Basics Of Hiking The Lost Coast Trail
last fall, we hiked the Lost Coast Trail and spent our anniversary weekend without showers, cell phone service, or toilets, and it was amazing!
Our adventure began as we watched the sunrise and spent over 7 hours driving from Reno to the King Range National Conservation Area in Northern California. In last minute fashion, we stopped by the King Range NCA Office to rent bear canisters and purchase a trail map before heading down the steep, winding, and narrow road leading to the Black Sands Beach parking lot, where we were to meet our shuttle.
From the parking lot, we frantically stuffed 3 days worth of dehydrated backpacking food into our seemingly overweight, yet undersized bulky rental bear canisters while we waited for our shuttle driver to arrive. We popped some Dramamine as we got in the shuttle and waited for a few more hikers before we started back up the hill. The shuttle bus took us on an almost 2-hour ride through some crazy, curvy, and narrow backroads. Our driver pointed out random sights along the way and told us wild stories of life in the Nor-Cal backcountry. All the while dodging pot holes, wash-outs, and oncoming traffic on the nearly single-lane road.
We arrived at the Lost Coast trailhead, half-nauseous, where we were given a very brief explanation about the tide chart and to keep an eye out for poison oak. Then he took off and we were left to hike the 25-miles along the coast back to our car.
It was all a little daunting at first, considering this was only our second real backpacking trip EVER, but we were more than ready to take on the adventure. We got the hang of it and figured we couldn’t really get that lost if we just hiked south along the beach… We arrived back at the parking lot 2.5 days later (one night less than we expected) sore, hungry, tired, and happy as can be, loaded with memories of one of the best backpacking/hiking experiences we have ever had.
The Lost Coast trail head is located approximately 360 miles West of Reno and 250 miles North of San Francisco.
In total, the Lost Coast trail is ~25 miles and is hiked point-to-point, following the remote and pristine coastline along Northern California’s King Range National Conservation Area. The main trailhead is located in the North near the small town of Petrolia, CA at Mattole Beach and extends southerly to Black Sands Beach near the town of Shelter Cove, CA.
Highlights of the trail include breath taking overlooks of a rugged oceanscape, an abandoned lighthouse, old cabins, wild life from both sea and land (deer, bears, sea lions), as well as black sand beaches, crashing waves, numerous stream crossings, and a total sense of serenity that comes from hiking for miles on end on what feels like your own personal stretch of beach.
Coastal winds from the north are common and it is logical to hike from north to south to keep the wind at your back for an extra speed boost, and to avoid a perpetual sand blasting to the face when the wind picks up.
Overall, the trail is comprised mostly of varied beach conditions, from fine sand, pebble-sized gravel, slippery unstable bowling ball-sized boulders, and everything in between. There were other shorter terrain sections that were easier going with single-track trails and old jeep roads through meadows and hillside bluffs.
We did not find any of the terrain overly strenuous, and never found ourselves out of breath (unlike our first backpacking trip to that kicked our butts). However, some sections were a bit slower due to unstable footings or trudging through soft sand for a good while.
We weren’t really in the best of shape, but being at sea-level certainly helped (we are used to 5000’+ elevation). We knew we had to make a certain mileage per day (~8mi avg) to get through the three impassible tidal sections on time, according to our tidal charts. I guess we are just slow hikers, since we got passed nonchalantly a couple times by other groups, but we always ended up arriving at our desired camp before dark.
Ready to go with map and tide chart!
Our Trip Itinerary:
- Drive from Reno to Black Sand Beach Parking Lot– 7.5hrs
- Shuttle from Black Sands Beach Parking Lot to Mattole Beach Trailhead – 2pm-4pm
- Mattole Beach Trailhead to Sea Lion Gulch – 4pm-6:30pm (4.7mi)
- Sea Lion Gulch to Big Creek – 10am-5pm (9.1mi)
- Big Creek to Black Sands Beach Parking Lot – 10am-6:30pm (11.3mi)
- Drive back to Reno from Black Sands Beach – 7.5hrs
In retrospect, we could have stayed another night and forgone a midnight drive home. However, our goal was to get through the impassible tidal sections the first two days and then sleep-in and have a short hike the last morning. That didn’t really work out because a bunch of other hikers that we never saw on the trail, apparently had the same plan and all the good campsites were taken when we got to our intended destination. We decided to keep on trekking because we could literally see the end point and it was only 3.7mi away. We weren’t sold on setting up camp again, if we could just finish the trail before dark.
Next time we hike the Lost Coast, we definitely would stay at Sea Lion Gulch again because it was awesome camping spot on top of a cliff, overlooking the ocean, with a nice little stream. However, we would try to cut our daily mileage down the second day because there were some cool campsites between Randall Creek and Miller Flat. It would have been nice to loaf around and soak up the scenery a little bit more. Although, the tide sort of dictates how far you can/have to go each day.
A $10 permit is required for all overnight hikers. Group size is limited to 15 persons and trailhead entrees for all overnight camping is limited to 60 persons per day. You can find more information and purchase permits online on the Recreation.gov website.
It is recommended to book your permit early, especially during the peak season from May through September, when weather conditions are warmest (relatively) and driest, although fog and dew is almost inevitable.
Be prepared, when purchasing your permit, the website will ask for a tentative itinerary of your Lost Coast trip. Don’t worry, you can just input how many days you think you’ll be on the trail and divide up the mileage you want to cover each day and input those locations as your tentative camp zones. The Entrance is Mattole Beach Trailhead and Exit is Black Sands Beach Trailhead.
Considering the trail is typically hiked in one direction, there is a shuttle service that can take you and your group from the lower parking lot up to the trail head (or visa-versa, if needed). The road is pretty crazy and not something I’d never want to drive myself, let alone twice if you were to take two cars! It was pretty much a 1.5 lane road, at best, with pot holes everywhere, nowhere to turn out, with literally half the road swept down the hill in spots. Instead of fixing the silk holes/washouts, Cal-Trans just put up cones and/or stop signs and made it a one-way section. Not a fun place to get a flat tire or have car troubles, not to mention we didn’t have cell phone service, either!
Albeit, the shuttle service wasn’t exactly cheap (~$85/person), it was definitely worth the price. We chose to go with Lost Coast Adventures shuttle because we found their website very informative and relatively easy to navigate and book our shuttle. They also have lots of good information on their website about the trail on what to expect and how to prepare.
Campsites and Fresh Water
Campsites and fresh water were quite abundant on the Lost Coast and generally spread out every couple of miles. If you find a decent stream, then there is most likely a nice campground nearby. Be sure to use some sort of filter or water purification device because you never know what’s in the water, no matter how clean it looks.
If you have the time, take a minute to explore a bit down the trail to make sure you find the best campsite, preferably one that you can tell has been used before. We learned that some campsites are hidden off the trail or located in the trees upstream of the creeks. Always practice Leave No Trace principles.
Although there were some amazing driftwood shelters on the beach, we were forewarned not to use them. Apparently, mice and other little critters are attracted to the shelters, which is also where rattlesnakes like to hunt!
(Waves, Weather, Ticks, Bears, Rattle Snakes, Poison Oak)
The area is obviously remote and not your local beach, so you have to expect some hazards that are associated with being out in the wild.
One morning we fresh black bear tracks in the sand (possibly momma and baby bear tracks), sea lions mingling on shore and playing in the surf, a rattlesnake in the bushes, a tick on our pants, and quite a bit of poison oak. Keep a safe distance and watch where you are walking, and you’ll be fine. Bring some TECNU just in case you rub up on some poison oak and check for ticks, especially if you are walking through brush or grass.
Fortunately, we had relatively nice mild weather and only a light sprinkling one day. There was a constant ocean breeze that felt good and we wore pants and a sweater most of the time. The fog was pretty heavy each morning and we woke up with some pretty decent condensation in our tent. Even with our quality double wall tent, it took a little while for the inside of our rainfly to dry out, even after wiping it down with our mini camp towel.
Just a heads up, don’t plan on swimming or playing in the surf. The water is cold and there are definite signs of a nasty undertow and rip currents. Always keep your eye on the water and watch out for “sneaker waves” that can come out of nowhere.
Another note is to bring a tidal chart. There are three sections that are IMPASSIBLE during high tide. By that I mean, at one location the waves crash up against a sheer cliff that you cannot climb or escape. To be safe, be sure to only hike through those sections on a receding tide. The shuttle service gave us a set of tidal charts, but we also got them at the King Range NCA Office.
We started the last impassable section a tad early (waited for high tide to recede a little) and had a few spots where we had to run around a point, while the waves went out just enough. Our feet got soaked a couple times, which was fun, but still a little nerve-racking.
The rangers at the King Range NCA Office (where we rented bear canister and purchased a good map) can help explain the tidal charts when you go to pick them up in person. It is not that hard to figure out, but just make sure you know when low and high tides are and you’ll be set. Low tide means that at that time, the tide will slowly start to come back in and make the beach smaller.
WHEN NATURE CALLS
It is required to do your business BELOW the high tide line and bury it 6-8” in the wet sand. Otherwise, you must bury your waste at least 200 feet from streams, camps, and trails and pack out all your toilet paper.
I know it sounds weird, but a lot of people use the trail and apparently going intertidal is the best way for nature to accept your deposits. Besides, we found most of the ground rather hard and rocky up on the trails and it’s not much fun finding other peoples half-buried treasures and TP sagebrush decorations.
It’s actually quite exhilarating to do your business when its pitch black out and all you can hear is waves crashing 20 feet from you with a refreshing ocean spray in the face! Also, if you must do dishes, they should washed in the intertidal zone or at least 200 ft from water sources.
BEAR CANISTER ARE REQUIRED
Every Lost Coast hiker is required to have their own bear canister to store all food, toiletries, and any other scented items. Note that hanging a bear bag is not approved for this area, considering there are hardly any trees to hang from.
Yes, bear canister suck! They will totally blow any weight estimates you have for your backpack. However, we didn’t feel like spending $70+ on our own from REI and found the best deal is renting them from the King Range NCA Project Office for only $5ea per trip (with a $75 credit card deposit). Just keep an eye on their hours since you can only pick them up when the office is open, but you may drop off at any time via a drop box. There are a couple other places that rent them, such as the shuttle service, and Shelter Cove General Store (cash-only).
PACK IT IN PACK IT OUT
That means toilet paper, feminine products, disposable wet wipes, garbage, etc.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, HAVE FUN!
Take your time, take lots of pictures, and enjoy the beautiful scenery and serenity along the Lost Coast. Most of the time, other hiking groups are spread out a decent distance, and the waves wash away their footprints, so it can sometimes feel like you’re the only ones on the trail for miles.
Specific Gear Recommendations:
They helped tremendously on the rocky beaches to give an extra point or two of contact while cobbling over slippery and unstable boulders. Also, they help build your rhythm to get you in the mode for hiking miles on end. We enjoy Montem Ultra Strong poles, due to their strength, light weight, and great price.
Purchased from King Range NCA Project Office for about $7. Contains much more detailed information and more durable than what you will find online and print out at home. Includes topo lines, camp sites, stream names, and more.
Helpful in truly pinpointing your location. We aren’t the best map readers, so our Garmin 64s helped us figure out exactly where we were and how far we had to go. Not that we ever got lost, but the GPS showed the actual trail, which sometimes had a path that was better for hiking on than the beach. Check out our GPS Free Map Tutorial (Coming Soon) for further information.
You can’t go wrong with a dedicated butt pad like the Therm-a-Rest Z-Seat. It weighs next to nothing and provides a nice non-sandy place to sit on the beach for a lunch/snack break and doubles as a door mat for you tent. It is great for when you’re trying to get your socks and shoes on in the morning without getting mud, grass, and stickers all over.
We like the Sawyer Squeeze model because it has a good balance of price and weight, and also can quickly filter enough water for two people. We also tried the Sawyer Mini, but its filter rate was slightly slower and found that it needed back-flushing more often. On the flip side, it is slightly smaller, lighter, and cheaper.
See our Gallery for a closer look at our whole Lost Coast adventure!
Check out our Gear Load-out (coming soon) to see what gear, food, and supplies we take backpacking
Just to be transparent, some of the links in this article are affiliate-links. Which means we may get a small commission if you end up purchasing an item through our link. This doesn’t mark up the cost or anything for you, but the small commission we may receive helps us provide more quality content for you to enjoy. We only endorse high quality products that we actually use and are familiar with.