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The Lost Coast

Phil Akers backcountry travelogues author badge for

emote enough to keep all but the adventurous away, the King Range is home to over 80 miles of trails including the Lost Coast Trail which is 52 miles in total distance. The trail is split into two sections nearly equal in length. The north section is beach hiking with very little elevation gain/loss, while the south section is a strenuous mix of up-and-down ridge, canyon, and beach hiking.

Lost Coast Trail visitors experience salivating views of the ocean, tide pools, wildflower displays, sea critters galore, deer, elk, and excellent fishing for surf perch. One of only a few wilderness beach hikes in the United States, this should be on every backpackers bucket list.

the Rock , protruding from California's Lost Coast Trail. by Phill Akers
California’s Lost Coast stretches 72 miles from the Eel River delta south to Highway 1 where the coast is once again tame enough for a highway.
Cave view of the Lost Coast Trail, photo by Phil Akers
The Bureau of Land Management are stewards of the Lost Coast Trail and maintain this area as a wilderness. Expect no facilities or signs so familiarize yourself with the trail before you begin your trek.
A shot looking out to sea at low tide looking toward Windy Point, along California's Lost Coast Trail, photo by Phil Akers
Low tide looking toward Windy Point, an area impassable at high tide

Best practice is to hike from north to south, keeping the prevailing wind at your back. The northern trail section sees the most travelers but don’t let this “beach walk” section fool you with fantasy, there are stretches of rocky shoreline and stretches of slogging black sand. Some areas are not passable during high tides, you have to time your hike through these areas, coinciding with outgoing low tides. Allow at least three days to hike the entire northern section.

 Gray and black sandstone and shale making up the King Range along California's Lost coast trail, photo by Phil Akers
The black sand beaches are not of volcanic origin, but of gray and black sandstone and shale making up the King Range.
Expansive view of the Pacific Ocean from along California's Lost Coast trail, photo by Phil Akers
Sometimes the trail climbs and follows the seaside mountains where views become expansive and overwhelming.

Beginning at Mattole Beach, the north section takes you 24 miles through the King Range National Conservation Area to Black Sands Beach near Shelter Cove. You then have a little road walking to reach the southern trailhead, this section taking you 28 miles through Sinkyone Wilderness State Park to Usual Creek Camp. Outside of trail sections along the King Crest, both trails cross many creeks and rivulets providing ample sources of water. Beach camping is permitted throughout the Lost Coast trail…a unique experience, far away from the hoopla…driftwood campfires, waves pounding the shoreline beneath star-drenched skies, and million-dollar sensations of having your own private beach.

Sunset from an excluded camp along California's Lost coast trail, photo by Phil Akers
Enjoy the sunset from a secluded beach camp.
Sea lions, necks stretch toward the sky, loudly yelping, whil a few others blankly look on. Photo by Phil Akers
You will experience massive sea lion rookeries…noisy company at times.
View of tsnumami suseptable California's Lost coast trail, photo by Phil Akers
Large earthquakes are common and can cause damaging tsunamis or tidal waves. If you experience an earthquake, move away from the beach and be vigilant for several hours.

Just ten miles offshore from Cape Mendocino -- the westernmost point of the lower 48 states -- lies the Mendocino Triple Junction which is hands down California’s most seismically active area. At nearly two miles deep, an ocean floor canyon lies at this three-way intersection where the Pacific, Gorda, and North American tectonic plates violently meet. The Gorda plate is being forced below the North American plate, and the powerful forces of constant plate motions continue to create the King Range. In 1992 a very sinister earthquake occurred here causing the entire range to uplift a staggering 3-5 feet! At 4088 feet, Kings Peak is the highest summit in the range and is only three miles from shore. To this day, the offshore canyon continues to sink and the King Range continues to rise.

The abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse along California's Lost Coast trail, by Phil Akers
The abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse is a unique attraction.
Lghthouse built in 1910 to warn mariners of the areas dangers, photo by Phil Akers
Early mariners dreaded the dangerous wind and reefs below the King Range promontory called Punta Gorda. In 1907, the passenger ship Columbia went down, taking 87 lives. This latest in a series of shipwrecks prompted the construction of a lighthouse in 1910 to warn mariners of the areas dangers.

A worthy highlight along the hike is the Punta Gorda lighthouse. Built out of response to many shipwrecks off the point, it featured and air siren operated by gas engines, fourth-order lens, and oil vapor lamp. It operated 40 years before being shutdown in 1951, replaced by a modern-day buoy. Known as the “Alcatraz of Lighthouses”, it was extremely remote, a challenge to re-supply, and was considered a form of punishment for lighthouse keepers and “wickies” to be stationed here. Generally, they had screwed up somewhere else.

Lighthouse spiral staircase with a very tight squeeze at the top, photo by Phil Akers
Access to the lighthouse tower is via a spiral staircase with a very tight squeeze at the top.

Weather. Pack the rain gear if you plan on hiking the Lost Coast trail. Average rainfall in the area is 100 inches per year, and that number can double in wet years. May thru September is the ideal time to dodge the rain systems but you still must pay attention to the forecast. It can be drizzly cold fog one day and 80 degrees the next. Strong winds carry both sea spray and sand long distances, pelting whatever is in the path.

Tides. Higher than normal tides occur during both full and new moon phases, and tides are less dramatic during the first and last quarter phases. Basically, there are two high tides and two low tides every 24 hours and the timing of these tides occur roughly 50 minutes later each day. Carry a current tide table as some of the beach sections -- up to a few miles in length -- are impassable at high tide. Hike these sections during outgoing tides to give you plenty of time.

Waves. The ocean is very unpredictable throughout this hike. There are strong undertow and rip currents so do not swim or enter the water. Sleeper or rogue waves can reach far up the beach and sweep you to sea if not attentive. While hiking the beach sections, be mindful and watchful of the ocean at all times.

Bears. Please don’t think a hike of this nature is without bears, in fact they are a serious problem. Bears WILL rip open your tent or backpack and steal any forgotten food or scented items. Bears are especially aggressive at Miller Flat and Big Flat. If backpacking, bear-proof canisters are required throughout the entire Lost Coast Trail and can be rented for a five dollar fee at many locations including the Petrolia General Store. You will be checked and fined if not in accordance.

To reach the trailhead. Prepare to drive a rough and sinuous road to reach Mattole Beach trailhead. The best approach is from Ferndale. From Main Street, turn right on Ocean Road then immediately left on Fifth Street which will turn into Mattole Road. Continue 27 miles to the small town of Petrolia where the very first oil well in California was drilled in 1865. One mile past Petrolia, just as you cross a bridge, turn right on Lighthouse Road and proceed five miles to the trailhead parking area. Also at the trailhead is a campground with 14 sites…no hookups, picnic table, fire rings, bear-proof trash containers, vault toilet, and potable water. The use fee is eight dollars per night camping.

Permits. A wilderness permit is required for overnight stays. It is free, contains rules and instructions, and can be self-issued at the trailhead. A valid campfire permit is required for use of campfires and stoves and always check for any current fire restrictions.

Fishing. With exception to part of the Mattole River, all fresh water streams within the King Range NCA are closed to fishing to protect native steelhead and salmon. You can fish the ocean but the take of all living marine resources is prohibited within Sea Lion Gulch. The surf perch fishing is superb with Redtail being the predominant species caught. Try fishing with sand crabs, grubs, or clams. We fried fish with hushpuppies two of our nights out.

Dogs. Pooch is permitted and expected to be either on a leash or under voice control.

Wear sturdy footwear. You will traverse some boulder fields of 1-2 foot diameter rocks. Consider gaiters for the slogging sand stretches. Walking closer to the tide in the wetter sand helps, but not much, and it doesn‘t last long anyway. If you spot a trail on coastal terrace, use it! The trail sections provide a respite from the laboring sand and tricky rocks.

What to watch out for. Please realize the dangers of tides, waves, and wind. Some areas are rife with poison oak. Ticks and rattlesnakes will also be encountered. Check yourself daily for ticks and kick that pile of driftwood before blindly reaching your hand in there.

Shuttle services. Many hikers use local shuttle services, leaving their vehicle at a destination trailhead and being shuttled to their beginning trailhead. This is not cheap! To be legal, these shuttle services have to be issued a special use permit from the BLM…I believe there are only two. The trail distance from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach is 24 miles but it takes over two hours to drive from one trailhead to the other.

Tide pool along the California's Lost Coast trail, photo by Phil Akers
Explore the tidal zone and tide pools during low tide.

I encourage you to get away, hike and fish the Lost Coast Trail. Reward yourself with ever-changing vistas of the magnificent meeting of mountains and sea, in a remote landscape forgotten by today’s world. Plan well, be safe, and cherish this unique location called The Lost Coast.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

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