PETROLIA, Calif. — California has a long list of rough roads, but one of the more scenic pothole-filled roads is Mattole Road in Humboldt County.
Mattole Road is located in what’s known as the Lost Coast, a portion of California so rugged and rough that Highway 1 could not be built here.
Mattole Road spans 64 plus miles between Ferndale and the town of Weott on Highway 101 with intermittent patches of pavement. It’s also steep, winding and often narrow, but the many who drive Mattole Road will agree the views are well worth the suspension and tire alignment repairs you may need afterwards.
Despite its remoteness, people do live along Mattole Road and the Lost Coast. People like amateur mycologist Crater Ellis, who was named after his favorite mushroom the Urnula Craterium.
“Right now, I am dogless, wifeless, boatless, and I could be homeless, but I chose to live anywhere in the whole world and this is where I want to be, said Ellis.
Crater Ellis lives in Petrolia, a small town with a population of 300 to 1,000 people. No one seems to know the exact number and census data is about as good as the cell phone reception out here.
“There’s no service. I don’t even have a cell phone,” Ellis said.
Lucky for Ellis, Petrolia does have a pay phone. It also has a gas station, a post office, store, a school, a church, a fire department and a historic landmark which explains the origin of Petrolia’s name.
“Home of California’s first drilled oil wells,” Ellis said.
In 1865, Petrolia was the site of California's first drilled oil well. It supplied crude petroleum to San Francisco, until it became too expensive to transport.
These days, there’s only one thing the Lost Coast is in high supply of.
“We have the best weed. Humboldt County weed,” Cannabis Grower Teresa Davey said.
Drive an hour south of Petrolia and you will find yourself in Honeydew. If you’re lucky, Davey might offer you a beer or challenge you to a game of horseshoes.
Honeydew also has a store, a post office and a school, which is oddly surrounded by a ridiculous amount of industrial marijuana greenhouses.
Honeydew and Petrolia are at the most western edge of the Emerald Triangle, an area ripe for growing marijuana. Davey says when California legalized cannabis, industrial growers invaded the area because of its moist, weed-friendly climate.
“We can get upwards of 200 inches of rain a year up here,” Davey said.
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Davey is a small-time legal grower and says the industrial grows have created an ugly scab to the natural beauty of the area. And to make matters worse, road maintenance hasn’t improved.
“I don’t know why roads are so bad" Davey said. "We are being taxed like you wouldn’t believe. Nobody knows where the money goes.”
Whether you like it or not, drivers will experience rough roads and marijuana on Mattole Road. For the most part, the Lost Coast is a safe and scenic place to visit, but it’s a rugged part of California, both the landscape and the people.
In an effort to get some more insight into Mattole Road, ABC10 asked Humboldt County Public Works Director Thomas Mattson a few questions about the history and road maintenance on the Lost Coast.
Q: Who currently maintains Mattole Road and did the Caltrans ever maintain it?
A: The road is maintained by the Humboldt County Department of Public Works. Caltrans never maintained it. The road started as a stagecoach road in the late 1800s. In many areas, the road has been realigned. In other areas, the original alignment remains intact.
Q: What are some of the reoccurring struggles maintenance crews have with Mattole Road?
A: The geology in the area is prone to landslides which, often affect the road. The geology is uplifted seafloor and one of the layers is a blue clay lens. This blue clay becomes very sticky and impervious to water in the winter. As rain percolates into the ground, it migrates downward to the blue clay lens. As the ground above becomes saturated, it can cause a slide.
As mentioned above, the road originally was a stagecoach road. So the road never had a sub grade and base materials (foundation) like a modern road does. Improvements were made over the existing stagecoach path. Most of the road has a chip seal surface which has been applied numerous times. Portions of the road have an actual paved surface.
An increase of traffic (particularly heavy trucks) plays a strong role in shortening the lifespan of the chipseal.
As with many local agencies, the lack of appropriate funding to maintain our road systems is always a struggle – see our statewide funding report here - Executive Summary | Save California Streets
Q: About how much does it cost to maintain Mattole Road every year?
A: Since 2012, the county of Humboldt has invested $5.5 million in basic maintenance and $12.3 million in capital projects, mainly storm damage repairs funded by the federal government.
Q: Do you have an estimate on how many residents and tourists use it every year?
A: The traffic varies based on where on the road we take counts, but is in the 500-vehicle-per-day range.
Q: About what percentage of Mattole Road is paved?
A: A small portion of the road is paved. The rest of the road is a chip seal road. To the untrained eye, it is hard to discern a paved road from a chip seal road.
Other portions of the road have had the pavement or chip seal removed due to constant deformation of the road due to poor soil conditions that allow the ground to “pump." It is much more efficient and cost effective to periodically grade the road than to constantly try to keep the pavement “smooth."
Q: Do you have any tips or advice for tourists traveling on Mattole Road?
A: Mattole Road is a scenic rural road in a remote, isolated area of the Northwest coast of California. Cellular service is spotty, and travelers should be prepared to be self-sufficient.
There are two gas stations along the road, one in Honeydew and one in Petrolia. These gas stations have general stores attached to them and have limited hours.
There are some high peaks on the road that can get snow, so carrying chains is a must when travelling anywhere in the county during the winter. The road is narrow, windy and needs to be driven slowly. Take your time and enjoy the scenery.
In addition, several ranches along the road do not have fences. So a driver can come around a corner and come face to face with a cow. Where Mattole Road parallels the beach, it is important to note that there is private property in many locations between the road and the Pacific Ocean. Be respectful of private property and do not trespass to gain access to the ocean. Park off the road so that you don’t block traffic.
There are two special events that occur every year that restrict vehicular traffic on the road: the Avenue of the Giants marathon and the Tour of the Unknown Coast. These are two different ways for visitors to experience Mattole Road on foot or on bicycle.
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