Photofocus Road Trip: Get real, real lost in Northern California

Wanna get away? Babbling brooks, towering redwood trees, empty Pacific coastlines, black sand beaches and beautiful Victorian homes sound good? Sounds like you need Humboldt and the Lost Coast in Northern California.

Northern California

California is an enormous state. Accordingly, it differs wildly. Northern California is overflowing with verdant forests, charming towns, towering redwoods, craggy mountains, rugged coastlines and sprawling vineyards. We’ll explore just two of many places in this magical land that is just as great for families as it is for solo explorers.

Or photographers. First we’ll discuss a few of the many great places to visit. Then we’ll finish up with a discussion on what sort of photography equipment to bring along.

Humboldt Redwoods

Bull Creek Trail, Humboldt County, going through the largest old-growth redwood forest remaining in the world. Near Weott, CA.

Redwood forests are my favorite kind of forest. There’s something extra special about the whole look, smell, and air. And of course, there’s the towering redwood trees, trees so large that when explorers first came across them, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

If you like to camp, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, near the Avenue of the Giants, is a great place. From there, you can relax, fish or hike for days. You may also use it as a base of operations to explore the charming towns and coastline nearby.

Forests and beaches

Addie Johnson Trail.
Addie Johnson Trail. Walk among the redwoods.

A great nearby hike is Addie Johnson Trail. Roam through fern-laden redwood forests and Johnson Prairie, in honor of the Johnson family who homesteaded there in the 1870s.

Patrick's Point, California.
Patrick’s Point by the coast.

Farther north is Patrick’s Point, north of Eureka and Arcata. This is often foggy and overcast, so bring a jacket. There, you may explore Agate Beach. This is an outstanding beach for looking for beautiful rocks. The few people who go to this beach seem to walk everywhere with their head down, looking for colorful rocks or even semiprecious stones.

The Gingerbread Mansion and Ferndale

Gingerbread Mansion, Ferndale.
The Gingerbread Mansion in charming Ferndale, California.

Forbes named Ferndale one of America’s Prettiest Towns:

“From its well-preserved Victorian-era main street, to its five-minute drive from California’s magnificent, undeveloped Lost Coast, Ferndale is a surprising trip back in time, with just enough modern quirkiness to make it unique.”


Not surprisingly, Ferndale has been a popular film location.

The Lost Coast

The Lost Coast is the most isolated stretch of coast on the West Coast. There are no highways, only a few twisting roads that would make Ice Road Truckers nervous, and a lot of bumpy twisting dirt roads which are often impassable during rain or winter season.

Imagine this.

You are building the Pacific coast Highway. You go north of Ft. Bragg, north of Westport. Suddenly, you encounter enormous steep rugged mountains that suddenly thrust upward, 2000 feet in two miles. If this isn’t challenging enough, you find that it’s an active earthquake zone, home to a geologic triple junction where the San Andreas Fault meets the Mendocino Fault and the Cascadia subduction zone, separating three tectonic plates. What would you do?

If you are the builders, you go around. The highway abruptly dives eastward and inland, following Cottaneva Creek through redwood-forested mountainous terrain before meeting Highway 101 near Leggett.

The good news? You have it mostly to yourself. You could hike all day and not see anyone else.

Shelter Cove

Hidden within Lost Coast is Shelter Cove. It’s tucked in the mountain ranges between King National Conservation Area and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. In other words, it’s located in the middle of nowhere. It’s known locally for its fishing. It’s popular enough with some that it actually has a tiny airport so fishermen can zoom in without dealing with the winding roads.

One of the other main features of Shelter Cove is Black Sands Beach. It actually is more like Black Rocks Beach. It has many well-worn black stones that make loud crunching noises underfoot, but not much sand until you walk farther north along the Lost Coast Trail.

Lost Coast Trail

Birds, Lost Coast Trail
Birds along the Lost Coast Trail north of Shelter Cove, CA in the Lost Coast.

The Lost Coast Trail is an isolated trail. It’s one of the few coastal wilderness hiking experiences in the United States. Accordingly, hikers will see plenty of sea lions, elephant seals, river otters, eagles, bobcats, deer and more.

Go north from Black Sands Beach. The first nine miles is primarily on the beach. The crunch of the black stones while walking is quite loud, eventually giving way to sand. You’ll occasionally see scruffy people with backpacks who have walked along the entire stretch of the trail. The trail eventually heads into redwood groves and fern glens in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. You may camp north of Telegraph Creek.

Weave along mountains overlooking the Pacific coast

Briceland Road, Pacific Ocean.
Briceland Road between Needle Rocks Visitors Center and Bear Harbor, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

You may visit Needles Rock Visitor’s Center in Sinkyone Wilderness. It’s only about fifteen or sixteen miles south of Shelter Cove. But it will take you a while to get there. That’s OK. This is one of those drives to be saved.

Weave along narrow, winding, twisting dirt bumpy roads with hairpin turns going through forests and rocky cliff areas. Untamed wilderness. More so now, anyway. The Lost Coast had almost been ruined by logging redwoods in the late 1800s. Eventually, state and national parks purchased it from the logging company.

When you eventually arrive at Needle Rock, you can hike from the visitor’s center to Whale Gulch. Driving three miles further south, you can visit Bear Harbor as well.

Confusion Hill, featuring the tallest chain saw totem pole.

Getting lost in the Lost Coast (or Humboldt)

Your GPS may possibly be useless in certain parts. Don’t panic. There’s not that many roads for you to get truly lost. Explore. It’s the sort of place that rewards the sort of “Hey, I wonder where that goes?” sort of exploration. It also is fantastic for campfires, bonding, shopping, or doing absolutely nothing.


By now, you’ve gotten the idea that this area is a photographer’s paradise, haven’t you? You’ll find redwood forests, craggy cliffs, black sand beaches, picturesque towns and fascinating people within close proximity.

Cameras that are great for the Lost Coast and Humboldt

If you intend on taking photos by Shelter Cove or the beach, you should know that it sometimes gets windy. Very windy. You’ll want to bring a camera with robust weather sealing. Pentax, Olympus, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic and others all make robust cameras. Some of these cameras, despite the weather sealing, can also be relatively lightweight. If you’re going on a multiday hike along Lost Coast Trail, you don’t want to be hauling something needlessly heavy, after all.

You’ll want to bring along a few microfiber cloths to wipe the water away. I keep these handy, sometimes in my pocket, but certainly always with me. You can also use a Giottos Rocket Air Blaster to remove dust or even blow off little water droplets. Ocean water and electronic do not mix well. You can keep water at bay with a waterproof nylon rain cover.

Walkabout lens

Pentax camera and lens.
Pentax K-1 and 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, a robust combination.

A good “walkabout” lens can come in handy here. You don’t necessarily need a fast lens, and even one with a variable aperture can produce great results. For example, the Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 is a great lens for general purpose photography.

Some may prefer greater reach, such as a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. This flexible lens has VR II (Vibration Reduction) and focuses reasonably fast considering its rather wide range.

If you can afford a zoom lens that keeps its aperture constant, fantastic. However, these can be heavier than their variable aperture cousins.

Rugged backpack for your trip

I like stuffing all this into the venerable Tenba Solstice 20L backpack along with numerous other accessories … and lots of water and snacks, of course. I like my backpacks to be tough enough to stand lots of jostling, ocean water, sand, dirt, and camping while still performing their duties with a smile.

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