Backpacking the rugged Lost Coast in California

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The Lost Coast is a roughly  25 mile stretch  of coastline in the King Range National Conservation Area just south of Eureka, California. The name Lost Coast comes from the fact that this section was too steep and rugged for the Pacific Coast Highway to go through. So the PCH goes inland for about 20 miles around this abandoned coastline, which makes it an excellent trek for a long weekend.

There are two official portions of the Lost Coast Trail, North and South. Hikers are mainly interested in the northern trail and when someone mentions the “Lost Coast Trail,” they usually are referring to the northern section. This trail runs 24.6 miles (39.6 km) between Mattole and Black Sands Beach near Shelter Cove. The southern Lost Coast Trail continues further into Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, the coast being mostly inaccessible and the trail mostly goes inland. This trip report and photo album covers the Northern Trail. 

The nicest time of year to hike the Lost Coast Trail is usually from late May to early October. We did our trip over Memorial day weekend and had perfect weather. Morning fog with clear skies in the afternoon, comfortable temperatures throughout the day, and nice cool nights.

The Lost Coast trail is mostly flat as you are hiking on the beach, but that presents its own challenges. Hiking on pebbled or sand beaches, bouldering over big rocks and following the tide means you should always be aware of your surroundings.
The tide is the biggest obstacle in the hike, because it can completely block your path or worse, so you definitely should plan your hike according to the tide chart. There are few sections on this hike that are completely impassable at high tide. About 9.5 miles of the 25 mile route north of Shelter Cove is inaccessible at high tide. In general, the lower the tide gets, the easier passage will be.

 

How to plan your hike:

1. First you will need to get the permits. Like many isolated treks, they have a quota (30 visitors per year) and you will have to book your permit ahead of time at www.recreation.gov

2. Book the Lost Coast Shuttle. This will allow you to leave your car at end of the trail – Black Sand Beach. You will get picked up from the parking lot and taken all the way north to the start point – Mattole Beach. The one way shuttle cost about $75 per person.

Click here: https://lostcoastadventures.com/

3. Bear canisters are required in Kings Range area. We  didn’t see any bears but they do occasionally show up along the Lost Coast Trail. Keep your food and scented items in the canister at all time. Black bears are active in this area. Rangers will check not only the permit itself but also the proper storage of your food items.

4. You will never run out of water. There are plenty of creeks on the trail where you can filter water for yourself.

5. Three sections of the Lost Coast Trail are impassable at high tide: Punta Gorda, Sea Lion Gulch to Randall Creek, and Miller Flat to Gitchell Creek. Bring a tide chart and detailed trail map to plan your journey. There are two low and high tides every 24 hours. Do not attempt to cross an impassable zone until the tide begins to recede. Low tide means the water will begin to rise again. Never turn your back to the waves.

6.  Everybody hikes from North to the South, that is the fact. The winds will be in your backs which makes it easier on the trail. You will need to start at Mattole Beach and head to Shelter Cove (Black Sand Beach).

 

Ready to hit the trail?

Once you get your permit and start your backpacking trip, you can pick any site to pitch your tent. The BLM does not restrict camping to any specific area. They do encourage backpackers to stay in obvious existing campsites to lessen human impact. Most of the major campsites on the Lost Coast Trail are tucked back from the beach in narrow valleys carved by streams that empty into the sea. Camping off the beach offers some shelter from the wind. The main camps are at Cooskie Creek, Randall Creek, Spanish Creek, Kinsey Creek, Big Creek, Big Flat, Shipman Creek, Buck Creek, Gitchell Creek, and Horse Mountain Creek. If you’re lucky and don’t mind a bit of wind, you can find some great spots alongside the beach for a spectacular sunset.

The Lost Coast Trail begins near the mouth of the Mattole River at Mattole Beach. There are parking lots, a car campground, potable water and pit toilets here. The trail embarks from the parking lot and leads into the dunes along the upper beach.

Once we started on our hike, we decided to leave Mattole Beach behind and lose ourselves in the serenity and silence among the waves. Not long after our hike started, we reached the first point of interested on the trail, Punta Gorda Lighthouse. We had lunch and watched the seals from the lighthouse. From there its only few miles towards the Sea Lion Gulch where we decided to camp. We were the only ones there and relaxed by the fire. The views from our campsite were breathtaking.

 

Our second day started early as we had several sections that needed to be crossed before the tide came in that day. Our plan was to hike about 15 miles at moderate pace all the way to Miller Flats. The hike took us above the beach and onto the bluffs before we descended back to the beach. One of the strangest (and smelly) encounters I’ve ever had occurred as the trail led us to a decomposing whale on the beach! It was a sad and gruesome sight, made even more so when we realized the whale was missing it’s head! For whatever reason, Ethan looked around and found the missing head wrapped in a tarp! Before things got even more weird, we left zombie whale and continued our adventure south. The weather was pretty cool and nice in the morning, but towards the end of our hiking day, it got sunny and very hot. We pitched our tent on the beach and enjoyed the moment. There were a couple other groups camping a bit further away on the beach but we were isolated in our little cove and so we felt like the entire beach was ours completely.

 

Our third and final day we got up early and started hiking on the beach towards Shelter Cove. This is a very flat section and goes on for about 10 miles. The tide was very low in the morning and we made it back to our car by midday.

The views are breathtaking all along the trail and we loved our trip. There was no outside interference, no cars, no cells phones, no people. For 3 days it was just the two of us, our tent, and the ocean.

And a huge, headless, decomposing whale. 

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