If Malibu Beach comes to your mind first when you think about beach vacations in California, you should probably not venture out to the Lost Coast. But if you prefer Alaska to ‘Baywatch’, this is your spot. Even the road builders of the Wild West steered clear of this coast, steep and rugged as it is. All the better for us, as well as for sea lions, black bears and marijuana farmers who peacefully cohabit in this wilderness.
600 miles after its start in Los Angeles, Highway 1 ends abruptly on the southern rim of a steep rugged coastline. Here a part of the Wild West begins that is really just that: wild. For the lucky few who venture out to the Lost Coast, it is one of the best hiking spots in California.
When you leave your car dizzily after a five-hour-drive north from the Bay Area through ghost towns and cloud forests with giant redwoods, you have arrived in another world. The coast belongs to the wind and the waves, everything else is secondary. Even other hikers look tiny, their voices drift away after a few yards.
The Lost Coast is a National Conservation Area with 80 miles of hiking trails, of which the actual coast between Mattole Beach in the north and Shelter Cove (trailhead with parking) in the south makes up only 25 miles. As there is no public transportation connecting the two coastal towns, you have basically three options for your tour: You either hike a loop along the coast and back through the mountains; you hike along the beach between Shelter Cove and Mattole Beach and book a shuttle to bring you back to your car; or most ingeniously, you arrange with a second group hiking in the opposite direction to exchange car keys wherever you meet them on the beach. The shuttle tour through the mountains takes two to four hours and starts at $100 per person if you are two; in summer a reservation at Lost Coast Adventures or Mendo Insider Tours is recommended. The route from north to south is more popular because it gives you tailwind most of the time.
Provided that the weather is good enough, you can hike the Lost Coast year round: We did a loop in December and another one in the north in July.
If you decide on a pure beach hike, you cannot go astray: Just follow the coastline on sand, stones, and meadows. The only crux is the tides: Several stretches of coastline are impassable at high tide being too narrow. A printed tide calendar will help you match your route and time. Ideally, start through the critical stretches when the water has been falling for one or two hours – and not at low tide as this might not give you enough time to get out of the stretch before the high tide comes in. Watch out for very rare “rogue waves” which have already washed hikers and dogs into the sea.
Bears, whales, and forested hills: The Lost Coast – California’s own Alaska
At the “Flats” (Miller and Spanish) and “Creeks” (Buck and Shipman) small mountain valleys meet the coast and rivers demerge into deltas. They offer good camping but are sometimes crowded with other hikers in summer. You will see some intriguing wooden cabins on the beach here, but don’t check them out – there are several guarded marijuana plantations along the Lost Coast and the owners might not want to socialize.
Huge tree skeletons on the black beach let you imagine how much power storms (especially in winter) and wildfires, which unfold in summer, can have. We could easily cross the streams with sticks and water sandals, but after a rain they can be hip-deep and difficult or impossible to cross. This is why you should carefully check the weather forecast and trail conditions before you go.
Along the coast you can refill your water every few miles from one of the many streams. In the hills there are however only few sources which in dry years do not reliably provide water. If you plan a loop through the mountains in summer, call the ranger beforehand to see which stream on your route has water and could thus be a potential campsite. Once you are at the Lost Coast, you will probably not have any mobile network.
For your own hiker’s loo, dig a hole on the beach close to the water, so that the next flood washes it away. As weird as it sounds, this is the official rule for the Lost Coast. When you are in the hills, also dig a hole, but as everywhere keep a distance to streams.
Hiking a loop through the hills (King Crest Trail, connection to the coast, back on Lost Coast Trail) is significantly more strenuous than staying on the beach: they rise from 0 to 4,300 feet, it can be difficult to find the paths and they are often blocked by fallen trees.
However, you can flexibly extend or shorten those loops as there are multiple paths connecting the hills with the beach. But the view from above is worth the effort and this is cheaper than the coast trail since it doesn’t force you to take a shuttle. Our 65-mile-loop from the Horse Mountain Trailhead through the mountains down to the Spanish Flat and back along the coast took us four days.
Big furry friends
You’re not traveling alone. All over the hills and valleys of the Lost Coast wild rangers are hiding only to catch you without a permit or a bear canister. Joking apart, there are indeed a few rules and rangers who check them. Permits are free, but mandatory; you can fill one out at the main trailheads.
What really matters is a bear canister – if you forget that one, you might soon make big furry friends. Odors attract bears from a great distance, their sense of smell is said to be seven times better than that of dogs. Once a bear finds food close to humans, it will remember. This is dangerous for both sides; to avoid human casualties, rangers often have to shoot these “conditioned” bears. All the more important to carry your food, cosmetics and garbage in closed bear canisters which can be kept in backpacks during the day and at a certain distance of your tent during the night. If you have no such canister, you can borrow them here – just check the opening time and availability beforehand. Also don’t leave any leftovers in your car.
The good news: Black bears are relatively shy, especially those of the Lost Coast. Unlike in tourist areas such as Yosemite, hikers have not already spoiled them. We have seen fresh bear tracks in both directions at Miller Flat and the Spanish Creek. They might have watched us looking for them, but didn’t show themselves. On our drive back though, a black bear suddenly stepped out between sequoias and trotted across the street in front of our car, looking bored. If you get to face one while hiking, talk calmly, make yourself tall, take small children on your shoulders and walk back slowly without turning your back on it.
All in all, don’t worry too much about rogue waves and black bears: Your risk to encounter ticks (in tall grass), rattlesnakes (in the grass or in driftwood) or Poison Oak is way higher.
We have more slow-mo travel ideas in our California Outdoor Calendar. Please leave your questions and comments below.
What to prepare: For campfires and even for cooking you should print yourself a California Campfire Permit by answering a few questions. That’s about as “difficult” as to pass a US driver’s license… The most important lesson: Use existing campfire sites and extinguish the fire with water before you go to bed.
What to read: The website of the Bureau for Land Management has additional information and digital maps which give you a quick overview. To avoid getting stuck at high tide, you will however need to buy this detailed map with additional information in a local store or order it at the BLM: King Range, National Conservation Area, The Lost Coast. Arcata Field Office. Scale: ca 1:100.000, $5.
What to take: Sturdy hiking shoes (or try sneakers), hiking socks with nylon stockings underneath (trick to avoid blisters); tent, sleeping bag with inlet, sleeping pad; good map, for mountain trails possibly compass, GPS; water purification tablets (!); pocket knife; water sandals for crossing the rivers; possibly hiking poles; a headlamp with spare batteries per person; sunscreen and sunglasses; raincoat, fleece sweater; toilet paper, small shovel, hand sanitizer; 2-3 liters of water per person; dry food, stove and pot; first aid kit (with tick tweezers and blister plasters); bear canister (a BV500/ 11.5 liters was sufficient for two people/ four days).
If you forget something (as we did), don’t expect to find REI in little Mattole; the last outdoor shop is located several hours before the Lost Coast, in Ukiah.
Next post (#5): Kayaking on Utah’s Green River:
When you paddle deeper into Labyrinth Canyon, you will face new adventures and new weather around every bend. This surreal place will cast its spell on you.