California’s Lost Coast A Rare Beauty of a Hike

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Backpacker Magazine recently featured a article about backpacking the Lost Coast, a 30-mile stretch of beauty sandwiched between Northern California’s King Range Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Three companions and I completed the entire 30 miles in two days and one night on the first trip. Two more times, friends and I hiked 10-mile sections from the north and south.

There are at least two 4+-mile sections impassable at high tide, which encompass at least three campsites where you are pretty much on an island unless you want to climb steep trails up the mountainsides. At Buck Creek, we camped on a specular cliff site, high above the beach with incredible sunset views.

The Trail

The Lost Coast Trail leads you to wide sandy beaches (like Spanish Flat and Big Flat), which are ideal for camping. We found several wonderful campsite / shelters made (by previous campers) from driftwood with seats and fire pits. Although isolated, surfers manage to come to these flat expanses for great waves.

The trail takes you on the beach (walking in the sand and over small boulders in some places) and up on hard pack cliff trails and through meadows.

Water and Toilets

There are several creeks that flow into the trail so there is no problem with fresh water (however, drought conditions may have had an impact so check in at the ranger station). Paper and poo go in the sand (dig a hole) below the high tide water line. Seems counterintuitive to the “pack-it-in, pack-it-out” philosophy, but those are the rules).

Highlights

The abandoned Punta Gordon Lighthouse is a wonderful ruin to explore. No lens or glass in the lighthouse, but you can climb up into the former lens room and get a spectacular view. The abandoned light keeper houses were burned down 40 years ago to keep squatters out.

Getting There

Check you maps. But there are several ways to do this. On our trip several years ago, we discovered that a local woman would pick you up in Shelter Cove (leave your car) and drive you to the Mattole River to begin the 30+ miles trip south to Shelter Cove. An alternative is to have two cars — one at each end. But the roads, in and out and along the ridge of the King Range are really windy and unpaved in places.  Two cars is not a great option.

Check with the store at Shelter Cove or King Range Conservation Area Office (Call ahead for hours. (707) 986-5400. 768 Shelter Cove Road, Whitethorn, CA 95589) to see what other options might be available. The shuttle was a great way to go. But not check (like $50 / person). Of course, another option is to hike half way or more from either end for an out and back.

Pre-Backpack Camping

You can tent camp at Shelter Cove and at the Mattole River before you hit the trail. There are no services at Mattole, but Shelter Cove is a regular little community with a general store ((707) 986-7733), restaurant, RV Park, campground ((707) 986-7474), etc.

Bear Canisters

Last time I checked, canisters were required. Read the regulations. I guess bears come down the creeks from the mountains for food and water. We never saw any. Rules are rules — and for a reason.

Warning

If you go, DO NOT try to be brave running through even shallow surf to get around points impassable at high tide. You will be risking your life. Currents are strong and sneaker Ray P at Lost Coastwaves can surprise and carry you out to sea in a moment. Do like we did: have lunch, relax, take it easy, take a nap until the next tide change. On one hiking day, BECAUSE of the high tides and because we were feeling good, we raced passed “impassable” areas while the tide was low and made 16 miles. That is a slog when you consider you walk through a fair amount of sand. We were really energized, but what’s the point if you are just trying to enjoy nature. Take your time.

As Always: Be light. Be safe. Be one with the pack.

Map:  http://www.mappery.com/map-of/King-Range-National-Conservation-Area-Trail-Map