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Sinkyone Wilderness State Park

Lost Coast Trail

To Jones Beach is 2 miles round trip; to Whale Gulch is 4.5 miles round trip

The land we now call Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, located about 225 miles north of San Francisco, has long been recognized as something special. During the late 1960s, the great Catholic theologian Thomas Merton believed that the Needle Rock area would be an ideal place for a life of prayer and contemplation, and talked of establishing a monastic community there.

The state park, along with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s King Range National Conservation Area to the north, comprise California’s Lost Coast, 60 miles of wild shoreline located in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties. One reason the coast is “lost” is because no highways cross it. So rugged is this country, highway engineers were forced to route Highway 1 many miles inland from this coast—and the region has remained sparsely settled and unspoiled. It’s grand vistas and varied terrain— dense forests, prairies, coastal bluffs, beaches—reward the hardy explorer.

The sea is an overwhelming presence here, and its rhythmic sounds provide a thunderous background for a walk along land’s end. The sky is filled with gulls and pelicans, sea lions and harbor seals gather at Little Jackass Cove, and the California gray whale migration passes near shore during winter and early spring.
A herd of Roosevelt elk roams the park. These magnificent creatures were once common here and in the King Range, but were exterminated in the last century. The Roosevelt elk that lucky visitors see today are “extras” relocated from Prairie Creek State Park.

Lost Coast Trail travels the length of Sinkyone State Park north through King Range National Conservation Area. The sixty mile trail would make an ideal week-long backpacking adventure. The portion of the Lost Coast Trail detailed here explores the northernmost, and most easily accessible, portion of the state park. It’s a relatively easy introduction to a challenging trail.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 101, take either the Garberville or Redway exit and proceed to “downtown” Redway, located 3 miles north of Garberville on Business 101. Turn west on Briceland Road. After 12 miles of travel, fork left to Whitethorn. A mile or so past the hamlet of Whitethorn (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), the pavement ends, and you continue on a potholed dirt/mud road for 3.5 miles to a junction called Four Corners. Leftward is Usal Road, rightward is a road climbing into the King Range National Conservation Area. Proceed straight ahead 3.5 miles to the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park Visitor Center.

The park road is steep, winding, and only one lane wide. Maps and information are available at the visitor center.

The hike: Begin at the Needle Rock Visitor Center. During the 1920s, a small settlement and shipping point were established at Needle Rock. The Calvin Cooper Stewart family were the main residents of Needle Rock, and today their ranch house serves as the park visitor center.

Walk up the park road toward the old barn. Notice a trail leading to the bluff edge, then down to the beach. Famed Needle Rock is a short distance up the dark sand beach.

Join Lost Coast Trail, which leads behind the barn and dips in and out of a gully. You’ll pass Barn Camp, one of the state park’s primitive, or walk-in, campsites. A quarter mile of travel brings you to Streamside Camp, another of the park’s primitive, but superb, camps.

You’ll soon reach a junction with a trail climbing to the east. This is Low Gap Trail, which ascends the coastal bluffs and crosses the park road. The trail plunges into the forest, travels along Low Gap Creek, and, after a stiff climb, reaches Usal Road. Lost Coast Trail, your route, continues along the lovely bluffs to Low Gap Creek, heads inland briefly, then crosses a bridge over the creek. The path heads toward a stand of eucalyptus, which shelters the Jones Beach campsites.

The trail forks. The left fork leads 0.2 mile to Jones Beach. If it’s low tide, you can walk back to the trailhead via the beach.

Lost Coast Trail proceeds with the right fork and soon descends into a canyon. You cross two creeks, which drain an area that can be very marshy during the rainy season. You walk near the edge of cattail-lined pond, climb to higher ground, and pass a second pond.

Soon you are treated to a bird’seye view of Whale Gulch. A rough, unmaintained path descends to the mouth of Whale Gulch, where there’s a small lagoon and piles of driftwood logs. After sitting on a driftwood log for a while and contemplating the Lost Coast, return to the trailhead the way you came.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at