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
Alongside the Rockefeller Forest, the largest remaining old-growth coast redwood forest in the world, the beautiful Albee Creek Campground, just off Mattole Road, occupies the long-abandoned farm and apple orchard of John Albee. The remaining apple trees produce copiously during the fall, feeding deer, bears and wild pigs. Fat, mouthwatering blackberries and raspberries are free for the picking in summer.
Several trails lead into the 13,000-acre forest, purchased for the state of California by the Save the Redwoods League, with the help of John D. Rockefeller Jr., in 1931. Don't be startled to see blissed-out hikers literally hugging the trunks of awe-inspiring, 360-foot behemoths. At night, a staggeringly starry sky is all the entertainment you'll need.
Mile 105: Avenue of the Giants
From the end of Mattole Road south to Redway, the old Highway 101 - a twisty, two-lane blacktop wonder now called California Highway 254 - parallels the new. The 31 miles of it called the Avenue of the Giants are lined by trees taller than 30-story buildings, with many places along the way to climb out of the car and ponder your tiny place in the universe.
Though nearly 96 percent of California's ancient redwood forests have been logged, a goodly representation of that last 4 percent is here in the 53,000 acres of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Scattered in the clearings are shrines to roadside Americana, such as the Eternal Tree House, where a gift shop has been cleverly attached to a living redwood with a one-room cabin inside its fire-hollowed trunk, and the 315-foot-tall Chandelier Tree ($3 to drive through a tunnel in a living tree).
At the dizzying Campbell Brothers Confusion Hill (75001 North Highway 101, Piercy; 707-925-6456), gravity's effects are reputed to be a little askew. Whether there's a glitch in elemental forces or not, at the precariously perched Gravity House short people seem tall; water appears to flow uphill; and you find yourself walking on walls, leaving the floor behind.
At the amazingly hardy Chimney Tree (1111 Avenue of the Giants, Phillipsville; 707-923-2265), burned hollow to its top by a lightning strike and decapitated by a windstorm but still thriving, you can see the sky 100 feet up from inside the trunk.
Mile 150: Shelter Cove
The most remote inhabited town in the lower 48 states may well be Shelter Cove, accessible by leaving the Avenue of the Giants at Redway for a rough 50-mile round trip on Briceland and Shelter Cove roads.
Commercial fishermen had a small settlement here when, in 1966, land speculators drew plans for a much larger community, laying out 4,000 lots. Only about 400 houses have materialized, and regular visitors still include deer, foxes, huge Roosevelt elk and black bears.
The town has a golf course, an airstrip, nine miles of beaches and abundant spectacular scenery. There are several inns; the hilltop Ashbrook is particularly nice. Mario's Restaurant, with a stunning view of the coastline, serves fresh-baked bread and locally caught fish to hikers, kayakers and sport-fishing enthusiasts.
Mile 262: Usal Road
At Leggett, California's Pacific Coast Road, Route 1, makes its northernmost appearance, splitting off from Route 101 and wandering off westward toward the Pacific. Follow it to the water, where it turns south and the Lost Coast ends, and look for the words "Usal Road" spray-painted on the pavement.
They announce the turnoff for a rutted, single-lane dirt trail heading north back into the Lost Coast to the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a friend with another to accompany you into the wilderness, you can try a portion of it.
Five-and-a-half miles and a few hours (literally) from the turnoff, you'll descend a precariously steep slope to Usal Beach, strewn with boulders and logs and perched ominously between gloomy cliffs and enormous roaring waves. You may not be alone; off-roaders like testing their machines on this terrain. After your sojourn at the beach, turn back. It's possible to continue on dirt roads all the way back north to Shelter Cove and then to Honeydew, but it's a time-consuming, treacherous trip.
Mile 300: Mendocino
As you drive south on Highway 1, civilization asserts itself picturesquely with increasing numbers of farms and tiny hamlets. For a last taste of isolation, stop two miles north of Westport at the bridge at Westport-Union State Beach and hike down to the roaring ocean. (Be wary here in the fall, when the first huge North Pacific swells begin bearing down: Lulls between the biggest waves can last as long as 10 minutes, leaving mammoth seas to sweep in seemingly from nowhere.)
Back on Route 1, drive south through the burly old Army town of Fort Bragg and into its famously arty cousin, Mendocino, for a soft landing after an exhilarating trip. The wines are local, the sea is tame, and the shops are charming. And at the Whitegate Inn Bed and Breakfast in Mendocino, you can ask for the French Rose Room, previously booked by Julia Roberts, Bill O'Reilly, Mel Gibson and other celebrities.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: The commercial airport nearest to the Lost Coast is Eureka/Arcata, which is 16 miles north of Eureka, Calif., and is served by Horizon Air and United Express. Car rentals are available there.
Route of the trip:
From Eureka, U.S. 101 south to California 211 (Mattole Road). Follow California 211 through Ferndale, Petrolia and Honeydew and back to meet U.S. 101/California 254.
Get on California 254 for Avenue of the Giants (31 miles of California 254, which is the old U.S. 101 and parallels the current one).
Detour at Redway to Shelter Cove, via Briceland and Shelter Cove roads. (Return is by same route).
Return to the main route, U.S. 101, after Avenue of the Giants, and connect with California 1 South at Leggett.
Optional detour from California 1 on Usal Road to Usal Beach.
Follow California 1 south to Mendocino.
The best time of year for a trip to the Lost Coast is April to October, when sunshine is most likely, winds are relatively calm and fog is at a minimum.
A tide chart and information on road conditions are available from the Bureau of Land Management's King Range Web site at www.ca.blm.gov/arcata/king-range.html.
The preserved Victorian buildings of Eureka, a town of 26,000 about 100 miles south of the Oregon border, include several now used as inns. The Carter House Inns (301 L St., 800-404-1390; www.carterhouse.com) is a cluster of four Victorian houses that includes an inn, restaurant and wine shop. Its 32 rooms start at $155 year-round.
In Ferndale, the Gingerbread Mansion Inn (400 Berding St., 800-952-4136; www.gingerbread-mansion.com) has 11 rooms and suites starting at $160; $129 from Oct. 1 to March 31.
The Albee Creek Campground, near Honeydew in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, is just off Mattole Road, five miles west of U.S. 101. It has 40 sites and can accommodate RVs up to 33 feet long, though there are no hookups. It has hot, coin-operated showers and a pay phone. Sites are $20 a night from mid-May to mid-September and $15 a night the rest of the year (reservations, 800-444-7275).
The Ashbrook Inn in Shelter Cove (578 Hillside Dr., 707-986-7109; www.ashbrookinn.com) is on a hillside overlooking the Pacific at 1,000 feet above sea level. Its three guest rooms, all with kitchenettes, decks and high-speed Internet access, start at $170 year-round. Nearby, Mario's Restaurant & Bar (533 Machi Road, 707-986-1401) has an equally stunning coastline view.
In Mendocino, the six rooms and one cottage at the Whitegate Inn Bed & Breakfast (499 Howard St., 707-937-4892; www.whitegateinn.com) are $169 to $309 year-round.
- Chris Dixon