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California's Lost Coast Loop: Part 1 – The North Loop

Where the end justifies the means

You may have heard of the Lost Coast in northwestern Northern California. You may have also heard that there are no roads that actually go there. But there is one that comes close. And while this loop is entirely paved, be ready for some rugged surface.

Photo: Just off the Avenue of the Giants, Mattole Road boasts its own share of tall trees. At the very beginning of Mattole, make a quick detour down to the Rockefeller Loop to check out a huge grove of redwoods.

Mattole Road is part of what's often called the Lost Coast Loop, and there's probably no better route that captures the area’s remoteness as it weaves through thick forests and river valleys en route to the Pacific. I like starting at the loop's southern portion near Weott, California, where the path darts through jaw-dropping stands of old redwoods. The south-to-north direction also rewards you with a grand stop in the picturesque village of Ferndale.

Photo: Mattole Road south In the first few miles on Mattole-it's often difficult to see the next turn as the road winds through a wickedly dense forest before picking up steam and heading uphill.

Begin your jaunt north on Avenue of the Giants (Route 254) as it parallels US 101 from Weott and follow signs for the Rockefeller Forest - they'll eventually route you west, under the 101. You're then on Bull Creek Flats Road along the Eel River and it'll eventually turn into Mattole Road in a couple of miles. You're deep into the redwoods now with gnarly roots growing right onto the roadway, which only gets narrower and darker as it weaves between the trees, the turns playing hide-and-seek behind massive trunks.

Following a path that's only a lane wide in spots and pockmarked with tire-swallowing potholes, Mattole Road eventually begins its steep ascent from the valley on a series of roughly-paved switchbacks. You'll cross several creeks and skirt some mountain ridges before hitting Panther Gap, and then the redwoods fade away into open fields and smaller woodlands.

Photo: Once you hit the Lost Coast, find an ocean access point and check out the very cool black-sand beaches. There's often fog here (even in summer) so layer up accordingly.

There are few communities here, and you're about to come upon one. Stay on Mattole Road across the bridge into Honeydew and pass the Honeydew Country Store - or better yet pull over and grab a snack, as there's nothing else around these parts for miles. The ride can get rough west of here, so be alert: road conditions change quickly. Mattole Road shadows the Mattole River before curling out of the valley into Petrolia, site of the first oil well in California. Really, there's not much to Petrolia, but don't miss the tricky left turn here onto Front Street, just past the Mission Church.

After a couple of miles the road is again called Mattole as it runs through farmland and up a ridge before hooking west. Up here, after a two-hour journey from US 101, you'll get your first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean! Nice job - you've just ridden the only road to a 100-mile section of the most undeveloped part of the continental U.S.'s western shore.

The black mass of Sugarloaf Island rises from the waves off in the distance, so make a beeline down the hill and shadow the coast for a few straight miles. With ocean access points up the road and the rugged black-sand beaches beckoning, it's a prime opportunity to stretch your legs and explore the tidepools.

Photo: After its dalliance with the coastline, Mattole Road makes a steep turn up Wildcat Ridge. Pull over before reaching the top for a view of Sugarloaf Mountain (that black island just offshore) behind you.

Mattole Road hugs the ocean heading north along the low coastal terrace just south of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point of California. Offshore, three giant tectonic plates grind together, waiting to spring into action. Hang on as the road starts to climb and then abruptly hooks east just before Sugarloaf Island and straight up the notorious 'Wall to the Wildcat' ridge. At the top of this steep ascent are more majestic views of the ocean, though sometimes fog likes to gather here too...so no guarantees.

Mattole squiggles along a couple more hilltops before a final winding descent off Wildcat Ridge into Ferndale, an unbelievably quaint Victorian village decked out with all the opulent architecture of the era. The road ends at Ocean Avenue/Bluff Street, so hang a right onto Bluff and a quick left onto Main Street, then screech to a halt: the meticulously restored Victorian Inn on the corner really is worth a photo stop.

Photo: Once you hit Victorian-crazed Ferndale you're almost home. It's a pretty neat town to explore and/or grab lunch. Even the most jaded biker will probably want a photo of this lovingly restored building.

To complete the full loop, continue on Main Street out of town (Route 211) and in minutes you'll cross the Eel River into Fernbridge. Jump back on Hwy 101 South (but fuel up in Fernbridge or Fortuna first) and in 20 minutes you'll exit onto the Avenue of the Giants North entrance. This is Route 254 - where you started - and a more visually entertaining option than the 101 as it continues south among the redwoods. In 25 miles you're back at Weott and your loop is now complete.

Give yourself well over 3 hours to ride this 120+ mile rollercoaster, but make time for photos and exploration too. Along the way you'll probably realize the Lost Coast is more a state of mind than a destination.

Andrew Cherney/April 2018


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