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Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

10.02.18

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Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

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The Lost Coast Trail is a force to be reckoned with. From hiking with sea lions and elephant seals, talking sweet nothings to the resident sea otters in Cooksie Creek, staring at the Milky Way in the night sky, and observing all the washed-up sea life to watching deer and bears meander down from the mountains to visit the campground creek and discovering whale bones and fish vertebrae, discovering the beautiful uninhibited terrain that is known as the Lost Coast is an unforgettable three- or four-day backpacking trip. The Lost Coast is mostly a natural and development-free area in Humboldt County California, specifically in the King Range Wilderness. In the 1930s this area experienced depopulation, and as a result, it was named the “The Lost Coast.” In addition, the steepness and related geotechnical challenges of the coastal mountains made this stretch of coastline too costly for road construction, leaving it the most undeveloped and remote portion of the California coast. This trip has been on my bucket list for some time, and when I saw permits were available for early September, I snagged a solo permit and dove deep into the planning process. From scheduling a shuttle service, understanding the tide tables, and mapping the impassible zones on my Gaia GPS, I had my work cut out for me. I decided to do this trip solo since the planning process was a bit intense, and frankly I wanted some time alone to unwind and fall off the grid. From Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach, this hike is just over 25 miles, and I wanted to take my time on the trail, sleep in, make breakfast, have plenty of time to cross the high tidal zones, take in the salty air, watch the waves, and be lost in my own thoughts, so I decided to do this trek over four days and three nights. However, this can easily be completed in three days and two nights.

Obtaining that coveted permit

A permit is required to camp overnight in the King Range Wilderness, and permits can be obtained at Recreation.gov. You can print your permit a week in advance of your start date.

Shuttle service, please?

Since this is a one-way hike, you must book a shuttle that will drive you from Black Sands beach to Mattole Beach. Starting from Matthole Beach and hiking the 25-mile stretch back to your car at Black Sands Beach is the way to go because you'll be hiking in the same direction as the wind. Plus, the road to Black Sands Beach is paved and maintained, unlike the road to Matthole Beach (an unpaved mess). The shuttle will pick you up at the Black Sands Beach parking lot, and the driver will give you a 10-minute orientation on proper trail etiquette and the quick and dirty on the tides. He will also give you a tide table book, which is golden for when you are on the trail. The road to Black Sands Beach is windy and narrow, and can make you nervous, especially if you decide to do this drive at night. I arrived at the parking lot around 11:00 p.m. the night before and quickly discovered that all campgrounds in the area close at 9 p.m., so I slept in my car because I had a 7 a.m. shuttle departure the next morning (not the most ideal situation, but sometimes you have to roll with the punches). I booked a shuttle with Lost Coast Adventure Tours (cost about $70), but keep in mind that if they do not have at least four people booked for that shuttle time, they will cancel your shuttle or place you in the next shuttle that is full. I was moved from the 7 a.m. shuttle to the 8 a.m. shuttle, which meant I was going to start an hour later than scheduled. But again, you always have to roll with the punches. Make sure you call Lost Coast Adventure Tours 48 hours before your departure to confirm that your shuttle is full.

Tide tables and impassible zones

So this is the part where it gets tricky. There are two stretches of coastal zones that cannot be passed during high tide: One is 4 miles, and the other is 0.25 miles. Additionally, there is one totally impassible zone that cannot be crossed, period, regardless of the tide. It is important to study the tide table and understand your hiking windows. The impassible zone is about 0.5 miles from Sea Lion Gulch, and there is a small flat rock sitting on top of a large boulder referred to as “hat rock.” This “hat rock” is a sign that you must look for the overhead trail that takes you up and over this impassible zone. If you come to the impassible zone and discover huge boulders that are impossible to climb, like I did, retrace your steps and look above for that overhead trail. Once you are about half way up the overhead trail you will notice a trail sign that points you in the correct direction. Remember, the ocean is always on your right, and the mountains are always on your left (if you are hiking from Matthole to Black Sands).

Now, for the 2-mile impassible zones at high tides the rule of the thumb is to stop hiking two hours before high tide and to begin hiking two hours after high tide. There is an a.m. and a p.m. high tide, so you will begin your hike two hours after the high tide in the morning and will make sure you are through the impassable zones two hours before the p.m. high tide begins. Here is where it gets tricky: You must deduct 52 minutes from the high tides for the Shelter Cover area and keep in mind the tidal heights. My high tides were all within the 4-foot range, so the two-hour windows were safe for me (for the most part). However, if your high tide is within the 6- to 7-foot range, you may need to give yourself a larger window (most likely 3 to 3.5 hours before and after high tide). I would suggest going over your hiking schedule with the rangers beforehand if you find this confusing, but once you start hiking, you will get the hang of it. I would recommend setting up camp at the beginning of these tidal zones so that you can hike through them in the morning after the first high tide and avoid getting stuck or waiting out the tide. There are also camping sites within the impassible tidal zones that are great places to camp as well.

Tide table example:

  • Morning high tide: 4 a.m., 4.5 tidal height (minus 52 minutes)
  • Evening high tide: 7 p.m., 6.5 tidal height (minus 52 minutes)
  • Start hiking through the high tide impassible zone after 5 a.m. and make sure you are through this 4-mile impassible zone by 3 p.m. (there was a three-hour window in the evening because the tidal height is much higher).

Backcountry campsites on the Lost Coast

The “campsites” are basically the creek areas where you are able to filter water. Even if the area is not marked as a campsite on your map, you are still able to camp there because this whole area is considered BLM land.  

I decided to camp at Cooksie Creek on the first night. This is an adorable little area where sea otters play in the river and deer roam around in search of a drink from the stream. I met two super nice guys and hiked with them the first day, sharing stories about India along the trail. Cooksie Creek is about 2 miles into the first impassible tidal zone, and we had about two hours to clear these two miles before we had to worry about the high tides. Seems easy right? Well, hiking over boulders and sand can slow you down more than you think. Unfortunately, we ran out of time, and we had 0.2 miles left until we reached camp, but we were stuck on a jagged boulder hanging on for dear life as the waves crashed around us, soaking us from the waist down. One of the guys I was with decided to check around the corner to see how far we had to go. When he realized we had less than 0.2 miles to go, we waited for the next set of waves to crash into us and then made a run for it. We made it to camp safe and soaked, but my heart was filled with pure joy when I came across a family of three sea otters playing at our campsite. I was in animal kingdom heaven! We quickly learned our lesson about the impassible tidal zones, and I gave myself plenty of time the next day.

On the second day, I solo hiked 10 miles to Big Flat where I set up camp for the night. Big Flat is about 1 mile from the second impassible tidal zone. It is a very quiet campsite with gorgeous ocean views and a large flowing creek for filtering water. The next morning I was at the beginning of the second high tide impassible zone, so I started my hike with fresh legs and with plenty of time to spare in between the high tides. After hiking a quick and easy 4.5 miles on day three, I set up my camp at Gitchell Creek, which is right after the second tidal zone. I was the only person camping at Gitchell Creek, which was magical (this was most likely because it was only 3 miles from the end of the trail). Day four made for an easy 3 miles back to my car at Black Sands Beach. I arrived at my car around 10:30 a.m. and drove to San Jose, checked into a hotel, and took a nice long shower before meeting a friend for drinks.

Answers to commonly asked questions

  • This is bear country, so make sure you store all of your scented items in an approved bear canister.
  • There are streams about every 2 or 3 miles along the trail to filter, which is enough water for that distance.
  • Camp at a stream (they are called “creeks” on the trail maps).
  • My starting pack weight all in with 3 liters of water was 32 pounds.
  • It was very sunny the first day and very windy and overcast the next three days…the weather changes on a dime.
  • I did not use my tent fly once. If there is no rain in the forecast, I would recommend leaving this at home, as it did not drop below 50 degrees at night.
  • Most of the trail is on sand and boulders, which will slow you down. I recommend very sturdy and high-ankle hiking boots. I wore my LOWA Renegades, and my feet felt great the whole trip.
  • Poison oak and ticks are all over this trail. Be mindful of where you step and check your body for ticks when you get to camp.
  • Although this was a relatively easy trip in terms of physical endurance, the planning and logistics were quite tricky, so I would not recommend this as a first-time backpacking trip.
  • No, I did not bring any alcohol, and yes, I started and finished an entire book, “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah.
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