California’s Lost Coast

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A little-known California secret is that there’s an 80 mile stretch of hidden coastline that Highway One detours around—it’s too treacherous for a highway, so they skipped that part. The area is called the Lost Coast, and it’s only accessible to people who are willing to hike it, or to drive unreasonably far off the beaten path, mostly on off-road trails. Just a few months ago, we realized this place existed, and immediately we were hooked on the idea of finding it. Gorgeous remote wild coastline that’s really hard to access and requires unreasonable driving distances? We took that as a direct challenge. Never mind that we travel with two tiny kids…

Yet, per our usual adventures, curiosity trumped kid-friendliness—the Lost Coast isn’t listed as “good for kids” on Yelp or anywhere else—and we determined to find the fabled coastline in our 4×4 truck. Jordan had to send away for a map of the King Range Wilderness, which is the only way to navigate around the Lost Coast backcountry. We booked one of three hotels available in the area. I checked out every Clifford book at the library (27, to be exact), packed all our food for four days, and we drove the six hours up 101 to Humboldt County, at the top of California, and then an hour west on winding roads through dense redwoods to a tiny town called Shelter Cove, a jumping-off point for the Lost Coast.

And what we found was GOLD. A black sand beach stretching for miles. Cliffs and mountains and rainbows, with zero people in sight. Endless miles of off-road trails leading to scenic vistas, redwood forests, and hidden beaches. This was Highway 1 without the highway, Big Sur beauty with redwoods and zero crowds. It was moody and tumultuous. In Shelter Cove, a handful of hotels (the only ones on the Lost Coast) which offer great discounts in the cold rainy season, probably because it is just that: cold, rainy, with tempestuous gales that will knock you off your feet. Our hotel was right on the edge of the waves and we slept with the sliding doors open at night, and it was like constant thunder—the roughest ocean I’ve ever seen. One night there was a gale, and it whipped the curtains right out the door in a single terrifying gust, and then it started hailing. I’ve never seen such a raging ocean. But in the mornings, the fog and storms would clear to reveal layers of cliffs on either side of us—the King Range—and rainbows all around.

Changing tides, sleeper waves, poison oak—it’s not always safe in wild places. Kids in tow or no, you’ve got to be on the watch constantly. And wild places don’t usually have grocery stores. Exploring a place like this isn’t exactly a vacation, but it sure counts as a change of scenery, and that is refreshing and exhilarating in its own way. To be able to bring our kids, no matter how tiny, to a remote beach where few people ever go, where they can run free on an endless black sand beach and experience real wilderness—that’s worth all the driving, wet clothes, vigilance, and tiredness at the end. There are times for quiet trips, and there are times to follow your curiosity to places that aren’t easy or straightforward. The hassle is real, but the payoff is great. Forget what anyone says about where you should travel with tiny kids, and follow your curiosity instead, and what you experience together along the way might just be worth it.

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