A Hard-Earned Guide to Hiking California's Lost Coast Trail
Dreamy film photography, gear essentials, and do's & don'ts for backpacking one of the West Coast's most classic trails
Depopulation in the 1930s combined with rare geographic fortitude deterred construction of any major highways and left a strip of Northern California coastline at the southernmost edge of Humboldt County the most undeveloped and remote portion of the coast, earning it the name "The Lost Coast."
This notion of solitude in a state with a population of nearly 40 million compelled us to drive five hours north and to spend a few days trekking through the King Range National Conservation Area.
The hikeable stretch of coast is technically two sections and approximately 52 miles; however, the northernmost 25 miles is what’s most commonly understood as the Lost Coast Trail. The trail runs north-south, from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach near Shelter Cove, though we did a modified version even still.
Our route consisted of a 24-mile round trip out-and-back to Spanish Creek; a variation of the trail we feel didn’t leave any rocks unturned. Most of the trail’s highlights seem to be within this section of the trail anyways, and it saved costs and headache dealing with alternative transportation.
We found that a large portion of hikers either leave their cars at Black Sands Beach and book a shuttle to the trailhead (should we mention, an $80 shuttle with a driver that reportedly left fellow hikers uneasy) or arrange a key swap with another group.
"Nobody mentioned that the last part of the drive seemed to have been built with an excavator, a backhoe, and a bottle of Jack Daniels."
While planning our trip, we repeatedly turned to the ever-helpful Lost Coast Trail CA Facebook group for tips and recommendations. For unknown reasons, nobody mentioned that the last part of the drive, leading down to the trailhead at Mattole Beach, was filled with surprising patches of unpaved dirt and dozens of Moon crater-sized potholes. It truly seemed to have been built with an excavator, a backhoe, and a bottle of Jack Daniels.
After quite a bumpy ride, we arrived at Mattole Beach Campground, walked the beach, cooked some camp quesadillas, and turned in for the night, ready to get an early start on the trail the next morning.
The first few miles are relatively mundane until you reach the decommissioned Punta Gorda Lighthouse built in response to a 1907 shipwreck off the Lost Coast. If you get out early, this is a nice spot to stop and make breakfast.
Be prepared to trudge through soft, dry sand, though there are large sections of traditional dirt trail just above the beach. Be sure to look for these and give yourself a break from the deep, beach sand.
There are a lot of opportunities for picturesque, Instagram-worthy campsites—high up on a seaside cliff, out in a field with driftwood forts, etc—though we recommend resisting temptation and opting for sites further back from the beach or nestled in some brush for protection against the relentless winds. We learned this the hard way.
If you’re planning to give the trail a try yourself, be sure to check out our personal favorite campsites at Cooksie Creek (about 5 miles from the trailhead) and Spanish Creek (about 11 miles), and read on for more essential gear and hard earned advice.
5 Gear Essentials for Hiking California's Lost Coast Trail
Physical Tide Chart and Trail Map
Knowing the tides and designated campgrounds is crucial in planning your daily mileage. There are multiple stretches of beach that are impassable at high tide and hikers can almost exclusively camp in designated areas due to lack of protection from winds and tides on most of the trail.
Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX Hiking Boots, $165
From coastal morning dew to severe rainstorms, you are sure to experience moisture on the LCT. A pair of waterproof, preferably high top, hiking boots will help keep your feet dry.
Patagonia Long-Sleeved Capilene Cool Shirt, $45
A breathable, long sleeve shirt is a key essential on the LCT for keeping mosquitos and ticks off your bare skin while trekking through sections of thick brush and providing a layer of protection from sun and late-afternoon winds.
Nite Ize Doohickey Key Chain Knife, $13
Small, 2” knife that clips onto your keychain, carabiner, or backpack. Lightweight, durable, and more handy than you might think.
Trader Joe’s Green Chiles, $4
Sliced and diced to perfection, these chiles will take any camp meal on a one-way ride to flavor town. An absolute essential.
9 Do’s & Dont’s for Hiking the Lost Coast Trail
DO your research on the trail. Know where you plan on camping and when you plan to leave each campground to beat high tide. (Exclusively reading this article is probably not sufficient lol.)
DO buy/rent a bear canister. There are no substantial places to hang food on this trail (and it’s required by the park service). Many California REI’s will rent you a bear canister and piece of mind for only $5.
DO take a quick dip in Cooksie Creek. There is an excellent swimming hole about 100 yards back from the beach. This is also the perfect opportunity to stop and eat lunch.
DO be ready for uneven pavement and stretches of pothole-filled dirt. It’s doable in a starndard sedan, but 4WD and off-road tires wouldn’t be a bad idea.
DO camp at Cooksie Creek and Spanish Creek, roughly 5 miles and 11 miles from the trailhead, respectively. These were our favorites found during the two dozen miles we covered.
DON'T camp at Randall Creek. The winds are very strong, especially in the late afternoon and there is no good place to set up camp with shelter from the winds.
DON'T wear shorts, no matter the weather. A pair of weather-resistant, lightweight hiking pants will keep you dry while protecting your legs from insects and sections of thick flora.
DON'T try to continue through the ‘impassable zones’ at high tide. The water runs all the way to the rocks, leaving no room for hikers, no matter how confident or skilled you may be.
DON'T leave trash at the campsites or clean your cookware in the creeks. There is a lot of wildlife on this trail and retaining the natural condition is up to us. Be a good steward and practice Leave No Trace, as you should every time you’re outdoors, right?