Hike California's Lost Coast

Test your mettle on a long winter hike in the King Range National Conservation Area.

Imagine peering out your tent flap in the morning to discover an ethereal fog that buffers the screams of gulls and the barking of sea lions. It’s winter in populous California, but you feel as if you’re the only person on earth.


A vista such as this is just one of the pleasures awaiting hikers of California’s Lost Coast.

That’s exactly what you’ll experience along the rugged and unspoiled Lost Coast. Located about 230 miles north of San Francisco, the Lost Coast lies far off the main thruways that dissect much of California—precisely why it has stayed “lost” for so long.

Part of the King Range National Conservation Area, the Lost Coast consists of 68,000 acres of desolate seaside grandeur. You’ll find it features one of the most spectacular meetings of land and sea in the lower 48 states. Mountains seem to thrust straight out of the ocean. Indeed King Peak, the highest point at 4,087 feet, sits only three miles from the water’s edge.

For a new twist on winter camping—minus the snow, but with similar challenges and solitude—head out on a 25-mile wilderness trek that takes you end-to-end along the Lost Coast. Most hikers take 3 to 4 days to complete the trip, which winds past skyscraper-high hardscrabble cliffs, lush green canyons, black-sand beaches, and open, grassy flats where you might see black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, and even black bear.

And that’s only for starters: You can also explore an abandoned lighthouse and see relics of early shipwrecks, check out crystal-clear tide pools, and view an abundance of marine life, including offshore rocky islets that are frequently covered with Stellar sea lions and harbor seals.

Though relatively short in miles, don’t underestimate the Lost Coast Trail. Much of the route follows the beach, but you must negotiate large and often slippery boulders in some areas. And impassable sections of shoreline will force you to chug up and down steep headland trails.

Then there’s the weather. Sure, there’s no snow or frost here, and sunny hikes are still possible in winter, but from October to April the King Range wrings moisture from Pacific storms, making it one of the wettest spots in the country. Don’t suddenly discover that your rain gear and tent leak. And for insurance, a good-size, lightweight tarp would definitely come in handy as part of the communal gear.

Coastline campsites are plentiful, either in small clearings tucked away at the forest’s edge or on the beach above the high-tide line snuggled among piles of driftwood and storm-cast logs. And at several places along the trail, rivers cut canyons out of the steep hills and run into the Pacific—the only places where hikers have easy access to fresh water.

You can hike the Lost Coast from either direction, but the traditional way is to start at the mouth of the Mattole River and head south to Shelter Cove. Since the prevailing winds are from the north, the theory goes, you would hike with them. In reality, you’ll get winds from every direction.

Access: From the north: U.S. 101 to the Ferndale exit. Once in Ferndale, follow signs to Petrolia. One mile past Petrolia, turn right on Lighthouse Road; it’s 5 more miles to the Mattole Recreation Site. From the south: U.S. 101 to the Redway/Garberville exit. Follow signs to Shelter Cove/King Range NCA. Caution: The roads to the coast are rough.

Contact/Permits: BLM, King Range Office at 707-986-5400 or blm.gov/ca/arcata/kingrange/. All organized groups accessing the King Range National Conservation Area need a BLM Special Recreation Permit. The King Range office must receive your permit applications at least 30 days before the date of your arrival.

Shuttles: If you don’t want to hike round-trip, arrange for a shuttle. Contact: Lost Coast Shuttle, 707-986-7437, or Lost Coast Trail Transport Service, 707-986-9909.

Bear Canisters: The BLM requires groups to store all scented items—food, toothpaste, deodorant—in a bear canister. One per person is recommended, and the BLM office will rent them for $5 per person, per trip.

Bird Viewing: Visitors to King Range can see dozens of different bird species, including many varieties of loons, wrens, gulls, and herons.

Local Wisdom: You’ll find several sections of the coast impassable at high tide. So carry a tide table, and when in doubt, hike these stretches during an outgoing tide to avoid danger.

Buena Vista, Colo.-based writer Larry Rice is a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak magazine and former contributing editor to Backpacker. He is the author of Gathering Paradise: Alaska Wilderness Journeys.

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