Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail, Northern California
The Lost Coast Trail stretches a rugged section of the Northern California coastline where the redwoods meet the sea. It begins at the mouth of the Mattole River and travels south to Usal Beach. There are two sections of the trail. The north section is 25 miles and follows the beach from the Mattole trailhead to Black Sands Beach. The south section begins at Hidden Valley and travels 29 miles south atop the ocean cliffs and redwood forests. This past week, I had the opportunity to backpack the northern section with one of my closest girlfriends. What follows is a video of our trip and a written summary with some tips and learnings from our journey.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
- Permits: Required for overnight stay in the King Range Wilderness. There are 60 permits per day available in peak season and 30 available per day in the off-season. I recommend you get them well in advance here.
- Getting to the Trailhead: To make logistics of getting to the trailhead much easier, book a shuttle service. We used Lost Coast Adventure Tours and the driver, Mike, was great, providing us with tips and recommendations during the two-hour drive to the trailhead.
- Bear Canisters: Required and you can get them at any outdoors store or on Amazon. You can also rent them from most shuttle services.
- Doing Your Business: To preserve the area and prevent piles of poop, well, piling up everywhere, the BLM requests that you do you business on the beach and let the tide take it out. It can sound intimidating, but there really aren’t that many people around and you’ll be able to find some privacy. Just dig a hole 6-8 inches deep below the high tide line, do your stuff and then bury it with sand.
- Staying in the Area: If you’re planning on staying in Shelter Cove the night before or after, there are several different inns you can do a quick Google search of, or stay at the Shelter Cove RV Campground, where we did. For a place to eat and get a cold drink, head to the Gyppo Ale Mill.
BE AWARE AND ENJOY YOUR TRIP
- Tides: There are several sections of the trail that are completely impassable at high tide. Make sure to get a tide chart or print out one from NOAA here. You’ll want to plan your hike around these sections and the tide. Whatever you do, don’t think you can beat the tide. People have been swept out to sea before and that would be a major trip wrecker.
- Poison Oak: It is everywhere! Know what it looks like and be very cautious. Long pants also help.
- Ticks: These little buggers are prevalent on the trail and we ran into a hiker that had a couple. We were lucky to avoid any, but I would recommend bug spray and light colored clothing so you can easily see them before they bite you.
- Terrain: You’ll go from deep sandy beaches to overgrown bluff trails to stream crossings to navigating sections of boulders and ankle buster rocks. Be prepared for some of the most diverse terrain you have ever hiked.
- Weather: The Lost Coast is notorious for bad weather. Brian and I attempted this trail a few years ago in October and got rained out. I was lucky this time with abundant sunshine (and a sunburn to prove it), but the wind was something else.
- Wildlife: The bear canisters should give you a good idea that there are bears in the area. You should also be mindful of mountain lions, coyotes, skunks, and elephant seals. Make sure to give them the respect and space they deserve.
WHAT TO BRING
Aside from the usual backpacking items like a tent, sleeping bag, water filter, stove, pots, food, clothes, first aid kit, knife, etc., there are a few items I’d make sure are in your bag:
- Trekking poles will help you keep your balance in the rocky sections and stream crossings.
- Gore Tex hiking boots will keep your feet dry in the wet sand and creek crossings.
- Low profile boot gaiters to prevent your boots from filling up with sand.
- Tent sand stakes and tie-downs for super windy nights.
- Sunscreen because there isn’t any shade on the trail or at campsites.
- Bug repellent to hopefully keep away any ticks. I didn’t see any mosquitoes during our time on the coast.
- Poop shovel to dig a hole and bury your business on the beach.
- Bear canister so you don’t lose your food to a hungry visitor.
- Rain jacket and rain cover for your backpack because it is the coast and you never know when weather will turn.
- Map and tide chart to make sure you are avoiding impassable sections at high tide.
Most backpackers complete the 25 mile trek over 3-4 days. We had planned on 3 nights/4 days, but made really good time on the last day and decided to hike out. Below is our trip itinerary and where we camped the two nights we were out there.
Getting There: Drive from Lake Tahoe to Shelter Cove, CA
From Lake Tahoe, it is about a 7-hour drive to Shelter Cove. We left mid-morning and arrived around 6:00, with enough time to set-up our tent at the campground and relax by the fire with a few brews.
Day 1: Mattole Trailhead to Randall Creek (8.8 miles)
Our shuttle was scheduled for a 7:00 am departure from the Black Sands Beach parking lot (upper lot). There is room for approximately 30 cars here; if there isn’t any space when you arrive, you can park on a side street and walk to the parking lot. We had to be there at 6:45 to load up and begin the 2-hour drive to the trailhead. If you get the slightest bit of motion sickness, I would recommend sitting in the front because it is nothing but windy roads the entire way.
Once at the trailhead, we made a quick breakfast and then started hiking down the coast around 10:00 am.
The first part of the trail is mostly on the beach and we took our time looking for seashells and other interesting treasures washed up on shore. This section of the trail was also incredibly windy. There were several times where we were stopped dead in our tracks because the sand and pebbles pelting our legs was so painful—another great case for wearing pants.
At 12:30 we made it to the Punta Gorda lighthouse. There was a colony of elephant seals blocking our trail to the lighthouse. As cute as they are, we didn’t want to get too close. After very slowly and cautiously walking by, we made our way up the lighthouse and explored inside. This lighthouse was in operation until 1951, when modern marine navigation equipment made it obsolete. There is some amazing history you can read about it here.
After a snack, we continued on down the coast. The next section of the trail was a combination of beach and bluffs to Sea Lion Gulch. Here we had to get back on the beach and cross over a field of microwave-sized rocks. This is also where you enter an impassable (intertidal) zone at high tide. Our timing was perfect and we didn’t have any issues. Just past Sea Lion Gulch, you will reach Hat Rock, which is notorious for giving hikers issues, even at low tide. There is an overland pass here, just look for the cairns to find your way up to the trail.
We continued on past Cooskie Creek, which in hindsight I would have preferred to camp at to Randall Creek, where we arrived at 5:15. We were both pretty spent, and ready to take our packs off. There were two couples already here, which made camping tight, but we found a spot by the ocean and made it work.
Day 2: Randall Creek to Big Flat Creek (7.8 miles)
We woke up the next morning around 7:30, made some breakfast, and broke camp. We were just on the skirts of the intertidal zone and wanted to make sure that we got out before the tide came back up again.
From Randall Creek, we were on the beach for a bit and then found a trail on the bluffs through Spanish Flat to Spanish Creek. This looked like a great place to camp, but we spoke to a few hikers that said it had been really windy the night before and there wasn’t much shelter. There was also a family of skunks in the area that I’d rather not make friends with.
We continued on the bluff trail to Oat Creek—which looked like another great place to camp—to Kinsey Creek, and then were directed back down to the pebbly beach until we reached Big Creek, which would be another amazing place to camp. There was a great shelter built here out of driftwood that I would have loved to stay at.
From Big Creek to Big Flat Creek, the trail consists of rocky beaches and poison oak lined trails. There was a section of the trail that was so overgrown with poison oak, the only option we had was to run, and we were both wearing shorts. Three days later, I am glad I can confidently say, I did not get poison oak. Thank goodness!
We entered Big Flat around noon and were absolutely blown away with how “big” it really was. There was even a small air strip here for a house. I could only imagine what it would be like to have that for a weekend getaway. My stars! There was only one other house on the entire trail. Talk about seclusion.
We arrived at Big Flat Creek a little after 1:00 and picked a camp spot in a small driftwood shelter made by campers before us. We were right on the beach, had easy access to the creek, and incredible views of the coast and flat. This was such a picturesque place to camp. The only negative was the wind. While the shelter provided a little wind break, it was still windy enough to require us to use tie-downs on the tent.
After playing on the beach for a few hours and relaxing at our camp spot, we called it a night and tried to fall asleep with the wind blowing on our tent. It must have been around 10:00 that the wind completely died, and I had one of the most peaceful sleeps I have had camping in years. We were under the full moon, on the soft sand, and had the ocean waves breaking close by.
Day 3: Big Flat Creek to Black Sands Beach (8.5 miles)
We woke up at 4:30 am, broke camp, and had a quick snack, not wanting to waste time with a full blown breakfast. We knew we had a 4-mile impassable section ahead of us and wanted to make it through during low tide. As horrible as waking up at 4:30 sounds, it was absolutely incredible. We started hiking around 5:20, just as it was becoming light enough to see without headlamps. The air was cool and crisp, the full moon was sitting above the horizon, and we could hear coyotes howling in the distance. It was pure magic.
This section consisted of a lot of rocks, pebbles, and deep wet sand. We passed a few creeks that would have been great campsites, as long as you can get back far enough in the gulch to avoid high tide. When I go back, I’d love to camp at Buck Creek or Gitchell Creek.
We made it to where we intended to stay another night, Horse Mountain Creek, at around 9:30 am. At this point, we realized we were less than 2 miles from the car and it was early enough in the day to make it to the car and back home to Tahoe by nightfall. With no shade and sunburned skin, we decided to make the trek out. It would have been great to spend another night, but my skin thanked me for our decision.
The Lost Coast Trail is darn tough. There is a reason that this stretch of land was never developed and remains in its pristine condition. It is also for this reason that I can’t wait to come back, next time with Brian by my side. It was challenging, but such an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. Have you backpacked the Lost Coast? What was your favorite part? Leave a comment below.