On the western edge of Northern California, due north of where Route 1 ends in Humboldt County, the earth rises some 4,000 feet in less than three miles. Here, along 35 miles of steep roadways beneath the towering King Range Mountains, are coastal redwoods, rocky shorelines, and black sand beaches, as well as a menagerie of fauna: black bears, mink, deer, and river otter traverse the land while peregrine falcons and bald eagles patrol above. This essentially untouched strip of land has been dubbed "The Lost Coast" for good reason: It's the only significant stretch of California without a shoreline highway, and so has thus far escaped tourism's aggressive paws.
To visit this tucked-away treasure – which makes even pastoral Big Sur seem commercial – we flew into Eureka and rented a car there. Our meandering drive then took us through the Victorian-style hamlet of Ferndale; on to Cape Mendocino, a collection of gnarly shoals famous for shipwrecks; to Petrolia, a river valley town with Norman Rockwell flavor; to the hippie paradise of Honeydew, where marijuana farms and California drifters converge; and finally Shelter Cove, an adventure surfer's paradise. In that diminutive beach burg, tucked into sea cliffs and headlands with its own inn, we found powerful waves that rival those of the Bay Area's notorious Mavericks break (obvious expert tip: don't even plan on kayaking these churning waters without first having honed your skills in safer tides, especially ones in areas less hospitable to sharks). From Shelter Cove, we drove into the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, an elk-spotted wonderland of redwood groves and prairies.
The Lost Coast is full of hiking options, but in particular we like three: King Crest Trail, a 5.6-mile forest hike with an amazing vista view of King Peak; Chemise Mountain Trail, an easygoing 1.5-miler to the eponymous summit; and then the celebrated 24.6-mile Lost Coast Trail, a three-day hike along one of the few wilderness beaches in the U.S., along which you can still find ancient Native American middens (enormous piles of discarded shellfish). This area teems with options, though, so also consider a visit to Richardson Grove State Park, which is full of virgin redwoods as well as access to swimming and fishing in the Eel River. And you'd be a fool to miss a visit to Humboldt Redwoods State Park: There, we drove down the humbling Avenue of the Giants, 31 miles of some of the tallest, thickest trees in the world (and where there are plenty of places to stop and take in a picnic or even camp).
There are some restaurants and stores worth visiting in the neighboring towns, and sure, it's always nice to have an itinerary. But for us, the key with traveling, which this forgotten California nature node epitomizes, is to literally get lost. Who cares if you're driving north or south, the most efficient route, inland, or toward the beaches on this land? This place is away.