On California’s Lost Coast, the Musical Mountaineers play for a group of unsuspecting hikers.
Wheeler Beach, in the middle of California’s Lost Coast, seems too good to be true. The black sand cove, as big as a football field, lies at the mouth of a freshwater creek. Steep bluffs bookend the beach, framing the sunset, and making it virtually inaccessible. The only way to get there is via the Lost Coast Trail, which winds 8 miles through forested hills and deep valleys. You have to work to get to Wheeler.
The rocky shoreline and jigsaw terrain is so rough that the Pacific Coast Highway abandons the coast here. Engineers concluded that building a road through the area would be too difficult and costly, and rerouted the highway inland. But a loss for Sunday drivers is a win for backpackers. The southern portion of the Lost Coast, in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, offers a 20-mile stretch of wilderness with an unparalleled combination of private beaches, towering redwood groves, and bluff-top views over the Pacific. Wheeler Beach lies near the middle of this section, about as remote as it gets.
It’s not the kind of place you expect to see someone packing in a keyboard. Or a violin. Which makes it the perfect location for a weekend of Merrell Magic. We arrive on a sparkling blue June weekend to surprise hikers with an impromptu backcountry concert and four-course, gourmet meal. Merrell and BACKPACKER have partnered on a new version of trail magic, and all year we’ve been surprising hikers: a night in a historic Yosemite hotel for worn-out thru-hikers, a pizza and ice cream party for trail workers, and backcountry lemonade stands on trails coast to coast. For this weekend on the Lost Coast, we’ve recruited Seattle’s Musical Mountaineers—violinist Anastasia Allison and keyboardist Rose Freeman—to play a concert for whoever we find camping at Wheeler Beach. And Kyle Mendenhall, chef at Arcana in Boulder, Colorado, will cook a meal to match.
It’s a good plan on paper, but there are two challenges. First, we have to get our mobile party to the beach. That means lugging instruments and food over and under downed trees, up steep slopes, and through poison oak thickets. Second, we have to cross our fingers and hope someone is there. Even on a beautiful Saturday in June, there’s no guarantee anyone will be at Wheeler Beach. That’s what makes it so special.
Xander Groeneveld also faces a challenge this weekend. The 29-year-old organized a backpacking trip to the Lost Coast with a group of colleagues from a tech company in San Francisco, and it had snowballed into a crew of 14 people. Word spread about the adventure, and everyone wanted to join—even people who had never been backpacking. “It just kept growing,” he says.
That meant wrangling gear and supplies, organizing transportation, and getting beginners ready for one of the country’s most remote coastal hikes. Just getting to the trailhead south of Shelter Cove is an epic journey. Naturally, they arrive late and have to hike into their first camp, at Bear Harbor, after dark.
Xander isn’t fazed. The Australian transplant has become an evangelist for the outdoors, and has plenty of experience getting first-timers on the trail. “The outdoors has had a big impact on my life,” he says. “When you get out in nature, it’s really pure. You see things with more clarity. I get a lot out of it and realized others would too.”
With a career in the tech field, Xander says he encounters a lot of people who’ve never been out of the city. “I see people who could gain a lot and really connect with each other in a deeper way,” he says. “I’ve become pretty passionate about getting other people out.”
He’s also passionate about surfing, and carries a board all the way to Wheeler Beach, negotiating the same fallen trees Rose has to climb over and under with her keyboard. And everyone, regardless of experience, falls under the spell of the Lost Coast Trail. “I love the variation in terrain,” says Cathy Chen, one of Xander’s coworkers. “In a blink of an eye, we go from a lush redwood forest to a sandy cove. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never stood inside a forest and been able to feel the sea breeze.”
As we descend the final switchbacks through redwoods, the Merrell Magic team is getting anxious. Will we find anyone at the beach? We’ve only passed one other hiker on the trail—a woman going in the opposite direction.
The final few hundred yards follow Jackass Creek to the beach, and we pick up the pace. We’re practically jogging when we run into Xander and his crew. They’re at a campsite in the middle of a field overlooking the beach, tossing a Frisbee around. Looks like our party will not go unattended. Whew!
We say hi, like backpackers do, and then pause. Time to pull out invitations to the Lost Coast Gala. “We hope you like music,” says BACKPACKER Editor-in-Chief Dennis Lewon, handing out the invites. “We’ve never been here before, and we’ll never be here again, so tonight we’re throwing a little party.”
They laugh nervously. Is this real? The invitations list the menu, and it’s easy to see skepticism when they get to the smoked trout and steak. As Vincent Woo, one of the San Francisco group, later said, “To be honest, I was a bit unsure at first because it was beyond my comprehension. But carrying a piano keyboard on this hike was far too outlandish to be anything else.”
“It’s real,” says Lewon. “Just come to our campsite at 6:30.”
We retreat to a secluded site in the redwoods, leaving the San Francisco crew to enjoy the beach while we prepare for the evening. Kyle, the chef, starts chopping, mixing, and grilling. Anastasia and Rose set up their instruments under a massive redwood.
The sun starts dipping toward the sea, casting a warm glow through the trees, and our “guests” arrive. Anastasia and Rose play “Ashokan Farewell,” and the grove serves like a natural cathedral. “Amazing Grace” and a couple of Bach pieces follow. It’s their first concert in redwoods—they got started playing in the mountains, near their Seattle home—and they like the effect. “We’ve never announced where we’re going to play, it’s always a surprise,” says Anastasia. “So this is perfect for us. We love the serendipity of connecting people and music and nature. It’s a powerful combination.”
For the rest of the evening, that powerful combination does its magic. Over a dessert dubbed Eton Mess—a meringue/strawberry preserves/pastry cream dish—we talk about adventures past and future, and about surprises.
“I’ve never heard of trail magic before,” says Zain Shah, one of the coworkers. “Now I’ll tell everyone! It’s such an incredible surprise—it makes an already fun experience with people I care about even better. It brings us closer together.”
Before heading back to the beach to watch the stars come out, Xander says he’ll be happy to take his colleagues out on the trail again, but he has a warning for the first-time backpackers: “This doesn’t happen on every trip.”