Oh Shit! An Elk Gored my Tent!


Sometimes we go to nature, sometimes nature comes to us. This week I bring you a guest post by Mariel Reed about her recent adventure in Northern California.

“The Lost Coast”– a wild, and sometimes dangerous, 50+ mile stretch of California coastline– lives up to its name. The landscape feels like a land before time. In just 24 hours, two friends and I (Mariel) faced a stubborn mountain lion, intense winds and rain, and rowdy Roosevelt Elk. The beauty and wilderness of the Lost Coast took our breath away (and, um, our tent). But we escaped with our lives, and our thirst for adventure intact. Here’s the full story– and why you should go.

Let’s Get Lost

Our group had been longing for adventure. The email thread “Are you ready for the country?” had been bouncing around in our inboxes for a few weeks. Finally, we settled on a destination: California’s Lost Coast. We scoured Internet blogs and pinged friends for pointers. We lamented that we only had 3 days– with an extra day or two, we might have aimed to accomplish a 24 mile hike through the wooded southern section and exposed coastline of the north. Our research revealed that sticking to the south might be best– no need to worry about the timing of tides or too much sun exposure.

Soon we were en route to Sinkyone State Park. The plan was an out-and-back from Needle Rock to Wheeler camp (~7 miles) while using Wheeler as a basecamp for day-hikes.

Map from Sinkyone Wilderness Brochure showing Needle Rock (top), Bear Harbor (center) and Wheeler Camp (bottom).

Day 1: You Shall Not Pass

From San Francisco to The Lost Coast took us almost a whole day. We left around 8am from the city; stopped for lunch in Mendocino (great sandwiches at The Mendocino Market), and took Highway 1 for most of the way. It was scenic, but slow.

We rolled into Needle Rock visitor center after a jittery 3 mile descent along a steep dirt road around 6pm. There, we met Paul (the volunteer at Needle Rock), who advised us to head to the Bear Harbor camp, which was only 3 miles away, instead of Wheeler, which was 7. The sun was setting and the temperature was dropping, so we strapped on our packs, snapped a quick selfie, and set off for Bear Harbor camp.

Shaun, Preston, and Mariel ( author), at Needle Rock about to get started on the hike.

We followed an old fire-road. On our right was a cliff, with beautiful views of the ocean; on our left was a dense forest. Our spirits were high. We were talking and even singing a little. It had been about twenty minutes.

All the sudden, a mountain lion pounced from the right cliffside onto the middle of the trail. It was just about 6 feet in front of us. We froze. Our education thus far had definitely not prepared us for this moment. We had read about bears, and seen some signs about elk– but what do you do when you encounter a mountain lion? We backed away slowly, trying to make some noise and stay big. It just sat there on the trail, staring at us.

We did the “slow back away” until we were out of sight. Then, we regrouped. What did we want to do? Should we just turn around? Should we forge ahead? What would we do if we were attached? Who would walk on the right?

After about 10 minutes of deliberation, we decided to wait another 10 minutes and try again. Surely, the mountain lion would have moved along, and we could pass. We would make noise and try to make ourselves as large as possible.

It was time to try again. We walked forward slowly, singing, but our voices were a little shaky. My heart was pounding. This was exciting, but scary. We were approaching the spot where we saw the lion… and then


It jumped out again, in almost the exact same place, just a few feet ahead of us. Again– we raised our hands, started making more noise, and backed away– slowly, but not that slowly. This was one determined cat. It just sat there, looking at us.

It was clear we had to abandon our quest to Bear Harbor. We retraced our steps, constantly looking back over our shoulders, until we reached Needle Harbor. We related our tale to Paul at the Visitor’s Center, who was really impressed. “People hike all their lives without seeing a mountain lion– and you saw one twice!” We were just happy to be unscathed. We were also a little nervous, since the sun was setting and it was also starting to rain.


Paul advised us to camp closer to home– there was a bluff just a quarter mile away where we could pitch a tent and try again for Wheeler in the morning. We hurried off in the dark and set up camp in the pouring rain. Drenched, but grateful, we passed out early.

Day 2: Attack of the Elk

We woke up around 7am. The rain had stopped. Preston and I got out of the tent. Our campsite was shrouded in a gentle mist and surrounded by a herd of Roosevelt elk.


We watched them for a while as they moved along the bluff. Shaun then got out of the tent, leaving it empty. Shortly afterwards we noticed two bucks fighting, antlers down and engaged to the right of the tent. “This place is so magical,” I remember thinking.

The bucks were close. We were about 20 feet away, watching. Standing frozen as they approached our tent. One of them moved closer and then…

It started digging its antlers into the tent. It proceeded to shred the tent with its antlers, each movement of its head ripping through the fabric. Preston caught the act of destruction on video (excuse the swearing). The buck was pushing its antlers through the tent; at one point, the tent got stuck on the antlers, and the buck seemed to panic; it started charging. At that point, we did the slow back-away for a third time in less than 14 hours– abandoning our camp and heading back to Needle Rock.


At Needle Rock, we related the story to Paul, who again expressed the rarity of the encounter. “You guys are just magnets for animals doing crazy stuff, aren’t you?”

We ate a few power bars out of the car, waited a half hour, and then retraced our step to recover any gear that hadn’t been ravaged. We found the tent– and most of our gear inside– down the bluff about 300 meters. The herd had moved on. The only gear casualty had been Preston’s tent. We mourned the loss, since the tent had kept us dry the night before, gathered our things, and packed the car.

For the rest of the day, we enjoyed a very boring– but very beautiful– trip to Bear Harbor. The mist cleared, and we could see incredible stretches of coastline.


We were definitely a little shocked from the events– but also very grateful that the only damage sustained was to our gear. And, at least we had some good stories to relate to friends on the return.


Epilogue: Fighting Mountain Lions

After our return to civilization, Shaun looked up statistics related to mountain lion attacks. Indeed, the risk is not too high with just over a handful of attacks over the last two decades in California.

Upon telling the story, some of our friends also shared stories about seeing signs advising adventurers to fight back in case of mountain lion attack.


Luckily we only had to use step one and two. I think we would’ve fought, but I’m glad we didn’t have to.