Tolowa Dunes State Park is a sandy, grassy wonderland stretching from Point St. George to where the Smith River opens wide on its final push to the sea. Beautiful and desolate. Mapped and yet mysterious.
When my wife, Laura, and I decided to explore its northern edge on a recent Sunday afternoon, we knew we were taking on a couple of extra challenges: fog throughout, and high tide at the edges. Still, we thought we’d make it all the way to the river’s mouth. What we didn’t take into account was the exhaustion induced by traipsing through deep sand while not completely sure where we were.
We’d never before driven all the way out Lower Lake Road into Del Norte’s dairy country. Cows come first here, and they’re not all behind fences. After a forced left turn onto Pala Road, we parked at the trailhead and set out across Yontocket Slough, the hallowed ground of the cemetery soon rising to our left.
We turned right onto what’s called the River Trail on the map you can find at www.tolowacoastaltrails.org. “River 0.4 mi, Ocean 1.2 mi,” read the sign. Piece of cake, right?
Within five minutes, the two-track trail turned sandy. At first, a pleasant development to be expected on the way to the beach. Eventually, arduous, although there were intermittent stretches of firm ground for a while.
After another right turn at a sign promising still shorter distances to the river and ocean, the trail wound through wooded and open areas. Trees draped in Spanish moss. Colorful mushrooms. A deer just off the path that froze for a photograph before springing away.
The trail thinned in tall grass before opening to a seemingly unending expanse of sand. We arrived at two posts that offered no direction and took a right. Within two minutes we reached the edge of a huge body of fog-shrouded water that we momentarily mistook for the ocean. Just one of Tolowa’s tricks. Actually it was the elbow of the Smith as it turned north, wide enough to do a good impression of the Columbia.
Realizing we’d taken one more right turn than we’d intended, we retraced our steps and headed in a direction we took for west and were rewarded with the sudden sound of the sea as we crested a sandy hill. It would be another half-hour before we actually saw the Pacific.
There are two north-south routes to choose from on the seaward side of Tolowa Dunes. The westernmost is right on the beach. The other is just east of the signature grassy bluff, and this inland path goes for about 3 1/2 miles starting at Kellogg Road, according to the map. We turned right and caught its final half-mile, much of it just above the now north-flowing river. We were seeing plenty of the Smith but none of the ocean despite the beachy underfooting.
Trudging through deep sand in dense fog sapped our energy, and by the time we cut over to the ocean, we were no longer game for walking the additional 1 ¾ miles north to the mouth. Instead we picnicked on a log before heading south on the beach, happy to be on firmer sand and hoping we’d find an inland passage back to Yontocket.
No matter how remote the beach, there always seem to be tire tracks on the North Coast. Still, we encountered no one, just the twisted metal of a small vessel washed ashore from God knows where.
The map showed two junctions for veering back inland, but both were unmarked. We missed the first, and found the second by climbing up a small opening in the grassy bluff at a point where the sand seemed well-trodden. We were relieved to find a “No vehicles” post and a clear-cut trail away from the beach. It wasn’t civilization, but we knew where we were again. The path veered northeast and we eventually rejoined the route we’d taken on the way out.
We made it back to the Pala Road trailhead 3 1/2 foggy, sandy hours after we’d set out. Someday we’ll make it all the way to the mouth of the Smith. That day will be sunnier, the tide lower. And we’ll take a more direct route to the firmer sand of the beach. Or at least we’ll try. Sometimes, Tolowa seems to have a mind of its own.