The Lost Coast. Looking north toward the Sinkyone Wilderness
State Park. If you like isolation and have four wheel
drive this is the place for you.
Photos © 1998, Joseph A. Dickerson, All Rights Reserved
Ansel Adams had Yosemite,
for Edward Weston it was Point Lobos, while Galen Rowell prefers places
with mostly vertical surfaces. It seems that every photographer has
his/her special place, a place where all seems in balance, we feel most
alive, and the land speaks to us on a level that can only be described
as spiritual. For me that place is California's Lost Coast. This
wondrous meeting of land and sea stretches from Marin County just north
of San Francisco to the Sinkyone Wilderness above Fort Bragg and has
everything from sleepy fishing villages, semi-tacky tourist traps, old
growth Coastal Redwood forests, 19th century lighthouses, and wind swept
rocky promontories. I have driven, hiked, bicycled, and kayaked this
part of the world for nearly 25 years and never cease to wonder at its
beauty and, once you leave the influence of San Francisco's urban
sprawl, its solitude. That's not to say it doesn't sometimes
get crowded, but if you avoid the heavier travel times, especially July
and August, it can be unbelievably remote and serene. The area is naturally
more crowded during the prime vacation times but the typical summer
marine layer, read fog, means the weather is actually nicer in the spring
and fall when there are fewer folks about. Winter can also be fantastic
with storms blowing in from the Northwest and the surf crashing over
rocky headlands but be warned, it rains a lot on the Lost Coast.
While the term Lost Coast is officially only applied to a relatively
small area above Fort Bragg, the whole area can seem like it has been
cut off from the rest of California and like Brigadoon, lives in a slower
more halcyon time. If you like I'll take you on a short tour and
introduce you to this magical kingdom, but don't tell anyone else,
after all, we want to keep it to ourselves, don't we?
coast just south of Fort Ross. Another serendipitous moment
that lasted only long enough to shoot a few frames.
Most travelers will remain
on US Highway 101 after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge but we want to
follow California Highway 1 north toward Stimson Beach. If you haven't
seen it and if it's not too crowded, stop at Muir Woods. This lovely
grove of Coastal Redwoods was named for naturalist John Muir and there
are many photo opportunities. This section of road can be quite crowded
as Stimson Beach is a popular weekend getaway for folks who live in the
"City," but after Stimson Beach the traffic will thin out
considerably. Just beyond Stimson Beach is the little town of Bolinas
which is sometimes hard to find as some local wags, known as "The
Bolinas Border Patrol," often take down the highway signs that point
the way. Here Highway 1 skirts the Bolinas Lagoon which is a birder's
paradise, especially in the winter when as many as 60 species, totaling
over 30,000 individuals, have been seen. It's also a great canoe
and kayak spot but be sure you have an up-to-date tide table or you could
spend several hours sitting in the mud waiting for the water to come back.
Our route leaves the ocean for a bit and follows the infamous San Andreas
Fault. This is the earthquake fault that all but destroyed San Francisco
in 1906 and, many believe, is due to try again. The Point Reyes National
Seashore is a great place to explore and photograph and could easily be
a destination of its own or, as it usually is for me, a day or two stop
over on a trip farther up the coast. Be sure to get out to the Point Reyes
lighthouse, but take a warm coat as the Point can be cold and windy any
time of the year. Also, keep an eye out for the Roosevelt Elk that have
been reintroduced to the area. They're beautiful animals and can
often be easily photographed from your car.
magic moment happened at Still Water Cove. The sunset looked
unpromising and I almost gave up and missed the whole thing.
We again turn inland, this
time through country dotted with diary farms, until we eventually rejoin
the ocean at Bodega Bay. Here the main claim to fame is Alfred Hitchcock's
use of Bodega and Bodega Bay as locations for the classic horror movie
The Birds. Later on we pass Fort Ross, with its famous Russian Orthodox
Chapel. The fort is a reconstruction of the Russian fur trade center that
flourished here in the 19th century. The Russians were, for a long time,
the dominate culture and left a strong heritage. There are numerous Russian
Gulches and of course, the Russian River which serve as reminders of their
influence. Campgrounds abound along this section of coast but one of my
favorites is the Sonoma County campground at Stillwater Cove. Try to be
there in the evening so you can take a sunset hike along the bluff trail
that starts across the highway from the campground. It's a great
hike any time of day but at sunset it can be especially enchanting.
Traveling on toward Point Arena, schedule a stop at Stewart's Point
General Store. It's a fun place that seemingly hasn't changed
since the McKinley administration. If you need the services found in a
larger town you will soon come to Gualala. Gualala, pronounced wah-lah-lah,
is a Spanish phonetic spelling of the German, Valhalla. A real treat is
a visit to the Alinder Gallery on the north end of town. Be sure to say
hi to Jim Alinder and wife Mary Street-Alinder, who was Ansel Adams'
executive assistant, and check out the photography by Alinder and others
that is on display.
some of the lighthouses on the coast, Point Cabrillo lighthouse
itself is not open to the public but it is being restored
and some day it may be. The longish walk from the Point
Cabrillo Road is really worth the effort.
I admit to being a lighthouse
nut. I love to explore and photograph them and in general, just like to
be around them. One of the more recognizable on the West Coast, due to
its featured role in the Mel Gibson movie Forever Young , is the Point
Arena lighthouse (our cover photo). Be sure and climb the 145 steps to
see the first-order Fresnel lens. This lens was shipped all the way from
France and contains 666 individual prisms, each of which had to be polished
everyday. The rotational mechanism, which used a falling weight for power,
had to be reset every four hours so you can see lighthouse keepers didn't
have very much spare time.
If you like rugged coastlines with miles of craggy sea stacks, truly impressive
breakers, and blowing spindrift you'll love the town of Elk. I use
the word town advisedly as downtown consists of only a dozen or so buildings,
but it's a charmer nevertheless. The Elk Store and Deli will hand
build you a picnic complete with local wines and gourmet sandwiches and
take it from me, the sandwiches are fantastic. If you want to stay someplace
quiet and romantic, Elk is the place. There are several Bed and Breakfast's
but my favorite is the Harbor House. Once the overseer's home for
the Greenwood Lumber Company, it features its own trail down to the Greenwood
Cove where lumber was shipped to build many of San Francisco's Victorian
mansions. Just a short distance north of Elk, California Highway 128 joins
Highway 1 at the mouth of the Navarro River. Usually a placid stream,
the Navarro can become a raging torrent as high water markers some 20'
above the roadway can attest. If you want a break from all the coastal
scenery, you can take Highway 128 inland to visit the region's wine
country. The Alexander Valley boasts towns with names like Booneville
and Philo and has become one of the premier wine producing areas in the
state. Booneville at one time was so isolated that it boasts a dialect
called "Boontling" that is spoken nowhere else. You can use
Highway 128 as a return to Highway 101 via Cloverdale if you need to cut
your trip short but, back on the coast, we've been saving the best
sea stacks at Jughandle State Park. The park has two nature
trails, a boardwalk that goes to the bluffs, and a trail
that follows the marine terraces inland. For geology buffs
they're both a must see.
Mendocino, well-known as the
stunt double for Cabot Cove in Angela Landsbury's Murder She Wrote,
has been transformed from a backwater artist's colony to a world-class
tourist trap. But it is not without its charm. You can still camp on a
hill overlooking the ocean for under 20 bucks a night, or rent a canoe
or bicycle at the whimsically named Catch-A-Canoe; prices aren't
too steep and if your family is tired of watching you take pictures, there's
lots to see. For paddlers, the Big River goes inland for several miles
and makes a great side trip and you'll spot herons, egrets, kingfishers,
and possibly river otters. Get a tide chart though as the Big River is
tidal and you don't want to spend the whole day paddling uphill.
Another great family spot is Van Dame State Park located just south of
In the Mendocino area you will find several other small communities worthy
of your time. Albion, the name is the Latin for Britain, is above the
Albion River and when I was there last winter they were building a new
marina complete with canoe and kayak rentals. I haven't paddled
it yet but the Albion is supposed to be even more interesting than the
Big River although it's not as long. North of Mendocino you will
find the little village of Caspar which is just starting to become "civilized."
A bustling business center in the 1880s it pretty much went bust in the
middle of this century when the local lumber company pulled out and took
most of the buildings with them. It now consists of a few galleries, a
restaurant or two, and a smattering of inns. Allow time to explore both
Russian Gulch and Jughandle State Parks. Both are interesting and abound
with great photo subjects. Ready for another lighthouse?
a long way down to the Point Reyes lighthouse. It's
also usually cold and windy so dress warm.
AdThis one is the Point Cabrillo
lighthouse. The access road is a little hard to find and there's
a bit of a hike but it's really worth the effort. The lighthouse
itself is about a mile from the Cabrillo Point Road, and you can't
drive to it. But don't fret, the walk is an easy one, and I've
never seen more than one or two other people all the times I've
been there. Sunset is the obvious time to shoot the lighthouse, but it
can be spectacular in the early morning as well.
Fort Bragg is the closest thing that the Lost Coast has to a real city
and it's really a fun place to spend some time. It's a lumber
town pure and simple with Georgia Pacific, the major employer, so the
economy tends to fluctuate with the demand for lumber. But you'll
find several nice inns plus motels, coffee shops, and all the other amenities.
If you're camping or simply need to resupply, there is a Safeway
market right on Highway 1 which is the only supermarket in the region.
There are two must-dos in Fort Bragg; you must visit Noyo Harbor and you
must ride the Skunk Railroad.
is the sunset that I almost missed by staying in camp to
fix dinner. There was no indication that the sky was going
to light up like this as it was very overcast when I started
to hike the bluff trail. Truly serendipity.
Noyo Harbor, which is a real
working harbor, is just run down enough to be a photographer's dream.
I like to be there at sunrise when things are just starting to happen
and will shoot for a couple of hours before packing it in to get breakfast.
The US Coast Guard has several surf boats stationed in the harbor and
there are commercial fishing operations plus a small pleasure boat marina
as well. The harbor, which is actually the Noyo River, can be reached
from the south side or the north with either offering interesting possibilities.
There is a sizable group of Stellar's sea lions that are spoiled
beyond belief and make great models. From the south side of the river
you can get quite close to them but they can be photographed from either
The Skunk Railroad was originally run by the Union Lumber Company and
was Fort Bragg's main link with the town of Willits, located on
Highway 101 and the outer world. You can take the excursion to Willits,
which takes most of the day, or you can do a shorter half-day trip to
North Spur. Either excursion takes you through some of the most rugged
country on the coast. The train station is right smack in the middle of
the town so you can't miss it. By the way, the locals started calling
it the "Skunk" when steam engines were replaced with gasoline
powered locomotives and the locals said, "they could smell 'em
before they could hear 'em." At certain times of the year
they still run the steam engine and when they do it's a great photo
There's still more to see north of Fort Bragg before Highway 1 links
up with Highway 101 again and heads north to Eureka, Crescent City, and
the Oregon border, but let's save that for another trip.