Things to Do
Entering from the north, a 3.5-mile drive on an unpaved road takes you to the Needle Rock Visitor Center. Built in the 1920s, the center was once the home of Calvin Cooper Stewart and his family. Needle Rock began as a small settlement and a shipping point for Stewart’s ranch operations.
The Visitor Center is open year round, staffed by a campground host who lives in the park. There’s no phone, and cell phone reception is poor. When the center is closed, visitors can register themselves and pay fees at an iron ranger.
An honor system prevails at the south entrance to the park, Usal Beach Campground, where abalone diving and surf fishing are popular. The water is cold, so bring a wet suit. For licensing and complete regulations, visit http://www.wildlife.ca.gov.
Both Needle Rock and Usal Beach are good places for day-hiking or starting multi-day backpacking trips on the Sinkyone section of the Lost Coast Trail. The distance between the two park entrances is 19.4 miles. The route dances along ridgetops and descends steeply to beaches and rocky coves, making it the California Coastal Trail’s most difficult section, according to Hiking the California Coastal Trail http://www.boredfeet.com/hikingcct.html. Primitive campsites lie near each entrance and at three- to five-mile intervals along the way.
To the north, the King Range section of the Lost Coast Trail is more of a beach walk. It ends at the mouth of the Mattole River in King Range National Conservation Area, more than 50 trail miles from Usal Beach.
If you have an hour, you may want to save the Sinkyone for another trip. Both the north and south entrances are a long drive from the main highway—some of it on narrow, winding dirt roads.
If you have half a day, drive to Needle Rock Visitor Center and hike north to Jones Beach and back.
If you have a full day, drive to Needle Rock Visitor Center and hike north to Whale Gulch and back. Or hike south to Wheeler and back.
If you have several days, backpack 19.4 miles of the Lost Coast Trail, from Usal Beach to Needle Rock. Or go all the way to the Mattole River in the King Range Conservation Area—a distance of more than 50 miles.
Some 22 miles of the Lost Coast Trail thread through the 7,800-acre Sinkyone, with views of up to a hundred miles along the California coast. About 3 miles of trail lie north from the visitor center. This is the gentlest option, and probably the best for day-hikers. About 19 miles of trail lie to the south of the visitor center.
On a day hike, bring plenty of water and appropriate clothing. For a multi-day trip, a bear container, water purification equipment, and trekking poles are advised.
Free park maps are available online http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/429/files/SinkyoneWildernessWebBrochure2011.pdf and at the visitor center. For multi-day trips, consider the detailed Wilderness Press map, which includes the King Range National Conservation Area as well as Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. https://www.wildernesspress.com/product.php?productid=16560
From Needle Rock Visitor Center, hiking north is generally easier than hiking south. From the south entrance at Usal Beach Campground, almost every hike is at least moderately difficult because of the wrinkled terrain.
Needle Rock Visitor Center to Jones Beach
2 miles roundtrip: from Needle Rock Visitor Center, hike north one mile on the Lost Coast Trail. On the east, you’ll pass Barn and Streamside camps, as well as the coastal bluffs. On the west at the beginning of the hike, spot a dark sand beach and the ocean surging through Needle Rock. After about a mile, you’ll come to the eucalyptus grove sheltering Jones Beach Campground. Turn left on the quarter-mile spur trail to Jones Beach. Return the way you came.
Needle Rock Visitor Center to Whale Gulch
4.5 miles roundtrip
Follow the Lost Coast Trail north, as described above. After Jones Beach, continue another mile and a quarter through a marsh, a lofty overlook, a lagoon, and scenic Whale Gulch. Return the way you came, or continue on to Chemise Mountain and the King Range National Conservation Area.
Needle Rock Visitor Center to Orchard Creek or Bear Harbor
5.4–6.2 miles roundtrip
The dirt road connecting Needle Rock Visitor Center with Orchard Creek and Bear Harbor provides scenic seaside hiking in good weather. (It is not currently open to motor vehicles.) Turn back at Orchard Creek, or go on to Bear Harbor for another 0.4 miles. Faint traces of Bear Harbor & Eel River Railroad, built to haul timber in the 1800s, are still visible. A wharf at Bear Harbor was destroyed by a storm in 1899.
Usal Beach Campground to Anderson Gulch
10 miles roundtrip with 2,200 feet up and down
Start at the north end of Usal Beach Campground. After two steep uphill climbs and a traverse, you’ll be just below 1,320-foot Timber Point. Next, the trail takes you on a rollercoaster walk down into and up out of Dark Gulch and Anderson Gulch. Stop at scenic Anderson Gulch and return the way you came.
Needle Rock Visitor Center to Usal Beach, or Usal Beach to Needle Rock Visitor Center
19.4 miles one-way, multi-day trip, 6,000 feet up and down
Starting either at the Needle Rock Visitor Center or at Usal Beach, you can sample 19.4 miles of the Lost Coast Trail. There’s a lot of elevation change, so bring trekking poles and don’t expect fast progress. Plan to camp at least a night or two along the way. The route passes through seasonal wildflowers and three stands of old-growth redwoods. It also provides excellent whale- and elk-watching opportunities. Colors are so bright in the spring, you may think you’ve been transported to the tropics.
There’s a camp host at Needle Rock, but no park staff or volunteers stationed at Usal Beach. For a car shuttle, contact Lost Coast Trail Transport Service http://www.lostcoasttrail.com/.
Usal Beach to the mouth of the Mattole River
More than 50 miles one way, a week or more
This is the ultimate Lost Coast Trail trek, walking up the coast through Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and King Range National Conservation Area. On the state-park section, camps are close to the beach, but most of hiking is inland. There’s lots of steep up and down—6,000 feet in all—but your progress will not be affected by tides. The King Range section is more about squishy, slanted beach walking. In some places, you’ll need to cross a rushing stream without a bridge (in the wet season) or wait for a high tide to pass. The two stretches are different, but both offer plenty of challenge.
To arrange a car shuttle, contact Lost Coast Trail Transport Service http://www.lostcoasttrail.com/.
Bicycles are allowed on park roads, but not on single-track trails. The 5.4-mile ride from Needle Rock Visitor Center to Orchard Creek and back is particularly scenic. As you pedal your way up and down 900 feet of elevation gain and loss, you’ll venture into grasslands, forests, and deep canyons, with splendid views of the coast. You might also spot some of the park’s Roosevelt elk. For safety, please keep your distance .
At 2 miles, Usal Beach is the longest stretch of sand in the park and rewards explorers with a waterfall at the north end. (Low tide only.) Birdwatching, surf-fishing, and abalone diving are possible, usually without crowds. The water is cold, so if you plan to go in, bring a wetsuit. For $25, you can camp in the meadow at Usal Beach Campground (first come, first served). Services are minimal: Bring your own toilet paper and drinking water, and haul out your own trash.
Usal Road is for people who don’t mind bone-jarring challenges. Author Jack London and his wife are said to have survived it in a horse-drawn carriage. If you value your muffler, allow at least 2 hours to complete the unpaved 20-mile journey from Four Corners to Usal Campground. A four-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended. The road is closed in the rainy season.
The park’s campsites are all primitive: they have fire rings and pit toilets and sometimes tables. There are no developed water sources, so be prepared to purify the water from creeks or springs, or bring your own drinking water.
Trail camps are $5 a night. The Park’s three “environmental” campgrounds, Bear Harbor, Orchard, and Railroad, are $25 a night. They’re more or less 3 miles from the Needle Rock Visitor Center. The camp closest to the visitor center, Needle Rock Barn, will keep you out of the rain for a fee of $35.
The park’s only drive-in sites, at Usal Beach Campground, are $25 a night. RVs and trailers are not advised because of the twisty, narrow entrance road.
Equestrian camping is permitted at Usal Beach and Wheeler campgrounds.
You can register and pay for any of these sites at Needle Rock Visitor Center or Usal Beach Campground. All are first come, first served.
To arrange for a camping permit for a group of nine or more people, contact the park office at 707-986-7711 or make arrangements at the Needle Rock Visitor Center.
Anglers 16 and over must carry a valid California fishing license. To apply for a license and learn the rules, visit the Department of Fish and Wildlife website. https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing
Equestrians can ride on park roads and on the 4.5-mile-long single-track trail from Bear Harbor to Wheeler. Other single-track trails in the park are not open to horses. Equestrian camping is permitted at Wheeler and Usal Beach.
Just for Kids
Needle Rock Visitor Center has good hands-on displays for children.
You and your kids can also consult the California State Parks’ Adventure Guide. http://kids.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24064 Download a copy, pick it up at the visitor center, or call 916-654-2249 to order.
Before heading to the park—or after you return—explore the Redwoods Learning Center http://education.savetheredwoods.org/kit/index.php set up by Save the Redwoods League. It offers fun, redwood-themed activities, classroom tools, and ways to get involved in redwood protection. Redwoods bingo http://education.savetheredwoods.org/kit/PDF/activity_bingo.pdf, anyone?