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Meandering along California's "lost coast." (Mattole Road, California)

Where there's coast in California, there's usually highway. One of the few places where they part ways is south of Eureka, in the rugged area known as the Lost Coast. Daunted by the steep terrain here, U.S. 101 surrenders its coast-hugging route and turns inland.

A few inconspicuous county roads do allow back-roads adventurers access to a region that seems to have been bypassed by modernity as well as by more efficient thoroughfares. The Victorian village of Ferndale and the Rockefeller Forest's majestic redwood groves are the gateways to Mattole Road, a meandering 73-mile route that's an excellent detour for unhurried travelers on U.S. 101.

Butterfat palaces, buttermilk creams

From the north, take the Ferndale exit off U.S. 101 (14 miles south of Eureka) and cross the Eel River on Fernbridge, one of the world's longest reinforced-concrete bridges when completed in 1911. Comprising seven 180-foot spans, the graceful structure has a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Once across it, you pass grazing cows as you approach the town whose many dairies once earned it the nickname "Cream City."

Soon, Ferndale's ornate and impeccably preserved "butterfat palaces" (Victorianera homes built by well-to-do dairymen) come into view. If you have time, park and take a stroll down Main Street. Due in part to a strong contingent of resident artists and craftsmen, Ferndale has more interesting shops and galleries than you'd expect to find in an off-the-beaten-track town with a population of less than 2,000.

Some recommendations: Look for veteran candymaker Louise Goff hand-dipping bonbons in the window of Sweetness & Light (554 Main). Buttermilk creams are the traditional favorite, but try the raspberry-filled chocolates, too. At The Blacksmith Shop (455), blacksmith Joe Koches and potter Margy Emerson ply their trades in full view of shoppers. Down an alley in the same block, Stan Bennett turns wire and sheet metal into whimsically complex kinetic sculptures. The work of other local artisans is on display at two locations: Candy Stick Gallery (361) and The Eifert Gallery (344). In the latter, be sure to look up at the nature motifs painted on the ceiling. Curiosities such as old salves and liniments confront browsers at every turn in Golden Gait Mercantile (421), which also boasts an outstanding selection of hats. And once you've worked up an appetite, stop at the Ferndale Meat Co. (376) for picnic supplies and superlative beef jerky. A free guide, available in most shops, identifies historic buildings; they run the gamut of styles popular in the latter half of the 19th century, from carpenter Gothic to Queen Anne. Three of the finer examples now accommodate overnight visitors as bed and breakfasts: Ferndale Inn, (707) 7864307; The Gingerbread Mansion, 786-4000; and Shaw House Inn, 786-9958. Lonely coastline and a remote river From Ferndale, turn right off Main Street onto Ocean Avenue, then immediately left at the big Capetown/Petrolia sign. Now you begin to climb on the winding road locals call "the Wildcat." Forest and open range alternate as you drive along a ridgetop affording excellent views.

The road eventually descends to cross the Bear River at Capetown (more a collection of ranch buildings than a town). It ascends another ridge before dropping to hug the ocean for about 5 miles south of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in the contiguous United States. Barbed wire limits access to a vast black sand beach and grassy dunes; look for wooden arches marking openings (one in about the middle of the beach stretch, another at the south end).

Leaving the ocean, the road winds its way up to the tiny town of Petrolia, so named because the first oil well in California was drilled nearby, in 1865. Just south of town, you cross the Mattole River; turn right here on Lighthouse Road to follow the river 5 miles to its mouth, which marks the northern boundary of King Range National Conservation Area. From here you can hike 3 miles south along the beach to an abandoned lighthouse at Punta Gorda.

A spawning ground for steelhead and salmon, the Mattole offers excellent fishing after late-fall rains wash away the sandbar that blocks its mouth in summer. To ask about current conditions, call the Petrolia Store at 629-3455.

Back on Mattole Road, you'll soon come to a glorious outlook above the deep valley. Riverside camping ($5 per site) and picnicking are available just ahead at A.W. Way County Park. Or, a bit farther upstream, you can rent a housekeeping cabin for $35 a night at Mattole River Resort (629-3445).

The hamlet of Honeydew sits at the crossroads of Mattoleand Wilder Ridge roads; Wilder Ridge heads south. In the pleasingly funky general store, you'll find a gooey, brownie-like, locally made dessert bar called the "Honeydew Hummer."

Into the forest primeval

Turn left at the junction just past the Honeydew store, crossing the Mattole River on a one-lane, wood-bed bridge. The road immediately begins to snake upward on switchbacks above the valley. Reaching the summit and the boundary of Humboldt Redwoods State Park at 2,744foot Panther Gap, it descends into the Bull Creek watershed.

Just before meeting U.S. 101, the road passes through the magnificent redwoods of Rockefeller Forest. For a more intimate look at these giants, park at either Big Trees or Bull Creek Flats. Giant Tree and Flatiron Tree are among Big Trees' awe-inspiring specimens. Bull Creek Flats has a 1/2-mile self-guided trail.

The main campground along Bull Creek closes in late September, but two hike-in camping areas are open year-round ($6 per night). Register at the park office, at Burlington Campground (also open all year), 4 miles south of Bull Creek Flats Road on Avenue of the Giants.
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Date:Oct 1, 1988
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