Hike of the Week: Lost Coast Trail

Hike of the Week: Lost Coast Trail

This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know for us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated.

This week's hike is the Lost Coast Trail along northern California's beautiful Pacific coastline.

Why this Hike?

There are few things better than a long stroll on the beach. Thanks to the Lost Coast Trail, now your walk on the beach can last for 25 miles of backcountry backpacking. Exploring this trail in the middle of King Range is like entering nature before it was touched by man. This 4-day hike will give you a much-needed dose of coast.

  • Total distance of 25 miles
  • Great to hike year-round
  • Beach hiking and backcountry hiking all in one!
  • Many different camping areas
  • No cell phone coverage, so it’s a good escape from the real world!
However, keep the following in mind:
  • Moderately strenuous
  • After bad weather, some parts of the trail could be flooded or inaccessible, especially at high tide
  • Sand can be nice to walk on, but not for too long - hiking shoes are still needed!
  • Black bears like the Lost Coast too
  • Need to arrange transportation from the starting trailhead to the final trailhead

How do I get there?

Since the Lost Coast is so underdeveloped, getting to the trail heads is an adventure in itself. The nearest airport to fly into is Arcata/Eureka (ACV) airport, located in McKinleyville, California. From the airport, renting a car will get you to the northern trail head, Mattole in about 3 hours. You could also fly into San Francisco, which is a 4.5 hour drive. Although it is a longer drive, it could be a cheaper flight and car rental. Since there isn’t much around, public transportation or shuttles are not an option.

Getting from the Mattole trail head to the Black Sands Beach, near Shelter Cove, can also be a worthwhile challenge. Most people take on this hike as a one-way endeavor. There are only a few shuttles that run from trail head to trail head and depending on the day, they can be booked solid or only running in one direction. Because of this, it is imperative to plan ahead!


Lost Coast Trail Map

Source: California BLM

You can also find a great interactive map at the National Lands Conservation website

We recommend a 4-day, 3-night itinerary, each packed full of beach hiking. This allows ample time to explore plenty of the awe-inspiring landmarks along the way, like giant bluffs and antique lighthouses. The total distance is about 25 miles.

Most people take on the Lost Coast Trail from north to south. This means that you should park your car down by Shelter Cove and catch a shuttle to take you back to the Mattole trail head where you can start your trip.

Since the trail is the coastline, there is not much signage except for a few key landmarks. As a result, you'll have to be creative when it comes to figuring out how far you’ve gone and when there are impassable parts of the trail due to high tide. Wearing a GPS is how most hikers take on this challenge. Being equipped with a tide map and always camping away from the coastline is another way to ensure your safety and make the most of the trip.

  • Day 1 - Mattole Beach to Sea Lion Gulch (5.4 miles) {you’ll know you’re here once you start hearing the sea lions barking near the bluffs}
  • Day 2 - Sea Lion Gulch to Spanish Flat (7 miles) {When you’re greeted by solid, grassy ground, you’ll know you are on the far end of the Spanish Flat!}
  • Day 3 - Spanish Flat to Miller Flat (7.5 miles) {When you start to hike upward and eventually hit a pine forest, you’ll be in the midst of Miller Flat}
  • Day 4 - Miller Flat to Shelter Cove (10 miles)

Trail Description

Get excited for some backpacking like none other. The trail runs along the coastline so get ready for some awesome sunsets as you take on the Lost Coast Trail. Right when you start out, you will get a good taste of walking along the ocean and being sprayed by the rolling waves.

As you continue on, the terrain will change from small stones to cobble stones to hopping from boulder to boulder. Eventually you will stumble upon freshwater stream deltas, some so deep that you’ll have to wade across. Before you know it, you will have wandered into sea lion land, where you’ll get to witnesses handfuls of these funny, yet adorable creatures interacting while resting on the shore.

The trail features something for everyone, from beaches to grassy plains, bluffs, lighthouse lookouts, and piney forests offering shade from the sun. You’ll get to walk along the cliffs and right through the water. Each time you look up will give you a post card view!

What will I need?

This might be one of the most remote backpacking trips that you will ever take. So aside from the usual backpacking gear (check it out, we already have a list for you!), you will also need a few extra things that will make braving the coastline easier.

Beach hiking sounds like a toes-in-the-sand kind of gig, yes? Well, here on the Lost Coast, the elements have not been so kind. The terrain is rough and rocky. There is sand, but more of the pointy, larger-pebbled sand. Hiking boots are highly recommended, especially ones with high ankles to help with preventing injury and to prevent rocks and water from getting to your feet. If ankle-highs are not in your closet, gaiters can also help with this task. There are also times when you will be walking through stream deltas, so packing your Chacos or waterproof sandals is not a bad idea.

Since the terrain is so sandy and uneven, trekking poles would be helpful, especially if you have weaker knees. Trekking poles can help take some of the pressure off of your joints and also keep you sturdy when the water starts moving around your feet.

Lastly, bears enjoy the Lost Coast, too. So in order to be safe, bear canisters are required. In case you forget, it will remind you right on your permit that you cannot continue on without an approved bear canister. Here is a list of all the bear canisters that the National Park System has approved for backpacking the Lost Coast Trail. Just grab one of those and you’re good to go!

Do I need a permit?

Yessiree! But the good news is that they are free! Currently, when you get to the Mattole trail head, you just need to self-issue a permit. All you have to do is state your name, provide a rough itinerary and agree to follow the rules stated on the permit. Make sure to carry the permit with you at all times, the rangers will check!

However, starting in January 2017, overnight permits will have to be made by reservation. More information, including the eventual permit site, can be found at the following link.


Lost Coast Adventures
California BLM King Range National Conservation Area
National Park Service Allowed Food Storage Containers

Have you ever a coastal hike like the Lost Coast Trail or the West Coast Trail? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

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