The Lost Coast of California

Jackass Ridge, Lost Coast of California. Photo by Sean Morley

It is very gratifying when a plan comes together. It was always going to be risky planning a sea kayak trip weeks in advance, to fit in with work schedules and family commitments and then have no leeway for weather delays, injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. But sometimes you just have to go for it, and hope to be lucky!

The Lost Coast is described as the longest stretch of wilderness coastline in the ‘Lower 48’. It lies south of and somewhat protected by Cape Mendocino, the most westerly point in California. It is dominated by the King Range; the summit of which, King Peak at 4,088 ft is just three miles inland producing a precipitous rise in elevation unsurpassed on the west coast. The terrain is such that Highway 1 which manages to somehow cling to the rest of California’s coast is forced inland, skirting one of the most active earthquake zones in North America. The King Range is still rising (at an estimated ten feet every thousand years) but the Pacific Ocean is chewing at its feet, creating sheer  700 ft cliffs, avalanches of trees, waterfalls and mile upon mile of grey, rocky and black sand beaches.

CCK instructors Bryant Burkhardt, Matt Palmariello, Anders Landin & Sean Morley

Three other CCK instructors; Bryant Burkhardt, Matt Palmariello and Anders Landin liked the sound of my audacious plan to traverse the entire Lost Coast by putting in just south of the Eel River mouth near Ferndale and paddling south to Westport where Highway 1 returns to the coast. A distance of 76 miles, we only had four days available which included setting up the shuttle. To maximize the potential for play we decided to use plastic, highly rockered sea kayaks. Of course this meant they would be relatively slow and thus the mileage would not come easily.

Loading for the trip on a beach south of the Eel River Mouth. Photo by Sean Morley

Matt chose the Valley Avocet, Bryant the P&H Capella, Anders the Current Designs Sirocco and I felt I had to see if the P&H Delphin could handle a multi day excursion. The planning went smoothly – it’s great when everyone collaborates and knows what is needed. We tried to keep our kit and food as minimalist as possible to save weight and not overburden our ‘play boats’. We were loaded and heading up Hwy 101 by 9am on Sunday morning, and enjoyed a very pleasant drive over Hwy 128 to the Mendocino coast. I tried not to be anxious as we left my rig near Westport for three nights. We were careful not to leave anything of value in either vehicle – just in case.

The long drive from Westport to the put-in was rather disconcerting – thankfully we would be paddling a considerably shorter distance. When we arrived at the beach on Centerville Road, west of Ferndale, I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew that it was a steep, fully exposed beach that had the potential for really big dumping surf. It looked manageable and we quickly and efficiently set about loading our kayaks and carrying them to the water’s edge.

Since I had chosen the launch site I volunteered to be last off the beach and helped the others time their slide with the backwash and only Matt took a couple of attempts to punch through the head-high beach dump. I could see the disappointment in Anders’ face as he filmed Bryant and then Matt from the beach. Clearly he had been hoping for more drama. We had a number of cameras, both video and still with us and the intention was to capture as many images of our journey as possible to share with you, our customers.

Heading towards False Cape. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt.

We were underway by 5.00pm which gave us a couple of hours to reach the lee of Cape Mendocino, our goal for the night. However, a un-forecasted southerly breeze slowed our progress along the grey sand beach at the base of an undulating cliff line. Once we had rounded the aptly named False Cape, we decided to land and found an excellent campsite overlooking a nice-looking point break with fresh running water and not another soul in sight. We were amazed at how quickly the coastline had ‘gone wild’ and revelled in the fact that ours were the only human footprints in the sand. The only other tracks belonged to deer and possibly a bobcat. The omnipresent fog prevented us from seeing the stars and since we had all had a fairly early start we turned in early, having agreed on an 8am launch the next day.

Anders enjoying dinner with a view, Photo by Sean Morley

The song of two bright green frogs mixed with the surf to create a perfect lullaby.

Pacific Treefrog. Photo by Sean Morley


Like pro’s we were on the water and underway right on time. As we approached Cape Mendocino with its maze of rock stacks dominated by Sugar Loaf, we encountered several lively groups of California sea lions. Some of the males were so immense, with rusty-brown coats that we wondered if they might be Steller’s. Refracted waves wrapped around Sugar Loaf and Matt picked off a nice ride whilst I just got a face full of spray as two waves met right underneath me.

California sea lions, Cape Mendocino. Photo by Sean Morley

 As we paddled into the lee of the Cape, past a lone surfer enjoying some clean four footers, we could see something that I feared we might see very little of during our journey – the sun! Perhaps it was the dramatic bend in the coastline south of the Cape or the upward thrust of the King Range, or perhaps it was just because the sun always shines on Matt Palmariello but we paddled into glorious sunshine which stayed with us almost until our journey’s end.

The end of the fog for a while. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

What’s more we were treated to an ethereal display of light as the powerful California sun pierced through the clouds still hugging the slopes to our left, sun beams warming the beach where we stopped briefly for a comfort break and to take off some layers.

Steamboat Rock. Photo by Sean Morley

Past the curiously shaped Steamboat Rock flying the stars and stripes we couldn’t help but smile as the anticipated northwesterly breeze aided our progress southwards towards the Mattole River and Punta Gorda. Play opportunities were sparse along this section of coast and we knew that we had to get some mileage under our skirts if we were to have to time to play later in the day. Our goal for the day was a well-known ‘secret’ surf spot and our hope was to enjoy some of the warm sunshine off the water as well.

Sean surfing one of many reef breaks on the Lost Coast. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

The northwesterly breeze created a few wind waves that mixed with the four-foot swell to spice things up as we rounded Punta Gorda and searched for a breach in the rocks guarding the shore, hoping to land for lunch. Anders led the way onto a wavecut platform where we landed and disturbed an otter hunting amongst the rusting fragments of a ship wreck, a reminder that this coast isn’t always as benign.

We were now on the Lost Coast Trail and had already seen a number of hikers. We knew that we were being treated to a unique perspective of this truly remarkable mountain range and it was hard not to feel smug as we blew past hikers toiling under their heavy burdens.

‘Ghost Point’ has earned its place in surfing folklore as a sublime point break ‘somewhere’ on the Lost Coast. As a kayak surfer myself I am not about to incur the wrath of those boardies who naively believe that it remains a secret (after-all it features in a nicely written NatGeo online article:

suffice to say “if ye look, ye shall find” and it makes a great campsite both for hikers and sea kayakers, although I can imagine that the landing can be quite tasty on a big swell, especially at high tide. Like almost every place we landed, it would have been a very different story had the swell been a lot bigger, particularly if the swell had some south in it.

Ghost Point. Photo by Sean Morley

As it was, the surf wrapping around the point was small and barely surfable. Indeed the three boardies who were present had given up for the day. They had arrived by boat – actually a very small inflatable boat with an outboard engine. Empty cans of beer lay strewn in the bilges. A different style to us for sure but they were decent enough to come over and say “Hi”.

The late afternoon sun was a treat and so was the fresh water provided via a standpipe at the back of the beach. This campsite didn’t feel as remote as I had expected – the houses above Shelter Cove were just visible to the south. But that did little to take away from the beauty of the location; a crescent beach adorned with bleached driftwood and interesting plants leading to a wide meadow backed by the slopes of Miller Ridge that leads to the summit of King Peak.

Matt enjoying a fireside sunset. Photo by Sean Morley

I felt compelled to light a fire, something I rarely do on trips like these but it provided a nice focal point for our conversation as the sun set and the stars came out in all their unadulterated glory.

It seemed way too early to be returning to civilisation but like it or not, we had to paddle past Shelter Cove which is much more of a town than I had anticipated. Before that though we enjoyed an hour of tranquility, hugging the shore, taking the occasional mellow surf ride, following a coastline that is like no other. Sheer cliffs broken by ravines choked with trees and vegetation that clung to the shattered rock. I saw some of the shortest and steepest watersheds I have ever seen, small streams cascading down escarpments high up on the mountain side that were evidence of sudden and epic landslides. And at the base of all this was a beach, if you can call it that. Even with this gentle swell the waves slapped at the base of the cliffs and it is no wonder that the trail map warns that this section of the Lost Coast Trail is impassable at high tide or on big swell days. No kidding!

Matt heading towards Shelter Cove. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

We saw wave after wave of Brown pelicans flying in classic V-formation, all headed north. We saw none flying south and I am guessing that is because they are done with breeding and are seeking the colder nutrient rich waters further north.

Brown Pelicans flying north. Photo by Sean Morley

As we approached the rocky headland that provides the lee for Shelter Cove the swell increased significantly and the reflected waves made for slow progress. We picked our way through the boomers, eager to find something to play with. Bryant had put on his helmet indicating he meant business and he soon found a feature; an eight foot wide gap that led to a system of gulleys within the reef that make up Point Delgada. He timed it nicely and was able to turn around and paddle back out through a much tighter gap which required more speed as the waves came over the rock from his right. I followed, having neglected to put on my helmet and almost lost my sun hat when it got knocked off by a wave as I exited. I pointed out that I am safer with my sun hat on as I tend to get more reckless once I have donned my helmet! I don’t think the others were convinced however and I do of course recommend that you wear your helmet at all times when in the surf or near rocks.

Bryant threading through the reef at Point Delgada, Shelter Cove. Photo by Sean Morley

We avoided paddling into the harbor at Shelter Cove and thus spoiling our ‘wilderness adventure’ preferring to land on a beach just outside to eat lunch in the warm sunshine. We knew that we were entering a more interesting zone as far as playful rock features were concerned so we resisted the temptation to take a nap and continued south towards Bear Landing, our goal for the day. In his most excellent book “Sea Kayaking Guide to Central and Northern California”, Roger Schumann describes this next section of coast as “one of the premier open-coast tours in the state.” It was one of those days when things just got better and better, the scenery was outstanding, the weather was perfect and the rock gardens came with more enticing regularity. The only drawback was that because we had been pushing quite hard, we were lacking the energy to really exploit them. Even so, when we passed beneath High Tip and I saw Cluster Cone Rock my adrenaline got the better of my fatigue and I had to run through the really fun arches, even putting my helmet on for the low one.

Sean judging the headroom before putting his lid on. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

It had been a very satisfying day and Bear Landing, despite being populated by other campers proved to be an ideal stopover.

Bear Landing. Photo by Matt Palmariello

A serene sunset and some deep philosophical discussion whilst lying on our backs gazing at the Milky Way ended a wonderful day. Elk and bear poop suggested we might not be alone during the night and we were told that approximately twenty-five Roosevelt Elk had been seen on the beach the previous morning. In the end the only hazard was the wind that picked up during the night and necessitated some re-pegging of tents in the early hours. The following morning we saw just one elk but it was big and had we been joined by the whole herd on the beach, it might have got interesting!

Bryant styling a pour-over. Photo by Sean Morley

Re-energized after a nights kip we headed out to the rocks again for a brief play before continuing south, for what should have been an easy final day.

Matt coming through nicely on the back of the wave. Photo by Sean Morley

Curiously and contrary to the weather forecast which gave 25-30 knot winds from the northwest, the wind that had picked up during the night was from the south and it continued to build all day. What should have been the highlight of the trip in terms of scenery and rock gardens became a bit of a slog with confused seas every time beach turned to cliff. But what cliffs they were! I am not sure if Anderson Cliff at 715 sheer feet is the highest on this section of coast but at its base is Mistake Point which makes you think twice about going in too close. But there were so many features to test our skills and we hadn’t paddled all that way in plastic boats to pass by arches like this:

A big arch south of Bear Landing. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

And this:

Matt passing from light to shade. Photo by Sean Morley

And this:

Bryant squeezing through a tight one. Photo by Sean Morley

And this:

Bryant running the gauntlet. Photo by Sean Morley

Despite aching shoulders I did my best to search for fun features and my diligence was rewarded when I found a large cave with at least four different entrances. It was large enough for all of us to be in there at the same time and I was so excited to be filming everyone that I got too close to the rock face and as the swell surged I got flipped, camera still running. Thankfully I grabbed my paddle in time and rolled up and continued filming, with just a few scratches on my hand from barnacles as evidence of my inattentiveness. Afterwards I wondered why non-one wanted to paddle close to me as my blood dripped into the sea….

After another lazy lunch on the warm pebbles just north of Usal Beach we dug in for the final leg down to Westport. The southerly wind was increasing with the heat of the day and then we saw why. A large fog bank was headed north and as we approached Rockport our progress had slowed to a crawl as fog enveloped us then as quickly dispersed only to envelope us again. As we approached the high rock wall protecting Rockport and enjoyed a brief respite in its wind shadow, Anders knew his body well enough to say that he had done enough. Matt agreed to wait with him at Rockport whilst Bryant and myself continued down to Westport to get my truck. Despite having to fight the wind as we came around the corner into Rockport I was salivating over the numerous arches and potential pour-overs that abound but I knew they would have to wait for another time. My attention was quickly diverted to a nice four-foot surf coming onto the pristine beach at Rockport Landing.

Rockport Landing. Photo by Sean Morley

Once Matt and Anders were ashore and happy, Bryant and I re-launched and continued our fight with the stubborn southerly around Cape Vizcaino, past an enormous arch and many spectacular rock stacks. We met Hwy 1, and knew that the take out wasn’t far. The question was whether we would be able to see it through the fog and whether we would be able to land safely with the increasing swell. The impact zone was quite a way off-shore as we passed Union Landing State Beach and Bryant and I were becoming a little alarmed at the apparent size and consistency of the surf. We had parked the truck just south of Abalone Point and despite having selected the spot almost by chance it turned out we had chosen well. As we rounded Abalone Point I saw ‘our’ beach through the gloom and we threaded our way through the numerous boomers to find just a three-foot surf running onto the soft sand beach. We landed without drama and I anxiously ran up to see if my truck was still there. It was and it still had all its wheels! I did find a card from Jeff Laxier of Liquid Fusion Kayaking (based in Fort Bragg). He had received an enquiry from a local search team member who had noticed the truck with kayak racks sat in the same place for three nights. It was good to know that the locals had been keeping an eye on us and our SPOT satellite trackers had allowed Jeff to inform the search team member that all was well.

So the trip ended without incident. We found our way down to the beach at Rockport (it is private property owned by the Redwood Lumber Company but they gave us permission to enter) and collected Matt and Anders. We drove back up to the put-in and collected Bryant’s truck which was also safe and sound. And as we did so we saw the surf now pounding the beach where we had launched four days ago. It was massive. Eight to ten feet on the outer banks, with a six-foot shore dump. It would have been impossible to launch and we were reminded just how fortunate we had been to pull this trip off. We did have an alternative launch site at Cape Mendocino but that would have resulted in a significantly longer shuttle. We had struck lucky and we knew it.

Fun times!

The Lost Coast is a truly remarkable section of California’s wonderful shoreline. I feel privileged to have shared it with three good friends. We would love to share some of it with you one day….

Sean Morley, July 2011.

Here is Bryant’s short video of our journey:

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7 Responses to The Lost Coast of California

  1. Pingback: P&H Paddlers » The Lost Coast of California by Sean Morley in Day Trps

  2. Tiffany says:

    Thank you this wonderful report! I enjoyed the heck out of it!

  3. Dominic says:

    That was a great report! – Awesome trip… What about a list of some of the main bits of Kit like boats, Paddles etc.

    • Since the goal was to play and the California coast in the summer is relatively mild, everyone went fairly light on this trip. A couple of us were in drysuits (which I personally regretted after sweating the whole trip) the others in thermal layers/drytops. All of us had a spare paddle on our boats, short tows for rescue situations, helmets for rock gardening. For safety we had three SPOT satellite units, VHF radios, assorted flares and signaling devices. We had plenty of duct tape, vinyl mastic and bituthane for boat repairs (didn’t use any of it). We had a couple of GPS units and compasses for navigation (didn’t use them). For camping I just used a lightweight tarp, the others had small tents. We each did our own cooking just because we weren’t organized enough to shop together ahead of time. We each carried a couple of days worth of water but there were actually many streams coming into where we camped and with filters we had fresh water every night. The boats still felt heavy when playing until the last day when most of the food was gone and I stopped carrying extra water – the difference between a 30 lb. load and a 60lb. load was very noticeable.

  4. Pete Gauvin says:

    Nice read about a great adventure. Thanks Sean.

  5. Buck Johnson says:

    A good read, Sean, thank you for sharing. Too bad the wind came up on the last day as the playground around Cape Vizcaino is a lot of fun. Cheers!!!

  6. Ali says:

    When are we going? Sounds fab!

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