Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail has had to be one of the most inspiring segments of our California road trip so far. We hiked through so many amazing sections of the trail, I must’ve taken 500 photos…the problem now is going to be choosing which ones I want to paint!

Monday afternoon we arrived in Shelter Cove and picked up a few last-minute essentials at the general store, including a bear can rental. We reorganized our gear in the parking lot above the trailhead and hit the trail around 5:00 PM.

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The Lost Coast is a remote and rugged section of the California Coast about 2.5 hours North of Fort Bragg (about 5 hours North of San Francisco). Apparently they were going to build a highway here many decades ago, but the project was abandoned because the terrain is just too harsh. The mountains rise over 4,000 feet from sea level, and many areas of the coast are impassable at high tide because the cliffs are too sheer and there is nowhere to hike but the beach.

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We hiked the trail in an unconventional direction – most people hike North to South to avoid the Northerly winds. However, the majority of folks access the trail via a shuttle service, and every shuttle was booked. We packed enough food for 6 days and started at the South end of the trail. We weren’t sure if we were going to do an out and back, or hike up the beach 8.5 miles and then do a loop up into the mountains. We didn’t need to decide right away, as we could only make it to the first impassable-at-high-tide section before dark anyway.

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Walking on the beach was beautiful and serene, but slow-going. The terrain varies from sand, to pebbles, to bowling-bowl sized rocks and boulders. There isn’t much elevation change except for a few short sections that leave the beach and climb up onto the bluffs above. However, walking on the beach is hard work and very tiring. The first evening we did 3.7 miles in just under 3 hours.

Northern California is wild, and the Lost Coast is no exception. Along the way to our first campsite, we spotted bear tracks in a few different places:

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We were fortunate the first evening to almost have the beach to ourselves. We passed two other groups, but most of the time we felt like we were hundreds of miles from civilization.

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We set up camp close to a stream that flowed out into the ocean, with our tent right in the sand.

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We feel asleep to the sound of waves crashing just 100 feet away from the tent. I briefly wondered if a bear or another critter came to visit, if we’d even hear them over the sound of the ocean. I was so tired though, I quickly forgot the thought and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning we got an early start to be sure we could finish the first 4.5-mile “impassable” section within a couple hours of low tide (at 9:00 that morning). The fog was dense as we left our campsite around 7:00.

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Fortunately the next section of the beach was a little easier, with damp, packed sand to walk on. We moved a little faster than the previous evening, and at about the 6-mile point we spotted some seals perched on some rocks off the coast:

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Around 8.5 miles we needed to make our decision about which route to take. After some back and forth, we decided to keep heading North on the beach. We figured even though we were doing the trail backwards, it was worth it to do the “classic” route. Plus we heard that the mountain loop was severely overgrown with poison oak, and we didn’t want to deal with that challenge. We decided we’d see if we would have any luck hopping on a shuttle that was dropping folks off at the North end of the trail. If not, we’d spend the night there, and then retrace our route back to Shelter Cove.

In the afternoon the fog faded in and out, making the landscape seem mysterious and deserted. Sometimes the sun would come out briefly and we would start to sweat, so we were thankful when we walked through fog again.

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At lunch we saw two sea otters fishing at the mouth of a stream (the one pictured above), in the waves crashing on the beach. We watched them for a while, but I knew if I approached them to take a picture they’d swim away. I didn’t bring my telephoto lens backpacking, so unfortunately I didn’t capture any photos of them.

Since we knew we had to cross another critical tidal area early again the next morning, we pushed on into the afternoon, even though our feet were screaming. Thankfully a lot of the rest of the day’s hike was on an actual trail, with firm ground and few rocks.

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We had planned to camp at Spanish Flats, about one mile before the second “impassable” section. However, this area was actually quite crowded, with lots of kids running around (I was impressed that kids that appeared to be as young as 8 years old were hiking this trail; I definitely wasn’t rugged or strong enough for something like this at that age).

We continued on for another mile, clocking a total of about 13.5 miles for the day. We set up camp next to Randall Creek, just before the part that you cannot hike at high tide. There were two other small groups, but they were out of our sight and earshot.

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It’s hard to tell from the photo above, but the wind was fierce that evening. Until now we hadn’t really experienced much wind at all on our hike, but at 6:00 PM on the dot, the wind started howling. We built a little shelter with our packs and trekking poles so that we could cook dinner in the wind. It worked surprisingly well!

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After dinner I walked down to the beach to capture a few shots just before sunset:

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The next morning we left early again to beat the incoming tide. The hike started out on the beach and was easy walking for a little while. It was sunnier than the previous day and we were glad to be partially shaded by the cliffs above us.

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But the beach soon became rocky, with rocks the size of bowling balls.

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Later we encountered some large boulders we had to scramble over – it sort of reminded me of hiking a 14er in Colorado (but without the incline obviously!).

About halfway through the critical tidal area, we stopped for a break at a stream. Some other hikers alerted us to a whale upstream! We hiked up to check it out – it must have gotten caught at high tide and then trapped when the tide went back out. It was dead of course, and really only recognizable by its whale tail. I’ll spare you the picture – it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Toward the end of the “impassable” section, there was no beach at all (just cliffs!), so we had to climb steeply up onto the bluffs to circumnavigate the area. It made for some pretty amazing views though:

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About a half mile later we spotted a large boulder out in the ocean, COVERED in sea lions. Well actually, we heard them before we saw them – their barking was loud and impossible to miss!

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An hour later, as we rounded the bend, there was an abandoned lighthouse up on the hillside.

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The last 2 miles were pretty brutal. The wind was ferocious, and we had to walk in deep, loose sand. I understand why most people hike this trail the opposite direction, but I really felt lucky that we only had to deal with these conditions for the last little bit of the trip.

After hiking about 7.5 miles for the day, we finally reached the Northern trailhead at the Mattole River at 2:30. There is a developed campground there, so there were a few people hanging out. We asked around if anyone was heading South, but no one was. It’s actually a 2-hour drive back to Shelter Cove, even though we only hiked 24 miles up the beach. The landscape is so hilly, the roads are extremely windy and steep.

We figured we’d keep an eye out for cars dropping off hikers and continue to ask about rides to Shelter Cove into the evening. We took turns napping and hanging out by the wilderness permit station.

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I was mentally preparing myself for embarking on the return trip on the trail in the morning, but at 5:00 PM, a van dropped off 6 hikers. Brian approached the driver. She seemed surprised to see us, but more than willing to drive us back to Shelter Cove. The shuttle is normally $200, but she offered us the ride at $150 (we gave her $175). I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed the hike back, but my body was aching and tired. Taking the shuttle also meant we’d have a little extra time to head even further up the coast before driving back to Colorado. It was money well spent to both of us!

We got back to Shelter Cove at 7:30, unpacked our backpacks and reorganized the car. The shuttle driver had driven us by a little fishermans’/dive bar in town, telling us we had to try the fish and chips. The fish was local and tasted amazing after eating trail food for 3 days! We spent the night in a BLM campground up the road and both slept like babies.

The Lost Coast Trail was probably our favorite part of our whole California road trip. It is such a beautiful and magical place, we will certainly remember it forever. How in the world am I going to decide which photos to paint first??

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