With Memorial Day, Fourth of July and other fun summer weekends around the corner, you’re probably looking for a way to get outdoors and enjoy the long days and even longer weekends. Oftentimes, our favorite way to take full advantage of those summer holiday weekends is just a simple, short backpacking trip. Today, then, we wanted to share with you one of our all-time favorite hikes in the States—the Lost Coast Trail. Read on, and start lacing up those hiking boots now.
The Lost Coast Trail is a 25-mile hike through the King Range National Conservation Area in northern California, right along the Pacific Ocean (you’re hiking within feet of the water the entire time). The trail starts at Mattole Beach up north and ends at the small town of Shelter Cove down south. You can complete the trail in 3 days, but we chose a more leisurely pace and completed it in 4 (hiking about 5-7 miles each day).
Thanks to the beautiful northern California weather, you can also hike the trail year-round, which is another reason we love it...not to mention the unbelievable sunsets.
The terrain is fairly difficult—you’re hiking on sand for a majority of the distance, which can become tiring and tedious after a while (especially on your calves). You’ll also make your way over slippery stones that have been weathered by the waves over the years (which can make it hard to keep your footing), through rock-peppered beaches, and along grassy cliff-sides if you choose (we'd walk along the cliffside where we could to give our legs a break from the sand).
You don’t need to be an expert hiker to complete the trail by any means, but it definitely shouldn’t be the first hike you ever take.
Dogs are allowed, and we chose to bring ours, which made for a great time. If your dog likes the water and has been on hikes before, he or she will love the trail, as they can run into the ocean for a quick dip nearly anytime they want (ours even came fairly close to a Sea Lion for a bit).
Don’t forget to get your pup a good pair of booties to protect his or her paws—the sand can cut their paws and get stuck in between their paw pads. We used these Ruffwear Vibram-soled dog hiking boots from REI and they worked super well. We also brought along paw protection wax in case the boots didn’t work out, as we weren’t sure how our pup would fare with the boots.
Keep in mind, you should hike the trail from north to south to keep the winds at your back.
Shelter Cove is about five hours north of San Francisco. We drove in from the Reno area, which took nearly seven hours. Use Google Maps to get directions (to the Mattole trailhead up north and the Black Sands Beach trailhead down south, or find directions here). If flying in, the Arcata/Eureka airport is the nearest airport, and it's served by United and Horizon airlines.
You’ll need to plan ahead to ensure you have transportation between the two trailheads. We chose to park a car at each end of the trail, but there are also shuttle services available. We took two cars and parked one down at Black Sands Beach parking lot (the lot in Shelter Cove at the south end of the trail, where we ended the hike). We then all hopped in the larger car and drove it north to Mattole River Trailhead, where we started the trail. That way, we had transportation at each trailhead and weren’t stranded when we were finished with the hike.
Keep in mind that driving between the two trailheads is windy, difficult and, at times, a little scary. While the drive is short in distance, it took us about three hours to complete, as the roads were extremely windy (so take a Dramamine or two if you’re prone to car sickness). That being said, the drive was actually pretty fun, as it added to the adventurous feel of the entire trip.
Bear canisters are required
Don’t forget to keep ALL food in your canister and know your bear-safety tips.
Keep an eye out for poison oak
You’ll often be tempted to hike off the trail into welcoming, cool grasses and forested areas. If you choose to leave the sand for a bit, keep an eye out for poison oak, as it can live amongst those greener, shady, inviting areas.
Watch out for ticks and Rattlesnakes
Be sure to pack a tick key, and keep an eye out for snakes in hot sand. We didn’t see any snakes but did have one person in our crew who ended up with a few ticks. Be sure to check your dog regularly for ticks as well.
Be sure to grab a permit
Permits are required. They’re free and available at either trailhead, and you self-issue them. You’ll simply grab one, fill it out (itinerary info, the number of people in your group, etc.) and attach it to your pack. You may run into a ranger or two on the trail who will ask to see you permit.
Bring a Tide Predictions Table
We can’t stress this one enough. You can pick up a tide calendar at the general store in Shelter Cove or find one online. There is a stretch of the trail where large rocks butt right up against the incoming ocean waters, making the area impassable at high tide. Getting stuck in this area at high tide is extremely dangerous, so be sure you plan your hike accordingly. You’ll want to hit that area of the hike at low tide and work your way through it fairly fast. As long as you plan in advance, though, you’ll be fine. (If you’re unsure of how to read a tide table, you can find more information here.)
What to Bring
- Bear canister (*required)
- Bear spray
- Tick key
- Poison Oak cream
- Tide table (*imperative)
- Water purifier and Iodine tablets
- First aid essentials
- Trail map (Download a detailed trail map here.)
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag (It gets cold at night.)
- Rain gear & a rainfly (The weather can change quickly, and we got rain a few nights. A rainfly for your tent is a MUST.)
- 4-5 days worth of food, Jetboil, kitchen gear, etc. (Fires were allowed the first time we hiked in 2010, but were not allowed the second time we hiked in July of 2014 due to the dry conditions.)
- Hiking clothes
- Worn-in hiking boots (Don’t make the mistake of hiking in brand-new boots)
- Good hiking socks (I prefer Smartwool brand, as they're super breathable.)
- Few pairs of hiking clothes
Personal Preference Items:
- Flip-flops/sandals to change into at end of day
- Surfboard if you’re an avid surfer (We saw a handful of hikers hiking with their boards, though I’d imagine this could become tiresome.)
- Reading material
- Hiking poles
- Food & treats
- Water (Always bring extra, as your dog will get super thirsty after long days on the trail.)
- Dog boots and paw protection wax
The Trail & What to Expect:
You’ll start at Mattole Beach and will hike a few miles into the picturesque Punta Gorda lighthouse. Be sure to snap a pic or two if you bring your camera.
The north end of the trail is mainly white sand, which is fairly soft, but can definitely tire out your calves pretty quick—drink lots of water if you’re prone to muscle cramping. You’ll also come across some rockier areas, so be sure to pay attention to where you step to avoid rolling your ankles.
We had to cross two creeks on the first day as well—the waters weren’t too deep, but they can rise fairly high during wet years. Be prepared for this. We brought hiking poles to help with the cross, something I'd definitely recommend if you're hiking during the spring when waters are likely higher.
We also came across gorgeous oysters on our first day of the hike and made the mistake of not grabbing any, as we assumed we’d come across more—we were wrong. The only spot we saw on the entire trail that had oysters were on the rocks at the very north end of the trail. Be sure to grab a few for dinner if you’re a seafood-lover.
You’ll find designated camp areas right on the beach (use the map you picked up at the general store) where you can set your tents up for the night. There are usually left behind driftwood shelters and windbreaks that you can take advantage of as well.
Be sure to set up camp in time to catch sunset, as you won’t want to miss it.
As you start to get to the southern end of the trail, the beaches turn into soft, black sand and the beach itself gets a little steeper (as if you’re hiking on an angle at times). There are also a handful of short trails that head off of the beach and into the King Range—if you’ve got some extra time, spend a few hours checking one out.
Camping on the south end is similar to what you’ll find on the north end—shelters and windbreaks left-behind by previous hikers are up for grabs, or, you can build your own, like we did.
You’ll end your hike at Shelter Cove and can walk right up to the Black Sands Beach Parking Lot where you left your car. We caught some beautiful fog to hike out in, which made for a beautiful (and easy) last day.
Overall, we loved the Lost Coast Trail and have made it a goal to go back at least once each year. It’s well worth the work and makes for an unforgettable three-day weekend.