You may have heard of Highway 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway, that runs the length of California right on the coast. That is, it runs along the coast the whole way except for a section in northern California that is way too rugged for roads. It cuts in to the east side of the King Range of mountains there, leaving one of the very last stretches of undeveloped coastline in the country. This is called the Lost Coast.
The Lost Coast Trail runs along a 25-mile section of beach and cliffs between the black sand beach of Shelter Cove and the Mattole Trailhead to the north. Most people hike it north to south, as we did, to have the winds at their backs.
We did the hike in 3 days, thinking that it would be an extremely leisurely pace, and were surprised at the end of every day how tired we were after walking 8 miles on sand and loose rock.
Day 1 was our shortest day due to the tide schedule. High tide was in the afternoon and there was a section closed to camping that we couldn’t get beyond in time. The first 3 miles were a beautiful mixture of beach and dune walking to the Punta Gorda lighthouse. Some people do this as a day hike and I can see why. It’s a cool old building with a spiral staircase that was rusty but recently reinforced so we felt safe going up to where the old light was and enjoying the view. A large group of elephant seals was sprawled on the beach directly in front of the lighthouse and we watched them while munching on a lunch of cheese sticks, snickers and Clif bars.
We made such good time that first day that we stopped every couple of miles to just sit on the beach, enjoy the sun and take it all in. We were surprised at how many other people were out there in the middle of the week, and leap-frogged with a few groups made up of single guys, families, and couples. Lounging around and letting people pass us triggered the old feeling I had on the Camino that letting someone pass might mean no place for me to sleep that night. But Ben kept me calm, and of course in the wilderness there is no shortage of space, by definition.
The coast is cut by freshwater creeks every 2-3 miles, and most people choose to camp along the creeks for the access to water. We spent our first night about 3.5 miles beyond the lighthouse at Cooskie Creek, where people before us had built a teepee and numerous windbreaks. We opted to set up inland a bit and slept like babies with the babbling brook next to us and the sound of the ever-present ocean waves beyond.
High tide was around 9 the next morning and the next section is impassable at high tide so we lazed around waiting for it to go down until 10. I usually like to get up and go as early as possible when I’m on the trail, but it was kind of fun to be forced to relax out there. Day 2 was taxing on the ankles and knees, almost entirely on loose stony beaches, and Ben was plagued by the remnants of a migraine, but we managed to get through it and still had a good time. We piled kelp on our heads like hats and discovered a lot of critters washed up including some dead seals (looked like shark bites), and this weird jellyfish-like thing called velella velella, aka by-the-wind-sailer, that floats on the surface and gets blown across the ocean by its rigid sail.
We also saw an upsetting amount of random plastic and metal trash including an old aquarium (ironic) and toys from the 80s. It was remarkable that our waste reaches that far, days from town and inaccessible to all but foot travel. I didn’t mind the old boat parts though, left over from shipwrecks of the past, and mostly unrecognizable today.
Day 2 was mostly on the beach but occasionally on trails above. One of those trails dumped us accidentally on what appeared to be an airstrip for a beautiful private artist’s cottage perched in an open meadow. It felt super random, and almost distracted us from the rattlesnake in the middle of the road. We saw 4 different kinds of snakes on this hike, including this rattler and a cottonmouth in one of the creeks. We also saw tons of little deer who are so used to hikers they let us walk within 10 feet before wandering off.
We made it to Big Flat that night, within view of our finish point on the other side of the cove. It wasn’t a very welcome view since we weren’t ready to be back to civilization but we knew we still had 8 miles to go. The beach is all black sand there and very beautiful. We camped next to Big Flat Creek, played a few rounds of cribbage, took a wonderful wash upstream, and watched an otter chasing seagulls on the beach during sunset.
Again, high tide was mid-morning and we were up against an impassable area. We could have gotten up at 5 AM to make it past but as I said we weren’t in a hurry to finish, so again we opted to sleep in a bit and get going around 11. Even so we got stuck waiting for the tide to go out around a point and ended up chatting with a bunch of other folks also waiting it out. After a few rounds of cards we were the first ones to give it a go, and we made it! Barely.
I only got one wet foot the whole trip, and was very, very thankful that I brought my gaiters to keep the sand out of my boots. Plus, what a good looking outfit!
The last day was a bit of a slog, mostly on wet sand, and Ben’s knees and my ankles were complaining. We stumbled upon a dead baby whale on the beach, surrounded by bear tracks. We later learned it had washed up 2 weeks ago and was a regular meal for the local bears. It was a sad sight, but our spirits were high as we approached the promise of cold beer and hot food.
We had a few snafus getting back to our car at the northern trailhead, and getting back out to the highway low on gas and oil, but with the help of some new friends and friendly growers in the area everything turned out fine. We got home the next night and enjoyed our first showers for over a week.
Oh! And for those of you who have asked, here is a picture of Ben. He’s not big on pictures and I’m not big on asking for them, so this is one of the few.