A remarkable road trip is found along the Lost Coast

Take in mountains, beaches and giant redwoods near the Pacific Ocean

Destination: California

June 12, 2005|By Chris Dixon | Chris Dixon,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

South of Oregon and far north of the Golden Gate, the Pacific coastal road retreats inland, bypassing 120 miles of wild, rugged shoreline aptly called the Lost Coast.

In this isolated pocket of gargantuan redwoods, surf-pounded mountains and hidden valleys, there's scant access to road-trip staples like cell-phone connections and four-lane asphalt. But brave the bumps and guardrail-free switchbacks of the lonely Lost Coast roads, and you'll drive into a wild, majestic California little changed from the time when today's 2,000-year-old redwoods were just seedlings.

In some places, trees are so dense they nearly block out the sun. In others, astounding scenery of precipitous cliffs, foamy sea and empty beaches unfolds around every bend.

A driver who loves a challenge may have a blast hugging hairpin turns and plunging 1,000 feet in three miles, but short hops are best on the serpentine Lost Coast roads, especially if a passenger is reaching for the Dramamine.

Start in Eureka, taking a little time to stroll past fantastical Victorian houses built by 19th-century lumber barons, before getting into the car and heading south toward the Lost Coast. Pass the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge - vast wetlands where 100,000 birds a day stop during winter migrations - and then turn onto Mattole Road (California Route 211) and leave the traffic behind.

Mile 19: Ferndale

Victorian-era prosperity set off a contest to build the most extravagant homes a century and more ago in Ferndale, and today its 1,400 residents live among turrets and gables.

The Gingerbread Mansion at 400 Berding St., now one of the most opulent bed-and-breakfasts in California, may win the prize for lavish decoration, and the Arnold Berding House draws stares with an otherworldly set of five pruned cypress trees out front that look like gigantic lime-flavored Jujyfruits.

Next to the Ferndale Artists Cooperative (580 Main St.), where Stan Bennett has his gallery of perpetual-motion Magic Marble Machines, the Ferndale Kinetic Museum preserves entries from a more modern contest: a 38-mile human-powered land-sea race to Arcata, 38 miles north, held every Memorial Day weekend. Among the past winners on display are a full-size 1963 Coupe de Ville convertible, a ground-bound flying saucer and an oversize bumblebee.

Mattole Road goes south out of town, past two wooden posts holding a sign that reads "Capetown + Petrolia," marking the unofficial gateway to the Lost Coast.

Mile 37: Ocean House beach

After rolling through a high alpine forest at the start of the highest coastal mountain range in the contiguous 48 states, and through a former stagecoach stop called Capetown, downshift and check your brakes - twice.

You're about to make an almost comically steep drop to the sea. (By now it's plainly obvious why the locals call Mattole Road "The Wildcat.") After the exciting trip downhill, the road takes you on a five-mile sweep along the ocean.

Park along the way and look out over the broad, windswept beach. You are just south of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in the lower 48 states. You may spot an eccentric lone windsurfer plying the icy waters, a gray whale or, near the water's edge, any of the hundreds of happy, roaming cows lucky enough to call this fog- and earthquake-prone strand home.

Mile 42: Punta Gorda Light

Past tiny Petrolia, where California's first commercial oil well began operation in 1865 and quickly ran dry, take the narrow, paved Lighthouse Road to a windswept gray sand beach, backed by grassland hills and covered with rocks, kelp and shells.

Plan to be here at low tide, when you can explore the tidal pools for enormous orange starfish, abalone, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, crabs, whelks, sea anemones and 6-inch-long chitons, an ancient species also found in the fossil beds of the Grand Canyon.

It's at low tide (and only then) that you can hike south on the 3.5-mile beach trail to the ruins of the Punta Gorda Lighthouse - a place so utterly remote that state employees were once sent to run the light as a punishment for bad behavior. Look out to sea and ponder their lonely fate. Then, on your way back, stop to watch the large, argumentative stellar seal lions jockeying for flipper space offshore on Sea Lion Rock.

Mile 73: Honeydew

Mattole Road veers away from the rugged coastal cliffs and parallels the Mattole River to Honeydew, a postage stamp of a town with a smattering of Victorian farmhouses and some of the heaviest winter rainfall in America. (It averages 110 inches a year.)

The tiny general store, which sells hot dogs and local produce, has the only gas pump for miles and miles. Grab a beer or a soft drink and pull up a chair on the front porch. You may meet William Ness, a weathered Navy veteran and retired logger who holds court with a can of Budweiser.

Mile 83: Albee Homestead

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