Spot Check || The Full Experience on the Lost Coast’s Usal Road

As we made our turn onto Usal Road, the dense forest canopy quickly faded out any memories of the bright, sunny California day. Peering into the darkness, two ruts and a sunken road bed led into one of the most remote and lawless sections of Northern California.

It’s hard to imagine this narrow, rutted forest road used to be the main arterial for logging operations heading to and from the coast. With logging now halted, the road has since turned into a primitive route connecting a remote area of the Lost Coast to the main highway. In the rainy season, Usal Road goes from nearly impassable to totally impassable, turning into a muddy mess, even closing at times. Luckily for us, August found the road to be rutted and rough―but dry.

The Lost Coast is a remote, rugged stretch of California coast where the famed Hwy 101 veers inland before connecting Fort Bragg to Eureka. Known as much for unspoiled scenic terrain as for pot-growing recluses, the Lost Coast is a glimpse into what-could-have-been for the rest of the coastal region. Originally populated primarily by farmers and loggers, not much has changed in the last hundred years. While many travelers tend to skip right over the area, we wanted to see what the Lost Coast had in store.

What we found was comparatively mellow from other accounts of gunfire, drunk driving, explosives and hard partying.

From turning off Hwy 101 just north of Fort Bragg, Usal Road goes for about 10 miles before reaching Usal Beach Campground. This section of road is the most traveled and the easiest to navigate, but is still only one lane with some pullouts. From the campground, the road is another 20 miles or so until it meets up with Four Corners, close to the turnoff to Shelter Cove before rejoining the pavement. Most of the road winds its way through dense forest and views through the trees of the Pacific are sparse. Depending on weather and maintenance, stories of the road’s conditions can vary dramatically.

One of the few breaks in the forest

After reading other people’s experiences, I feel like we were pretty lucky. There were some pretty deep ruts and water bars throughout the entire route, but by going slow and being in 4-low we made it through just fine. I could see how this could quickly become more challenging with a bit of rain or a downed tree. There were few pullouts or places to turn around on the entire route, and fortunately we didn’t meet a truck coming the opposite direction because that would have been awkward. While the stretch from Hwy 101 to Usal Beach is well-traveled, the much rougher section from the campground to Four Corners seldom sees any traffic.

Camping at Usal Beach is another story. We had planned on camping there early on, so we landed in camp just around sunset, giving us few viable options to continue. While it’s officially a state park campground requiring a $25 payment, there was no obvious place to pay, and no rangers or camp hosts around. What we found was comparatively mellow from other accounts of gunfire, drunk driving, explosives and hard partying, but the place still had a weird feel to it. With no water, no toilets and no garbage cans, be prepared to pack out what you pack in.

Shortly after arriving and pulling up to the beach we were soon vibed out harder than I’ve ever been vibed out before. While watching the sunset, a guy literally did a doughnut around my truck while making direct eye contact the entire time. Off-putting to say the least. After the intimidation tactics, this dude proceeded to blast 60’s soul music from his truck before repeatedly drag racing down the narrow dirt road between the beach and the campground. I had my fingers crossed for a tree collision, but we weren’t so lucky.

Slight unnerved, we ended up sleeping in the front seat of the truck, pointed towards the road in case we needed to bail out in a hurry. Later on we justified his actions by thinking he was just wasted and couldn’t find his campsite. But still, the whole thing bummed me out. This was the first time at any of the places we’ve camped we felt uncomfortable. Even though we didn’t pay the camp fee, I would have been stoked to see a ranger cruise through the campground.

Anyways. The Usal Road was pretty cool still. Next time I think I would try to camp north of Four Corners or further south near Fort Bragg. Or maybe a weeknight or the off-season would be alright. While the road was fairly challenging, we did it in a stock Tacoma with balding tires. Having a shovel, set of MaxTrax and a strap or winch to pull any downed trees out of the way would be a good insurance policy as well. For as wild, remote and rugged as the Lost Coast claims to be, I guess we should have expected nothing short of the experience we received.

Before venturing down Usal Road, check the road conditions because it’s known to be closed fairly often.