Thursday, May 3, 2012

Usal Road: 'Main Street' through California's alluring Lost Coast

The following tour description is a sample from my guidebook California Coastal Byways, which I researched in a Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX450. The guide details non-technical backcountry tours suitable to adventure motorcyclists and SUV-borne travelers. If you are unable to acquire a copy of the book at a reasonable price from Wilderness Press or your favorite retailer, contact me at

Would you like a fuller sense of what it's like to explore America's loneliest shore? Read my magazine feature, Lost Coast Castaways, originally published in Road & Track magazine's spinoff, Open Road.
LOCATION Usal Road winds through the North Coast's isolated “Lost Coast,” in northwestern Mendocino County and southwestern Humboldt County. It passes through Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and King Range National Conservation Area. Google Map

Lexus LX450 crosses Usal Creek.
HIGHLIGHTS This tortuous, historic little dirt road winds along high ridges amid a magical forest of redwood, Douglas fir, madrone, tanoak and ferns. The soaring King Range rises dramatically more than 4,000 feet less than 3 miles from the ocean. The site of historic Usal has a quaint wooden bridge and a gray-sand beach.

DIFFICULTY Easy when dry, possibly impassable when wet. Folks who insist on attempting to drive it when it's muddy can cause a great of damage. There are many blind curves. In fact, nowhere have I come closer to a head-on collision than here.

TIME & DISTANCE 3 hours; 32 miles.

MAPS Benchmark Maps' California Road & Recreation Atlas, p. 56 (C-E, 4-5). California State Automobile Association's (AAA) Northern California Section (H-J, 2).

INFORMATION Mendocino County. Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. King Range Conservation Area.

GETTING THERE From the south, the direction I describe: From California Highway 1 about 13 miles north of Westport and 14.7 miles west of U.S. Highway 101, turn north at milepost 90.88 onto Mendocino County road 431. Watch for a “Narrow winding road” sign. Set your odometer to 0. From the north: At Redway or Garberville, travel southwest toward Shelter Cove. Take either Chemise Mountain Road south from Shelter Cove Road or Briceland Road through Whitethorn to Four Corners.

Usal Road
REST STOPS You’ll find camping, hiking and fishing at Usal. There are two campgrounds south of Shelter Cove Road (Wailaki is especially nice. Nadelos has walk-in tent sites.)

THE DRIVE Usal Road snakes through the wildest part of the California coast. Nicknamed the “Lost Coast,” it is among the most isolated coastal areas--if not the most isolated--in the Lower 48.

So daunting and erodible are these mountains--seabed sediments dozed up by the collision of tectonic plates--that the builders of California Highway 1 were forced inland to link up with U.S. 101.

Usal Road
After ascending the King Range, Usal Road enters the state park at mile 5.3, then descends to the wooden bridge and meadows at Usal Creek. The beach turnoff is north of the creek. At the beach you can still see wharf pilings from the 1890s, when Usal was a lumber port served by schooners that braved the North Coast's "doghole ports." It remained isolated until logging boomed after World War II, but was abandoned by 1960.

Usal Beach
Usal Road ends at Four Corners, 19 miles north. From there, you can continue to Bear Harbor (Tour 13 in my guidebook, California Coastal Byways). From Four Corners, U.S. Highway 101 is 22.5 miles to northeast via Whitethorn. Shelter Cove Road is 6.5 miles north, via Chemise Mountain Road.

Bear Harbor Road, also on the Lost Coast

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Frank Reinbold said...

Just awesome !

Anonymous said...

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