A version of this article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
The wind roared like a Roosevelt elk in rut. Rain smacked into plank walls like waves breaking on rocks. Down the bluff, the Pacific surged and heaved.
What bothered me, though, was the scurrying in the rafters. We had found shelter after hiking through a downpour but apparently were not alone in this drafty seaside barn in Mendocino County’s Sinkyone (pronounced SINK ee yoan) Wilderness.
A muffled plunk sounded inches from my face, the only part of me not encased in a mummy bag. Struggling to free an arm, I groped for the flashlight.
A mouse, stunned by the fall, stared back at me. Some of its fur stood up in wet spikes, like a neo-punk 7-year-old.
This definitely wasn’t what I had in mind when I cashed in a few vacation days and headed north.
The plan had been to skirt the edges of the Lost Coast, known in backpacking circles for knee-destroying downhills and long stretches of sand impassable at high tide. This part of the California coast, 60 miles of remote shoreline in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties about 200 miles north of San Francisco, is so rugged that engineers had to route the coast highway inland. High bluffs plunge into the Pacific, waves of fog break on black sand and creep inland, and bear and elk roam woods so wet they qualify as rain forest.
We knew our outdoor strengths: My boyfriend, David, could get even wet wood to burn, and I could do the dishes in a cup of tepid water spiked with Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, at the southern end of the Lost Coast, fit the bill for our modest aspirations. Apparently you could drive right up to Needle Rock Visitor Center, settle in at one of the walk-in campsites and day-hike to your heart’s content.
We wanted the Lost Coast, but we wanted it “lite.”
Turns out you can drive in only if rain hasn’t made the dirt road impassable to all but high-clearance 4x4s. And although we arrived in June (the rainy season is supposedly November through May), the road was too much for my trusty Toyota Tercel.
More research convinced me we could get to the same destination by backpacking one of the easier parts of the trail: up stubby Chemise Mountain and south along the coast. We were confident our little hike — no more than 7 miles — would be a piece of Lost Coast cake.
We spent the night in Shelter Cove, left our car at the motel, and got a ride to the trailhead at Wailaki Campground. A light rain fell, but few drops penetrated the canopy of second-growth redwoods. It was a Tuesday, and the campground was deserted.
The day started well, with 11/2 miles of gentle, shaded switchbacks up 2,598-foot Chemise Mountain. With my chronic shoulder problems, backpacking seems more punishment than reward these days, but I still like to walk. Soon we were on top of a ridge.
A few heavily forested and fog-shrouded folds of land lay between us and the sea. We had come through redwoods, but on the ridge, smooth-barked madrone, tan oak (harvested for the tannin in its bark before synthetic leather-tanning agents were discovered) and scrubby poison oak prevailed.
It was drizzling when I insisted that, although the sign pointed one way, we should head the other. By the time we returned to the site of my dufushood, I had added 4 miles to our hike, and rain had become a torrent, easily penetrating the oak and pine and making short work of my Gore-Tex jacket.
But, hey, it was all downhill from here. We thought that was a good thing.
I had read that the trail got steep after an abandoned homestead but figured that must be wrong because it was already plenty steep. After a few hours of hiking in the rain, my leg muscles quivered, my right knee clicked ominously, and I could taste the sunscreen the rain washed into my mouth.
Finally, the modern-day homestead appeared on our left, its charred roofless remains offering no shelter from the storm. The going did indeed get steeper after that landmark, funneling to a narrow, slippery track along a steep cliff, waves crashing 1,000 feet below.
Just before the worst stretch, a path opened up on our left, a rustic cabin visible through the trees.
We knew the Lost Coast trail meandered through public and private land and that this cabin was most likely on private land. And we knew that in the Emerald Triangle (the dope-growing parts of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties), you never know when you’ll stumble on a backwoods farm and people who will do just about anything to protect it.
But the cabin looked so cozy, with smoke drifting out of its chimney. And we were a little bit crazed, cold and wet and tired. We would just ask whether there was an alternative route, and maybe they would take pity on us and make us some hot cocoa. We knocked on the cabin door.
I heard dog tags jangling and felt, more than heard, a chorus of deep-throated growls cresting into full-on howling.
They had turned their dogs loose on us. It’s amazing how fast you can move, even with a pack strapped to your back, when you’re confronted with foam-flecked jaws.
The next two hours went by in a rain-streaked blur: sidestepping down a trail that had become a small stream; more switchbacks through redwoods, ferns and wild irises; plowing across a rain-swollen creek; sloshing past an idyllic lagoon, and marveling, when the fog cleared, at the haystack rock formations out to sea. All the while, we tried not to think what awaited us: a night in a tiny tent, surrounded by rain-soaked gear.
But when we finally squish-squashed into the Needle Rock Visitor Center — a ramshackle 1880s farmhouse with an elk head jutting out over the fireplace — we found to our relief that the park rents out an old barn as well as campsites.
I fell in love with the Needle Rock Barn like a drowning woman falls for the lifeguard. I loved its high-beamed ceiling, its single-paned windows looking out to sea, its scarred indoor picnic table and plank sleeping platform, its fire pit and porch swing, and its abundance of rusty nails for hanging wet gear.
We boiled water for hot cocoa, spiked it with scotch, wrapped ourselves in damp sleeping bags, and sat smiling at each other in relieved exhaustion. If we had to share this refuge with resident mice, so be it.
The rain didn’t let up for three days. We took wet but gorgeous day hikes, including a short jaunt to deserted Bear Harbor, where boats headed for San Francisco once were loaded with lumber and tan bark.
We had arranged a ride back to Shelter Cove, and when we returned to my car, it wouldn’t start. Shelter Cove has no garage, so we had the car towed to Redway. We were stuck for two nights awaiting a part shipped from Sacramento, about four hours away.
So, yes, the Lost Coast ate us for breakfast, and the surrounding towns had us as leftovers. But being consumed by this last stretch of wild California coast isn’t such a terrible way to go.