Hikes & Trails

The Lost Coast Trail: Where the Land Meets the Sea

POSTED ON March 27, 2024 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

California’s Lost Coast Trail is a hidden gem tucked away in the King Range National Conservation Area, offering one of the most extraordinary beach hiking experiences in northern California.

This 25-mile (approximately 40 km) remote path weaves through the rugged landscapes of the King Range Wilderness, promising adventurers a true communion with nature. As you embark on the Lost Coast Trail hike, the untamed beauty unfolds with every step, from the dramatic coastline to the lush forests of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.

The allure of the Lost Coast Trail offers not only a serene escape but also vibrant encounters with local wildlife, including the chance to witness sea lions frolicking in their natural habitat. Traversing this scenic route, hikers are met with the raw, unfiltered essence of the Pacific coastline, where the waves relentlessly kiss the shores, shaping the journey.

With its unique combination of pristine beaches, coastal forests, and mountainous terrain, a trek along the Lost Coast Trail is truly a sojourn through one of California’s most majestic corridors, where the land meets the sea.

Lost Coast Trail History

The origin of the Lost Coast Trail is as wild as its landscapes. Dating back to the early 20th century, the area where the trail now lies was once considered for development. However, the rugged, seismic nature of the terrain proved too formidable, resisting any attempts to establish a major highway along the coastline.

By the 1930s, the region’s remote character was preserved when Highway 1, California’s iconic seaside road, was rerouted inland, leaving the Lost Coast untouched by large-scale infrastructure. The territory’s difficult topography thus became its staunchest protector, and the Lost Coast remained largely isolated; a secret haven for the adventurous and the solitude-seeking.

This isolation was further entrenched when the King Range National Conservation Area was established by Congress in 1970 due to the area’s exceptional natural beauty and diverse ecosystems.

In 1978, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated the Lost Coast as a “wilderness study area.” This designation came under the National Landscape Conservation System and safeguarded the coastal haven from encroaching development.

Notable figures such as John Muir and David Brower advocated for the preservation of California’s coastal treasures, inspiring a grassroots movement to protect the Lost Coast from encroaching development. Their vision, coupled with community support and governmental cooperation, paved the way for the trail’s official designation in 1980.

The creation of the King Range Wilderness in 2006, encompassing the Lost Coast Trail, marked another significant conservation milestone. This effort, recognized and managed by the BLM, further solidified the commitment to preserving the wild character of the land, subsequently enhancing the trail’s allure for trekkers and nature enthusiasts.

It was the collaborative efforts of conservationists, local communities, and the government that shaped the Lost Coast Trail’s preservation and development.

Today, the trail represents both a triumph in ecological conservation and a perennial challenge for those who walk its winding paths, as it has for decades, standing as a testament to the beauty and resilience of California’s northern coast.

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Key Facts about the Lost Cost Trail

Black Sandy Beach

  • Location: Northern California, Humboldt County, within the King Range National Conservation Area.
  • Total Length: Approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers).
  • Time it takes to hike: typically 3 to 4 days, depending on the hiking pace and itinerary.
  • Trailhead(s): The northern trailhead is near Mattole Beach (location), while the southern trailhead is near Black Sands Beach, near Shelter Cove (location).
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate to strenuous, with challenging terrain including steep ascents and descents, rocky beaches, and potential obstacles such as tide pools.
  • Number of Visitors: Varies depending on the season, but generally less crowded compared to other popular hiking destinations in California.
  • Established: Designated as a National Recreation Trail in 1980.
  • Total Elevation Gain: Approximately 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) throughout the trail, but can be more when accounting for the numerous ascents and descents along the trail.
  • Best Time or Season to Hike: May to early October, with the peak season being July and August to avoid heavy rains and impassable river crossings.
  • Lowest Point: sea level, directly on the coastline.
  • Highest Point: King Peak (location), with an elevation of 4,088 feet (1,246 meters), although the trail itself does not summit this peak.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Directions

The Lost Coast Trail Expedition

The Lost Coast Trail, nestled within the King Range National Conservation Area, offers a secluded adventure along Northern California’s rugged coastline. This trail is a treasure for those seeking a remarkable backpacking trip through one of the state’s most pristine environments.

Difficulty Levels and Popular Sections

Hiking the Lost Coast Trail can be a challenging endeavor. The trail requires sound physical fitness due to its soft sand and patches of loose stones, which make beach hiking particularly strenuous. Sections like Sea Lion Gulch, with its rocky outcroppings and high tide zones, offer hikers dramatic views of barking sea lions but also present significant obstacles.

The route from Mattole Beach Trailhead, the northern trailhead, down to Black Sands Beach includes nearly 24.6 miles of beach trails and is considered moderately leveled, yet some parts near Horse Mountain Creek and around King Peak offer harder climbs and require careful planning.

Route Options and Highlights

  • Northern Section: Starting from the northern section, which spans approximately 24.6 miles (about 40 km), the trail extends from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach (interactive map). Timing your hike with the tide tables is crucial, especially when traversing the four-mile-long impassable zone around Punta Gorda Lighthouse, which can only be crossed during low tide. You will encounter the grandeur of King Range Wilderness, the enchantment of tide pools, and the solitude of Miller Flat.
  • Southern Section: En route to the southern trailhead, the trail takes a more serene turn through Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, stretching approximately 9 miles (14 km), offering views of elephant seals. Backpackers must navigate the soft sands, wet sands, and receding tide while passing through areas like Gitchell Creek (location), which demands alertness to tide safety and sometimes necessitates the use of trekking poles to maintain stability. The southward journey ends at the Black Sands Beach trailhead, near Shelter Cove, a perfect spot to reflect on the journey.

Safety and Conservation

Every hiker venturing onto the Lost Coast Trail is responsible for not just their safety but also for protecting the delicate ecosystem of this remote area. Obtain a walk-up permit at the King Range Visitor Center and ensure a backcountry permit for overnight camping.

Beware of the poison oak along the fresh waters of Randall Creek and Fourmile Creek, and prepare for stream crossings that can be treacherous during high tide. A well-planned itinerary that takes high tide and tide levels into account is essential to avoid impassable zones and to hike slower, yet surely, on firm sand.

Impassable Zones and Their Glimmering Rewards

The Lost Coast Trail has several sections that are considered “impassable” during high tide. However, these areas offer stunning rewards for the more daring hikers who time their journey right.

  • Impassable Zone 1: Punta Gorda Lighthouse: One of the most iconic landmarks along the trail is Punta Gorda Lighthouse, a picturesque structure perched atop a rocky outcropping. During low tide, the trail takes you right past the lighthouse for a breathtaking view and photo opportunity.
  • Impassable Zone 2: Sea Lion Gulch to Randall Creek (4 miles or 6.4 km): This section offers the most challenging terrain on the trail, with steep ascents and descents over rocky cliffs. However, those who brave this section are rewarded with stunning views of sea lions sunbathing on rocks.
  • Impassable Zone 3: Miller Flat to Gitchell Creek (3 miles, or 4.8 km): This section is known for its remote and rugged beauty. With no alternative route, hikers must cross this impassable zone during low tide. Along the way, you may encounter a variety of wildlife, including black bears, river otters, and even rare sightings of the elusive mountain lion.
  • Impassable zone 4: Big Flat Creek to Shipman Creek (5 miles or 8 km): This section is notable for its breathtaking views of sea stacks and remote beaches. During low tide, hikers can explore the hidden coves and tide pools along the way. Keep an eye out for rare seabirds such as bald eagles and ospreys.

Check out NOAA-Tide Predictions (the closest reading is from Shelter Cove) for accurate tide information, and plan your hike accordingly.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike and Weather Conditions

The Lost Coast Trail

The Lost Coast Trail travels through the King Range National Conservation Area, presenting diverse weather conditions that vary with each season, influenced by its location in Northern California and proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

Hikers can expect a mix of coastal fog, mild temperatures, and occasional precipitation throughout the year.

Spring (March to May)

During spring, the weather begins to warm up, with average temperatures ranging from 10°C to 18°C (50°F to 64°F). This season is marked by the blooming of wildflowers and an increase in wildlife activity.

Hikers on the Lost Coast Trail can enjoy mild weather but should be mindful of the potential for rain and the presence of poison oak along creeks like Randall and Fourmile.

It’s also important to obtain a King Range wilderness permit and to heed tide charts, as this period can have fluctuating tide levels affecting beach hiking and the impassable zones near Punta Gorda Lighthouse.

Summer (June to August)

Summer is the peak hiking season on the Lost Coast Trail, with temperatures ranging from 12°C to 21°C (54°F to 70°F). The warmer and drier climate makes it perfect for exploring areas such as Sea Lion Gulch and Miller Flat, while beach hiking is pleasant on the soft and firm sand by the shoreline.

It’s also essential to carry plenty of water and sun protection during the summer months, as temperatures can rise quickly, especially during inland sections of the trail. Additionally, summer is the peak season for wildlife sightings, including elephant seals and seabirds.

Hikers must continue to navigate high tide conditions near points like Shipman Creek and use trekking poles for stability on wet sand.

Backpackers should still reserve an overnight camping permit and schedule their hikes around the low tides to avoid impassable zones, especially during the early summer fog.

Fall (September to November)

Fall brings cooler temperatures ranging from 9°C to 20°C (48°F to 68°F ) and the chance of early storms. The season is an ideal time for solitude and witnessing the migration of elephant seals in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.

The trail from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach offers stunning vistas of the California coastline amid changing foliage. However, trekkers must remain vigilant about early winter weather patterns and prepare for possible stream crossings at Big Flat Creek and swift tide changes along the impassable zone.

Winter (December to February)

Winter on the Lost Coast can be rugged and harsh, with temperatures dropping between 4°C and 14°C (40°F and 58°F) and increased precipitation.

Backpacking during this season is for the experienced hiker, equipped for the dramatic shifts of Northern California’s winter climate. Beach hiking may be challenging due to high tides and receding tide conditions, and attention to tide safety is paramount.

A tide chart is an essential tool for planning around high tides and impassable zones. Streams like Gitchell Creek become swollen, and trails near rocky outcroppings require careful navigation.

The Lost Coast offers a rugged, unpredictable adventure year-round, and understanding the varied climate and weather patterns is key to a successful trek. Always check with government sources, such as the National Weather Service and the Bureau of Land Management for the latest information before setting out on your journey along the Lost Coast.

Recommended Gear

The Lost Coast Trail

When planning your backpacking trip along the beautiful California coastline, especially if you are starting from San Francisco, be mindful of the timing and research the low tide schedule to ensure that you traverse impassable zones safely.

Adequate preparation with the right gear will enrich your experience and bolster your safety as you explore this remote segment of the California coastline.

The trail’s nature, from soft sand to wet sand to rocky outcroppings, necessitates specialized equipment.

  • Footwear: For wet and unpredictable terrains, fast-drying shoes are indispensable. An extra pair of water shoes can be a game changer for coastal sections, allowing for ease of passage through water without compromising on foot protection. However, there may be parts of the trail where going barefoot is the most sensible option, especially on sandy beaches where shoes can become burdensome. Nonetheless, for the majority of the trail, trail runners are highly recommended. They offer a balance of lightweight flexibility and sturdy support, making them ideal for handling the diverse conditions of the Lost Coast, from soft sandy beaches to rugged, rocky outcroppings. 
  • Camping Gear: Always pack a lightweight yet robust tent for overnight camping, especially when hiking through the southern section known for its exposure to the elements.
  • Essential Accessories: Trekking poles can provide stability on uneven ground and help test the firmness in soft sand areas.
  • Bear Safety: Given the presence of wildlife, including bear tracks along the trail, it’s important to practice proper bear safety measures. Store food securely in bear cans and avoid leaving any scented items unattended. Familiarize yourself with wildlife safety tips and guidelines to minimize the risk of encounters.
  • Safety Equipment: Due to the risk of sneaker waves and impassable zones, it is imperative to carry a reliable tide chart and to understand tide safety principles. Hikers should be aware of the dangers posed by private property and stay within public land boundaries.
  • Cooking Supplies: Consider investing in a high-quality camping stove for cooking meals in the backcountry. Nonetheless, check regulations about stove use, as they can change with fire danger levels.
  • Permits and Fees: Be sure to secure a backcountry permit and pay the necessary recreation fee. For those hoping for a spontaneous hike, know that there is typically at least one walk-up permit available each day.
  • Navigation Tools: Stay on course with reliable navigation tools, including maps, compasses, and GPS devices. Be prepared for the possibility of getting lost or encountering unexpected obstacles, such as rocky outcroppings or impassable zones.
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Navigating the Lost Coast Trail: Maps, Markers, Permits, and Regulations

Lost Coast Trail

Before embarking on your Lost Coast Trail adventure, thorough planning is required to ensure compliance with local regulations and to have a safe and enjoyable experience.

Permits

The first step is to secure a permit, which is crucial as the trail’s popularity mandates capacity restrictions to preserve its wild character. Permits for the King Range Wilderness can be acquired from Recreation.gov, where you will find up-to-date availability for the Lost Coast Trail, including Mattole Beach and Black Sands Beach trailheads.

If you wish to avoid the permit reservation process, you have the option of securing one walk-up permit typically available each day for spontaneous travelers; however, early arrival at trailheads is advised, as demand for these permits can be high.

Click here for more information and/or to request a Special Recreation Permit.

Maps and Markers

Navigating the trail calls for detailed and durable maps that outline key topographical features and landmarks such as Sea Lion Gulch, Punta Gorda Lighthouse, Miller Flat, Gitchell Creek, and King Peak. These are available at the King Range National Conservation Area and can be supplemented with tide charts and GPS coordinates obtained from the King Range Visitor Center.

Hikers must be vigilant about the timing of high tides at impassable zones like Randall Creek and Shipman Creek, as the trail often runs right along the shoreline. Reliable tide tables are a must-have and can be found through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tide tables.

Markers along the Lost Coast can be sparse; therefore, having a good sense of direction and the ability to read natural signage, such as rock formations at Fourmile Creek or Horse Mountain Creek, is essential. Moreover, if you’re starting from San Francisco or another urban area, expect a distinct change in environment, and adjust your mindset accordingly.

Check out this interactive map for a detailed overview of the trail and its various segments. Alternatively, you can order a King Range / Lost Coast map from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). 

Regulations

To respect the land and its inhabitants, familiarize yourself with all trail regulations cited by the regional authorities and environmental boards.

  • Be mindful of the soft and wet sand conditions
  • Take precautions against poison oak and be prepared for swift weather changes.

The King Range Wilderness and Sinkyone Wilderness State Parks have specific guidelines to preserve their ecosystems, which extend protection to local flora and fauna. Ensure adherence to these rules to contribute to conservation efforts and a sustainable outdoor recreational environment.

Lost Coast Trail Itinerary: 3-Days and 2-Nights SOBO Hike

The Lost Coast Trail

If you’re planning to spend more than one night on the Lost Coast Trail, we’ve laid out a suggested itinerary that will allow for ample time to explore various points of interest along the way.

Day 1: Black Sands Beach to Horse Mountain Creek Camp (about 4 miles or 6 km)

Your journey on the Lost Coast Trail begins at the southern terminus. The beach, known for its dark sands, offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and a picturesque start to your hike.

As you head north, the trail meanders along the coast, providing hikers with a unique beach-walking experience. Keep an eye out for the impressive intertidal zones, where you might spot the vibrant marine life unique to this region.

After about 2 miles (3.2 km), the trail leads you through a series of small bluffs, offering vantage points with panoramic views of sea stacks. You will continue trekking until you finally arrive at Horse Mountain Creek Camp. Set up your tent atop one of the slightly raised and grassy sites to ensure protection from high tides.

Day 2: Horse Mountain Creek Camp to Kinsey Creek Camp (about 7 miles or 11 km)

Embark on the second day of your hike towards the serenity of Gitchell Creek. Here, you can take a quick, refreshing dip.

As you resume your journey, you’ll find yourself at Sunset Camp, an expansive area for a break from the soft sand with solid, even terrain for a stretch. The grassy plains and scattered driftwood can offer a chance to rest.

Continue trekking along the waterline, where you’ll encounter Buck Creek (location). The creek presents a modest challenge to cross, depending on the tide’s timing.

Your journey proceeds to Shipman Creek, a location less traveled during high tide but where the peaceful gurgling of the stream can be noticed at low tide.

Approaching Big Flat (location), the terrain becomes a mixture of pebbled shores and shelving rocks where tide pools teem with marine creatures. Next, you’ll have to navigate inland to cross the Big Creek (location).

After passing these waypoints, you will notice Kinsey Creek (location). This day’s endpoint treats hikers with the chance to watch a painter’s palette of colors as the sun sets, ideally viewed from one of the slightly elevated campsites.

Remember to check tide tables and local weather before progressing to ensure safe crossings and overall preparedness for any sudden changes in weather conditions.

Day 3: Kinsey Creek Camp to Mattole Beach (about 12 miles or 19.2 km)

Begin your third day at Kinsey Creek Camping Spot. As you embark northward, your first notable section is Spanish Creek, with its outcropping rocks and a dramatic backdrop of heavily forested hills. The creek is an ideal lunch stop where you can refuel and perhaps even spot local fauna that frequents the area for water.

Continuing along the trail, your approach to Randall Creek will require mindful timing; this part of the hike is known for being impassable during high tide. The surrounding cliffs offer no detour; thus, a good understanding of tidal patterns is essential.

Next, Cooskie Creek offers a sense of seclusion, surrounded by lush greenery and occasional wildflowers, depending on the season. It’s a perfect spot to replenish water supplies or take a short rest. There is also a campground for those embarking on the SOBO journey.

Sea Lion Gulch is the second last noteworthy stop before reaching Punta Gorda Lighthouse. The trail will test hikers with a short but steep ascent, followed by an equally challenging descent.

Finally, after about 12 miles (19.2 km), you’ve reached your destination at Mattole Beach, the northern terminus of the Lost Coast Trail.

Camping Along the Lost Coast Trail

Lost Coast Trail Expedition

During the journey through the Lost Coast Trail, securing a camping spot is as important as packing your Silverlight hiking socks.

  1. Mattole Area: Camping at Mattole Trailhead Area is a frequent starting point for many adventurers. It provides essential amenities and is a great place to rest before beginning the trek.
  2. Camping near Shelter Cove: Camping near Shelter Cove is also a viable option with Wailaki Campground, the Nadelos Campground, and a bit further out, the Tolkan Campground. Each site offers a distinct experience, and reservations are strongly recommended, especially during peak travel seasons.

Primitive Beach Camping:

Along the Lost Coast Trail, there are no specific campsites, but hikers can camp in areas that appear to have already been used as campsites. This approach to wild camping also helps to minimize environmental impact and keep the trail pristine for future visitors. Be sure to check if a California Campfire Permit is required if you plan on using a stove or building a campfire.

Any of the below sites are excellent options for setting up camp, listed from south to north, including Horse Mountain Creek, Gitchell Creek, Buck Creek, Shipman Creek, Big Flat, Big Creek, Kinsey Creek, Spanish Creek, Randall Creek, and Cooskie Creek.

Note that overnight camping along the Lost Coast Trail requires King Range Wilderness Permits, which can be obtained through Recreation.gov or the King Range Wilderness Permits (Lost Coast) page. Note that no walk-up permits are available.

Alternative Accommodations:

When it comes to alternative accommodations, hotels, motels, and inns are found in nearby towns such as Garberville (direction), offering comfort after arduous days on the trail.

  • The Castle Inn of the Lost Coast: This unique luxury bed and breakfast offers cozy rooms, a hot tub, and a complimentary homemade breakfast to start your day off right.
  • Inn of the Lost Coast: This quirky inn features themed rooms inspired by local legends and lore, perfect for adding a touch of adventure to your stay.
  • Spyglass Inn at Shelter Cove: This small, budget-friendly hotel offers ocean views and a convenient location near the beach and town amenities. Note: Reservations are strongly recommended for any alternative accommodations, as they can be booked up quickly during peak season

It’s advisable to book these well in advance, especially during the summer months. Also, before planning your visit or booking a permit, please visit the King Range National Conservation Area page for information such as maps, tide safety, condition reports, and regulations.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Lost Coast Trail

Embarking on the adventure of the Lost Coast Trail requires preparation, particularly when it comes to transportation.

For most travelers, the journey begins at one of the major airports, with San Francisco International Airport being the nearest major hub. From there, it’s approximately a 5-hour scenic drive north to reach the gateway to the King Range Wilderness and the Lost Coast Trail.

Here’s how you can get from the airport to the trail:

From San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to the Northern Section of the Trail

To reach the northern terminus at Mattole Recreation Site, travelers will navigate a series of winding roads through stunning landscapes, taking US-101 N and CA-211 N. Due to the remote nature of the area, renting a car is the most viable option since public transportation services are limited.

From San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to the Southern Section of the Trail

The southern starting point near Shelter Cove is accessed by following US-101 N to Redway, then Briceland Road leading to Shelter Cove Road. The road meanders through the thick of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park before opening up to the coastal beauty of the southern section of the trail.

From Humboldt County

For those approaching from Humboldt County, located further north, the nearest airport is the California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport (ACV), located about 3 hours from the trail’s northern endpoint.

From the airport, take US-101 S to Ferndale and follow the signs to Petrolia and Mattole Beach.

Shuttle Services and Transportation Tips

While hiking along the Lost Coast, one of the logistical challenges includes the setup of transportation since the northern and southern sections are far apart.

Some choose to use two vehicles, parking one at each end, though most opt for the convenience of a shuttle ride to return to their starting point.

local shuttle services:

Several local shuttle services offer reliable transport solutions that navigate the private property areas and drop hikers at their desired trailhead.

  • Lost Coast Adventure Tours: This shuttle service caters to hikers trekking the Lost Coast Trail, offering customizable trips that suit your schedule. They run at least two shuttles a day, depending on demand: once at 7 a.m. and once midday at 12:30 p.m.
  • Mendo Insider Tours: Though a bit further away, this service provides shuttle arrangements for larger groups planning their Lost Coast adventure.

Private Transportation:

Alternatively, travelers can rent a car or arrange for private transportation to the trailhead. While driving offers flexibility and independence, be mindful of road conditions and parking availability at trailhead locations.

Conclusion

Hiking the Lost Coast Trail is more than just a physical journey; it’s a meditation on solace and an immersion into the essence of the wild.

Whether it’s the euphoria of reaching the rocky pinnacle near King Peak or the serenity of camping north of Telegraph Creek with a receding tide as your soundtrack, the Lost Coast Trail offers a unique journey through the diverse landscapes along the California coastline.

From the northern section’s relative level ground to the southern stretch’s moderate elevation change, this hike presents an opportunity for solitude, challenge, and the natural beauty of the untouched coast, all within a few hundred miles of San Francisco.

If you’re looking for more amazing hikes in the United States, check out our Hikes and Trails Guide.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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