Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lost Coast Tour

Cumulative Distance: 93.65 miles
Cumulative Climbing: 14,768 feet
Difficulty: Epic
Type: Mixed, 37 miles of dirt roads
Start: Ferndale

The Lost Coast Tour is an alternative to touring down Highway 101, the Avenue of the Giants, and Highway 1 between Eureka and Fort Bragg. The tour can be included in your coastal tour or completed as a fun short tour that can be made into a loop or a point to point. I completed the ride in the summer of 2011 as a counter clockwise loop from Eureka to Usal and returning via Leggett and Highway 101.

The Lost Coast is shrouded in mystery, myth, and adventure. This post provides a reasonable way to complete the tour including recommended equipment, distances, and stops. I'm sure a maniac could complete it in one day, but I recommend at least 3 days. I believe any experienced cyclist can complete the tour if you are patient and pace yourself.

Here are my recommendations for equipment. I'm sure you could complete the ride on most any bike, but some would be better than others. I would not recommend a road racing bike with narrow tires and overloaded rear rack. A mountain bike or touring bike with ample gearing and wide tires is mandatory. I completed the ride on a loaded steel touring bike with a triple crankset, mountain bike cassette, 650B x 42mm Grand Bois Hetre cushy tires, 40 pounds of gear, 4 water bottles, and spare parts. At times I wished I had ridden my 29er and gone for a superlight off-road setup. There were times when I really wanted to bomb the gravel road descents, but had to carefully pick my lines and control my speed to avoid crashing or pinch flatting.

  • Make sure your bike is in great mechanical condition.

  • Choose reliability over speed.

  • Have extra water carrying capacity such as multiple bike bottles or a hydration pack. Water stops are critical strategic points. Don't pass one up without filling up. It's a good idea to bring a water treatment system such as a filter.

  • Bring extra food. There are only two stores and they are located early in the ride.

  • Don't rely on a cell phone for safety. I had poor cell coverage for most of the ride.

  • Let someone know your route and stick to it.

  • Bring enough clothes to cope with extremes in temperature. I experienced cold 47 degree drizzle to temperatures in the 90s.Don't do this ride in the winter. The Usal road is not maintained during the winter and would be impassable because of the sticky clay surface.

The following are some route recommendations and directions. I won't be overly-detailed, so the ride will still have some adventure left for the rider who chooses to follow these directions. The best advice I read was from John Zilly’s book “Wild Pigs: The Mountain Bike Adventure Guide to the Pacific Coast,” where he describes this same route. If you are used to 100 mile days on a road tour, expect only 30 mile days on the Lost Coast.

DAY 0- Eureka to Ferndale
Distance: 16.65 miles
Climbing: 694 feet

The real starting point for the Lost Coast is Ferndale. The ride from Eureka to Ferndale can be easily accomplished by riding down 101, taking the Ferndale exit and following the signs to Ferndale. However, if you want to avoid riding on the Highway as much as possible, follow this description.

0- Start, Herrick Avenue Exit, Highway 101
3.8- Exit 698 for Tompkins Hill Rd toward College of the Redwoods
4.3- Right towards College of the Redwoods
6.9- Right on Hookton Road, turn right and continue over Highway on overpass
7.2- Continue straight on Eel River Drive, don't get on the Highway
9.8- Loleta, Straight or turn left on Loleta Drive to the Loleta Cheese Factory or Loleta Bakery
11.6- Right on Fernbridge Drive towards Fernbridge
12.2- Right on CA-211 towards Ferndale
16.0- Turn right onto Van Ness Ave towards the Fairgrounds, or straight into town for supplies
16.5- left onto 5th street
16.65- Arrive at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds

The camping at the fairgrounds is simple and cheap, but there are warm showers and lots of good restaurant options downtown. Plus, this is the best place to start since it is only 3/4 of a mile from the start of the route.


DAY 1- Ferndale to A.W. Way Campground
Distance: 35 miles
Climbing: 4520 feet

The day starts off with a climb up the Wildcat/Mattole Road. The road is narrow, but there is little traffic and the drivers are polite. If this steep paved climb makes you doubt your fitness, you have not seen anything yet. You should consider turning around because the dirt roads in the King Range are much more challenging. There are two big climbs on the route within the first 20 miles. The first climb tops out at 1909 feet at the 7.2 mile mark. The descent into Capetown will challenge your brakes and descending skills. If you have weak brakes now, consider turning around or adjusting them. The dirt roads in the King Range are much steeper. The next climb isn’t as long, but there are a series of tough switch backs and uneven pavement that will test your bike handling and climbing skills. You get to bomb down the 18 plus percent “Wall” on the way down to the ocean. This is a nice treat if you are used to climbing the Wall during the Tour of the Unknown Coast.

After a nice tailwind along the ocean you head inland climbing towards Petrolia. At mile 29.6, stop at the Petrolia store for supplies. They have a small market with basic supplies, but can also make great deli sandwiches. You are in store for more climbing before you reach A.W. Way. At mile point 30.6 you will turn left after crossing the Mattole River. An alternative camp site is located down Lighthouse Road on the ocean at the Mattole Campground

As you head east along the Mattole River you will be challenged by the last significant climb of the day, the “Dump Hill” at mile point 33. There are a couple of tough switchbacks that will have you fighting your bike. From here it is an easy ride into A.W. Way Campground at mile point 36. The campground has recently been upgraded with a brand new bathroom and hot showers! Pushing on to the Honeydew Creek campground is a mistake. A.W. Way has a nice swimming hole and there are several river-front camping sites to pick from. In contrast, Honeydew Creek is smaller, less private, and has no potable water. There are no showers or flush toilets like A. W. Way.

Day 2- A. W. Way Campground to Wailaki Campground
Distance: 30.5 miles
Climbing: 4921 feet

Today you will get your first taste of gravel road touring. The ride to Honeydew Store at mile marker 8.1 is fairly uneventful with a couple of small climbs. Stock up on water and supplies at the Honeydew store before heading into the wild. The real challenge begins just after the 10 mile mark on Wilder Ridge Road. The road starts to climb and switchback at perhaps the steepest grade so far. A 0.4 mile gravel switchback section challenges you to keep you front wheel from washing out and your rear wheel from loosing traction. After 11.6 miles, the slope becomes more gradual, but the climb continues all the way to Kings Peak Road at mile point 15.8.

Now the real challenge begins on a steep gravel descent to Bear Creek. Your brakes and handling will be challenged as you try to avoid washing out on the tight switchbacks. I once turned back here afraid of what I was in for. Be happy that you don’t have to climb this beast of a road. The only car I saw on this whole dirt section was a Toyota Landcruiser. As I passed them I saw a curious look in their eyes as I bombed down the rutted road on a touring bike. The rough road will challenge you as you steadily climb above Bear Creek and cross several small creek fords. Pass up Horse Mountain Campground for Tolkan, where there is potable water. This is a great base camp if you want to ride the Paradise Royale mountain bike trail.

From here the climbing continues until you reach Shelter Cove Road at mile point 28.1. If you are short on supplies, it is a tough decision to ride all the way down the descent to Shelter Cove. It’s a little over 3 miles, but it means a tough ride back out. Turn left on Shelter Cove Road and head out Chemise Mountain Road to Wailaki Campground. The nice smooth pavement, shade, and gentle topography are a welcomed change. Wailaki is an important stopping point with nice camp sites along the South Fork of Bear Creek. This is a great place to rehydrate and rest before conquering the ride to Usal. If you choose to push on like I did, expect to spend a long day in the saddle, even though it’s only 22 miles to Usal Beach Campground. It took me nearly 4 hours at a meager pace of 6 miles per hour.

Day 3- Wailaki Campground to Usal Beach Campground
Distance: 23 miles
Climbing: 4025 feet

I had heard rumors about the Usal Road being the worst road on this whole ride. I also heard stories of vehicles getting stuck on the unmaintained road during the winter. The Usal Road lived up to its reputation, but it is totally rideable during the summer. The road varies from hard packed clay to loose gravel. Along the way you will have to pick good lines between ruts left from 4x4s and the small erosion gullies left from winter weather. The road is not maintained in the winter, but it didn’t appear like it was maintained during the summer either. If you are a mountain biker, this will seem like a normal fire road or logging road ride. Riding 23 miles on an unloaded mtb would be less of a challenge. But, it is demanding if you are trying to control a loaded touring bike. During this ride I saw only one SUV and two motorcycles. You will be out of cell phone range and away from help, so ride cautiously!

Chemise Mountain road sounds like a barren and hot ride. However, both Chemise Mountain Road and the Usal Road are covered by a nice canopy of second growth Douglas-fir and tanoak the majority of the way, which provides lots of shade.

At mile point 0.95 you will be greeted by a steep gravel descent. After this white knuckle experience you will love the paved rolling terrain for a couple of miles as you pass the community of Whale Gulch. The real peace and isolation starts when you ride up the narrow and twisting Usal Road 4.5 miles into the ride. There are few landmarks along the way as you seem to continuously climb on the narrow dirt road. After 19 miles of climbing and ups and downs you will bomb down to the Usal Beach Campground, part of the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park

This simple campground features private camp sites up Usal Creek, along the beach, or within a small prairie. There is no potable water here, but water may be available in Usal Creek if you have water treatment options.

Day 4- Usal Beach Campground to Highway 1 and Beyond

If you choose to push on or spend the night, you have 5.5 miles and 1300 feet of climbing to reach Highway 1. Fort Bragg is an additional 28 miles further.

Here are some more resources:

  • BLM King Range Information HERE

  • Nice BLM Map and guide HERE

  • Sinkyone Wilderness Information HERE

  • BLM Sinkyone Wilderness Information HERE

  • Asana Cycling Surly Big Dummy Tour has a fun description of the ride and some video of the adventure

  • John Zilly's "Wild Pigs: The Mountain Bike Adventure Guide to the Pacific Coast" published in 1995 details the route. I used this for my adventure. The only real changes are there are a couple sections of road that have been paved since 1995. It details mountain bike rides all along the west coast and is available at Amazon

  • Amy L's Northern California Bike Loop Advice Blog where she road the Usal road from south to north and then headed east towards Redway.

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