If you want to experience a hike in one of the most untouched coastal areas in the United States, the Lost Coast Trail is the place to go.
Not for the faint of heart, the Lost Coast Trail traverses rugged terrain across beaches, coastal cliffs, and the foothills of the King Mountain Range. The entire trail stretches for about 56 miles in northern Mendocino County and southern Humboldt County.
There are very few access points by paved road, due to the ruggedness of the terrain. However, the trail can be broken up into three different segments.
Hiking the Northern Section of the Lost Coast Trail
When most people mention the Lost Coast Trail, it’s this northern section that they are most likely referring to. It is located within the King Range Conservation Area and is managed and maintained by the California BLM (Bureau of Land Management).
Experiencing the Northern Section of the Lost Coast Trail
This northern most part of the Lost Coast Trail stretches between Mattole Beach and Black Sands Beach.
Mattole Beach boasts a campground, picnic area, and hiking opportunities, including the starting point of the Lost Coast Trail.
The campground does have drinkable water, so this is a good place to fill up your water bottles or jugs. Additional information about Mattole Beach can be found here.
25 miles south of Mattole Beach is the end of this section of the Lost Coast Trail and Black Sands Beach in Shelter Cove, Ca. This is also a great place to just go for the day – you can picnic there and walk along the beach at low tide. More details about Black Sand Beach can be found here.
This 25-mile hike traverses along the beach almost the entire way. In fact, stretches of the trail are actually on the beach and disappear at high tide. So, be sure to time your trip accordingly.
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US Harbors offers tide charts online and you can find the tide chart for Shelter Cove as well as other areas of the California coastline. It is critically important that you plan your hiking around the tides! If you get caught in one of the impacted areas during high tide, it is incredibly dangerous.
When not on the beach, you will be clambering over rocks and up and down very steep terrain. This is a very strenuous hike and is not recommended for small children, beginners, or those not in excellent physical condition.
If hiking this entire northern section, expect to do some camping along the way. It typically takes 3 days to do the 25 miles because of the ruggedness of the trail. Wonderland Guides provides additional details about the experience of hiking this section of the Lost Coast Trail.
Accessing the Northern Section of the Lost Coast Trail
There are three different access points to this part of the Lost Coast Trail: Mattole Beach, Honeydew Creek, and Black Sands Beach. The California BLM provides the following directions on their website:
“NORTH ACCESS: U.S. 101 to the Ferndale exit. Once in Ferndale, follow signs to Petrolia. One mile past Petrolia, turn right on Lighthouse Road; it is 5 more miles to the Mattole Recreation Site. Allow 1 1/2 hours for the 42 mile trip.
CENTRAL ACCESS: U.S. 101 to South Fork – Honeydew exit. Follow the signs to Honeydew (23 Miles). Turn left in Honeydew to Honeydew Creek Recreation Site and Smith-Etter Road. Allow 1 hour for the 24 mile trip. Turn right to Mattole Beach and Trailhead. Allow 45 minutes for the 18.5 mile trip.
SOUTH ACCESS: U.S. 101 to the Redway/Garberville exit. Follow signs to Shelter Cove/King Range NCA. Allow 45 minutes for the 22 mile trip to Shelter Cove.”
Hiking the Middle Section of the Lost Coast Trail
While this is the shortest section of the Lost Coast Trail, it also tends to be the least traveled. However, it is definitely worth experiencing if you are up to the challenging hike.
Experiencing the Middle Section of the Lost Coast Trail
On the north is Shelter Cove, which was the southern end of the previously covered section of the trail. To the south is Needle Rock, with 9 miles to cover in between.
There is a visitor’s center at Needle Rock, which is part of the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. Needle Rock itself is a tall, slender rock in the sea that has a hole at the bottom, making it appear like a sewing needle.
Along the 9 miles of hiking trail between Shelter Cove and Needle Rock, you will climb over Chemise Mountain, which peaks at 2598 feet.
Accessing the Middle Section of the Lost Coast Trail
You can hike this section of the Lost Coast Trail by starting either at the north or the south. To access either location, take the Redway/Garberville exit off U.S. 101. From there follow these directions from the California Department of Parks and Recreation: “6 miles southwest of Garberville/Redway on Briceland Road. Take Briceland Road west from Redway. Briceland Road becomes Mendocino County Road 435. The last 3.5 miles are unpaved, steep, & narrow.”
Both drives consist of rugged, narrow dirt roads that may be closed due to bad weather in the winter. Having a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended and you’ll want to be sure to have plenty of fuel.
Hiking the Southern Section of the Lost Coast Trail
This final southern section of the Lost Coast Trail is just as rugged as the first. However, you won’t spend as much time hiking so close to the beach.
Experiencing the Southern Section of the Lost Coast Trail
The 22 miles of this section of the Lost Coast Trail extends between Needle Rock at the north and Usal Beach, near Westport, at the south.
This section of the trail is also part of the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. More information about this state park can be found on the website of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Because the shoreline is so steep at this section, the trail follows along the foothills of the mountains. You can camp in the backcountry here, and then get to the beach via access points along the way.
Be sure to bring plenty of your own drinking water, as there isn’t any available along this section of the trail. You are also responsible for hauling your own trash. Follow the rule of “pack it in, pack it out.”
The California Department of Parks and Recreation recommends that you even bring your own toilet paper, because they are unable to ensure sufficient supplies at the campgrounds due to staffing cuts.
Accessing the Southern Section of the Lost Coast Trail
You can access this section of the Lost Coast Trail either from Needle Rock at the north or Usal Beach at the south.
To get to Usal Beach, follow these directions from the California Department of Parks and Recreation: “Approximately one hour north of Ft Bragg on Highway 1 or 15 miles west of Leggett on Highway 1 from Highway 101. Look for mile marker 90.88 on Highway 1. Turn north for approximately 6 miles onto an unpaved, steep, narrow road.”
Precautions When Hiking the Lost Coast Trail
As stated before, we recommend hiking the Lost Coast Trail only if you are a very experienced hiker or backpacker in excellent physical condition.
This is the kind of hike that is very rare because of the sheer lack of civilization and development. You will see the land looking very much like it did 100 or 200 years ago, with the only real changes a result of the natural changes that come to a landscape over time.
If you are up for the challenge and are ready to take in this breathtaking beauty, we do want you to be prepared and take a few precautions.
- Be prepared for temperamental weather. Pack for wet and windy, even in the summer.
- Be mindful of “sneaker waves.” Warnings about these waves can be found along the beaches of California, Oregon, and Washington because they can be deadly. We recommend only stopping to rest well away from the water, and up high on the hillside if possible.
- Because of how remote this is, you are likely to encounter wildlife. Bears, raccoons, and rattlesnakes are a few that can be the most dangerous. Keep your food locked in bear-proof containers and watch and listen for the snakes along the trail.
- Drinkable water is largely unavailable. So, bring plenty of water or a water purification system with you. And, we recommend thoroughly researching water sources before you start your journey.
Enjoy this trek along the beach and get ready to experience the wilderness in a very unique way!