Getting Lost: Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

What is the Lost Coast Trail?

About the only thing I knew about the Lost Coast was the brewery. My friend Richard owns some property there and told me about the area but it never really registered with me until I started researching the trail after seeing a picture online. It’s kind of the same thing as deciding to buy a Yugo and suddenly noticing every Yugo on the road where there were none before. The Lost Coast, ding, ding, ding… now I noticed The Lost Coast Trail popping up everywhere and Richard’s descriptions began to take hold in my horrible memory. I decided I must make it so.

The Lost Coast region lies roughly between Rockport and Ferndale along the Northern coast of California. It’s a rugged and wild area that got its name after the area experienced depopulation in the 1930’s. California Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) was originally planned to continue up the coast through this area but in 1984 Caltrans threw in the towel and decided to divert the highway inland because the terrain proved to be too difficult. A win for Mother Nature and lovers of the outdoors! This area where PCH is diverted is where the Lost Coast Trail runs its length from the Mattole River Mouth in the North to Usal Beach in the south. Approximately 53 miles.

Northern Section: Mattole River to Black Sands Beach

24 miles

The Lost Coast Trail is broken up into a Northern and Southern section that is separated by the town of Shelter Cove. The Northern trailhead is located at the Mattole River Mouth and ends at Black Sands Beach.

This is the most popular section and is part of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) King Range National Conservation Area, which is Federal land. It’s recommended to hike from North to South so the prevailing North winds will be at your back. If you have seen pictures of the Lost Coast Trail it is most likely from this section. You’ll hike through wide open meadows overlooking the ocean, cross creeks that drain out of Redwood filled valleys, and walk along black sand beaches with no sign of modern life. Although many people think this constitutes the entire trail, a whole different section awaits with more adventures.

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Southern Section: Hidden Valley to Usal Beach

29 miles

The Southern section is approximately 29 miles and stretches from the Hidden Valley trailhead to Usal Beach. It is part of the Sinkyone Wilderness, which is run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. You actually don’t enter the Sinkyone Wilderness until about 8 miles south of Hidden Valley. This section has a cumulative elevation gain of about 12,000 ft. There are many quad burning climbs followed by knee aching descents. Along with the workout, you’ll have also earned some spectacular views of the rugged coastline. The terrain is very wooded with redwoods, Tanbar oaks, ferns, manzanitas, wild blackberries, Douglas Fir… in this coastal forest. Being the less popular of the two sections you will likely see far fewer hikers even during busy holidays.

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Pre-hike

As usual, when I got the idea to thru hike the Lost Coast Trail I sent out emails to my backpacking friends. Many of them were interested but in the end life’s commitments took priority except for one friend. I met Robb the previous June on my first backpacking trip in Yosemite with some mutual friends. I mean my first backpacking trip ever, not just in Yosemite. I was in poor hiking shape and carrying a 50 lbs. pack of borrowed gear. At one point, Robb even carried my 5 lbs. REI Half Dome tent because I was STRUGGLING to finish a 12 mile day into Curry Village.

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Carrying a 50 lbs pack in Yosemite. RDF.

When Robb received my itinerary I think he had doubts to whether or not I could do it and rightfully so. By contrast, Robb was in excellent hiking shape. In that year, I had hiked a lot more miles and cut my pack weight in half but I still wondered myself if I had bitten off more than I could chew.

Robb lives in San Diego and I in Los Angeles. I had Robb drive up to L.A. around 6 p.m. and we would drive about 6 hours and find a cheap motel for the first leg. We ended up staying in a no frills but clean Motel 6 in Tracy, CA, a small truck stop town along interstate 5. The next morning we continued north another 6 hours to Usal Beach where our shuttle driver would be waiting… hopefully. I arranged a shuttle from Usal to Mattole with Lost Coast Shuttle for two reasons. One, they had a lot of good reviews online and two, they were the only shuttle service that would take us from Usal all the way to Mattole which is about a 2 ½ – 3 hour drive. When we turned off of Highway 1 onto Usal Road towards Usal Beach we saw some backpackers roadside. This is a poorly marked fire road so I asked them if this was the road to Usal and they said “yes.” Yay! This road is bumpy so a high clearance vehicle is recommended but I did see some sedans so it is possible with a lower clearance vehicle. About 6 miles and 30 minutes later we pulled into the dirt parking area and see a man step out of a big crew cab truck. He asked if we were Don and Robb. He didn’t look like Sherri from Lost Coast Shuttle. It turns out his name is Billy and he’s Sherri’s brother. I get very carsick if the roads are winding so I ask Billy if the roads to Mattole are winding. “Yes!” I fished through my pack and got out my Costa Rican “Dramamine.” We loaded up our packs and head off.

Billy is an excellent driver but he also drives like a racecar driver. He said all of the locals do. Thankfully I took my pill because I didn’t feel sick from drive and I was soon sleeping. I woke up with about 45 minutes left to drive. Billy was talking about his family, construction business, and the area. We got to Mattole around 5 p.m. so we would still have at least a couple of hours before dark. Billy asked us when we planned on getting to Black Sands Beach so he could pick us up and drive us the 3 miles to the beginning of the Southern section at the Hidden Valley trailhead. I had planned on us hiking along the roadside to get to Hidden Valley as the trail does not connect through. Billy said that they shuttle all of their hikers through this 3 mile section because it’s not safe because all of the locals drive crazy including himself. After the ride up I wasn’t about to argue with him. I told him we would be there between 2-3 p.m. in 2 days. He gave us this look like he wasn’t sure we would be able to make it but still said he would be there. This meant we would do a 16 mile day and an 8 mile day by 3 p.m. of the 2nd day. Most people do this section in 3-4 days. I told him we would be there.

Robb and I set up our tents, pads and sleeping bags then walked around the beach gathering firewood near the Mattole River Mouth. There were quite a few backpackers in the camp so we went over and said hi. We found out that they were with a guide and were also doing the entire trail like us. They were doing it in 8 days and we were doing it in 4. “Robb, uh yeah, we’ll totally do it. Don’t worry.” I don’t think he was worried about himself though. Do you hear the nervous laughter?

Day 1:  15.9 miles: Mattole River to Big Flat

I don’t remember exactly when Robb and I woke up but I’m guessing it was around 7am. After eating breakfast and packing up we hit the trail. The first half mile or so is a fine sandy trail through beach dunes then it turns into a well maintained single track overlooking the ocean. We should’ve enjoyed it while it lasted. The weather was perfect for hiking. Low 60’s and slightly overcast. Billy had told us that a lot of hikers had seen Humpbacks migrating. I was kind of skeptical but within the first 2 miles Robb points towards the ocean and we see a humpback whale coming up for air. I couldn’t believe it! Amazing!

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As you hike through this area you will see some small houses to your left. They’re all well kept and have the most incredible location. I was so jealous!!! These are accessed through fire roads that come in through the hills to the East. At the 2.5 mile mark you will reach the first impassable high tide area. It is a short section but still be sure to check your tide charts to determine when it’s safe to pass. The rangers said it is safe to pass these impassable sections at a 3.5’ tide or lower. Regardless, you should use your judgment and pass only when you feel it’s safe. Also, make sure that you are hiking through these sections as the tide is dropping.

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A few lucky people have some prime real estate.

After you this section the Punta Gorda lighthouse is only 0.7 miles. There is usually a herd of elephant seals camped out front from April-September. This is a good spot to take a break, snack, check out the lighthouse and elephant seals. The lighthouse was active from 1911-1951. Some great information on its history can be found at lighthousefriends.com.

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Punta Gorda Lighthouse
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The view from the top of the lighthouse.
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Elephant seal herd at Punta Gorda Lighthouse.

After leaving Punta Gorda, it’s 2 miles to Sea Lion Gulch. The trail travels above the beach giving you great views and easy hiking. Sea Lion Gulch is about 5.2 miles from the trailhead and is a nice spot to camp your first night especially if you traveled that day and didn’t camp at Mattole like us. At Sea Lion Gulch you can camp high above the ocean at a cliff side site with an incredible view. You will most likely hear a chorus of barking sea lions down below. Be aware that this beautiful site is quite exposed so make sure it is not too windy especially if you have a campfire.

After checking out the views of Sea Lion Gulch we hiked down and crossed the actual gulch and soon came to our next impassable at high tide section. We were lucky that this day the timing of the low tide worked perfectly for us. We never had to wait for the tide to drop. I’ve been surfing since I was a teenager and feel very comfortable in and around the ocean but the very beginning of this section was a lot more dangerous than I expected. There was a jagged rock jutting toward the ocean forming a short point. Waves were crashing against it periodically. Personally, I wasn’t worried about dying but I was very concerned about rock hopping around this point, have a wave crash into me and drag me across the rocks into the ocean. If that happened, I would’ve dropped my pack in the ocean, swam out a few hundred yards, then North a few hundred more yards then back toward a safe reentry point to the beach with shredded skin and no more gear. Luckily that didn’t happen to Robb or I but we did have to time it correctly and scramble quickly through this area. Once around this point there was open beach again. At worst we would get some wet feet from a dissipating wave rolling up the sand.

This section is about 3 miles long and is your first taste of how rugged the Lost Coast is.

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The flipside to this rugged beauty is hiking on the beach and ankle twisting cobblestones. I’ve had on and off relationship with plantar fasciitis. Be glad if you’ve never had the displeasure of dating her. Who is she you ask? Place your hand on your arch. Next, bend your toes upward. Do you feel the ligament running along your arch? That’s your fasciitis ligament. When it gets inflamed or torn you will experience plantar fasciitis. She’s a bitch! You may also feel it in your heel where the ligament attaches to bone. The point of this explanation is that while walking on these cobblestones I started to feel it act up. As you can imagine, hiking on sand and cobblestones for a couple of hours sucks. Hiking on sand and cobblestones for a couple of hours surrounded by awe inspiring natural beauty sucks less… a lot less. Nothing is free I guess.

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Ankle twisting rocks!

The end of this impassable at high stretch is marked by Randall Creek and the beginning of Spanish Flat. Be happy whenever you see a section of the LCT with the name Flat in it. After walking 3 miles over melon sized rocks and sand, we were greeted with an easy trail through a large grassy area or flat. The trail soon becomes an off roading trail for lack of a better term. Essentially 2 single tracks that were side by side for the homeowners of the 2 or 3 homes along this section to access their property. It was kind of nice because now Robb and I could hike next to each other and hold a conversation without having to repeat ourselves constantly. We were on cruise control for this portion of the hike passing a succession of creeks. Spanish Creek, Oat Creek, and Kinsey Creek. Shortly before reaching Kinsey Creek we saw two packs unattended at the LCT/Kinsey Ridge Trail junction. We stopped and wondered what was going on because we didn’t see any backpackers in site and this area is wide open. We actually became a little concerned and wondered if someone was hurt and left their packs to go find help. As we were contemplating this, 2 hikers came down Kinsey Ridge Trail towards us. It was a young couple backpacking the LCT too. I figured they were using the “restroom” or something, so I thought not to ask and avoid an awkward moment. They had some heavy looking packs and the woman did not seem too happy. They had started their day at Sea Lion Gulch so I figured if we caught up with them that they were struggling a bit. We made some small talk and since we were feeling good we continued. My struggling would come later in the trip though.

Not too much farther we came saw an off road quad approaching. The rider was bringing in food and drinks to the house up ahead for a family get together. He said the house had been in his family for a long time and they would come out for the weekend or holidays. Before he left he made sure to tell us to watch out for rattlesnakes in the grass. Yikes!

A mile or two later we came across a gorgeous house just on the North side of Big Creek. When we arrived at Big Creek we saw why it was called Big Creek. It was big! Since California had been in a drought for the last 4-5 years it was easy to cross but I could see it being more difficult during a high rainfall year. At the very least you would have to wade across. We were able to rock hop to the other side without getting wet which was nice because our first night’s camp was just on the other side. Once we crossed the creek we could see Big Flat. It’s a large area, which is good because it is probably the most popular spot to camp. It’s a semi popular surf spot and it is only 8 miles from Black Sands Beach so some people hike in from there also. We saw a group of 6 backpackers already set up on the sand but nobody else. They had hiked in from Black Sands Beach and were heading back the next day. They had car camping gear, which doesn’t sound fun to carry because it is heavy but I was kind of jealous of the “real” food they were cooking up. After setting up camp a few hundred yards South of them we filtered some water and explored the area. We saw some deer drinking at the creek and just took in the surroundings. A lot of times when backpacking I am focused on hiking. Navigating the terrain, step, step, step, …How much water do I have? When is the next water source? Is that poison oak? I have to pause for a moment and look at where I’m at in the world. This was one of those moments.

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Robb hanging out. Our first night’s camp on the trail. Big Flat.

After filtering water and enjoying my extended moment, I walked back to camp and stumbled across a spot that was much better than where we set up. It was surrounded by small shrubs and trees, which sheltered it from the wind. It was a large area of dirt, which would have held my tent stakes better than the sand. There was also a fire ring surrounded by logs for sitting. Oh well, the weather was calm so I wasn’t going to move all of my stuff. In case you camp here it is just across the creek as you are hiking south and on your left.

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Big Flat Creek next to our camp.

Time to fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves.

Day 2:  15.5 miles: Big Flat to the King Range/Sinkyone Wilderness border

We slept in and had a lazy morning because we wouldn’t be able to start the next impassable section until 10:30 a.m., which was only about .25 miles south of camp. It was another sketchy beginning as the tide was just barely low enough for us to pass. We had to time it correctly to avoid incoming waves driving us into the jagged rocks. Once around this spot, it was much as the last section. Rocks and sand with the occasional shoe soaking from incoming waves but nothing too dangerous. We were really watching the time because we told Billy we would meet him at Black Sands Beach between 2 and 3 p.m. That gave us about 4.5 hours to hike 8.5 miles which is completely doable but all of the hiking along this section is sand and rocks so we couldn’t mess around.

Again, we were welcomed with more rugged and isolated terrain. Some of my favorite things we saw were tiny waterfalls appearing out of nowhere and trickling down jagged rock walls. As we walked we kept noticing two sets of tracks that were fresh. It seemed strange to us because we left as early as the tide would safely allow us. Where did these hikers come from? We didn’t see anyone else leave with us.

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Tiny waterfalls

About 3 miles later we finally caught up to the 2 hikers making the tracks. It was another couple that had left about 2 hours earlier than we had! I looked on in disbelief because I felt like we had started about as early as possible. Although they obviously made it I wouldn’t recommend doing this. We continued to see a few more hikers that day stopping and chatting a few minutes each time before continuing. As we approached Horse Mountain Creek we saw two older men sitting on a log and eating. We stopped and talked for a while and they had hiked in from Black Sands Beach. I was completely inspired because these two friends were in their mid 80’s. I hope to still be backpacking at their age.

After we said our good byes we were focused on not twisting an ankle and getting to Black Sands in time to meet Billy. We really picked up our pace or I should say that Robb did and I tried to keep up. These last miles were a slog. Soon we saw what we thought was our meeting point but wasn’t sure. Towards the last mile we caught up with a father and his 8 years old daughter who had camped and was hiking back to Black Sands. They pointed out where we were headed. It looked to be only about .5 miles away. I couldn’t believe it! We’d be there by 2 p.m. Phew.

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The rugged coastline up close.
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A huge uprooted redwood.

As we climbed the trail up to the parking lot I was feeling exhausted and looking forward to resting. We looked around for Billy at the small parking lot but he wasn’t there yet. No cell reception so we waited for about 30 minutes for him to show up. When he pulled up he was surprised we were there ahead of him. Hey, so were we. The plan was for him to drive us straight to the Hidden Valley trailhead but I asked him if we could stop quickly in town (Shelter Cove) to grab a hot lunch. I felt guilty asking him but my primal desire for something other than a dehydrated meal won out. He said he’d be happy to and recommended at Shelter Cove RV Park and Campground where he said the fish and chips were great.

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Looking north from the parking lot at Black Sands Beach waiting for Billy.

Shelter Cove is located on a high bluff on a point overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There are a couple of restaurants, shops and motels. There were a lot of fishermen doing fisherman-type things. As recommended, I ordered the fish and chips along with a beer and snickers. As is common in a lot of small towns, the Shelter Cove RV Park and Campground was good at multitasking. Restaurant, tackle shop, convenient store, campground, and RV park. While we ordered Billy ran an errand, actually I think he went back to help out the couple we met at the Black Sands parking lot. When he came back, we packed our food to go so he didn’t have to wait for us to finish. We said our good byes and hung around the trailhead to finish our food and beer. After eating I looked around for a trashcan. It appeared to be a “normal” trailhead. Small parking area, check, bulletin board with a map and various notices, check, uh looking, looking… where are the trashcans? Nooooooo!!! There were none to be found which meant that we would be carrying our trash including beer bottles until we saw a trashcan, which could quite possibly be on our drive home. Every ounce counts especially for a mild gram weenie like me. You have to remember that there are no trashcans in the backcountry. Leave No Trace!

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Hidden Valley Trailhead with everything except a trashcan.

With all the good fun we had in town we didn’t bother to fill up our water bottles either. Honestly, I wasn’t too worried because we saw so much water earlier on the trail that I figured we would come across a water source within a mile or two. I think we both headed out with a little less than 1L of water.

Although it’s still part of the King Range Conservation area, Hidden Valley is the beginning of the Southern section of the Lost Coast Trail. It is much different than the beach section. It is heavily wooded. It was definitely warmer today but luckily the trail is shaded for long stretches including the first few miles. As we steadily climbed up the trail I was getting thirsty. After about 30 minutes we came across a small trickle that was right next to the trail. Not ideal but more than adequate to filter and fill our bottles. We didn’t even slow down figuring we would find a gushing creek fairly soon. Right? Wrong! After a couple more miles of no water sightings I was becoming more aware of our situation. We looked at the map. The next reliable source we could see on the map was up ahead about .5 miles, then 1 mile down a side trail to Wailaki Campground. We saw the trail junction and headed down the switchbacks. As we were hiking down, all I could think about was that we would have to hike back up and wouldn’t be any farther than we were 1-1.5 hours earlier. Argh! Now I really wish we filled up at the trickling water source we saw earlier. Lesson learned. It seemed to be taking a lot longer than I expected. I’m not sure how close we were to the campground but we ended up finding another trickling water source crossing the switchbacks and decided not to make the same mistake. As we headed back up, we would occasionally pass groups of day hikers hiking up from the campgrounds. They were full of energy and smiles. I was full of envy. Even though we had only hiked about 10 miles at this point, I was exhausted already from the hiking in the sand and over rocks for most of the day. Some how the day was slipping away from us and it was already around 7 p.m. by the time we reached the trail junction. We had about 6 miles to get to where we wanted to camp at Whale Gulch.

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The little trickle of water we hiked 1.5 miles out of the way to find.

The trail is a beautiful, well-maintained single track through this section. We no longer had a view of the ocean but now we were hiking through a lush coastal forest with some great views of the valleys below as we reached each peak. It reminded me of Big Sur. As the miles went on and my fatigue and pain increased I began to appreciate the beauty less and less. I’m sure there is some appropriate emoji for this feeling. It was also getting dark and night hiking is not my favorite especially when I’m tired. I imagined falling on my face and ending my modeling career.

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Heavily wooded south of Hidden Valley.

I was going into what I like to call “detached hiking mode.” This is happens when I’m really tired. I’m entirely in my head. Aware of every step I take, each little ache, the way my pack is riding mixed in with lots of thinking. This thinking lead me to contemplate Whale Gulch and more importantly what a gulch is. I remembered a gulch is a “deep, narrow ravine especially one marking the course of a stream or torrent.” Well, I didn’t really think of it in those exact words but more of a picture in my mind. Hmmm… I don’t think a gulch will be a good place to camp. There probably will not be enough room to pitch our shelters. It was well into darkness by this time. Maybe 9-9:30 p.m. I could barely remember what we hiked over the past 2 hours. The same as when you’ve been driving and arrive at your destination with almost no memory of the roads you just drove because you were deep in thought. I remember telling Robb that I don’t think Whale Gulch is going to work and I needed to stop at the next spot that was good enough to set up camp. He agreed which was a relief because I know Robb could’ve easily hiked a few more miles. After about another hour, we came to a small, grassy clearing with some sort of abandoned structure. We set up our shelters, ate dinner quickly and crashed. 10:30 p.m.

Day 3:  15.6 miles: King Range/Sinkyone Wilderness Border to Little Jackass

I slept like a rock and woke up feeling pretty good. Now that we could see where we were in the daylight we saw that it ended up being a pretty good site. It was a decent sized clearing with an abandoned house of sorts. We also saw a survey marker, which told us we were at the border of the King Range and Sinkyone Wilderness. Maybe the building was a ranger station back in the day. As we were leaving we came across a solo backpacker that was taking photographs. He told us he had seen a bear earlier in the morning. I’m not generally scared of bears but now it was on my mind. The main thing I’m worried about is coming around a corner and startling a bear. We never did see a bear though but we did see a lot of big piles of bear scat (poop).

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Not a bad site to find at 10:30 p.m. the night before. Kings Range/Sinkyone Wilderness border.
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Abandoned structure we camped near.

About a mile south of camp we reached Whale Gulch. It was a gorgeous steep ravine with a stream running through it. It looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings. Definitely not a good site for setting up camp. We filtered our water and continued up the hill. Soon we reached the top and came to a clearing with our first view of the ocean since leaving Black Sands Beach. It was spectacular but even more so was the herd of Roosevelt Elk we saw. We were at Jones Beach camp and it was the current home to a herd of about 25 females and calves. In Southern CA the local hills are populated with mule deer, which seem like a normal size, whatever that means. Roosevelt Elk on the other hand are huge! After checking them out and taking pictures we slowly started towards them. They were lounging on and around the trail about 100 yards in the distance. We expected them to get up and move as we approached. Nope! We told them to leave and waved our arms but they just looked at us like we were idiots. They were HUGE and I was not about to get too close especially when their calves were around. We looked around for an alternative route to pass. Luckily, we saw a narrow trail about 50 yards to the right that went down and back up a small ravine. Thankfully it was there because I was wondering how long we would have to wait until they moved.

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Roosevelt Elk females and calves in the middle of the trail.
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More Roosevelt Elk females and calves at Jones Beach.

As we walked through I immediately noticed a big difference between the sites in the King Range and Jones Beach. There was an enclosed pit toilet (outhouse), picnic table, fire ring and a bird’s eye view of the ocean. If the mileage works out, I would highly recommend spending a night here. There are 4 camps within the 2 miles from Jones Beach to Needle Rock so there are a lot of options depending on the crowds and how far you want to hike. In order heading south they are Jones Beach, Streamside Camp, Barn Camp and Needle Rock.

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The view from Jones Beach camp.

Our next stop was Needle Rock. There is a visitor center here with a very clean pit toilet and potable water. The visitor center is operated by volunteer hosts. When we were there the hosts were a retired couple. Inside it is small museum of sorts and the hosts live in the back. It seems like a great gig! I remember one of the first things the woman did was offer us apples. On the trail it’s so nice to eat some food that isn’t dehydrated. We gladly accepted and said thanks. You can actually drive to Needle Rock via a dirt road and leave you car. If you’re only planning on hiking a section this is a great option. There are also 5 creek side sites here and a barn for $35/night. The barn would provide some great shelter if you happen to get some bad weather. It’s clean and simple with 4 wooden platforms to sleep on and a table in the middle.

We stayed for about 30 minutes and left after filling up our water bottles. The dirt road that leads to Needle Rock continues heading south for another 3.1 miles until it reaches the next camp, which is Orchard Creek Camp. This road is also the trail. We didn’t encounter any vehicles but be aware that this is a possibility. The hiking is fairly easy during this section with some gentle ascents that still give you some great views of the ocean. This is one of the great things about hiking from Jones Beach to the Southern terminus at Usal. Even though there is a lot of elevation gain, you have some incredible views of the entire Lost Coast at the top of each peak because the trail stays close to the coast.

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Needle Rock Visitor Center
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The famous Needle Rock. I guess because the hole makes it look like the top of a needle.

As you descend to the end of the dirt road, the first camp you will reach is Orchard Creek. It’s a wide open campsite with nearby water that is surround by hills on 3 sides providing good shelter if the winds are high. We saw a couple of backpackers in this camp but we just waved hello and kept hiking. Soon after we reached a creek and decided to fill up. The next couple of miles are very gentle and flat. The trail here is in a narrow valley with the ocean just on the other side of the Western ridge. The next camp we came across was Railroad Creek Camp. It’s kind of exposed with not many trees. Nothing wrong with it but I’d choose Orchard Creek or Bear Harbor unless these two were very crowded. We saw 2 brothers that were backpacking and one of them had a bad knee that was acting up so there taking it slow and going to camp there. From here, if you look directly West, you’ll see an opening in the ridge that gives you clear access to the ocean. It was a good time to stop for lunch so we took a short detour and headed for the beach. This actually turned out to be Bear Harbor, the last of the 3 camps in this area. If the mileage worked out, I would have loved to have camped here. It was absolutely gorgeous. We hiked out to the beach and ate lunch. It’s completely isolated and devoid of any development. We saw a couple hanging out on the beach that looked to be day hikers because they didn’t have any gear. I’m assuming they parked at Needle Rock and hiked the 3 miles to Bear Harbor. Sounds like a great day hike to a secluded beach.

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The road/trail leaving Needle Rock and leading to Orchard Creek.

*Note: There is a creek that flows into the ocean at Bear Harbor. We filtered and filled before leaving.

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Secluded Bear Harbor

After lunch we headed back towards Railroad Creek Camp and passed it heading deeper into the short valley. We continued about another .75 miles until the valley ended and doubles back. Our good times ended as the trail started a steep climb. This was the beginning of a succession of steep climbs and descents to Little Jackass Camp. We really got a good stretch of coastal rainforest here but I slowly began to drift into my “detached hiking mode.” I was already anticipating the elevation gains. Robb as usual was chugging along without complaint. Every so often I would need to take a 5 minute breather and Robb would always wait. He even mentioned that it was tough but I think he was just trying to make me feel better. I was enjoying the beauty but I was also anxious to get to Little Jackass because I estimated we would get there just before dark. Some time during this section I saw a world famous banana slug! It was a mustard yellow color and about the size of small hot dog. Super cool! A quick pic and it was time to go. Around half way to Little Jackass you will first pass School Marm Grove Camp and then Wheeler Camp. It was kind of a blur to me but at Wheeler the trail splits. Make sure to head west, which was to our right because we were hiking south. We continued up and down switchbacks until finally we started descending our last set towards Little Jackass at dusk. When you get to the bottom of the switchbacks you’ll see an outhouse about 50 feet off the trail to your right. If you continue, you’ll see a spot to cross Little Jackass Creek. Once you cross, you want to head right towards the beach if you’re camping. We saw a group of 4 backpackers. They were college friends taking a birthday trip and they had the best spot. A clearing with some trees right next to the creek. The trail is really overgrown here with poison oak so watch out. It also began to lightly rain. We headed about another 50 yards and camped at the edge of the beach well above the high tide mark. It was another secluded beach that reminded me of Bear Harbor but I didn’t like the camping as much because of all of the poison oak. I mean it was crazy! It was growing right up to the trail and at least 4 feet high. It was nice to get to our site and set up before it got pitch dark. The drizzle even let up for about an hour while we got ready and made our dinners. I had been having problems get a taut pitch on my Six Moon Designs Skyscape X shelter. I was afraid that I might have water get inside if it continued to rain throughout the night. The nights were warm with low temperatures in the mid 50’s Fahrenheit. I was too tired to mess around with my shelter so I went to bed after dinner knowing that I’d just be uncomfortable if I got wet as opposed to anything serious like hypothermia.

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Our shelters set up at Little Jackass. In the foreground is Little Jackass Creek flowing into the ocean.
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The beach at Little Jackass.
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The world famous banana slug.

Day 4:  7.5 miles: Little Jackass to Usal Beach

I was happy to wake up and see that the inside of my Skyscape was completely dry even though it was poorly pitched. It probably had to do with the fact that it was a drizzle all night instead of a downpour. I got most of my things packed up inside my tent to avoid getting wet as much as possible. After a quick breakfast of organic instant ramen and coffee I donned my rain gear and packed the remaining gear. Since this was our last day, I just shook of my wet shelter and stuffed in its sack as opposed to neatly folding it. I’ll deal with it at home. We headed out the way we came and slowly started our next climb.

photo 27
One of the views we earned after a tough climb.

I’m not sure if it’s normally like this, but the trail from Little Jackass to Usal is very overgrown for most of the way. One could almost say we were bushwhacking. I typically wear a Zpacks Cuben Fiber rain kilt. Normally it’s plenty of rain protection for my bottom half, it weighs less than 3 oz and provides plenty of ventilation so you don’t sweat from it. Well, after about 10 minutes of hiking on this overgrown section my pants from my knees to ankles were soaking wet from constantly brushing up against wet vegetation. A minor inconvenience for all of its other benefits.

IMG_6377
Overgrown trail south of Little Jackass. This was actually not too bad compared to some spots.

As we trudged along, we came across wild blackberries often. At first we stopped every time we came across a blackberry bush but there were so many that we eventually stopped otherwise it would’ve taken us an extra 2 hours to get back. Even the ones that had a deep, purplish color weren’t ripe. I still think it was fun to pick them and eat even though they were a little tart. A couple of years earlier, Robb and a friend had backpacked from Usal to Little Jackass. He said we would know we’re close when the trail starts to descend into a grove of Redwoods. After about 4 hours, the trail began to open up and we could see the Redwoods. When we reached my truck we quickly changed into dry clothes and got on the road at about noon. 12 hours later we were back in Los Angeles.

IMG_6334
Wild Blackberries or maybe Thimbleberries.

Final Thoughts

I probably won’t be back for a while because there are so many trails to explore but I will definitely be back sometime. Don’t underestimate the trail’s difficulty. There is no rock scrambling or narrow sections along sheer cliffs so it’s not very technical, but it’s still tough in its own way. Hiking miles on sand and grapefruit sized rocks is tough. The elevation gains on the Southern section present it’s own challenge but don’t let these stop you from hiking the trail. When you’re trudging along those rocks and sand, or climbing up switchbacks, remember to enjoy the scenery. There are not too many trails like it so it should definitely be on your bucket list.

*Now that you’ve read my short novel, here are the Clif Notes. Remember, nothing is for free. 😉

Distance:

Mattole River Mouth to Black Sands Beach – 24.4 miles

Hidden Valley to Usal Beach – 28 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate to Difficult

Best Months: May – September

Permits:

King Range Conservation Area: Backcountry permits are available at self-service stations at the major trailheads.

Sinkyone Wilderness: Self registration is available at Needle Rock and Usal. Trail camping is on a first come, first serve basis and is $5/person per night.

Bear Canisters:

King Range Conservation Area: Bear canisters are required and can be rented for $5 per canister per trip from the BLM’s Arcata office, King Range office in Whitehorn and at the Petrolia Store located 5 miles from the Mattole River trailhead. They may be returned at any of the three locations. You may also check you local outfitter or REI. Keep in mind that if you camp south of the Hidden Valley trailhead you will still need one if you end up camping before entering the Sinkyone Wilderness.

Sinkyone Wilderness: Bear canisters are not required but still take precautions to secure your food and scented items. The PCT bear hanging method is recommended if not using bear canisters.

Resupply:

There is no post office in Shelter Cove so there is not an established resupply option. If you are taking a zero day in town and staying at one of the inns or motels you could arrange to have them receive and hold a resupply box for you.

You could also plan to start your trip with just enough food to get to Shelter Cove and buy supplies at the Shelter Cove General Store or Shelter Cove RV Park and Campground. If you decide to do this, I would call these stores ahead of time and find out when they are open and whether they have backpacking food.

Fires:

King Range Conservation Area: Fires are allowed with permits. Permits can be obtained at self service stations at Mattole River trailhead and Black Sands Beach trailhead. Driftwood may be collected in beach areas and down wood from woodland areas. Be sure that your campfire is completely extinguished before leaving. From July to October fire closure may be in effect so be sure to check with the BLM office before your trip.

Sinkyone Wilderness: Fires are only allowed in designated fire rings. Driftwood may be collected but the collecting of dead and downed wood is prohibited.

Dogs:

Prohibited

Ticks:

Ticks are abundant along the entire trail and are even present along the beach. Long pants and sleeves or bug repellant is recommended. Robb and I didn’t have any issues but we both wore long sleeves and pants the entire trip.

Camping:

King Range Conservation Area: There are no designated camping areas and camping is allowed all along the trail. The most popular areas are near creeks.

Sinkyone Wilderness: Camping is allowed only in the thirteen designated camp areas.

Sanitation (Pooping and Peeing):

King Range Conservation Area: If along the beach, you should dig a 1 ft deep hole in the sand below the high tide line and cover with sand when done. If you’re not near the beach, dig a cat hole at least 200 ft from the nearest water source.

Sinkyone Wilderness: Use pit toilets when available or dig a cat hole at least 200 ft from the nearest water source. Be careful to watch out for poison oak. 

Shuttle Services:

Lost Coast Shuttle

(707) 986.7437  -or-  (707) 223.1547
Contact : Sherri Luallin at sherriluallin@gmail.com.

We used Lost Coast shuttle and were very happy with them. They are the only shuttle service that will shuttle you from Usal Beach to Mattole River. They charge a flat rate, so the more passengers you have the less expensive it is per person. If you’re flexible, you can ask them to book you with another group if there is room. Sherri will also shuttle a car to a trailhead for you.

Lost Coast Adventures 

(707) 986.9895  -or-  (707) 502.7514
Contact : Blu Graham at lostcoastadventuretours@gmail.com

Lost Coast Trail Transport

Sinkyone ONLY:
Contact : Roxanne Beijan (707) 986.9909 or roxanne@saber.net

Alternative to Shuttling:

You could drive 2 cars and leave one at Usal, then drive up to Mattole. At the end of the trip you would drive your group back to Mattole to get your vehicle.

Another option takes some coordinating but the benefit is you don’t have to get the second vehicle at the end of your trip. Agree to meet another group beforehand and exchange cars. I would suggest Ferndale or Rockport. At some point you will pass the other group along the trail and you exchange keys again. Your car will be waiting for you at the end of the trek. This option takes some trust but works well.

Directions:

Usal Beach Campground (Southern Terminus):

About 3 miles north of Rockport, CA along 101 freeway take the Highway 1 exit west about 16 miles to Usal Road. Turn right on Usal Road and drive for 6 miles until you reach the parking area. Note: Usal Road is only marked by a small mile marker 90.88 sign. It is a dirt road. You can locate Usal Beach using Google Maps and follow the directions.

Mattole River Mouth (Northern Terminus):

From the 101 freeway take the Ferndale exit and from town follow the signs to Petrolia. One mile beyond Petrolia, turn right on Lighthouse Road. Continue for 5 miles until you reach the Mattole River campground.

Resources:

King Range National Conservation Area:
http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/content/ca/en/prog/nlcs/King_Range_NCA.html

King Range National Conservation Area
PO Box 189
768 Shelter Cove Road
Whitethorn, California 95589
(707) 986-5400

Bureau of Land Management

Arcata Field Office
1695 Heindon Road
Arcata, California 95521-4573
Phone: (707) 825-2300

Sinkyone Wilderness:

http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=429
http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/arcata/kingrange/sinkyone_wilderness.html

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park
1600 U.S. Hwy 101 #8
Garberville, CA  95542
707-986-7711

North Coast Redwoods District
California State Parks
PO Box 2006
Eureka, CA 95503
707-445-6547

Lost Coast Ranger
http://lostcoastranger.blogspot.com

Great up to date information on the King Range. You can also email him with questions.

The Lost Coast Trail blog
https://lostcoasttrails.wordpress.com

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2 thoughts on “Getting Lost: Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

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