South Cape Mendocino State Marine Reserve
A wild ride to a ‘lost’ destination
The distance from where you exit U.S. Hwy. 101 at Fernbridge to where you arrive at Cape Mendocino is about 22 miles. Twenty-two miles of jaw-droppingly gorgeous vistas, free ranging black-and-white cows, and hairpin turns that descend steeply into valleys and just as sharply back out. You’ll see Bear River, red-tailed hawks, and the occasional intrepid bicyclist. Eventually – the drive takes about an hour – you’ll find yourself on a slightly alarmingly angled road, having traversed “the Wildcat” to reach what’s reputed to be the westernmost point in the continental U.S. Off the tip of Cape Mendocino is Sugarloaf Island, and just south of that dramatic seastack is Steamboat Rock – you can’t mistake it’s ship shape for anything else.
Both Sugarloaf and Steamboat are “special closures,” a California Department of Fish & Wildlife designation for areas deemed extremely important for seabirds and marine mammals. In between lies the South Cape Mendocino State Marine Reserve (SMR), a nine-square-mile marine protected area (MPA), part of the North Coast’s network of 20 MPAs that cover about 13 percent of the region’s state waters. The offshore habitats, both above and below the surface, are crucial breeding grounds for cormorants, black oystercatchers, tufted puffins, and other bird species who make their homes in and around the ocean. The area also provides feeding opportunities for marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and whales – in addition to the oft-seen grey whales, there can sometimes be orcas, sperm whales, and even blue whales seen from shore.
There’s a pullout at the south end of the MPA where you can park and access the beach. The area’s rocky shores offer exceptional tide pooling – and note how the sand’s color is a result of offshore tectonic rock and greywacke, a dark sandstone. This part of the coast is often windy – watch for windsurfers catching the world-class waves – and bringing sturdy kites is encouraged.
This is the beginning of California’s Lost Coast, and the only part where a road runs alongside the beach, affording visitors the sense of being removed from the world (not much cell service in these parts!) while still being a short enough drive to enable a day trip.
Further south the road turns inland, to Petrolia and the mouth of the Mattole River, gateway to the King Range National Conservation area. If you venture into town – named for being the first place in California where oil was discovered – stop into The Yellow Rose Bar & Grill, 28763 Mattole Road, (707) 629-3273, for a full service restaurant and bar experience. You can also find several AirBnB options in the area if you feel like extending your getaway.
Alternately, if after a day of beachcombing you find yourself heading back over the hills, treat yourself to dinner back in Ferndale at Curley’s Full Circle, 460 Main St., (707) 786-9696.
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