How to Hike the Lost Coast Trail
This past fall, I invited five friends to hike the northern half of the Lost Coast Trail, a three-day, 25-mile backpacking trip along the most rugged stretch of coastline in California.
Our journey began before sunrise. We drove six hours from Los Angeles to San Francisco to pick up two friends. On our stopover, we had just enough time to grab lunch, fill up on gas and rent bear canisters at the REI in Berkeley.
We then drove four hours north to Garberville, where we called the shuttle service with our ETA before losing reception. It took us 45 minutes to navigate 22 miles of winding roads, bringing us to the parking area at Black Sands Beach where the van was waiting for us.
Fun fact: the Lost Coast gets its name from the rugged, steep terrain, which proved so difficult and costly for developers to tackle in the 1930s that they built around it. This is the only stretch of the California coastline that remains untouched by Highway 1.
From the parking lot, we loaded our gear in the shuttle and popped Dramamine to prepare for the next curvy leg of our journey. The shuttle drove us two more hours north to the trailhead at Mattole Campground. Our driver, Sherri, helped pass the time by pointing out local treasures. We arrived at Mattole Campground around 9 pm, officially beginning and completing our travel day in the dark.
And finally, 29 hours after leaving my apartment, we set foot on the Lost Coast Trail.
The following morning, we timed our departure at 10 am to safely cross the first “impassible zone,” a stretch of the trail that cannot be crossed during high tide. This allowed us to sleep in, but we were all up with the sun in anticipation. After a leisurely breakfast, we struggled to re-pack our bags, negotiating space for the bulky bear canisters. And finally, 29 hours after leaving my apartment, we set foot on the Lost Coast Trail.
Looking back, it seems the hardest part of the Lost Coast isn’t even hiking it — it's planning for it. If the Lost Coast is on your bucket list, here is what you need to know before you go.
Best Time to Go
The King Range receives an average of 100+ inches of rain per year, mostly from October to April, making it one of the wettest regions in the U.S. The best time to go is from May to September, when the weather is (mostly) warm and dry. Unexpected rain, fog and morning dew are common year-round, so take extra measures to keep your clothes and sleeping bag dry.
The Lost Coast Trail is divided into two sections: north and south. We hiked the more popular northern section, a 25-mile stretch through the King Range National Conservation Area from Mattole Beach to Shelter Cove. Most people backpack for three to four days to complete the trail. The terrain varies greatly, from soft sand to slippery bowling ball-sized rocks. Hike from north to south to keep the wind at your back.
The King Range National Conservation Area is located about 4.5 hours from San Francisco. From US-101, exit Redway/Garberville. Make sure you have a full tank of gas, and follow signs to Shelter Cove/King Range National Conservation Area. From here, allow 45 minutes to Shelter Cove.
Most people take a shuttle to reach the trailhead. Two services are available: Lost Coast Shuttle or Lost Coast Adventures. We made arrangements with Lost Coast Shuttle to transport us from Black Sands Beach on the south end of the trail to Mattole Beach on the north end of the trail. Our driver Sherri shared some local knowledge during the 2 hour trip. If you get car sick, be prepared from the winding curves of the road.
Free, self-service backcountry permits are required and available at the trailhead. No reservations required.
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.
Though we carefully plotted when we could safely hike the impassible zones, we did not stick to our original plan. The trail has many established campgrounds, but on a busy weekend, you may have to hike further to find an available site. Keep your tide chart handy, and be flexible. Here is the itinerary we planned, based on recommendations from the SoCal Hiker:
Drive from Los Angeles to Black Sands Beach. Take the shuttle to Mattole Beach Campground.
Total mileage: 635 (by car)
Hike from Mattole Beach to Punta Gorda Lighthouse to Sea Lion Gulch.
Total mileage: 5.4
Hike from Sea Lion Gulch to Spanish Flat.
Total mileage: 7
Hike from Spanish Flat to Miller Flat.
Total mileage: 7.5
Hike from Miller Flat to Black Sands Beach. Return to San Francisco.
Total mileage: 10 (on foot), 280 (by car)
Drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Total mileage: 383 (by car)
Where to Camp
You can camp anywhere, but use previously established campsites to minimize your impact. Campgrounds are first-come-first-serve; you can view a map here. Most are located next to freshwater streams, so you can fill up before hitting the trail again. Bring a filter to treat drinking water.
Bear canisters are required for storing food and scented items. Bear canisters are available to buy or rent at the Shelter Cove General Store (open 7:30 am - 7:30 pm) or select REI stores. Maintain conversation and carry bear spray while you’re hiking to keep the bears away. Remember, all your food must fit inside the bear canister, so plan your meals accordingly.
When Nature Calls
Bury all human waste in the sand below the high tide line or 6-8" deep and at least 200 feet from streams when you are not near the ocean. Imagine the best bathroom view of your life, then add in seals checking you out from the water. That's what it's like.
In mid-September, the trail was covered in poison oak that seemed to creep out of nowhere. Protect your legs, carry a flashlight to use the bathroom at night and bring Tecnu to treat accidental exposure. Check yourself for ticks, and watch your step for rattlesnakes.
Off the Grid
You will have zero cell phone reception on the trail. Always share your plans with a friend or family member before you go.
Campfires are allowed on the Lost Coast Trail, except during high fire danger. Check with King Range BLM before you go.
After several days of nothing but dehydrated backpacking food, reward yourself with a delicious sandwich at Caffe Dolce, tucked unassumingly away in the back corner of a lumber yard.