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Elk's domain - Sinkyone Wilderness is rugged, remote, but only 5 hours from San Francisco and not hard to get around in.

Elk's domain

With a beauty both delicate and wild, like that of an Oriental landscape painting, Sinkyone rises from the Pacific, part of a ruggedly unspoiled stretch of northern California known as the Lost Coast. Here seasonal fog fingers through stream-cleft ravines; thick with redwoods and fir, madrones, tanbark oak, and rangy pepper-woods, the canyons drop precipitously from high cliffs down to the sea; wildlife abounds. This is where State 1 suddenly veers inland, unable to engineer its way through the formidable coastal terrain.

Oddly, access to this wild treasure is not really difficult--at least, not in dry weather. Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is only about five hours' drive from San Francisco.

Any time of year, you can get into the park from the south, at Usal Beach, via paved Mendocino County Road 431 (the exit is 2 miles north of Rockport). But you won't be alone: Usal is popular with RV campers, and its broad shoulders buzz with off-road vehicles.

That's one reason why the park's northern approach, by a single-lane dirt road (County 435) from Whitethorn, is preferable. This is the approach that takes you to the pristine heart of Sinkyone. But unless you have a four-wheel-drive, try it only from now to this fall's rainy season.

Narrow and twisty and requiring patience and caution on the driver's part, the road nonetheless gets you to sea level. And here you can park within a few hundred feet of a number of campsites with tables, firepits, water, and composting toilets. If you like, you can even forgo a tent (otherwise necessary because of night condensation in the coastal air) and stretch out your sleeping bag on the floor of a room in an unfurnished 1880s ranch house that serves as a rudimentary visitor center.

Hike a trail cut by pioneers

Last year, the California Conservation Corps began work on a trail that will eventually run 23 miles from Orchard Creek (near Bear Harbor) to Usal Beach. For much of the summer, crews were diverted to fight forest fires elsewhere in the state, so only about 4 miles are now complete. But the CCC trail corridor is not new: it merely restores and improves a 100-year-old coastal trail originally cut from Fort Bragg to Eureka by pioneers. You can pick up this old trail, where necessary, to piece together the entire route. Or stick to improved sections, other trails, and the beaches.

Sinkyone hiking has an enchantment of its own. The trail is alive with possibility --a biological safari. Unaccustomed to intrusion, wildlife is everywhere, bolder and calmer at being viewed than you might expect. You pass through groves of coast redwoods carpeted with an understory of dense green ferns. You drop to the mouths of streams where fingerling trout wiggle their improbable way into open water, and black sand beaches set off the flashing of blue-green waves. Then your path takes a steep uphill pull, and you're on an abrupt promontory, looking off to the endless irregular line of the Lost Coast's seafront.

Here and there, at tiny ghost ports such as Wheeler (at the mouth of Jackass Creek), you come upon bleached timbers left from the days of the 19th-century "dogholes,' when practically every cove north of Fort Ross was used for shipping timber cut from a land locked into itself. You may also see fruit trees, clumps of foxglove, or wildly vining old fuchsia plants--evidence of attempts, long since abandoned, at domestication.

Timber cutting is a sad theme in Sinkyone's tale. For hundreds of years, the Sinkyone Indians came here in summer to fish, hunt, and harvest berries and seeds. But within a decade after the appearance of Europeans, who came to the area after more accessible forest had been logged, the tribe had all but disappeared.

At present, controversy centers on an intact stand of old-growth redwoods at the head of Jackass Creek called the Sally Bell Grove. Named for the last Sinkyone Indian and classified as an Indian archeological site, it is owned by Georgia Pacific, which has filed a timber harvest plan, now the subject of litigation. Governor Deukmejian vetoed legislation that would have enabled the state to acquire the land. Unless funds can be raised to purchase the acreage and donate it to the park, this old-growth habitat may be lost. For information, write to the Environmental Protection Information Center (PEIC), Box 397, Garberville 95440, or the Sinkyone Council, Box 301, Whitethorn 95489.

The park's primitive campsites ($3 a night) are available on a first-come basis. For a map showing trails and site locations, write to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, care of Eel River District, Box 100, Weott, Calif. 95571.

To reach Sinkyone from the north, take Briceland-Whitethorn Road from Redway (just west of U.S. 101 at Garbeville) 22 miles to Four Corners. Pick up County Road 435 here (it heads southwest and is marked "Steep Grade') and follow it 3.6 miles to the visitor center at Needle Rock. A few words of caution: Be sure you have a full tank of gas when you start out. Bring firewood (or buy it at the visitor center at Needle Rock). Don't climb out on cliffs away from the trail--they're unstable and fracture easily.

If you're walking any distance, you'll find the appropriate USGS topo maps useful, since the park's own maps don't show elevation. We prefer spring hiking to fall because of hunting in adjacent Georgia-Pacific-owned land after September 22; but if you go in fall, stay well away from elk and deer, which are in rut and more aggressive then.

Photo: Watchful but unperturbed, Roosevelt elk let visitor approach through grassy coastal terrace to admire calves. Radio collars help track their migration patterns

Photo: Steep and skinny, northern access road into park starts about 20 miles from Garberville, which is 220 miles north of San Francisco, 70 miles south of Eureka

Photo: Rugged Anderson Cliff plunges into sea behind daypack picnickers on beach near mouth of Jackass Creek

Photo: Great, still redwoods, some of them old-growth, frame trail running north-south through coastal canyons

Photo: Materializing, dream-like, in a wisp of fog, antlered bucks step carefully through leafy wood alongside trail

Photo: Looking down the road, horse pastured at isolated Needle Rock farmhouse waits for something to happen

Photo: Unspoiled beaches invite wandering. But check a tide table so you don't get backed against the steep cliffs

Photo: Chest-high ferns overgrow some sections where trail is unimproved. But look for markers, and you'll find your way
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, California
Date:May 1, 1986
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