Perfect 10: The Lost Coast, Sinkyone Wilderness SP Find yourself among the redwoods and isolated coves of California's wildest shoreline.
The first time I hiked the Lost Coast, I was in college and it was spring, the sky was bright and clear, the irises blooming, and the beach campsites utterly deserted. Perfect conditions, at a perfect time in life. So when I heard other hikers have found the trail too wet, too cold, too hard, or all three, and vowed never to return, I wondered: Is my memory unreliable, corrupted by a golden moment I can't repeat? To find out, I returned again and again over the years, and have experienced the notorious summer fog that erases everything but your buddy a few feet away, and rain so hard that I had to coax my friend to even get out of the car. On my most recent hike there, last July, the poison oak grew so robustly it crossed the trail in places. I remain smitten.
Starting from the Usal trailhead and heading north, the Lost Coast Trail climbs through a grove of skyscraper redwoods infused with fairy-tale light; the red-green glow filters softly through the canopy and settles on emerald ferns that shine as if lit from within. By itself, the half-mile walk through the ancient trees is a life-list experience. Then you eject onto an open bluff, more than a thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, with a whale-spotting vista that's sure to stall your progress.
Next, you plunge into another redwood grove. Then you'll push through waist-high red and pink and white wildflowers that pop in early summer. And you're still just 30 minutes from the trailhead. Which, in short, is what puts the southern section of the Lost Coast in a class by itself. It's perfect from the very first mile, and never lets up for the next 15 (the dozen miles north from Usal harbor my favorite views and beaches).
True to the trail's name, the coast itself remains alluringly out of reach, protected by a no-go zone of steep cliffs. The rugged terrain--which famously defeated road engineers constructing the Pacific Coast Highway--forces the trail to bounce between fern grottoes and ridge-hugging overlooks. By the time you reach Little Jackass Creek, at mile 7.3, you'll have gained and lost a combined 5,503 feet of elevation. Now follow the creek down to a private beach, with pace for one idyllic campsite. Wash the trail sweat off in the icy surf, build a little driftwood fire, and dig your tired feet into the cool sand. You're far from lost.
PERFECT 10 Usal trailhead to Wheeler Beach Camp (mile 11) or continue to the northern trailhead at Orchard Camp (mile 16). >>
DO IT From Legget on US 101, go 15 miles west on CA 1 and turn right on Usal Rd. at mile marker 90.91 (warning: the unmarked dirt road may be impassable after heavy rains). Shuttle: Use lostcoastshuttle.com or leave a car at Orchard Camp (see Contact). PERMIT Required ($5/person per night, at trailhead) MAP Lost Coast Trail map ($10, see Contact) CONTACT (707) 986-7711; parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=25201