I rushed over the rocks.
We all made it past.
A few minutes later, we met a group of young men whose timing was not as good: They were soaked to the waist.
We were still enjoying our good luck with sunny warm weather that day when a fog bank moved in and cut our visibility from miles to yards.
We had planned to stay one more night.
But seeing the trail dissolve into pea soup, we decided to complete our hike early and leave the Lost Coast to the mists.
If You Go ...
GETTING THERE: The King Range National Conservation Area is 230 road miles north of San Francisco, and 70 miles south of Eureka. The Redwood Highway, U.S. 101, provides access to within 20 miles of the King Range.
GENERAL INFORMATION: Bureau of Land Management advises hikers to be prepared for vigorous exercise and fierce, unpredictable weather. Travel is especially risky in winter and spring because storms can create dangerous waves and make streams impassable.
The area is the second-wettest place in the lower 48 states.