Lost Coast California Road Trip: From Black Sand Beaches to Giant Redwood Trees

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The first I heard of the Lost Coast in Northern California was two days before we arrived when our friends told us how this area was notorious for weed farms.

Lost Coast scenic drive
Lost Coast scenic drive

Apart from that rather vivid image, I had no clear picture of what this region encompassed – an untouched wilderness so thick and uninhabited only a few dared to go, stoned or not?

As the government decided some time ago this region was too treacherous to build any decent roads going through it, I figured there wasn’t much to see and focused instead of what I did know would be at our next destination in California – The giant Redwood trees.

We were basing ourselves in Ferndale in Humboldt County on California’s Pacific Coast for four nights.

It wasn’t our intention to explore the Lost Coast Highway, which started just down the road, but to see how many humans it took to hug a redwood tree 30 minutes drive away.

Ferndale, California
Ferndale, California

After arriving in Ferndale, we did a little more research and decided this Lost Coast scenic drive may have something worth exploring.

The Lost Coast drive extends south from Ferndale to south of Shelter Cover.

We mapped out a plan that would encompass a 107 mile loop from Ferndale along the Lost Coast Headlands and then around to the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwood State Park.

Being Australian, I was more excited about experiencing the redwoods than the coastline, but I was happy to drive the 20 miles to at least check it out.

At first we decided to miss taking a 50-mile detour out to Black Sand Beach at Shelter Cove on the lower end of the Lost Coast. It would tack on an extra two hours to the already at least four hour long road trip.

And we knew the road from Honeydew to Black Beach was going to be a little rough and slow and we had no idea what we’d find at Shelter Cove.

Would it really be worth all that extra effort?

Lost Coast California
Lost Coast California

As we were traveling with kids too, there is only so much whining you can take spending the vast majority of the day in a cramped car with them.

However, once we got started on the Lost Coast drive and enjoyed its beauty, and made good time, we decided we probably wouldn’t get this chance again and decided to drive the extra miles to Black Sand Beach and Shelter Cove.

Thank goodness we did.

The area around Shelter Cove is stunning. I was blown away by its beauty and felt I had been transported to the shores of Hawaii.

Lost coast California

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a steep, windy road (you almost quit and turned off) leads you to this tropical cove.

All the blessings were working in our favor as it was sunny, and warm and the waters very calm and still. Three magical ingredients that rarely line up in this part of the world.

Unlike most of California, in particular from San Francisco down to San Diego, this area was free from crowds. We practically had it all to ourselves and would be the perfect quiet short trip many Californians can only dream about.

If you are a hiker and adventurer, consider the thrill of the Lost Coast Trail, which takes you along the beach front.

Allow us to share with you the Lost Coast road trip and what to expect.

Ferndale, California

Shop fronts in Ferndale
Shop fronts in Ferndale

Ferndale is the town where time stood still.

Meander down the main road to find lampost-lined blocks of historic Victorian style architecture that houses various artisans from artists to blacksmith, this is small town Americana.

Its location sandwiched between the Lost Coast and ancient redwood forests makes for a beautiful and tranquil base to explore this Humboldt County region.

You can see why this charming town has been the setting for a few Hollywood movies.

There’s an eclectic mix of independent stores alongside small cafes and fine dining.

A few we loved browsing: Paintings by Dajota Daetwiler, Ferndale Arts Gallery, Farmer’s daughter, Sweetness and Light, and the Golden Gait Mercantile.

Five minutes from the town of Ferndale is a long wind-swept beach, which is great for walking and playing.

Ferndale Beach, California
Beach near Ferndale

I wouldn’t recommend swimming in many of Northern California beaches, they are quite treacherous and will have many signs warning you of the very real dangers.

The Lost Coast Headland

Lost Coast Headland
Lost Coast Headland

I kept thinking I could be in Australia or Ireland for much of this journey. I loved driving through the forested mountains, rolling farmlands with views out to the ocean from afar.

It was so verdant and green with a few farm houses here and there and several happy cows chewing grass or sitting on the side of the road quietly watching you drive by.

This area is also known for its abundance of wildlife, including bears and mountain lions.

While we didn’t see the two latter beasts, we did see a few deer and lots of birds. My favorite was Santa’s reindeer’s munching on the grass along the cliff sides in Shelter Cove.

Deer along the Lost Coast, California

I told you the Lost Coast was magical.

California’s Lost Coast is the most undeveloped and remote area of the California Coast. For much of the coastline, there are no roads at all, and so hiking through thick shrubs and tall cliff faces are your only option for exploring it.

One more fun fact to add to the adventure of a Lost Coast road trip, this area is one of the most seismically active in the country! It sits on the collision of three plates.

Well, you know you’re in California, there is not much you can do about that. Be alert and prepared and take note of evacuation routes and tsunami warning signs.

We were quite rattled the evening before when the sirens went off in Ferndale, for longer than we thought was “just a test.” However, no one seemed to move or panic. I did just silently on the inside.

The drive starts in Ferndale on the Mattole Road or “The Wildcat” which rises into the coastal hills.

It’s hilly and windy and surrounded by cattle grazing on the side of the road, so drive slowly and carefully.

The Lost Coast Drive

After some time you come to the edge of the cliff with spectacular views out over the coastline.

The road then goes down to meet the coast and for the next 10 miles it follows the shoreline. This is the only section of the Lost Coast that goes close to the shore.

Everywhere else the mountains are too high and steep to make coastal roads possible.

Off shore are Sugarloaf Island and Steamboat Rock and other black rocks jutting here and there offering the perfect resting spot for seals, none of which we saw.

Lost Coast scenic drive

The light black sand almost satisfied me enough to stick to our decision to not venture down to Black Sand Beach, but then perhaps it enticed me to keep going. Because it was only about 30 minutes later that we made the decision to carry on into Lost Coast territory.

The route then takes you through the hamlets of Petrolia and Honeydew, where you can pick up basic supplies.

You can also detour to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse via a six to eight mile round trip hike along beaches and cliff faces. Check the tides and be sure you have time!

From Honeydew you can either go inland to the Humboldt Redwood State Park or continue to Black Sand Beach along the Wilder Ridge Road.

The drive from Honeydew to Black Sand Beach is steep, rough and windy.

When the first section started as gravel and a narrow winding path up the mountain I almost pulled us out.

But there was no cell service so I could not get Google maps to show me the next road out. We had to continue on.

Pretty soon the road turned to paved road and wasn’t as bad.

There were a few small gravel and one way sections along the way but not too many. It was just very winding and took a long time.

There is a shorter road cutting through King Range National Conservation Area but it’s 4WD recommended and while shorter in miles Google maps told me it was longer in time.

So we took the longer mileage along the outskirts of King Range National Conservation Area through a few small villages to drive down again on a windy forested road to Black Sand Beach.

Black Sand Beach, California

Black Sand Beach, California

Black Sand Beach was the main attraction of the Lost Coast for me. It was a total unexpected WOW moment.

The sheer mountains sloped down to end on the black sandy cove providing mesmerizing stark contrast between the black beach, the green mountains, the still calm waters of an ocean that in this part of the world is typically quite rolling and aggressive.

The three mile dark pebbly sand is framed by the steepest coastal range in the nation.

The signs from the locals were not shy in letting us know to remain at least 100 feet from the water as sneaker waves are known to creep up and grab people in surprise taking them out into the deep drop offs and strong currents to never be seen again.

Black Sand Beach, California

As an Australian, I understand all too well the dangers of oceans that often can’t be seen and get many tourists into trouble.

We made sure we honored the locals warning and stayed very clear of the water’s edge, instead choosing to play on the black, pebbly sand that burned our feet and backsides.

There were rocks the kids could climb up and little nooks and crannies to play in.

Black Sand Beach, California

Start with the view from the parking lot and enjoy the very short trail down to the beach lined with tropical like flowers for a different perspective.

I was disappointed we were short on time and could not stay longer, including exploring more of Shelter Cove

Shelter Cove

shelter cove inn

Just a little further on from Black Sand Beach (like a 2 minute drive on) is the delightful little fishing village of Shelter Cove.

This reminded me so much of Kangaroo Island in Australia with its wild views you could enjoy with a glass of local chardonnay.

It’s very rare to find such a beautiful small coastal town like this, especially in California, that has not been discovered and full of people and development.

This time we enjoyed the views with a nice latte on the deck from the café in the Inn on the Coast.

You’d never know it was there unless we caught sight of the small sighn advertising coffee as we pulled into town. It’s worthy of a stop for sure. They also sell alcohol if you would want something stronger.

The Inn of the Lost Coast looks a fantastic place to stay and we all eyed off the hot tub we saw on the deck. I would definitely stay in this town for a quiet getaway.

There is a small beach cove and tide pools here that is said to be safe to put your toes in; the only safe one in the region. Be sure to check with a local first just to be sure.

At the other end if the cove is an RV park and General Store that also has food.

Video: Lost Coast Road Trip and Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Now it’s time to explore what is said to be the heart of redwood country containing the biggest and best collection of giant coastal redwoods anywhere in the world covering more than 53,000 acres of pristine virgin forest along the Eel River.

The park is internationally renown and is classified as both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

After Shelter Cove, we twisted and turned back out to begin the final part of our Lost Coast road trip, the Avenue of the Giants.

Avenue of the Giants

Avenue of the Giants

The Avenue of the Giants is a 31 mile scenic road that snakes through the Humboldt Redwood State Park between Phillipsville (south) and Pepperwood (north).

It’s renowned for the soaring redwoods standing guard along the road and welcoming you. And I mean it when they are standing alongside the road.

You could reach out your window and touch them and you need to be careful you don’t side swap them with your mirrors.

These are some of the most majestic and beautiful trees you’ll ever see. I quickly fell in love with the enigma of the tallest living thing on the planet.

Being in a redwood forest is a mystical and humbling experience. Their size naturally lets in little light so the world you ware walking in is cool and thick and covered in ferns and lush forests of green.

You just feel completely wrapped in up the presence of the infinite. It’s deliciously good for the soul and spirit.

Humboldt State Park

Humboldt Redwood State Park has the largest remaining old-growth redwood forest in the world with more than 17,000 acres of ancient coast redwood and Douglas-fir trees.

There are plenty of places to stop along the way and hiking trails to experience the redwood groves.

Note:

We got off the 101 highway near Phillipsville where the sign said Avenue of the Giants alternate route. I don’t recommend this stretch between Phillipsville and Myers Flat as there wasn’t much to see.

It would have been quicker to stay on the highway and get off at Myers Flat and begin the Avenue of the Giants at the Shine Drive Thru tree.

Below are the stops we made on the Avenue of the Giants and in Humboldt Redwood State Park and  can recommend.

The Shine Drive Thru Tree

The Shine Drive Thru tree is the tourist trap of the Redwoods in Northern California. It’s a gigantic opening in a redwood that a small car can drive through, There are also walk through trees for kids.

Our Beast (Ford F250) was too big to drive through the tree. It’s only 7’ by 7’ opening so we couldn’t do it.

The Drive Thru Tree is a little pricey at $10 a car or $3 to walk through so you want to be sure its worth it.

We decided not to walk through and continued driving.

Nature Trail opposite Visitor Center

The visitor center is on the Avenue of Giants and includes the beautiful and serene state-run campground.

There is a beautiful Gould Grove Nature Trail opposite and an easy 0.6 miles loop trail featuring 300′ tall trees, evidence of early logging, and easy access to the river via a spur trail and flat.

Founders Tree and Dyerville

Founders Tree, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

The Founders Grove is a collection of trees worth visiting in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

A half-mile nature trail takes you past the 362 foot tall Dyerville Giant. It was said to be one of the tallest redwood trees (and possibly 2,000 years old) before it fell in 1991.

You can now see the gigantic fallen trunk laying across the forest floor, which will give you a small perspective of just how big these trees are.

Be sure to enjoy the Founders Tree in the middle of the trial. It’s gigantic and took 10 of us to wrap our arms around it!

Humboldt State Park

Giant and Iron Tree

In the Rockefeller Forest, west from Founder’s grove along the Avenue of the Giants is one of the largest old-growth forests in the world and include the two world champion trees, Giant and Iron Tree, reaching over 360 feet and 17 feet in diameter.

This is a pretty area and walk that is worth doing and also includes a creek crossing.

Other loop walks near here that came highly recommended was Rockefeller Loop just near the S. Fork Eel River. We ran out of time to do this one.

Check out the following post to learn about more places to visit in the Avenue of Giants and Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

Cheatham Grove

Cheatham Grove, California

If you want another gorgeous redwood grove to walk through, be sure to visit Cheatham Grove.

You will have this place all to yourself. You won’t be able to see the floor of the forest so thickly covered in ferns and redwood sorrel. There is a short mile loop walk you can do here.

You can grab a scavenger hunt brochure for the kids, in particular older kids. I felt it was too wordy for ours to connect to it and enjoy it. They just wanted to walk and play with each other there and have pretend Darth Vader stick fights.

Why Darth Vader?

Because in Cheatham Grove, parts of the Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi was filmed here.

Swim in the Eel River

If it’s hot, and you have time, I’d recommend finding a swimming spot along the Eel River. The South Fork of the Eel River provides excellent opportunities for fishing, boating, picnicking, and swimming

We didn’t do this, but we did stop in at the Eel River Brewing for a bite to eat and some drinks.

Eel River Brewing Co, California

If you do the shorter Lost Coast drive (which I don’t recommend as you’ll miss Black Sand Beach) then you’ll have time.

Unless you visit Black Sand Beach and Shelter Cove on a separate day, which may be a good option and give you more time in Shelter Cove. You could even stay a night or two there.

Panther Flat Campground and Jedediah State Park

Panther Flat Campground, Northern California

After leaving Ferndale, we moved to Panther Flat Creek Campground further north, yet still in redwood country.

We loved this relaxing stay by the stunning Smith River in the Six Rivers National Forest. The campsite was spectacular in the middle of the forest with largest sites, campfire rings and river access.

This was the RV camping experience I had been dreaming of.

We didn’t do much else but relax and swim in the river. Well kind of. It was pretty cold and we had quite the funny challenge trying to cross it to get to the rocky beach in the sun.

You will find many of the areas of the Redwood National and State Parks here, which is complicated to understand.

Basically it’s a large area in northern California of the coastal redwoods that is managed by both the National Park Service and California Park Service so different sections of it will either be national or state park.

So you’ve got protected ancient redwood groves, open prairie lands, two major rivers, and 37 miles (60 km) of pristine California coastline to explore.

While there we took a scenic drive through the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park which was just spectacular. We had a few locals tell us this state park had the best of the redwood trees and is lesser known than other parts of the Redwood National and State Parks.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California

While in this region, do not miss the SeaQuake Brewing in Crescent City on the coast. I loved the ambiance, food, and craft cider from here.

SeaQuake Brewing

The Veggie Seastack was delicious! SeaQuake was one of our favorite breweries in California that we visited.

Video: Panther Flat Campground and Jedediah State Park

Check out how beautiful the Panther Flat Campground was:

Lost Coast and California Redwoods Map:

Find the locations mentioned in this post in the following map. Click the top left icon to toggle between layers!

Planning a Trip to Northern California

Camping

Humboldt County Fairgrounds

We camped at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale. It was an easy walk or bike ride into town and only $20 a night.

Hotels

Ferndale:

Shelter Cove:

Airbnb

RV Rental California

More California Travel Tips

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Looking for a unique California road trip? The Lost Coast scenic drive in Northern California offers remote black sand beaches, rolling hills, and redwood trees.

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