The Lost Coast Trail is one of California’s hidden treasures. Located on a remote beach in northern California’s King Range National Conservation Area, it travels over 25 miles along the Pacific Ocean, and provides backpackers with a rare chance to hike and camp directly on the sandy beach.
Twenty years ago, you could have hiked this trail in relative isolation, but the advent of the internet caused an inevitable rise in popularity, and the Bureau of Land Management was obliged to enact a quota to prevent overuse of the wilderness. At this time, only thirty people per day are allowed entry from each end of the trail, and the following season’s-worth of reservations are all snapped up in an online frenzy on a single day in early October.
Vicki and I missed out on the 2020 season, but we vowed to hike it in 2021, and we had our calendar reminders ready. We also went to the trouble of checking the tide tables beforehand, as there are several sections of beach which can only be safely travelled when the tides are below three feet. We wanted a week-long stretch of low tides during daylight hours. We also chose the month of June, as the High Sierra would be covered in snow (we were planning to hike the Sierra in July and August) and the rainy season in Northern California would hopefully be finished by the end of May. We found a perfect tidal window in the middle of June 2021, and in October 2020 we scored our reservation!
It should be noted that the northern (beach) trail is only 25 miles long. Most people hike it in three days. Vicki and I, being retired, decided that if we were going to drive twelve long hours north from San Diego, then we were going to get our time and money’s worth. We decided to backpack it for a full week, for seven long, mellow days of relaxing fun. Apparently the FKT (Fastest Known Time) for this section of the Lost Coast Trail was 3hr 51min, made by Jeff Mogavero on 2018-5-27. That’s seriously fast! Vicki and I, by contrast were hoping to bag the SKT (Slowest Known Time)! Ha ha! Although I have nothing but respect for the athletic prowess of trail runners, I still like our goal better.
We had plenty of time to prepare, and once June 2021 arrived, it was time to head north into the redwood forests of Humboldt County, California. Luckily, we had friends in the Bay Area, so we broke the big drive into two parts. We arrived at the northern terminus, Mattole Beach, in the early evening and set up our tent in the campground there. We met a couple of other groups that were also planning on starting south in the morning. Plus, we got our first view of the Lost Coast itself, a day early. This was almost like spending eight days on the trail!
Video of the waves on Mattole Beach at sunset, from the northern end of the Lost Coast Trail
We put up our tent in the campground, and I set my alarm for 3:30am. Why? Because I had to drive the car for two hours to the southern terminus at Black Sands Beach. I was scheduled to take a shuttle bus back north at 6am! Our plan was to leave the car at the far end of the trail, which would give us more leeway as to how long the hike lasted. The hiking route on the beach is 25 miles, but the remote mountain roads through the King Range are 45 miles long, and the going is slow.
So I woke up in the dark, left Vicki sleeping in the tent, and drove south through the redwoods to the town of Shelter Cove. I got there early and changed into my hiking clothes. The car clothing would be waiting for us seven days later. Then I checked out the views north from the trailhead and waited for the shuttle.
Another group arrived and started getting their backpacks ready. The Lost Coast Adventure Tours shuttle bus arrived, and the driver hustled everyone into the big passenger van. There were others folks at the far end that needed a ride back here, and we didn’t want to make them late. Soon we were headed north and the driver, a really friendly and knowledgeable man, told us about the trail and also gave us some history of Humboldt County. Two hours later, I was back in camp.
I was pleased to discover that Vicki had packed up almost everything, and all I had to do was stuff the gear into my big backpack. We made double-sure that we didn’t forget anything in the campsite, and started hiking. The first thing we came to was the trailhead information board. It was filled with the usual advice and warnings. Also, in 2021, northern California hadn’t had much rain the previous Winter, and already there were fire restrictions, such that campfires were prohibited everywhere in the King Range. This was sad, as campfires on the beach sounded like a lot of fun, but it wasn’t going to happen this time. Also interesting was the “Pooping in Proper Places” sign, which was a final reminder that bodily waste was to be buried on the wave slope of the beach, below the high tide line. In other words, you had to bare your butt to the entire beach while pooping! If it weren’t for the fact that there weren’t many hikers allowed (thanks to the quotas) then this could have become rather embarrassing.
Just the same, it was a beautiful sunny day when we set out, and the weather promised to be fine for most of the week. The more typical June conditions would call for clouds and fog and strong winds out of the northwest, or even a rainstorm or two. But not this time. Our main worry was that it would be too hot!
The first part of the trail was a slog through soft sand as we angled across toward the beach. We saw other hikers heading for an inland path that was up on a grassy bluff, but we decided to hike directly on the beach. We figured that the main point of the Lost Coast Trail was to stay on the coast, not on a boring path. The path was faster, true, but we had plenty of time, and it was a perfect day for beach walking.
We were rewarded for staying along the beach. We had a fine view of Cape Mendocino to the north, the furthermost western point in the contiguous 48 states. This cape is well-known to sailors as being dangerous, as it often splits the winds and weather that affect California and is known for its large seas and gale force winds during storms.
We also got a great chance to check out the local marine life in the many tidepools amongst the nearshore rocks. Starfish, sea urchins, and anemones were easy to spot in the clear water, but there were occasional glimpses of faster, more furtive creatures in the pools, as well.
All of the offshore rocks and tidepools were technically part of the Rocks and Islands Wilderness, while the steep bluffs to the east were part of the King Range Wilderness. In other words, we were hiking in and out of two designated wilderness areas! Pretty cool.
At the two mile mark, we came around Punta Gorda. This was the first of three sections of the Lost Coast Trail that were inaccessible during high tide. But that wasn’t a problem for us, thanks to our research last year. We hiked along the beach until the sand became too soft, then climbed up the bluff to the inland trail. We started hiking faster on the packed dirt, and remembered that we had been warned to stay on the lookout for poison oak, which hadn’t been cut back in a few years. Sometimes the fast way isn’t the best way.
Video from the Lost Coast Trail just south of Punta Gorda
Interestingly, near Four Mile Creek, we came across two small private homes just up from the beach. The rules on the permit made it clear that hikers were to leave the private property alone. On a perfect day in early Summer, the cabins looked like great weekend getaways, but I wasn’t so sure what it would be like to stay there during a ferocious Winter storm. Exciting, but maybe a bit too exciting.
Once we rounded the point, Cape Mendocino was lost to view for the rest of the trek. Punta Gorda was the southern point on the great spit of land that jutted west from California. Not surprisingly, it had seen its share of shipwrecks, and there was still the remains of a decommissioned lighthouse on the shore just south of the point.
We decided to eat lunch at the lighthouse, and explore it for a while. It was 1pm, and we’d hiked three miles (out of our huge 4.5 mile day!) so it was time for a good long break.
The Punta Gorda Lighthouse was a cement block building with a steel cupola on top of it. It was up on the bluff, so it wasn’t very tall, just two stories. I climbed up the rusty spiral stair and squeezed through the opening. Once, long ago, there had been a rotating Fresnel lens up here, with an oil flame. It was decommissioned in 1951, seventy years ago, because it was deemed too difficult to get supplies to this forlorn and lonely coast, and a lighted buoy was placed just off the point. Being a lightkeeper has always been a lonely job, but this place was supposedly known as the “Alcatraz of Lighthouses” due to its remoteness. This really was the Lost Coast!
We ate our lunch on the bluff and looked down at the rocks and beach below us. There were dozens of Elephant Seals lounging all around on the sand. Mostly they slept in the sun, but every so often one would go galumphing off to annoy a neighbor, and then the honking and howling noises would get going all over again! What a life!
After lunch, we donned our backpacks and hiked southward toward our proposed camp at Sea Lion Gulch. There is a totally impassable section of beach just north of the gulch, and everyone, without exception, has to take the inland trail. It really climbed quite high! As one might expect, the views got better the higher it climbed, and it didn’t take long before we saw some really big rocks just offshore to the south of us. They were covered with barking sea lions! We hoped that the wind would be in our favor and keep the smell of the them as far away from us as possible.
Panorama video from the trail as we neared Sea Lion Gulch
When we made it to Sea Lion Gulch we looked down upon the campsite from the bluff and noticed that it was already quite full of tents. We didn’t really want to be in a crowded campground to begin with, so we cast around up high and found a nice spot with a great view. The wind from the north had picked up during the afternoon, and our spot was somewhat sheltered, so we set up the tent. We were next to another creek just north of the main Sea Lion Gulch, so we had good water for filtering. The sea lions were making quite a bit of noise out there, but the breeze carried some of the sound away. All in all, it was a pretty good spot. It wasn’t as flat as we might have wanted, but we’ve slept on far worse in the past. At least our heads were uphill, and that’s what really matters.
After that, we cooked up some dinner and ate it with the view of the sea lions out in front of us. It was a pretty mellow scene. We were amazed at how far up they could get on those huge rocks, using only their bellies and flippers. As the evening wore on, we noticed that there weren’t any clouds in the sky to make for a stunning sunset, so we crawled into the tent and headed to bed early. I was all in favor of that: Getting up at 3:30am will tend to send you to bed by dusk.
But before we went to sleep we got out the maps and tide tables, and checked out our plans for the next day. It looked like the entire day would be spent hiking through the second high-tide-impassable zone (of three total). This zone was roughly four miles long. That didn’t sound too tough, and the tides were in our favor for an early start. After that, we read our books for a while, but I didn’t last very long before I headed off to sleep. It had been a long but excellent day.
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page