My first blog post ever. So surely(?) here begins my career of hiking, pointing my camera at things and blogging about it. What better way to embark upon this fairy tale life than with the Lost Coast Trail- a 25 mile hike down the remote shores of the Kings Range Conservation Area in Northern California.
Most of the Californian coast is flanked by Highway 1, a road which is often an adventure in itself. The road was originally intended to extend through the Lost Coast but construction was eventually deemed unfeasible on such rugged terrain, so the road was diverted inland. What’s left is a magnificent stretch of the most unspoilt and wild coastline that you’ll find in North America.
The most popular way to hike the Lost Coast Trail (LCT) is with the prevailing northerly wind from Matthole Beach to Shelter Cove. I would highly recommend going in this direction, as the winds here get very strong. In other words, you should just go with it, not against it. This might be a metaphor for life. Anyhow, it’s way too remote to try and hitch between trailheads here so you’re going to have to get a shuttle. We used Lost Coast Shuttle which I can recommend. They meet you at Shelter Cove and drive you to Matthole Beach where you start your long march back to your car. It was $230 for three of us, which isn’t exactly cheap but the drive is 2 hours long and you unfortunately don’t have much of a choice!
For the most part the LCT doesn’t rely on a trail, you simply walk down the beach with the land on your left and the sea on your right! Luckily, sometimes you are lead off the beach, onto harder ground which is a welcome relief. *It’s worth noting that there is currently (June 2015) a diversion in place that takes you off the beach and around a point a few miles in. Make sure to stop at the BLM office and ask for updates on the trail and pick up a map if you haven’t already got one.
While it makes for amazing scenery, being tucked between the ocean and the cliffs means you’ll need to think about the tides. There are large portions of the trail which are impassable at high tide (detailed here). Make sure to consult a tide chart and plan your hike accordingly. Aim to not be on the impassable sections within two hours either side of high tide. However, also be ready to be flexible. For example: we ended up deviating from our plan greatly as we did more miles on the first day than we anticipated.
Bear canisters are required on the trail. Garcia canisters can be rented from the BLM office on the way to Shelter Cove for $5 for the whole hike. A note to Ursack owners, these aren’t on the approved list of bear safe containers in the Kings Range so you’re going to have get a can!
We left San Francisco at about 6 am with the three of us squished onto the bench seat of a Ford Ranger truck. While not exactly comfortable and definitely feeling the early morning wake up, we were grinning with excitement regardless. We got to Shelter Cove at around 11 am and met our driver Matt. During the drive, Matt told us about a dead whale that was awaiting us on the trail. I hadn’t actually seen a whale in person at that point so was weirdly excited by the prospect!
We got to Matthole Beach, packed our food into the bear cans, had a big drink of water from the tap in the parking lot and got on the trail around 2 pm. After very quickly tiring of the soft sand at the top of the beach, we headed down towards the water. It wasn’t long before we saw our first sign of wildlife - a freshly dead seal! A word of advice, dead seals look a lot like logs. Soon we approached the very aptly named Windy Point where the wind was so strong we had to protect our ears from debris flying at us. A bit less than 1.5 miles from there, we got to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse.
From this point, we had originally planned to hike the next two miles to Sea Lion Gulch, the beginning of the first high tide-impassable section and then set up camp. However, the miles went a lot quicker than we envisioned and the tide was out so we decided to press on to Cooskie Creek where we were told by a ranger in the BLM office that there was camping up the creek out of the reach of high tide. At about 6 pm we pulled into our home for the night and there was a surprise waiting for us! You guessed it, a dead whale. The poor thing had somehow managed to work it’s way about 20 feet up the mouth of the creek before getting stuck. The stench of a dead whale really is something to behold. We found a decent spot a good distance from the whale, though we were still treated to the occasional sea breeze carrying the scent of whale with it.
After a nice leisurely breakfast we got back on the ‘trail’ a little before 9 am. We were aiming to get to Big Flat Creek for the night which meant we had had about 9 miles to cover that day. The first part was quite hard going as the beach consisted solely of slippery bowling ball sized rocks. Fortunately after a mile or so, this gave way to hard dark sands and we managed to pick up our pace. Soon, we rounded the point that was blocking our view and were greeted with the scene below:
After a short break, we started walking towards the Spanish Flats which we could see in the distance. We were lucky enough to catch a picture perfect moment with a mother deer and her fawn relaxing in the shade.
Shortly afterwards, we encountered more wildlife, this time brought to our attention by the distinctive noise of a rattlesnake warning us of its presence. After realising it was in a hollowed out log next to the trail, we gave it a wide berth and carried on. This was my first encounter with a rattlesnake and I was surprised at how unphased I was. Growing up in a country that is pretty much devoid of ‘dangerous’ animals meant that I thought I was quite scared of snakes. However, when they’re not being harassed by a TV presenter, it is completely obvious that these animals have no intention of attacking you unless you bother them.
Once we got to the hard ground of the Spanish Flats, we covered a large chunk of the remaining miles with relative ease. This area was definitely a highlight of the trip, a section of golden grassland with the Kings Range rising sharply to one side and the ocean on the other. Also, along this section you also get some glimpses of human civilization in the form of a few small beach front properties that are accessed by a jeep track that cuts through the Kings Range. It must be a pretty hard drive to get there but it looked like quite the retreat.
We stopped for lunch at Big Creek where there were some impressive hiker built shelters. This would’ve made for a nice campsite if we had gotten there later in the day. After a few minutes, we realized that there was a snake just a few metres from us, it just carried about its business with an air of indifference so we did the same! From there, we pushed on to Big Flat Creek and arrived around 4:30 pm. We found a nice sheltered spot with a view of the beach and settled in for the night.
After waking up, we decided to finish off the remaining 8 miles for the day and head back to SF a day earlier than planned. We got back on the trail at 8:45 am and went at full pace, inspired by the thought of a cooked (rather than rehydrated!) lunch on the road. This was probably my favorite part of the trail. Helped in part the ominous low clouds clinging to the cliffs, the dense forest and black sands looked incredibly atmospheric. This area seemed wetter than what we had experienced up to this point and the forest above us reminded me of the rainforests on Vancouver Island.
Shortly after the last impassable section we caught sight of our destination, Shelter Cove. Although initially it was nice to see the endpoint, being able to keep constant track of your progress does make the miles feel like they’re passing slower! There were some really lush little creeks to camp along this stretch though, so if I was to go back I wouldn’t mind camping just a few miles from Shelter Cove and having a nice and easy last day.
After a couple of hours of a solid pace, soundtracked by the singular chorus of a sea lion colony we made it back to the truck. My heart will always be in the mountains but I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Lost Coast. I’d definitely recommend it as a great introduction to backpacking due to its combination of very manageable length and minimal ascent/descent without skimping on scenery or wildlife. However, it’s truly an excellent trail and one that any backpacker would do well to add to their list!