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“I like that blinking light you got on your back there,” I heard someone to my left call out towards me. An older man with a bushy beard and grey streaks was wearing a worn-out and dirty grey t-shirt and loosely fitting denim pants that had seen better days. To say I was surprised seeing anyone out here was an understatement. I had just pulled up to the intersection of Usal and Moody Road, two gravel forest roads that meet slightly east of the Sinkyone Wilderness Area boundary, along California’s Lost Coast.
The man who called out to me was part of a five-person group who had set up an aid station for riders participating in the Usal Hopper, a gravel bike race in the area, routing through this junction. By now, I had also connected the dots about his comment. About forty-five minutes earlier, he had passed me on his flatbed truck on a narrow stretch of Usal Road, honking in support, as I had my Blackburn 2’Fer light on blinking mode on my backpack for visibility in these shaded woods, shrouded in darkness in the early morning hours.
A few minutes after my arrival at the junction, the first few riders filed into the aid station. Some of them stopped for a break, others just grabbed some water and an energy gel, and on their way they went towards Usal Beach. I hung out for about fifteen minutes, chowing down a free hotdog, filling up my five water bottles, and chatting a bit with the other cyclists. It was a bit surreal to have this many people around me, having cycled primarily in solitude for the past one and a half days.
Shortly after leaving the dirt parking lot just off Highway 101 the previous day, my surroundings instantly captured all my senses. Mattole Road, named after the indigenous peoples who inhabited this land before the arrival of white settlers, cuts west through groves of coastal redwood trees. Riding amongst these giants, reaching heights up to 115 meters (377 feet), was awe-inspiring. The crisp temperatures in the early morning were giving additional emphasis to the natural powers at play.
Not too long afterward, the road started pointing upward. The laborious climb on switchbacks began, now in the shade of Douglas firs. My tires rolled along on the asphalt, which was occasionally covered in a dusting of pine needles. My body started to heat up, and it didn’t take long until beads of sweat dripped down my face. The fact that I shivered in the shade of giant redwood trees only a few minutes earlier was now but a distant memory.
“Oh wow, you made it, man!”. Tree worker crews had overtaken me in their white pickup trucks as I made my way up to the crest. I appreciated the call-out as I inched by them while they set up for their workday right next to the road.
At the crest, the view opened up and exposed views into the valley towards the southeast. Just as I was getting ready for the impending descent on the other side, a cycle tourer approached my location, going the other direction. In his fifties, with a full pannier setup and seemingly well equipped to spend at least a few weeks on a bike, Raven had come up the other way from Honeydew. He was on a more extensive tour he had started a few months prior in Oregon. “Plenty of dirt in that direction,” he commented once I mentioned my plans for finding gravel roads through the King Range. “But first, you gotta head down about 3000 feet!”
The downhill into Honeydew was exhilarating and over way too quickly. I took a break at a picnic table outside the small General Store, bought a few snacks, and refilled on water. A handful of locals filed in and out of the store to pick up basic provisions. With the drought conditions in California, I knew in advance that water supply would be a source of concern along this ride. The low water level of the Mattole River, flowing by just north of the store, reaffirmed those concerns.
Wilder Ridge was up next, and getting up there was not easy. My legs needed to propel me and my vehicle up what were by now familiar steep inclines with grades of up to 19%. Eventually, a sign appeared, directing me to turn right towards the King Range.
I was now on Kings Peak Road, a gravel road roughly running in parallel to the coast, down the spine of the National Conservation Area (NCA). The feeling of remoteness was now elevated to new heights with dense vegetation left and right of the road, which was in reasonably good shape. Two cars and two adventure motorcycles, moving swiftly past me, were the extent of my contact with other human beings all afternoon. Eventually, the road climbed up and over the ridge, and I finally caught glimpses of the Pacific Ocean in the distance through the trees.
Experiencing this area firsthand, it is no wonder that engineers threw in the towel in the 1930s and deemed it too rugged and inhospitable for building a highway (State Route 1) through it. The mountains of the King Range, while only low to moderate in elevation at up to 4,000 feet (1,219 meters), more or less rise straight up from the ocean. 68,000 acres of it were eventually set aside in 1970 and designated as the Nation’s first NCA. The Lost Coast, of which the King Range is a part, remains one of the most undeveloped and remote portions of the California coastline.
Late afternoon I reached the junction with Shelter Cove Road that would have taken me to the seaside community of the same name. However, that detour was not part of my plan, so I turned onto Chamise Mountain Road and reached Walaki Campground, my stop for the night, shortly after 5pm. South Fork Bear Creek was low and slow-flowing through the campground but carried enough water for me to filter and refill my water bottles for the next day.
Rays from the rising sun pierced the tree canopy early the following day. I continued on the briefly paved road, crossing over into Mendocino County. The occasional house peeked through the woods, and I imagined what it would be like to live out here, far from any population centers. A sign and metal gate and the surface switching back to gravel indicated the start of Usal Road. The terrain was mainly undulating with some steeper uphill sections. During my intermittent breaks on this section, the silence in these woods, so seemingly far from civilization, aided my goal of staying present in the moment and immersing myself in the experience.
Roughly three hours into the day’s ride, I rounded a corner and happened upon said aid station and the gravel bike race event. After this fortunate encounter, I continued on towards Usal Beach, as did about two hundred other cyclists, spread out over the three courses of the event. “I might have to watch out not to get run over,” I thought as some of the racers sped past me, looking strong and full of energy. Not being weighed down with bikepacking gear, almost all of them had words of encouragement and motivation for the odd bikepacker in their midst.
Having all those other riders around me provided some welcoming distraction from the exhaustion and body aches. The remainder of the ride to Usal Beach continued with plenty of ups and downs until the mildly harrowing descent to the beach. I was hoping for a serene beach atmosphere, but besides it being the staging area for the event and its 300 participants, plenty of weekend vacationers also opted for this spot. Cars parked in ostensibly every available grove and camp spot, as well as on the beach. I didn’t linger long, had a snack for lunch, and was on my way.
The final unknown but, from my research, substantial obstacle had to be conquered: the remainder of Usal Road before it connected to Highway 1. Sections of this six-mile stretch, winding precariously up and over the cliffside dropping sharply towards the ocean, were simply impossible to ride for me at this stage due to their steepness. Riders participating in the long route of the race flew by me in the opposite direction, having their eyes on the finish line by the beach.
Finally, I made it to the crest, from where the views of secluded and presumably inaccessible beaches and crashing waves down below were simply breathtaking. Feelings of joy and panic alternated as I navigated the steep, white-knuckle descent on the other side. It was then that I remembered that I had tried (and failed) cycling this road northbound during my cross-country trip in 2015 on my laden touring bike. What a foolish endeavor this was from where I stood now, close to six years later.
The gravel part of this trip was now behind me, and from close to sea level, I labored up the ten-mile climb back to an elevation of 2,000 feet (610 meters) and the junction with Hwy 101 at Leggett. Compared to the solitude on Usal Road, the company of speeding cars made this climb very much less enjoyable. However, I was rewarded by the most thrilling descent towards the South Fork Eel River on the other side. My stop for the night was a hiker/biker campsite at the Rock Creek Campground, inside Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area.
The weather forecast predicting severe weather rolling in the early afternoon motivated me to start my third and final day as soon as the early light of the day gave me enough visibility. To complete the loop, I had about 50 miles of road to conquer, either on the reasonably wide shoulder on 101 or on local roads that saw little to no traffic. With views of the river and the Douglas fir-covered hills as my companions, I eventually reached the southern entrance of the Avenue of the Giants, a local bypass road running in parallel to the freeway, meandering through yet more groves of giant redwood trees.
Just as I enjoyed taking a break and wandering amongst these mammoth trees, the wind started to pick up. Soon after that, right on schedule of the forecast, it began to drizzle, followed by full-on rain. Slightly drenched, I eventually made it back to the car early afternoon. Great timing, it turned out, as a substantial downpour started just as I shuffled all my gear back into the car. Giant redwood trees, the solitude on gravel roads deep in the forest, ocean views, a gravel race, cold early mornings, and a thunderstorm I had not experienced in California in a long time – this ride indeed had it all.
Setting up a shuttle was not an option for me, so I turned the route listed on BIKEPACKING.COM into a loop.
If you are unable to set up a shuttle (like me), I opted to park in a dirt lot just north of Founders Grove along the Avenue of the Giants.
From the San Francisco Bay Area, it is about a 3.5 to 4 hour drive to get there.
This can be tricky and requires a bit of planning. From the start at the parking area north of Founders Grove along the Avenue of the Giants, the only resupply option is the Honeydew General Store (23 miles into the ride). After that, there will be nothing until you reach Leggett on day 3.
I encountered two springs trickling down from the ridge while riding on Kings Peak Road (day 1), but those seem seasonal and not reliable.
There is the option of descending down Shelter Grove Road to the General Store there, however that requires you to climb back up to the junction.
It is advisable to fill up on water at Honeydew and have enough water carrying capacity (I had about 92oz/3.1L) to sustain you until the end of the day. I restocked by filtering water from the South Fork Bear Creek at Walaki Campground.
- Bike: Trek Checkpoint ALR5
- Tires: WTB Riddler 700×45, Panaracer GravelKing SK Plus, 700×43, both tubeless
A gravel bike with wider tires seemed like the optimal choice for this adventure. If you are doing the full loop like I did, way over fifty percent of the ride will be on tarmac. The fire roads along the ridge are mostly smooth and wide, so a mountain bike seems overkill given the overall conditions.
Trip Reports & Articles
- The Adventure Dispatch: Sarah Swallow + The Lost Coast Ridge Trail (BIKEPACKING.COM)
- Northcoast Bike Rides: Lost Coast Tour (from 2011, updated in 2020)
- Southern Lost Coast Bikepacker Loop (Meandering Explorers). Biking and hiking loop in the southern part of the King Range.
Maps and Campground Info
- King Range National Conservation Area (BLM.gov). Info page by Bureau of Land Management, with links to more resources.
- King Range Map (BLM.gov)
- King Range Topo Map and Guide (BLM.gov)
- King Range: Campgrounds & Trails Fact Sheet (BLM.gov)
- Sinkyone Wilderness State Park (parks.ca.gov)
Established Campgrounds along the route
- Horse Mountain Primitive Camp (BLM.gov). Free to use, but no services or water.
- Tolkan Campground (BLM.gov). $8, first come first serve, no water. From other reports it seems there used to be a water source close by, but was since decommissioned.
- Wailaki Campground (BLM.gov). $8, first come first serve, water available from nearby creek.
- Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area (parks.ca.gov). $5 for hiker/biker site, first come first serve, water, toilets, coin-operated showers.
Other useful resources
- Usal Hopper: The Lost Coast. Gravel racing event, part of the Grasshopper Adventure Series.
- Paradise Royale Mountain Bike Trail System. Mountain bike trail system along the Lost Coast. Trailhead close to Tolkan Campground.
- King Range Wilderness Permits (Lost Coast) (recreation.gov). Only needed if you are incorporating overnight camping inside the King Range Wilderness on the Lost Coast hiking trail
- On the Lost Coast, a lawless Calif. state park has been overtaken by off-roading, fireworks, raves (SFGATE)