The Lost Coast Trail Backpacking Guide

I’ve always loved the ocean. Growing up on the east coast of Australia, it has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Swimming, fishing, diving and surfing. Walking and running along its shores. Waves rolling in. Cooling sea breeze. The feeling of sand beneath my shoeless feet.

Fast forward to the spring of 2014.

The other side of the Pacific. Some 7,500 miles from where I was raised. A place where the sun sets rather than rises over the water. California’s Lost Coast Trail, a 53 mile hike along one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines.

Note: I hiked the Lost Coast Trail in April, 2014. All logistical details have been updated as of January, 2018.

Looking back SE towards Usal Beach | Sunset at the end of an abbreviated first day.

Trail Details

Distance:  53 miles (85 km)

Average Time:   5 days

Season:  All year round.

Difficulty:  Moderate. Take particular note of the tide times (see below).

Start/Finish:

  • Options: There are two main options for hiking the Lost Coast. Most people go with the 25 mile northern section from Mattole Beach (i.e. Just north of the lighthouse on the overview map) to Shelter Cove. Logistics are easier for this section. However, if you have the time and inclination, I’d recommend doing the full hike from Mattole to Usal Beach. Despite being a little overgrown at times, I thought the southern section was great. Lots of wildlife, solitude, lush valleys and beautiful sunset views looking back along the coast.

Getting There & Away:

From this point on, all details are for the full 53 mile (85 km) hike from Usal Campground to Mattole Beach:

  • Usal CampgroundSouthern trailhead; situated at the bottom end of the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. I reached this point via a combination of hitching and walking from the town of Garberville (via Redway, Whitethorn & Four Corners). From the latter, I headed south on foot via the little used 4WD Usal Road until I reached the campground of the same name. For those with private transport, an easier way of getting to Usal would be by taking Mendocino Country Road 431 for six miles from the junction with Highway 1.

Usal Beach (southern terminus).

  • Mattole BeachNorthern trailhead; easy access with private transport via a combination of Highway 101 & 211 via Ferndale and Petrolia. For more details on getting to and from the trailheads see Summitpost.org. For google map directions, click here.
  • Shuttle Service: If you don’t have private transport and aren’t keen on hitching, Lost Coast Adventures run shuttles (Note: I haven’t used them personally).

Clear creek (southern section).

Maps / Information :

  • Maps: I used two maps. For the southern section from Usal to Needle Rock Visitors Center I used the Wilderness Press Lost Coast Map. For the northern section from Needle Rock to Mattole Beach, I used the free downloadable BLM map. The former actually covers both sections, but it lacks the detail of the latter.
  • Caltopo: Click here for free downloadable topographic maps for the entire trail.

Herd of Roosevelt Elk (southern section).

  • Tides: Before setting out on the northern section you will need to check on current tide times. There are various stretches between Shelter Cove and Mattole which are impassable at high tide. Tide tables can be picked up at the Chamber of Commerce in Garberville, the BLM office in Whitethorn or the General Store in Shelter Cove (if you are hiking northbound). Alternatively, click here for tide times for Shelter Cove from the NOAA Tides & Currents website.

Coastal view (southern section).

  • Permits: Free of charge walk-in permit required for overnight trips in the northern section. You can self-register at the trailheads (Edit: Permits are now needed for all overnight camping on the northern section of the hike. Click here for details. Thanks to Kelli in the comments section for the update).
  • Bear Canisters: Officially speaking you are required to carry a bear canister when hiking in the Kings Range National Conservation Area (i.e. the northern section). If you don’t own one, you can rent them locally. Click here for details.
  • Weather: The Lost Coast has a reputation for inclement conditions. Bring a rain jacket. Umbrella could also work, but it can get windy at times.

From west to east – waves, seagulls and blackish sand.

  • Resupply: The Shelter Cove General Store is situated on the road between Black Sands Beach and the Hidden Valley Trailhead. You walk right by it while you connect the two sections. In 2014 it had a decent range of supplies on offer. More than enough to suffice for the second half of your hike.

Northern section – Don’t forget to check those tide times.

Route/Conditions:

  • Direction: The following route description is from south to north, which was the way I hiked it. Most people seem to go in the other direction in order to avoid walking into the wind, which generally comes from the northwest.
  • Southern Lost Coast: The less frequented southern section stretches from Usal Beach to the Hidden Valley Trailhead. The terrain is undulating and passes through forested canyons and along scenic ridges. It is overgrown in parts and ticks can be an issue. I pulled at least a dozen of the little blighters off me on the first day. Permethrin-treated hiking pants would be a good option.

Sunset around Big Flat.

  • Connector Section: Upon reaching the Hidden Valley Trailhead, it is a 3.5 mile road walk to Black Sands Beach. There is a restroom and drinking water at the car park.
  • Northern Lost Coast: From Black Sands Beach to the northern terminus of Mattole Beach, the hiker sticks to the coast. A combination of sand, rocks and the occasional stretch along grassy terraces overlooking the Pacific ocean.

Footsteps in the sand.

Sleeping:

  • No huts or shelters. Bring a tent. It can be a little on the wet and windy side at times, however, there are plenty of sheltered campsites where you can escape the brunt of the elements.
P1000215

Sleepy sea lion.

Highlights:

  • Pacific Ocean: Tide skirting, rock hopping, sand shuffling and ocean gazing along the length of the northern section.
  • Wildlife: Loads of sea lions, a large herd of Roosevelt Elk, seals, seagulls and cormorants. Unfortunately I didn’t see any migrating grey whales or black bears, although both species are commonly spotted by Lost Coast hikers.
  • Redwoods: Just inland from the trail is Humboldt State Park, known for its magnificent Redwood forest. After finishing my hike at Mattole Beach, I walked and hitched my way up to Humboldt, where I spent the next couple of days wandering amongst these incredible trees. Highly recommended.

Punta Gorda Lighthouse.

Singing sea lions.

P1000223

Mattole Beach – Northern terminus of the Lost Coast Trail.


Comments

The Lost Coast Trail Backpacking Guide — 18 Comments

  1. That’s my neighborhood! Next time you’re around Sonoma or other north coast areas give me a call and I’ll shuttle you.

  2. Hey Cam,
    thanks for sharing all the information. We will do the Hayduke, GDT, Denali, Nepal and maybe some shorter hikes this year (we have been thinking about the lost coast trail). Your website is a real treasure trove. Again, thanks for sharing!

    • Hey Berno,

      Thanks for the kind words and best of luck with your upcoming hikes. That’s a pretty awesome combo you have planned. I would love to return to Denali in the next couple of years. I haven’t been back since 1998!

      Cheers,

      Cam

  3. Probably best description of this trail out there! I have not done this trail; it has always piqued my interest, but just haven’t made it. Best of luck on your 2017 hikes; I’ll be hiking in France as well as here in the SF Bay Area.

  4. Hi Cam,
    Great Description of the trail. It’s on my bucket list.
    Hiking with a bear “Bear Canister” !!!!!!, wow that’s out there.
    Happy New Year.
    I’ll be heading down to Tassie on 13th of January, if you’d like a chopper flight in.
    Cheers
    Pete

    • Thanks, Pete! Have a great time in Tassie. I won’t be making it down there this year……….still recovering from last year’s trip! 😉

      Cheers,

      Cam

  5. Hi Cam;
    Thanks for this write up. Weather wise what would you recommend as the best time of year to plan this trip? Like to avoid being socked in w fog. Thinking that we could manage this in 4 days (avg 13.5 day) but recognize that this is not a trail you can make great time on. What say you?
    Best
    Jim B

    • Hi Jim,

      I’ve read that May to September is the “dry” season. For what it’s worth I had great weather in April.

      In regards to time needed, it can vary quite a lot. I normally try to be conservative when I list the “average time” for different hikes. Four days is definitely possible.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  6. I am trying to hike this trail starting on Saturday. It’s just me and my firend and I don’t have enough people to meet the minimum threshold for a shuttle. Any advice on how to get from shelter cove to the trail head for a small group?

    • Sorry about the delayed reply. I’ve been out in the boonies for a while and haven’t been able to check my messages. Hope you made it to the trailhead. My advice would have been to try your luck hitching!

  7. So far as I can tell, since early 2017, a permit is required for the north section and must be reserved at recreation.gov. So the self registration/walk-in thing no longer applies.

  8. Hi, I hope this reaches you well. I am planning on hiking the southern portion from Usal as a loop, I am wondering about that hike you did on Usal road from 4-corners down to the southern terminus. Were there water supply spots & decent camping sites? What about the views from the road, would it be better to just hike back down the same trail? Thank you.

    • Hi Trey,

      Sorry about the very delayed reply. I just got back from holidays and am still trying to catch up with all my correspondence. In regards to your questions: 1. I carried water from the four corners. I can’t recall much in the way of sources until I reached Usal, but there were a few places you could set up camp along the roadside ; 2. Views were limited; you are hiking through forest the entire way.

      If I was to do the Lost Coast Trail again, I’d try to either hitch or arrange transport to the southern terminus via Highway 1/Mendocino country road. Failing that, I’d just hike the trail out and back; it is a lot nicer than the 4WD road.

      Regards,

      Cam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *