There’s a part of California that refuses to be tamed. About five hours north of San Francisco, highway 1 turns east so it can continue north. The coastal mountains and forest of the King Range Conservation Area proved too rugged for the civil engineers and road builders of years past, and the famed highway 1 had to be rerouted inland. What remains is a pristine and almost mythical stretch of coastline that is called the Lost Coast.
This past September we convinced a couple of friends to join us in backpacking the ~25 mile trail from north to south over beaches, cliffs, dunes, and grasslands, over the course of a long weekend.
Driving into the forest the night before was an hour’s worth of slightly agonizing twists, turns, redwoods, and being overtaken by locals driving completely madly through the dark in a way that would have put Dean Moriarty or Raoul Duke to shame. We camped that night outside of Shelter Cove at the Nadelos Campground. In the morning we picked up our bear canisters from the local ranger station, which were a full $15 cheaper EACH to rent there than from the Shelter Cove general store. We parked Catawampus where we could pick her up at the end of the trail and bundled into our friends’ rental car to make the two hour drive north from Shelter Cove to Mattole Beach — 49 miles of more twists and turns and steep grades. Over the hills, we studied our map and tide tables, outlining our daily mileage and campsites for each night.
Upon arrival at Mattole, we found a parking spot for the intrepid rental Camry and put our packs on. One self-issued backcountry permit and a group photo later, we hit the trail, heading for the Punta Gorda lighthouse.
We completed the trail over the course of four days and three nights, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and each campsite. Most people do it in three days, and the guy who checked us out at REI before the trip told us he’d done it in 2! Impressive, but crazy in our opinion. There’s a lot of sandy ground to cover on the Lost Coast. For us, the days went as follows:
Day 1: 6 miles, Mattole Beach to Cooskie Creek
Day 2: 7 miles, Cooskie Creek to Big Creek
Day 3: 6.5 miles, Big Creek to Buck Creek (with a 4-hour wait at our self-named Desolation Point)
Day 4: 5.5 miles, Buck Creek to Shelter Cove
The Lost Coast trail is adorned with beautiful views of the ocean and mountains, magical morning and evening light, beach treasures and washed up critters of all kinds, and a challenging mixture of walking terrain. Being able to bring Monty (not many trails like this are dog-friendly, especially in California) was a huge perk, as was the wonderful company we had, staggering stargazing that was up for grabs, and memorable campsites we found. The last night we slept on a cliff overlooking the ocean, waking up the following morning to unzip the tent flap to a full view of the Pacific, and a family of sea otters coming up to hunt for bird eggs onshore.
The trail isn’t without its challenges, however! These include the cat-holing rule (google it if you’ve not come across this lovely toilet technique, and don’t forget your trowel), the chance of finding scorpions in camp (we found one next to Matt’s foot while eating dinner), hiking on sand for a really, really long time, and having to plan your movements by the tides, which create impassable points at certain times of the day. We missed one of these timezones, despite being there at the correct time as dictated by our tide chart, and ended up roasting in the sun for 4 hours while waiting for the ocean to recede. It turns out that high and low tide can fluctuate from time to time, depending upon weather events and the overall level of the ocean. Good to know!
The Lost Coast wasn’t what we had become accustomed to in Colorado — the haul-your-ass-over a huge mountain backpacking trip — but it was a fantastic multi-day hike that we would gladly do again. Next time we won’t do it over a holiday weekend (in hindsight Labor Day wasn’t the best idea because it brings out the crowds), and while we thought temperatures would be cool enough, we would definitely look into doing it earlier or later in the season so as not to roast in the coastal sun. We were both really tanned by the end. We’ve read that typically the coastline there is cloudy, has cooler temps, and a lot of fog, and that earlier in the summer the trail is covered in blooming wildflowers, which all sounds lovely.
One last thing – if you’re planning on doing the trail and you’re not in a rush to get back to SF right after, we highly recommend exploring north of the area from Petrolia to Ferndale. It’s a beautiful drive over steeply-rising coastal mountains that are covered in cows and give you amazing views of the area. They’re typically covered in fog and clouds when you get higher up, so it gives the area a really mystical vibe. And Ferndale is a neat, Victorian town just south of Eureka that is really worth exploring, apparently. When we drove through it, we were eager to get to our hotel in Eureka for a much-needed shower (4 days of trail grime light a fire under your butt to get clean ASAP), but we plan to go back the next time around.
Overall review: highly-recommended hike, moderately difficult, gorgeous trail