California's Lost Coast Trail is a hidden gem in a state that has more than its fair share of great outdoor playgrounds. But while everyone else is rushing off to Yosemite, Sequoia, or Joshua Tree, travelers looking for a bit more solitude and seclusion should consider spending a few days on this forgotten section of the California coast instead. It is incredibly beautiful, sparsely visited, and a worthy alternative to those other well-trodden destinations. In other words, it has everything a backpacker or adventure traveler is looking for.
If you do decide to go, here are ten tips to help you plan for your big adventure.
Where is the Lost Coast?
Located in Northern California, the Lost Coast runs for nearly 25 miles through the King Range National Conservation Area. The route starts at Shelter Cove in the south and ends at Mattole River in the North, with plenty of amazing sties to be seen in-between. The trail gets its name from the fact that this section of the shoreline is so rugged and remote, that the state's famous Highway 1 had to be diverted inland, away from the Pacific Ocean. You won't find towns, housing developments, or even lone mansions on the hill anywhere along its length. Instead you'll discover a stretch of coastline that has remained mostly untouched for decades, with just a handful of adventurous backpackers occasionally hiking the route end-to-end.
When to Go?
The best time to hike the Lost Coast Trail is from May to October. During those months temperatures are warm and comfortable during the day, and cool – but not overly cold – at night. At that time of the year the Pacific Ocean serves as a buffer zone of sorts, preventing moisture from reaching the coast. This makes rain showers much less common, turning the hike into a mild and comfortable one.
If you trek the trail at other times of the year, rain is a lot more likely, which can make for some long days on what can sometimes be a challenging route. Additionally, a soggy campsite becomes much more likely as well, which can make staying dry and comfortable a bigger challenge. The off-season does mean that fewer people will be on the trail however, creating an even deeper sense of solitude. If you're looking to have the Lost Coast to yourself, the off-season is a good time to visit.
No matter when you go, always be sure to check the forecast before setting out. Weather conditions can play a major role in your enjoyment of any long trek. You'll also want to be sure you have the appropriate gear with you to stay warm and dry at all times.
How Long Does it Take to Hike the Trail?
If you're planning on hiking the entire trail end-to-end, expect it to take about 3-4 days to complete. The route is only 25 miles in length, but it crosses over some incredibly rugged terrain that offers plenty of vertical gain and loss along the way. Perhaps most difficult of all however are the sandy and rocky beaches, which can slow even the fastest hiker down to a crawl. Walking on wet sand can be ponderous work, particularly with a full pack strapped to your back. Additionally, if the tide has come in, crossing some of those beaches can become completely impossible, requiring backpackers to set up camp and wait things out.
How Difficult is the Hike?
Ask anyone who has ever hiked the Lost Coast Trail, and they're likely to tell you that it is a moderately challenging trek, mostly due to the beaches you'll encounter along the way. Unlike the well established and marked trail that runs through the surrounding wilderness, the beaches are often wet, uneven, and include large rocks to scramble over, not to mention plenty of shifting sand to walk on too. This can make for difficult and tiring trekking, zapping the energy from the legs of even the fittest backpackers.
Experienced hikers aren't likely to be put off by these challenges, although it is good to be aware of them ahead of time. When walking on the beach it is best to take your time and travel at a moderate pace. Once you return to the actual trail itself, your legs will welcome the return of solid ground again.
Which Direction Should I Hike?
Hikers can choose to walk the Lost Cost Trail in either direction and you're just as likely to find backpackers traveling south to north, as you will encounter them going the opposite way. That said however, some experienced LCT hikers recommend starting in the north at Mattole Beach, as that puts the prevailing winds at your back for most of the journey. With the strong ocean breezes out of your face you're likely to feel more comfortable and it never hurts to have the wind helping to push you along.
No matter which direction you travel however, you can book a shuttle to and from the trailhead through Lost Coast Adventure Tours. The company has been in business for a number of years and can transport backpackers to and from either end of the trail.
Get a Permit
In the past, hikers and backpackers weren't required to have permits when hiking the Lost Coast Trail, but that changed in 2017. Now, if you intend to stay overnight along the route, you'll need to register at Recreation.gov ahead of time, and have your permit with you at all times throughout the hike. The permit is modestly priced at $6 however, so it won't exactly break the bank. Additionally, it helps park rangers to know who is out on the trail at any given time, which not only helps to avoid overcrowding during busy times of the year, but can be extremely helpful during times of emergency too.
Also, be aware that the new permitting system limits the number of people on the trail to just 60 per day during the peak season (May 15 - Sept. 15) and 30 people per day at other times of the year. To ensure that you can get a permit for the days that you want to hike, you'll want to book your reservations early and adjust your schedule accordingly.
Bring a Tide Table
In addition to all of the usual gear that you bring on a backpacking trip, when setting out on the Lost Coast Trail you'll also need to pack a tide table too. That's because at three different points along the route, the trail meanders down to the coastline, forcing hikers to walk along the beach for an extended portion of the trek. In fact, two of those areas are nearly 4 miles in length, making them a considerable section of the entire route.
When the tide comes in, and the water rises, some of those beaches are covered by the ocean, making them completely impassable. Knowing the movements of those tides will help you to also understand how fast you need to hike in order to beat the rising waters. If you happen to misjudge the pace, you could find yourself on the wrong side of the beach or worse yet, midway through a crossing when the rising tides make their inevitable appearance. That could potentially be disastrous for anyone who might be caught unprepared.
It is vitally important to not try to cross these open beaches when the tides are on the rise as they can quickly become unsafe. Each year, a few hikers get swept out to see by unexpected waves, so play it safe, consult the tide table, and only walk these sections when the beach is clear of water.
Treat Your Drinking Water
There are numerous streams, creeks, and small rivers running along the Lost Coast Trail, so finding fresh drinking water is rarely a problem. That means you won't have to carry a large amounts of water with you for the 3-4 day hike, although you will have to treat the water that you find along the way. The streams may look clear, but you never know if there are microbes, parasites, or diseases lurking inside of it. As always when traveling, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Bring a water filter, such as the MSR Trailshot, or other method of purifying your drinking water. You won't lack for opportunities to fill up your bottles and hydration reservoirs, but in order to avoid getting sick you'll want to treat anything you intend to drink.
Watch for Wildlife
The Lost Coast Trail is home to a wide array of wildlife and hikers will want to keep their eyes peeled throughout the trip. It is possible that they could encounter elk, deer, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and even bears along the way. Generally, those creatures will scamper off into the wilderness as hikers approach, but it is still important to stay aware of the potential for an encounter at all times.
Because there are bears in the area, anyone camping overnight should be sure to bring a bear canister along to keep their food safely out of reach. Hungry bears won't think twice about wandering into campsite if it means they can get a free meal. Place the canister in a safe place outside of camp or better yet, suspend your food from the limb of a tree. This should safely put it out of reach of any ursine intruders, ensuring you have plenty to eat for the length of your journey.
You may also want to bring some bear spray along for the hike too. Like pepper-spray on steroids, this is a product that is designed to stop a charging bear in its tracks and can provide a little extra sense of safety while hiking.
Visit the Punta Gorda Lighthouse
Perhaps the most famous point along the entire trail is found not far from the northern end of the Lost Coast. That's where hikers will come across the Punta Gorda Lighthouse, which was built back in 1912 and served as a beacon to warn ships away from the rocky shores of the California coastline. It served in that capacity for decades before it was eventually shuttered for good back in 1951, becoming one of the more famous landmarks on the trail.
Today, the lighthouse is a popular resting point for hikers and backpackers, who can still walk up its stairs to get a good look at the surrounding area. It also makes for a good out-and-back destination for day hikers looking to experience the Lost Coast without committing to walking its entire length.
The Lost Coast Trail is truly a unique, wild, and isolated wilderness. Hopefully our tips and suggestions will not only get you intrigued enough to go hike it yourself, but also have you well prepared for what to expect once you are there.