“To go out with the setting sun on an empty beach is to truly embrace solitude.”
Usal Beach is a uniquely special place in California. My last memories of coming to Usal Beach were about a decade in the past. Things were different then – I had been in the backseat, hardly paying attention to where this adventure might take me with a motley crew of Vermonter’s and Tahoe folk combined. Never before or since have I “beach camped” with more chain saws, generators, dirt bikes and massive bonfires then with that crew on Usal Beach long ago. We never made it to the beach that first night on the 6 mile 4×4 approach road. I’m not sure if it was the mud or the psychedelics but I do remember coaxing a chain saw out of the saucer-eyed hands of a friend before lying down in the bushes on the side of the coastal road to sleep. Needless to say – this return to Usal Beach, with my wife and two friends, now at least 10 years later and somewhat smarter – things were undoubtedly different.
One can’t help wondering if this is what people think of when they imagine the hustle and bustle of ‘California’? I would certainly think not.
The Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is truly a unique place among California’s managed campgrounds and parks. The remote nature of the park, separated from a relatively remote section of Highway 1 by about 6 miles of gravel road, is what makes it such a gem. While the road is easily passible by a typical sedan in good conditions, the steep drop offs to the ocean below and the extremely narrow sections where passing another car would be death defying, beg one to wonder and dread what this road must be like in a heavy rain! Even in the best of conditions those who get road sick should take their medicine; while we didn’t use the 4×4 all that much, slow winding, steep climbs and descents and the exposed turns dropping to the surf below can wear down even the toughest co-pilot!
Just like years ago, we weighed the risks and benefits of how far out on to the beach we could travel with two Tacoma’s, but no air compressors to adjust the level of the tires and make beach driving more feasible. There was a Bronco visible in the distance that looked like they found a great beach spot… wait…glad we walked down and scouted that decision first! The Bronco did not appear to be going anywhere soon…
The Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation and is located along the southern boundary of the King Range National Conservation Area. This is a truly primitive park; the roads in are both gravel and potentially requiring 4×4 if wet or raining. It is advised to bring additional food and water due to the possibility of becoming stranded in the area. There is no potable water available at the beach; and garbage is to be packed out. There are basic campsite sites with picnic tables and fire pits, they cost 25$/night.
The park is teeming with wildlife; a pack of around 75 Roosevelt Elk roam the area. We saw two with large, full racks come boldly grazing out of the trees for dusk or early in the morning. They were so impressive to watch as they moved through the landscape. It is difficult to imagine how they make their way through dense forest vegetation. Use caution and avoid getting close to these large animals; be especially cautious to avoid getting between a cow elk and her young.
Usal Beach represents the southern end of the Lost Coast trail. The southern 1/2 of the hiking trail is somewhat less popular and travels more on the coastal bluffs as compared to the more popular northern section of beach hiking.
We spent 4 days camping in the area after finishing a backpacking trip on the northern section of the Lost Coast Trail within the King Range National Conservation Area. Check that trip out here: Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail. Needless to say, we were ready for some beach lounging and that is sure what we got.
This really is a magical place. The local history is as rich as it is rugged. The Sinkyone Native American tribes lived for many years on this stretch of the coast. They were said to have had a rather bountiful existence living along these coastal river outlets. They moved around the area of this park following the fishing, the seaweed and shell fish gathering, seal and sea lion hunting and most importantly their annual salmon run.
I spent hours staring out at the the ocean while we were at Usal Beach. The more you watch the water and the waves, the more you start to see the bobbing seals, the diving pelicans, the birds surfing the between the sets. There was so much going on all the time in the the relentlessly pounding surf. What an amazing place.
Additional info from sources linked below:
Sinkyone Wilderness State Park
Location / Directions: North end of wilderness – (Needle Rock): 36 miles southwest of Garberville/Redway on Briceland Road. Take Briceland Road west from Redway. Briceland Road becomes Mendocino County Road 435. The last 3.5 miles are unpaved, steep, & narrow.
South end of wilderness – (Usal Beach): Approximately one hour north of Ft Bragg on Highway 1 or 15 miles west of Leggett on Highway 1 from Highway 101. Look for mile marker 90.88 on Highway 1. Turn north for approximately 6 miles onto unpaved, steep, narrow road.
Camping: Drive-in camping is limited to Usal Beach Campground. Environmental camping is available at Needle Rock and Bear Harbor. All campsites are primitive (table, fire ring, pit toilet nearby, no developed water source). Both locations serve as trailheads for a spectacular 17-miles section of the Lost Coast Trail. Trail camps for backpackers are located on the Lost Coast Trail between Bear Harbor and Usal Beach. All camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis (no reservations). Self-registration facilities are located at Usal Beach and Needle Rock. Visitors are required to self-register and pay appropriate fees.
ROADS MAY BE IMPASSABLE IN WET WEATHER. RVs & TRAILERS NOT RECOMMENDED.