Staying Found on California’s Lost Coast

Trail Tales
3 Wildflowers Are Taller Than Sasha Approaching Spanish Flat
California’s Lost Coast is so rugged that road builders reportedly abandoned the coastal road system (US1 and US101) through this area, opting for more inland options. Backpackers, being far more nimble than cars, can navigate this area on the Lost Coast Trail (LCT). I recently hiked the north section of the LCT, which hugs the coast for 25 miles from the mouth of the Mattole River to Black Sands Beach at Shelter Cove.

The Punta Gorda Lighthouse beckons in the distance. All photos: Karin Schwartz

Logistics of the Lost Coast Trail

There are a number of significant challenges in backpacking the LCT, including weather and rather complex trailhead logistics. While the internet is full of good advice on how to hike the LCT, the best starting place is probably the Bureau of Land Management’s own website on the King Range, Rather than rehash what is already out there, I’ll focus on two perhaps underserved issues: dog and human feet.

Wildflowers tower over the author's dog, Sasha. Although dogs are allowed, the trail is rugged and punishing on the paws. Bring foot protection for your dogs.

A word of caution in regards to dogs:

Dogs are allowed on the Lost Coast Trail, and I brought my own four-legged companion, Sasha. But the trail is brutal on both doggie muscles and paws, and carrying dog booties is essential. We met one couple contemplating rigging up a carrying system of some sort to evacuate their 75-lb black lab mix (paw damage and muscle exhaustion), while both trailready dogs in our own group sustained minor-to-significant paw damage. Other hazards include ticks (and there are many many ticks), rattlesnakes, and the ocean itself.

A word of caution in regards to your own (human) feet):

While I knew that hiking for miles on sand and rock would be exhausting, I assumed the greatest strain would be on my calf muscles. I was so, so wrong. According to Wikipedia, the human foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments. On this hike, you will use every one of them over and over again. Good footwear is essential, and even with the best footwear, you may cry tears of pure joy when taking that last step from the beach onto the solid asphalt that leads back to your car.

Happily, my Oboz Bridgers were well up to the task.

Their thick soles provided critical protection over the most jagged terrain, and their waterproof membrane, coupled with a light summer gaiter, kept my feet completely dry in deep surf and in stream crossings. This pair of boots was fresh out of the box—the trip was only my third time wearing them—and my feet emerged from this epic torquefest astonishingly bruise-and blister-free.
When to Go

My friends and I headed out over Memorial Day Weekend, which apparently is the most surefire way of staying found in this remote area. The permit for the LCT is both free and without any quota (at least for now), assuring plenty of company if you are so foolish as to hike the LCT over a holiday weekend. But the area is quite large, and so even we experienced hours at a time with nary another biped in sight.

Flora and Fauna

A variety of animal life provides more welcome company. Several colonies of sea lion inhabit this area and serve as the roosters of the LCT: their barking will wake you promptly at 6:45 a.m., if not earlier.

Greetings from the natives.

Bird life is abundant, including cormorants, gulls, and a variety of raptors. Flocks of pelicans skim constantly low over the water in search of food. We even saw whales breaching and spouting offshore on two of the three days that we spent on the LCT, including from the comfort of one of our beachside campsites . . . along with a 30-foot deceased whale we found beached in a freshwater cove, underscoring the importance of treating any water collected for drinking. Bears sometimes wander onto the beach, and carrying a bear canister for food storage is mandatory.

Whale watching from the shore.

Water on the trail

At least when we went in late May, finding freshwater for drinking and cooking was not a challenge (notwithstanding California’s epic drought). The King Mountain range towers above you to the west as you hike south along the coast, and freshwater creeks cascade down forested valleys and over rocky cliffs directly onto the beach.

Why go?

Why not? It's gorgeous.

Hiking Black Rock Beach.

The blues of the ocean range from grey-blue to turquoise to indigo, depending on the sun and clouds, ocean depth, and composition of the sea bed. But in May, the reds, yellows, and purples of wildflowers punctuated many parts of the landscape, growing chest high in places.

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