Mattole Road – California’s Lost Coast


Before you do any research, you’d probably just assume that California’s Pacific Coast Highway follows the coast from end to end.  It’s true that US 101 and CA Rte. 1 do a pretty good job of hugging the Pacific, but there’s one area of the coast that’s so rugged, so remote, that road builders simply didn’t try.  This area is known, appropriately enough, as the Lost Coast.  Through this area, US 101 stays miles inland, and CA 1 doesn’t even begin until further south.

Just the fact that you can’t get to California’s Lost Coast with ease, was enough to make me want to go there.  I did a little research on the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, but quickly realized that hiking through the area would be well beyond my abilities.  So, that left only one alternative–the seemingly little-known Mattole Road.

Mattole Road officially begins at Ferndale.  To get to Ferndale, take CA Rte. 211 from US 101.  From downtown Ferndale, take a right on Ocean Ave., then a left on Mattole Road (follow signs for Petrolia).  If you followed Ocean Ave., you would eventually end up at the Pacific, however the road dead-ends, so you’d need to backtrack.

I visited Mattole Road again in 2014. You can read about that visit here.

Even if you’re not going to tackle Mattole Road, it’s worth the detour off US 101 to explore Ferndale.

Picture a tiny, quaint, Victorian small town, and you’re envisioning Ferndale.  This village is nearly perfect, so you’ll definitely want to park your car and walk around for a few minutes.  Stroll around Main Street, checking out the antique stores and small shops.

Then, wander onto Ferndale’s residential streets, just a block or two away from Main.  Most of the homes here have been lovingly cared for and painstakingly restored.  The home in the picture above is the Gingerbread Mansion, an 11 room bed and breakfast.

A room at the Gingerbread Mansion will run between $100-$400.  You can take a closer look at the b&b’swebsite.

[tmt_info =""]No surprise, Hollywood took note of Ferndale’s picturesque perfection, when looking for a setting for the 2001 film The MajesticFerndale’s website shows how some local buildings were transformed for the film.

After wandering the streets of Ferndale for a few minutes, I set out on Mattole Road.  As it leaves town, Mattole Road climbs quickly into the hills, providing a great view overlooking the town.

There isn’t a good place to stop, though, so this was the best picture I could get of Ferndale.

Mattole Road is mostly two-lanes, although they’re usually very narrow lanes, with plenty of curves.  Even though it’s a while before the ocean comes into view, it’s still an awesome drive.

As you travel along, you feel like you’re on top of the world.  The road crests some hills, and hugs the sides of others.  All the while, you’re passing rolling farmland, and hundreds of those “happy California cows” from the cheese commercials.

Finally, the ocean appears ahead of you.  At this point, you’re coming close to Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California.  Fences run on both sides of the road, and beyond them, everything is private land.  So, your only choice is to enjoy the scenery from the road.

Before you reach the ocean, Mattole Road takes you down one hillside and across a creek at Capetown (which isn’t really a town–more like a farm).  Then it’s up and over one more hill.

Suddenly, as you bounce along Mattole Road, you crest a hill, and this breathtaking view of Cape Mendocino comes into sight.  Just offshore is Sugarloaf Island, which is made up almost entirely of 323 foot tall Cape Rock.

Cape Mendocino used to be home to one of the highest (in elevation) lighthouses in America.  Now, the tower itself is on display in Shelter Cove, and the Fresnel Lens can be seen at the fairgrounds in Ferndale.

Cape Mendocino is one of the most seismically active areas on the west coast.  Three tectonic plates come together, just offshore.  In 1992, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale was centered near here.

The road drops down and travels alongside the ocean for a while, bringing you frustratingly close to the cape.  Since everything is private land, and there are almost no turnoffs along the side of the road, you’ll have to be content with a view of Cape Mendocino from a couple of miles away.  It’s beautiful and quite perfect when the sun hits the green hills, leading down to Sugarloaf Island.

The first, and almost the only, place to pull off the road is at a small bridge.  Here you can look back at Cape Mendocino, or look straight out at Steamboat Rock.

Shifting tectonic plates have raised the beach here, giving the appearance that it’s always low tide.

From the bridge you can walk down to the beach.  I’m not sure if you’re really supposed to, all I can say is I didn’t have to climb any fences (but I did have to wade through some rather tall vegetation).  I couldn’t quite find the view I had hoped for, while standing on the beach.  Cape Mendocino is just too far away.


The next place that even resembles civilization is the tiny town of Petrolia.  There are a few houses here…

… and a nice, tiny church on the hillside overlooking the town.

Petrolia’s sole claim to fame is that it’s the first place in California where someone decided to drill an oil well.  You’ll find a historic marker in the middle of town.

Beyond Petrolia, I continued to follow Mattole road to Honeydew (another very small town), then turned south on Wilder Ridge Road.  Most of the route looks a lot like this picture…

… or this one (I can’t guarantee the rainbow).  Eventually, I ended up at Ettersburg, and had to decide whether to head out to Shelter Cove, or back to US 101.

Tiny, isolated Shelter Cove is worth a visit, if you have some extra time.  You can check out a few pictures here.  Shelter Cove is also the new home of the old lighthouse, that used to stand atop Cape Mendocino.

After spending a lot of time admiring that amazing rainbow, I finally forced myself to hit the road again.  I knew I had a long drive ahead, in order to reach my destination for the night, Fort Bragg. Given the time of day, I knew there was no way to make it to Shelter Cove, then back to US 101, and finally down to Fort Bragg for the night.  So, I headed directly back to 101, then south to Leggett, the last small town before the nothingness of CA Rte. 1.

Leggett’s claim to fame is the “Chandelier Drive Through Tree”.  Pay a few bucks, and you can drive your car through a hole, that was cut out of the middle of the tree trunk.  The Drive Through Tree Park is located just off 101.  I drove through it during my 2014 visit to the area.  You can check it out here.

When you look at the northernmost end of CA Rte. 1 on a map, it doesn’t look so awfully bad.  In print, it appears to be just a short jaunt over to the coast.  In reality, the first 20 or so miles of this route consist of one of the most twisty, curvy, challenging roads I’ve ever tackled.

When I made the turn onto Rte. 1, I saw a sign declaring Fort Bragg to be 44 miles away.  “No problem,”  I thought, “I can make it there in an hour.”  Which of course means, I would have to average a speed of 44 miles per hour.  I was up to the challenge, and I was really tired and anxious to check into a motel.

As soon as Rte. 1 begins, so do the curves.  So many curves.  Left, right, the letter “S”, followed by the letter “U”.  So dark.  So much of nothing.  Fortunately, I managed to pass the only other person on the road, and within a minute that slowpoke was out of range of my rear view mirror.  On I pressed, tires squealing. Left, Right, brake fast for the creature in the road!  No test track has ever been built that’s more challenging.

After a while of seeing no lights, no businesses, and no signs (except for those yellow curve warnings), I began to wonder if I was actually in the right place.  I thought it possible that I had somehow wandered onto a very curvy loop, and I was just going around the same curves, over and over again.  There was nothing that could prove me wrong–every curve was identical.  I started to question if it would ever end.

Finally it did…

… in a glorious moment, when the ocean came back into view.  The road actually went where I thought it would.  What a relief.  With the very last light of the day, I stopped to take one last picture.

But Fort Bragg was still at least 25 more miles away.

The thing I instantly learned about California Route 1 (or instantly remembered, from a previous trip down a different stretch) is that this is one road where no effort was made to straighten things out.  The road follows the land, so if the land curves in, out, up, or down, so does the pavement.  To the road builders’ credit, it does help preserve the natural ruggedness of the coast.  But after a while, all those curves get quite tiring.

As I rolled into Fort Bragg, I glanced at the clock.  Exactly one hour had passed–to the minute–since I turned off US 101.  I’m pretty sure I broke some kind of record, along with several speed limits.  And no, I don’t recommend you do the same thing.

So the moral of the story is this: any time you are going to be driving CA 1, allow plenty of extra time to round all those curves.  You’ll need it.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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