The legendary Lost Coast trail, which runs for 25 miles between Shelter Cove and the mouth of the Mattole River, lures hikers eager to explore the King Range National Conservation Area. Here, the forested King mountain range rises straight from the ocean’s edge, creating cliffside views and black sand beaches. The area is home to a wide array of wildlife, including birds, elk, mountain lions, black bears, harbor seals and, at certain times of the year, migrating whales. Here are excerpts from the diary I kept on my trip.
Day 1—Off to a Late, Great Start
Excited to begin our journey, Diego, Nate, Ron, Dave and I stopped in Shelter Cove to pick up bear canisters and permits (mandatory for any overnight stay in the conservation area). We were two hours late to catch our (reserved) Lost Coast Shuttle from Black Sands Beach to the Mattole trailhead (like most people, we opted to hike north to south), but owner and van driver Sherri Luallin not only waited for us, but she offered us plenty of advice, tips, maps and pamphlets. On the drive, she pointed out wildflowers—California poppy, iris, monkey flower and wild lilac—and made sure we knew that ticks and poison oak are extremely common along the trails. We passed through a tiny town called Honeydew—one general store, and our last chance to buy any additional food or supplies.
We arrived at Mattole at 5:30 p.m. (last organized bathrooms—non-flush) and eagerly started the trail because we were behind schedule to get to Punta Gorda Lighthouse (3.2 miles from Mattole). The weather was perfect! Clear blue sky, slight ocean breeze. We passed fields of wildflowers set against lush, green mountains and ocean backdrops. As soon as I started to walk on the sand with 55 pounds of gear strapped to my back, I realized this hike was going to be a huge challenge.
Waterfalls dropped from the mountains onto the beach, and as I walked along the beach admiring the scenery, my friends ahead of me began screaming at me, signaling me to look down. In front of me on the sand were two harbor seals, basking in the sun. I nearly stepped on one of them. It started to bark at me, so I backed off and began taking photos.
About three miles into the journey, we came across two private cabins next to Fourmile Creek. We crossed carefully because the creek was moving quickly into the sea. None of us fell, but Nate dropped his bear canister and had to quickly fish it out. A half-mile later, we arrived at Punta Gorda Lighthouse, a small, two-story lighthouse on a sloping hill. We set up camp there and celebrated our first night on the Lost Coast with a warm fire, sandwiches we had trekked in and shots of tequila from our flasks.
Day 2—Seals, Snakes and Stunning Scenery
I woke to a beautiful morning—the sun was out, birds were singing. For breakfast: instant oatmeal, trail mix, fruit and water. I reorganized my pack and helped take down camp; we hit the trail at 11 a.m. We saw a huge piece of what looked like a metal boiler from a shipwreck washed up on shore below the lighthouse.
My pack felt a lot more comfortable—it really helped to reorganize it. We got to Sea Lion Gulch, where we crossed our first creek of the day. We pumped water from the creek with our filters because we were already getting low on drinking water. Along the trail, we began to see tons of wildflowers again and a lot of poison oak. We also saw waterfalls and creeks, and at the bottom of a steep hill that dropped onto a beach, a huge rock jutted out of the ocean with seals covering it. They were happily vocalizing—lots of noise.
We arrived at Hat Rock, where big boulders have fallen onto the beach from cliffs above; it’s impossible to cross unless you hike over it. It was a challenge with my pack on, so I took it slow. On the other side, we stopped for a break. As I was sitting enjoying some snacks, I noticed something moving on the beach. It was a huge snake, injured, probably from a wild animal, and trying to move its broken body away from the ocean. We were all afraid to get too close, but as we were finishing our break, a large hawk-looking bird scooped down, grabbed the snake and flew off toward the mountaintop.
At Randall Creek, which had an amazing lush valley, we crossed the water on logs someone had previously placed. Next, we entered Spanish Flat—the highlight of my day! Fields of California poppies and lavender-colored flowers as far as the eye could see! The fields seemed so untouched, gleaming in the daylight, and I smelled fresh mint and watercress that grew near little streams. This place was heaven on Earth!
The scenery became even more dramatic as we hiked. Steep cliffs emerged right out of the sea. At Spanish Creek, we put on our water shoes to cross. The water was very cold, but refreshing. We finally made it to Big Creek around 7 p.m., after hiking 10.1 miles for the day. The valley where we set up camp looked like a scene from an 18th century painting, with a great view of North Slide Peak above and the nice creek. One of the guys took a bath in the creek. I opted out—too cold. Two other camps were set up near ours. We introduced ourselves to one guy from Utah who was doing the hike alone; the other camp was a group of about eight people. As I walked to the shoreline to watch the sunset (beautiful!) and collect driftwood, I saw a deer cross the creek and climb the mountainside. Dinner: a surprisingly tasty chicken risotto dehydrated meal, which I shared with Diego, who in turn shared his canned beans and trail mix.
Day 3—Down a Few Pretzels and Up a Mountain
We woke up around 8 with a plan to hike another 10 miles to get past the second long section of coast that needs to be hiked at low tide. The weather was cloudy with a slight breeze. We found out a mouse or rat got into our pretzel bag last night and ate half the bag. We were lucky a bear didn’t find our pretzel bag before the mouse did. Tip: Use your bear canister!
On the beach, we noticed bear tracks and fresh bear poop in the sand. The paws on that bear were huge; a smaller set of tracks suggested a mother bear and her cub. We also saw sea urchins and deer tracks. It’s amazing how much wildlife roams the beaches here.
After a couple miles, we arrived at Big Flat Valley—the trail and valley were covered in little yellow flowers. We called it the yellow brick road. At Big Flat Creek, we crossed in our sandals again—this time the water came up to our thighs. Then came Miller Flat, then Shipman Creek, where we stayed for a good hour, relaxing and soaking up the sun. Diego and I decided to stay a bit longer and told the others we’d see them later at the camp spot we had picked out on the map.
Diego and I continued on toward Buck Creek, then hid our heavy packs in some thick brush and started a very steep ascent along Buck Creek Trail up Saddle Mountain. It took us an hour to reach the summit (about 2,000 feet); the reward was a jaw-dropping vista of the coastline below. We took a small break for photos and rest—watched a baby deer dash into the forest—then started back down. The last stretch, from where we left our packs to our camp spot, was 3.5 miles and very difficult because there was no trail, just loose sand and large pebbles. My muscles were starting to cramp and the sun was setting, which made us nervous. A couple times, I felt like giving up and just setting up camp on our own, but I kept pushing.
We finally found our camp, near Horse Mountain Creek. Nate, Dave and Ron already had a campfire going, dinner cooking. Diego and I quickly set up our tents before it got pitch black outside. Clouds had rolled in, blocking the moonlight. For dinner, I had a dehydrated meal (chicken enchiladas) with peanut butter cups for dessert. It tasted like heaven because I was so hungry! We sat around the campfire and shared stories of our long day. As soon as we climbed into our sleeping bags about 10 p.m., it started to rain, so we got back up and covered all our packs and tents. It was soothing to hear the rain falling on the tent, the waves crashing nearby.
Day 4—Rained Out and Ready To Wrap
Around 3 a.m., I awoke to water dripping on my face. The rain had seeped through the tent, and my camera equipment and other supplies were getting wet. We moved to a spot that was more dry, then at 6 a.m., Ron was shaking everyone’s tents, telling us to hurry and break down camp. My tent was flooded with water; sleeping bag, mattress pads soaked. It took us about 30 minutes to pack up and head out. I wasn’t such a happy camper anymore—I was drenched.
Thankfully, it was our last day and we had only another 1.8 miles to hike before we reached Black Sands Beach in Shelter Cove, where our car was parked. We hiked in the pouring rain, and I felt like I was on “The Amazing Race” when we finally reached the parking lot. We all cheered each other on and hugged. Even though we were tired and wet, we were all awed at the experience we’d just gone through. I’ve always dreamed of hiking the Lost Coast Trail, so this adventure was a huge accomplishment for me.
Getting to the Lost Coast
Take Interstate 5 north to Highway 20, through Clear Lake to Willits, then north on Highway 101 to Garberville. From Garberville, take Briceland Thorn Road to Thorn Junction, then Shelter Cove Road to Beach Road and park at Black Sands Beach parking lot. There are nice flushable restrooms at this parking lot.
On the Road: Calico’s Cafe
At Calico’s Cafe on Redwood Drive in Garberville, try the teriyaki mushroom burger. Wash it down with a Lost Coast Great White beer, and you’re good to go. You also can have them make you a sandwich to carry in for dinner your first night in camp.