King Range National Conservation Area: Or California’s best kept secret

I don’t know how to say this politely.  So, I’ll say it as least impolitely as I can:

I do not care for California.  It is the least dog friendly state I’ve been to on this trip, or any trip.  It is the state with the most parks that include rules to the effect of “no having fun.”

But it has at least 4 things I do like:

1) The Mojave Desert National Preserve

2) Really big trees

3) Highway 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, aka driving nirvana

4) King Range National Conservation Area.

And it is the last two points that this post is dedicated to.

Third thing first, if you are ever tasked with driving through California along its North/South axis, take Highway 1, or if you are starting from the tippy top bit, it’ll start as Highway 101, but seek out Highway 1.  This is the most sinuous winding stretch of road I’ve ever seen.  And the views of the Pacific Ocean are an incredible companion.  By the way, if you see a rock that looks like a whale be sure to pull over and examine it more carefully.  Because there totally might be whales next to that rock.  Or at least there were for us.

So – that particular piece of advice out of the way it is time to move onto King Range, or the place that no one has heard of.  Or at least the 6 or 7 Californians I talked to had never heard of it.  To one particular fellow’s credit – he had heard of it.  He just didn’t know what it was, or where it was.  He did however know how to get around a stretch of road that was closed that my directions wanted me to head down, and for that I am deeply grateful.

King Range is a mountain range along what is known as the Lost Coast of California.  Why is it lost?  Well, Highway 1 follows the coast, and whoever designed it wasn’t afraid of building roads along, under, on, or in any particular relation to cliff or mountain sides.  This guy was told “Yea, build it along the coast,” and he took the request literally.  But then he got to King Range.  And he probably would have tried to make it work – but some bean counter came along, looked at what he had done so far, tallied what it had cost and said “Nevermind!  Just go around the bloody mountains!”

To this intrepid designers credit, Highway 1 does go ‘around’ the mountains, in and out and up and down and all around them as it cuts eastward from the coast.  If you or your loved ones get motion sickness – consider this your warning.  One more warning: sometimes the roads edge, the fog line, and a steep drop-off are the same thing.  Stay in your lane or you may be playing with the trees.

But the stretch of coastline that Hwy 1 never made it to didn’t remain completely lost.  King Range Conservation Area made it unlost in 1970.  They even built roads through it!


The roads include really neat features: like creeks.

If you are planning on driving in King Range know that that 12 miles means “45 minutes.”

But it is worth it for how tremendously isolated the entire place feels.

We arrived during California’s spring break and had the entire campsite (all 9 sites or so) to ourselves.  The particular site we stayed at was called Tolkan.  Perhaps they meant Tolkien, because it looks like the kind of place you’d expect to find the Fae.


Being a National Conservation Area rather than a park or a preserve or a forest, or wildlife refuge, or one of the myriad of other designations national lands get means a couple of things.

The first thing is that it is very inexpensive camping.  $8 a night for the same level of amenities that California State Parks would happily charge $35 a night.

Thirty five dollars in amenities might sound like a lot for those you used to camping outside of the Great State of California.  Are there hot tubs perhaps?  Or maybe a concierge standing by to get anything you may need?

Well.  Not as such.

But there are vault-toilets!  And toilet paper!  And…..surely there is something else…  Ah!  Yes!  Potable water!

For $8 I consider this a bargain.  California State Parks – you need to step up your game.

Being a Conservation Area has another perk: you can collect dead and downed wood for use as firewood! (although this may be a by location kind of thing: check your local rules and regulations!)

I may sound excited about this – because I am.  In Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and California I have not encountered a park where collection of any firewood is permitted.  In Louisiana and Mississippi it was allowed but the parks had been stripped clear of any stick thicker than your little finger.  Alabama was the only other place where collection of downed n’ dead was permitted and such wood was available to be found.

Collecting firewood may sound like a chore, but it is really one of my favorite parts of camping.  For those of you new to it: logs on the ground tend to be wet and will burn badly.  Logs that have fallen but are resting in such a way that they are not touching the ground tend to be better bets.  Oh, and watch for snails on the underside of logs.


One possible downside of Conservation Area’s is that you are only permitted to stay inside of one for 14 days a year.  That works out to be about 12 days more than I needed, but be aware of that limitation.

One other downside that is specific to King Range is that if you are dry camping and powering your rig via solar – don’t expect much light. Or, more specifically, much light powerful enough to run photovoltaic cells.

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Between the 100+ foot (30m) trees and fog and the clouds you might be out of luck.  We managed .14 kilowatts (enough power to run a 70 watt lightbulb for 2 hours) over the course of two days.  This was enough for us, but your wattage may vary.

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