Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Whale Gulch

The Lost Coast
5 miles round trip, 700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Rough dirt road to the trailhead (high clearance advised), Sinkyone Wilderness State Park entrance fee required

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park protects some of the most spectacular and undeveloped stretches of California's largely roadless Lost Coast and the hike from Needle Rock to Whale Gulch is a relatively easy excursion that visits some of the area's most stunning seaside scenery. The Lost Coast is one of California's great gems: while the more popular access point at Shelter Cove is already gradually being discovered, the Sinkyone Wilderness stretch of the Lost Coast is still far off the beaten path. This lovely hike follows grassy coastal bluffs with fabulous views to two pristine black sand beaches and ends at the bottom of lush, fern-filled Whale Gulch. If you come, you're likely to see more elk than people.

The drive to get to the trailhead at Needle Rock Visitor Center in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is quite an ordeal: the park is about an hour and a half from US 101 on winding country roads that are narrow, potholed, and eventually unpaved. The trailhead is 2.5 hours from Eureka, 3 hours from Ukiah, and over 5 hours driving from the San Francisco Bay Area, so it makes sense to save this hike for a trip to this corner of the coast unless you live nearby. A higher clearance vehicle can be useful on the drive to reach the trailhead; although I made it in a standard clearance compact car, my car really struggled at points.

Redway and Garberville are the closest towns with services. Whether you arrive from the north or the south on Highway 101, take the exit for Redway, which will put you on Redwood Drive; follow this road into downtown Redway and turn west onto Briceland Road, at the Shop Smart grocery store. Follow the windy but paved Briceland Road west for 12 miles across the Eel River and through the town of Briceland to a split between the roads to Whitethorn and Shelter Cove; take the left fork to continue towards Whitethorn. The road stayed divided and paved for the next 4 miles through Whitethorn; after passing through this village, the road divide ended. The road became windier and narrower as it ascended until it reached a saddle and a junction with Usal Road at 22 miles from Redway. The pavement ended here; I drove through the junction to continue following Briceland Road, which turned into a rough gravel road that descended steeply through the forest and was only wide enough to accomodate a single vehicle in both directions. I followed the gravel road for a bumpy final 4 miles downhill to the Needle Rock Visitor Center, encountering a few spots along the way that almost seemed like too much for my front-wheel drive standard clearance compact car. There was parking for over 10 cars outside the visitor center but I was the only car present on the day of my visit; this location is so remote that it's hard to imagine the parking ever fills. A state park entrance fee is collected in fee envelopes; bring cash or come with a valid California State Parks pass.

The hike to Whale Gulch follows a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of the Lost Coast Trail north from Needle Rock Visitor Center. The first mile is perhaps the most consistently spectacular, with constant views of the coast from grassy benches on the way to the junction for Jones Beach. After the short detour down to Jones Beach, the Lost Coast Trail continues another mile to the mouth of Whale Gulch, where there is informal access down to the black sands of Whale Gulch Beach. The final half mile leaves the coast and ascends into a lush ravine, ending where the Lost Coast Trail crosses the stream.

From the parking area by the visitor center, I backtracked slightly along the road for fifty meters to reach a wooden shelter. The Lost Coast Trail broke off from the road and led downhill to the coastal bluffs here, marked clearly with a sign. Upon reaching the coastal cliffs and my first direct view over the Pacific of the hike, I found the area's eponymous Needle Rock at the base of the cliffs, with surf crashing through its natural multi-legged arch with the arrival of every wave.

Needle Rock
After kicking things off with this beautiful coastal view, the Lost Coast Trail had consistently scenery over roughly the next mile. The view to the north was especially beautiful- in fact, the scene of Chemise Mountain's forested slopes dropping steeply to meet the waters of the Pacific is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular and iconic views of California's entire Pacific coast. The trail followed the cliffs along an open stretch of brushy terraces here, providing the open conditions that allowed for continuous views.

Chemise Mountain and the Lost Coast
The trail left the coast at only a few points, typically ducking inland just briefly to cross over small gullies carved into the coastal terraces here. Despite the trail's remoteness, most of these gully crossings were on well-built wooden bridges that belied the region's true wilderness character.

Sinkyone Wilderness coast
Views of Chemise Mountain and the Lost Coast featured front and center as I continued hiking northward along the Lost Coast Trail. The Lost Coast is so named because it is the longest roadless stretch of Pacific coastline within the contiguous United States. When US 101 and Highway 1 were built in the twentieth century, they went around this extraordinarily rugged stretch of coast. As a result, the coast north of Fort Bragg and south of Eureka is largely wilderness, with a few exceptions such as the road to Needle Rock and a separate road to Shelter Cove, the only true seaside town of the Lost Coast. The most famous stretch of the Lost Coast lies between Shelter Cove and Mattole Road, to the north; although the stretch of the Lost Coast in Sinkyone Wilderness is even quieter than other parts of this already unpeopled seascape, it is clearly no less beautiful.

Lost Coast Trail on the way to Whale Gulch

Waves on the Pacific
At about a mile from the trailhead, the Lost Coast Trail came to a distinctive grove of eucalyptus trees. The grove nestled the Jones Beach campsite, while the trail to Jones Beach led downhill to the left from the grove. At this junction, I spotted a large herd of Roosevelt elk, numbering well over 30 elk. The elk were resting in the grassy and brushy slopes leading down to the beach; as some of them were quite close to the trail, I had to wait a while until the elk migrated away from the trail to actually take the detour to Jones Beach.

Elk herd near Jones Beach
The trail to Jones Beach was short, leading downhill through grassy slopes before dropping steeply into a rocky gully and then following that gully out to the coast.

Jones Beach was generally pretty rocky but also had some stretches of the beautiful black sand that is so distinctive to the beaches of the Lost Coast. An impressive line of cliffs rose directly behind the beach and continued northwards to become the great rocky bluffs of Chemise Mountain.

Jones Beach
Returning to the eucalyptus grove, I took a left on the Lost Coast Trail and continued north towards Whale Gulch. The trail became somewhat less scenic and pleasant past this point, leaving the coastal terrace that it had followed for the first mile. The heavily vegetated trail veered away from the coast and stayed high above a creek gully, with the ridge opposite the creek separating the trail from views of the ocean. Here, the Lost Coast Trail passed through a mix of forest, brush, and some swampy stretches. 

The Lost Coast
At just under two miles, the Lost Coast Trail reemerged onto an open slope with sweeping ocean views. Chemise Mountain's steep cliffs rose directly to the north and below I could see the black sands of Whale Gulch Beach, with Whale Gulch Creek flowing into the Pacific.

Whale Gulch Creek and Chemise Mountain
While the view of Whale Gulch Beach from the Lost Coast Trail was already beautiful, the trail did not provide direct access to the beach, which was nearly 200 feet downhill from the trail. Instead, the only way down was via a faint social trail down the steep grassy slope. The path was not well established, but it was reasonably easy to discern a cross-country route down towards the beach regardless. The social path ended leading to a break in the coastal cliffs directly above the mouth of Whale Gulch Creek; the view of the creek emerging from a wild canyon to meet the ocean on a black sand beach was very striking. From this break in the cliffs, a very steep path dropped down to the beach itself.

Whale Gulch Beach
Whale Gulch Beach was one of the highlights of this hike: here, the waves of the Pacific crashed onto a smooth playa of brilliant black sand. I had this spectacular black sand beach all to myself; this stretch of the coast truly felt lost and overlooked.

The black sands of Whale Gulch Beach
Returning uphill to the Lost Coast Trail, I continued heading northward. The trail left the immediate coastline and began ascending as it traced a mountainside high above Whale Gulch. This high vantage point provided views down Whale Gulch to the Pacific and across the gulch to Chemise Mountain's extremely steep slopes.

Chemise Mountain and Whale Gulch
The trail reached a high point and then began to descend into Whale Gulch itself, hugging a steep mountainside as it gradually dropped into the fern-choked canyon. Whale Gulch was almost indescribably lush and a satisfying conclusion to the hike. As I descended into the canyon, I looked below the trail and saw the gulch's near-vertical walls coated with ferns- this was a sight as verdant as any on the Northern California coast and a match for the Fern Canyons of Mendocino and Redwood National Park. At a little under 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the Lost Coast Trail reached the bottom of Whale Gulch and crossed Whale Gulch Creek, a lovely and lush stopping point.

Fern-choked Whale Gulch
The Lost Coast Trail continued past Whale Gulch, climbing over Chemise Mountain en route to Shelter Cove and the more frequented northern-reaches of the trail. I chose to turn around at this point, as the most spectacular coastal stretches of the trail in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park ended at Whale Gulch Beach.

I did not see a single other human being on this hike- indeed, I didn't even see another car until I got back to Whitethorn (visiting on a January weekday might the primary cause of this, though). This is one of the most underrated and spectacular coastal hikes in the state of California and a perfect way to experience a small stretch of the Lost Coast on an easy day hike. Don't miss it.

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