How to Backpack the Lost Coast Trail

This August I finally checked off a big item on my bucket list - I backpacked the Lost Coast! A 25-mile trek along California’s most rugged coastline, the Lost Coast Trail is a mysterious destination I’ve heard about for years.

Growing up in California, I’ve seen just about every mile of Hwy 1 tracing up and down our shores. But until this past weekend I never laid eyes on the stretch of coastline that was too wild for any paved road.

My boyfriend Chris and I left work early on a Thursday afternoon and made the 4 hour drive North from San Francisco to Garberville. After filling the truck with gas and checking our phones one last time, we drove west on 20 miles of winding road to our campsite near Shelter Cove.

The next morning called for an early wake-up in order to make our 7am shuttle at Black Sands Beach trailhead. We packed up the truck there in the parking lot where we would eventually end our hike. Our shuttle driver filled the 2 hour drive with stories of the surrounding marijuana industry. Before we knew it we were standing with our packs on at Matthole Trailhead - the northernmost tip of the Lost Coast Trail. 

This stretch of trail is some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen, but it's equally dangerous. Preparing your gear, researching the tides, and calculating your route are all essential tasks prior to starting the hike. If hiking the Lost Coast Trail is a adventure you’ve set your heart on, here is everything you need to know.

Planning Your Trip

The Trail & the Tides

The Lost Coast Trail is most commonly hiked from Matthole Trailhead to Shelter Cove. There is a section that spans farther south but it is less frequented by hikers. This post only focuses on the 25 mile route from Matthole to Shelter Cove, which usually takes backpackers 3-4 days to complete. This particular region of California is best visited during the summer months from May through September. Though coastal fog is present year-round, the winter month's bring rain storms that make hiking dangerous.

The funny thing about the Lost Coast Trail is that only a fraction of the route consists of actual trail. Most of this trek is over slanted, sandy beaches and long stretches of rock fields. There are 3 sections of the trail that are impassible during high tide. Make sure you study the tides and print out a tide chart with you for your trip. Click here to search the Lost Coast tide predictions.

Permits

First things's first - get your permit! You cannot hike the Lost Coast without King Range Wilderness permits. Click here to see which dates are available and make reservations. Be sure to reserve at least 3 days of hiking between your entrance date and exit date.

Directions

The Lost Coast Trail in the King Range National Conservation Area is about five hours north of San Francisco. To get to Shelter Cove, take the Garberville exit off Highway 101, heading west on Shelter Cove Road. Take a right on Beach Road, and continue about a mile to the Black Sands Beach parking lot. Get Google Maps directions to the Black Sands Beach trailhead.

Book the Shuttle

The Shuttle is worth the $70 per head. It's a harrowing, 2 hour drive from Shelter Cove to Matthole trailhead and there are several dirt road detours around landslides that would make driving your own car difficult. You should also take note that most of the properties along the roads have grow operations that aren't exactly welcoming to strangers in need of directions. 

There are two shuttle services available: Lost Coast Shuttle or Lost Coast Adventures. We made reservations with Lost Coast Adventures to transport us from Black Sands Beach on the south end of the trail to Mattole Beach on the north end of the trail.

Camping Before/After the trail

There are six designated campgrounds in the King Range: Mattole, Honeydew Creek, Horse Mountain, Tolkan, Nadelos and Wailaki. Campsites are first-come, first-served and open year-round. Wailaki is the best campground for car camping close to the Black Sands Beach Trailhead before/after your trip.

 

Trip Overview

Day 1

Start: Matthole trailhead
End: Spanish Flat
Total Mileage: ~10 miles

On day 1 we started hiking from Matthole trailhead at 9:30am. There was a cool ocean breeze but the sun was strong enough to require a hat and sunscreen. The first portion of trail began on a wide, sandy beach, but it quickly transitioned to pebbles and short sections of dirt.

The first "impassable zone" of the trail (an area that is not passable during high tide) is 2.5 miles in. We looked at our tide charts ahead of time and knew that it would be low tide at the time we passed through this area. It was helpful to wear our GPS watches to calculate our mileage and understand where we were on the trail map.

One of the first milestones on the trail is Punta Gorda Lighthouse, where we stopped to take photos and eat a snack. About 3 miles beyond the lighthouse is Sea Lion Gulch, which is a popular camp spot for folks who spread the hike over 4 days. Hiking through the sand took us a bit longer than we expected, so we had to wait a couple hours at Sea Lion Gulch for the high tide to recede in the next 4 mile "impassable zone."

Around 3pm we were able to get back on trail and finish our hike to Spanish Flat - a large grassy field with campsites sitting on a small ridge above the beach. Randall Creek was an excellent spot to collect more water directly before entering Spanish Flat.

Day 2

Start: Spanish Flat
End: Miller Flat
Total Mileage: ~8 miles

On day 2 we slept in until 8am and slowly packed up our camp. Our route for the day did not include an "impassable zone," so we didn't feel rushed by the tide schedule. We woke up to a dense layer of fog and kept our down jackets on until we started the hike.

The trail offered us lots of solid ground this day, and even an old jeep trail to follow along. We passed by a couple beautiful, remote cabins on private property along the trail. The trees start to populate more closely to the ocean at this point, so we made a mental note to watch for bears.

By mid afternoon we reached Miller Flat - our camp destination for the day. After collecting water upstream at Big Flat Creek, we scoped the next couple miles for the best campsite. Our goal was to find a good spot right before the next "impassable zone", but we decided to backtrack to Big Flat Creek where we saw the best campsites. This was our last evening on the trail and we wanted to make it special!

We found the most scenic campsite available (there were a couple other groups at this spot), and collected wood for a little fire. Lucky for us, fires were permitted during this time. We enjoyed the sunset-soaked fog and made a large dinner. We even broke out the whiskey flask.

Day 3

Start: Miller Flat
End: Black Sands Beach
Total Mileage: ~8 miles

The third day of hiking was by far the most challenging of the trip. From long sections of ankle-spraining rocks to endless stretches of deep sand, it was certainly a test of strength and positive attitude! Luckily this section of the Lost Coast is also the most beautiful. The ocean shines aqua in little coves and parts of the hike even feel tropical.

Then there were the bear tracks. Yes, there were big fresh bear tracks in the sand ahead of us. We saw them for miles and wondered if the bear was right around the bend. The bear never appeared, but miles and miles of sand certainly did. It was only during the last two miles of the hike that I noticed the little blue and yellow houses up on the ridge - the marker for Black Sands Beach trailhead. 

A bag of Oreos was opened as soon as we reached the truck. When the pain in our feet subsided we were able to reflect on all the immense beauty we had just passed through.

The Lost Coast Trail Tips

What to Wear

The weather is variable throughout the day and there is poison oak lining the trail. Both of these factors play a huge role in what to wear for a comfy, enjoyable trip. 

What to wear while hiking: 

  • Durable, waterproof hiking boots
  • Gaiters (to keep all the sand/pebbles out of your boots)
  • Hiking Socks
  • Lightweight and breathable pants (to protect your legs from poison oak and lots of thorns)
  • A sweat-wicking tee shirt
  • Have a light long-sleeve layer accessible (in case the fog rolls in)
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen

What to pack in a dry bag for evenings:

  • Spare underwear
  • A 2nd pair of hiking socks
  • Merino wool t-shirt
  • Lightweight Down Jacket
  • Leggings for down-time or sleeping
     

What to Pack

60-65 Liter backpack
Sleeping bag & waterproof compression sack
Sleeping pad
Inflatable pillow
Bear Canister
3 liter water bladder
Water Purifier & Reservoir
Camp Stove & Cups
Headlamps & Lantern
Knife/Tool
Toilet paper in a zip-lock bag & Trowel
Playing Cards
Camp Sandals
Food for 3-4 days

Bear Canisters Required

Bear canisters are required throughout the King Range National Conservation Area. Yes, there are bears on the Lost Coast. We saw bear tracks all along the beach on the last day of our trip. You can rent canisters from the ranger station for $5 per canister, per trip at these three locations. Chris and I each own this bear canister so that we don't have to rent.

Water Sources

There are ample streams for filtering water along the Lost Coast Trail. Chris and I each hiked with 3 liter bladders in our pack, and we had a 2 liter reservoir with our water filter. I recommend looking at the map each morning before you hike, picking out your next camp destination, and then choosing the nearest stream before that point. This way you are prepared with all your cooking water when you get to camp.

Where to Camp on the trail

The BLM has a phrase "Good Campsites are Found Not Made." Find a campsite that looks like someone slept there before. This will help concentrate use and keep undisturbed areas pristine. Campfire restrictions typically go into effect mid-June through October, but this depends on fire danger conditions. You can check the website or call the King Range Project Office for current restrictions. There are rock fire rings at most little campsites along the trail.

No Bathrooms

The King Range Wilderness has no bathrooms (duh). Rangers advise to dig a 6-8” inch hole in wet sand in the intertidal zone, as close to the ocean as safely possible. The ocean will break everything down on the next high tide. Pack-out your toilet paper.

Apres-hike

If we had one more night to spare, I would have happily booked a room at the Oceanfront Inn. Quick to start the drive home to San Francisco and get in bed early, we loaded up on snacks at Shelter Cove General Store.

The Legend of Bigfoot gift shop is a goofy pit stop before exiting the Redwood forests and setting back out to Highway. You can't miss it. 

The next morning spent in the city was a harsh return to civilization, but my muscle soreness was a wonderful reminder of the rogue wilderness that caused it.