The Lost Coast Trail should be on any hiker's bucket list.
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."
The picturesque strip of wilderness sits snuggly along the Pacific ocean, far to the west off the 101, taking hikers along several beaches and through some genuinely epic campsites. 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 in the below trip report you'll see we did a modified version to cover more ground.
While traveling along the Lost Coast, you'll find yourself several hours from the rest of civilization—the seclusion is certainly a key draw. It's not a particularly tough trail, but given the seclusion mixed with additional variables like stretches of walking on sand, rocky beaches, and timing sections with tides can make it a little spicy. To help you prepare for a hike on the Lost Coast Trail, we've put together the following sections covering everything from permitting and what to pack to when you should visit and other general Do's & Don'ts for first time Lost Coast Trail hikers.
When should I hike the Lost Coast Trail?
Part of preparing to visit the Lost Coast involves going at the right time of year. Most people recommend the summer months for visiting, camping, and backpacking, as the climate tends to experience much colder temperatures than what people often associate with California. The coastline's location in the northern section of the state makes it a candidate for fog and cold camping, but this is often minimized during the summer and early fall months.
Overall, the best time recommended by most hikers is between May and October, when things are heating up and the cold dissipates a little. But always pack a puffer, rain jacket, and be prepared for weather to change drastically and suddenly, regardless of season.
How long is the Lost Coast Trail?
While the length of your trip depends on your personal preference, the trail proper is pretty reliable when it comes to hiking length. Lost Coast Trail is an almost 25-mile hike through underbrush, beautiful vistas, and tons of sightseeing-all while escaping the humdrum of everyday life. Most hikers report that the trail takes about three days to hike.
This is a pretty good pace, though your mileage may vary. If you'd like to go faster or slower than that, be sure to ask acquaintances or others what their experience with the trail was. Perhaps there's someone who hikes at about the same pace as you who might have some advice.
Because it's a multi-day hike, be prepared to spend several nights in a tent or sleeping under the stars. Either way, review the most important campsite regulations before going. They vary from place to place, so keep a list of the differences (some of which we'll discuss here, as well).
A route we’ve enjoyed in the past consists 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.
Whichever route you take, be prepared to trudge through soft, dry sand, though do keep an eye out for large sections of traditional dirt trail just above the beach, which are especially nice for giving yourself a break from the deep, beach sand.
Do you need a permit to hike the Lost Coast Trail?
Yes. Everyone who overnight hikes the Lost Coast Trail must carry a wilderness permit. Permits are required year-round for overnight camping in the King Range Wilderness and Backcountry Management Zone of the King Range National Conservation Area, though they are not required for day-use. One permit covers up to five people, with the maximum group size being 15 people (a max group of 15 will need 3 permits, for example).
The start date of the permit is strictly monitored and visitors are required to begin their trip on the permitted start date—early or late starts are not allowed. Permit availability is based on the start date only.
Permits are released each October 1st for the following year, and can be obtained through recreation.gov on a "first-come, first-serve" basis, for a $10 fee. Though most dates book up near instantly, permits do pop up here and there due to cancelations.
Much of Lost Coast's charm is its seclusion, which is a strong argument in favor of the permit system. This zone is about as far from the noise and notifications of everyday life as one can get in California. Fewer people means better quality time on the trail, especially when you and your group want some space to yourselves.
Parking and trailhead advice.
A large portion of hikers either leave their cars at Black Sands Beach and book a shuttle to the trailhead (which cost $80, and features a driver that reportedly left some fellow hikers uneasy…) or arrange a key swap with another group. Keep in mind the Bureau of Land Management does not allow you to camp at the Black Sands Beach trailhead.
The last part of the drive from Highway 101 leading down to the trailhead at Mattole Beach is filled with nasty patches of unpaved dirt and dozens of Moon crater-sized potholes. From our last visit, we gathered this section of the road must have been built with an excavator, a backhoe, and a bottle of Jack Daniels.
The Lost Coast Trail CA Facebook group is super helpful for additional tips and recommendations.
Are dogs allowed on the Lost Coast Trail?
It depends on which region you're visiting, though beyond Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, where pets are not allowed, you should be good to bring your pooch. Wherever you are, it's recommended that you watch your dog carefully, as fast moving tides, steep, variable terrain, and plenty of wildlife can spell disaster for even the most trail-worn pup.
What supplies do I need for the Lost Coast Trail?
Pack the 10 essentials, then double check you have a permit, a bear canister, rain jacket, and puffy. Though the risk of bears is low, it's present nonetheless. And as you might expect, weather comes in off the Pacific ocean fast and hard, often giving little warning.
Of course, depending on whether you'll be staying overnight or not, your supplies will vary. The trail is intended for foot traffic and is best served as a hiking and walking trail—though mountain bikes or other recreational vehicles are allowed in some areas of the trail.
Keep a heads up for poison oak along the trail, as there seems to be quite a bit of it. Adding some treatment cream to your first-aid kit to minimize any injuries or itching maye be worth the added weight. Lost Coast is pretty far from civilization, so prepare accordingly.
You'll also need some gear for wet or rainy conditions. It's on the edge of an ocean, of course, so expect to wade through tide pools and splash in the waves once you get to your destination.
Additoinal gear suggestions can be found further down in this article.
There are also three places along the trail that are often impassable at high tide.
The first is a stretch through Gitchell Creek, Buck Creek, and Shipman Creek; the second covers Randall and Cooskie Creeks; the final section is about halfway between the Punta Gorda Lighthouse and Mattole Beach. If you encounter one of these areas during high tide or windy conditions, please be careful. It may be prudent to wait until low tide before attempting a crossing. Never try to ford through a high or slack tide.
Be sure to watch for ticks, rattlesnakes, and raccoons, as well. Additionally, there isn't much in terms of potable water along the way, so bring your own water treatment system to purify the local flowing water from creeks and streams, which are quite abundant.
What will you see on the Lost Coast Trail?
The Lost Coast Trail is home to some of the best views in the northern section of California. There are plenty of stops along the way that are sure to please any wilderness aficionado. Black Sands Beach, for example, offers an unparalleled backdrop of the ocean just beyond a gorgeous run of smooth black sand. (See last photo in this article.)
While this view is probably worth the trip alone, there's more to come at the end of your 25-mile hike. Mattole Beach, situated in the Mattole River Valley, also has some great places to check out. It's widely considered one of the most picturesque places in the United States and is well worth the trip to get there.
Black Sands Beach and the Mattole campground are the most famous part of the trail, but there are other sections, as well. The middle section of the trail features Needle Rock and Shelter Cover, a nearby town. It's only about 9 miles long and doesn't get a lot of foot traffic, even compared to the rest of the trail. If you've got some spare time while in the region, you could consider visiting there, or swinging by the southern part of the trail to visit Usal Beach.
Besides the beautiful scenery, you may encounter any kind of animal on the coast, including sea lion, elephant seals, or salmon. Or, if you're more of a tree person, there is a redwood forest on the lost coast as well. No matter which section of the trail you explore, Lost Coast is where you find tons of adventure. There's nothing that beats the great outdoors, and many hikers would say that Lost Coast is an amazing representation of the great outdoors because of its seclusion, beauty, and expansive beaches.
The Best Campsites Along the Lost Coast Trail:
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.
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 Spanish Creek trailhead) and Spanish Creek itself (about 11 miles).
The Punta Gorda Lighthouse, built in response to a 1907 shipwreck off the Lost Coast, is a nice spot to stop and make breakfast.
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?