Backpacking California: The Lost Coast Trail, Part One, Mattole Beach to Randall Creek

We were grateful to find portions of the trail on flat land.
Most avid backpackers have a bucket list full of trails they want to try, and I'm no exception. Up until recently, Northern California's Lost Coast Trail wasn't on my list because it seemed so incredibly far away from home, and so logistically complex.

But when a pair of good friends I'd met in the Tetons and Yellowstone two winters ago invited me on a group trip already in the works, it took about ten seconds of looking at photos for me to start searching for flights out west. (Not to mention the fact that the trail is one of Backpacker Magazine's Best Hikes Ever.)

What's so special about the Lost Coast? If the pictures aren't enticing enough, it's also one of the few coastal wilderness experiences available in the United States. The Bureau of Land Management holds jurisdiction over the portion of the Lost Coast Trail we hiked in the King Range National Conservation Area, and given how rugged and isolated the area is, it's a wonder anyone visits at all.

Winds are high most of the time, so if you turn north, sand lifted from the beaches pelts you in the face while you're hiking. It usually rains a lot, and if there's a storm nearby, areas that are already impassable at high tide are particularly challenging. There are bears, poison oak, rattlesnakes, ticks, and all sorts of other hazards. But if you're willing to brave the elements and figure out how to get yourself there, backpacking the Lost Coast will be the experience of a lifetime.

The Day Before: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Shelter Cove, California

After flying from Philadelphia to San Francisco, friends scooped me up (thanks guys!) and we were on our way north on Highway 101 toward Shelter Cove. Our only pit stop prior to turning off of the highway west toward Shelter Cove in Gaberville was in Ukiah for dinner at Ruen Tong Thai Cuisine (highly recommended!).

The last bit of the five hour drive took us down steep, winding Briceland Thorn and Shelter Cove Roads. Lower gears were a must for the majority of that leg of the journey, and it took us over an hour to travel 24 miles. When we finally found flat land at Shelter Cove around 10:00pm, it took us longer than anticipated to find the Shelter Cove RV Park and Campground. Signage was minimal and, as expected, none of us had reception on our phones. After finally spotting the entrance to the campground, we unpacked, set up camp, and slept while waiting for the other half of the group to arrive.

Our first glimpse of Mattole Beach on the first day of the hike. Fog in the distance, but none of the expected rain.

Day 1: Shuttle to Mattole Beach, Hike from Mattole Beach to Randall Creek

With two cars and ten people, shuttling ourselves from our end point at Black Sands Beach to our starting point at Mattole Beach was impossible. Fortunately, several area companies provide shuttle services along the trail, including Lost Coast Adventure Tours. One of our trip organizers grabbed a for all ten of us and met our driver at Black Sands Beach for a prompt 6:00am departure. Though the 5:00am wake-up call came quickly, getting an early start would give us more time to hike before we had high tides to contend with. We were also able to claim the last two parking spots at Black Sands Beach.

The sand made going slow, but I hardly noticed on the first day.
The ocean wasn't visible from the parking lot at Mattole Beach, but I heard it as soon as we got out of the van. It had taken just under two hours on steep, twisting, winding roads to travel a bit over 45 miles miles. After filling out the mandatory free backcountry permit at the trailhead, we set out around 9:00am. Though I'd read about the trail and had seen photos, I wasn't prepared for what we saw when we popped out of the brush at Mattole Beach. The ocean was, despite the cloudy morning, absolutely stunning, and I couldn't believe we'd be walking along it for three full days. 

We hiked on the beach, exploring and taking in the view. It was slow going through the sand, another new experience for me. It was difficult to get purchase, almost akin to walking through ankle deep snow, and definitely slowed our pace over the course of the trip. One member of our group found the trail on solid ground two miles into the hike, so we moved off the beach and quickened the pace. We had two stretches of land that are impassable during high tide (Punta Gorda, then between Sea Lion Gulch and Randall Creek), and had to get through them in time. 

Punta Gorda Lighthouse (above) came into view after an hour and a half of hiking, According to the Bureau of Land Management, it was open from 1911 to 1951 and earned the nickname, "the Alcatraz of lighthouses" because of its inaccessibility, among other things. We stopped for a snack and to listen to a raft of sea lions calling out to each other. They'd be our breakfast alarm at our various campsites along the trail.

We stopped next to one of several abandoned houses along the way three hours into the hike for a leisurely lunch around 12:15pm and left around 1:00pm with a 3-4 mile stretch of impassable-at-high-tide trail ahead, beginning at Sea Lion Gulch. As it turned out, we came pretty close to running into high tide along that four mile stretch. Having spent the majority of my backpacking time on solid ground, accounting for the slowed pace on the sand, pebbles, and large rocks was a new experience. At some points, we'd have to wait for waves to recede to make our way around rock outcroppings, which was a bit nerve wracking.

Passing by one of many abandoned houses along the trail. Some houses aren't abandoned; respect the landowner' privacy.
We called it a day at the 9.4 mile mark around 3:00pm, which happened to be Randall Creek, just
past a large rock outcropping and in a beautiful, sheltered cove. (Note: The map says Randall Creek is at mile 8.5-9, but one of our trip members wearing a Garmin clocked it at 9.4). We were the first group to arrive there, and instead of continuing on along Spanish Flats to the next established camping area with a nearby water source, we settled and set up camp. Our plan was to pass Spanish Flats and land closer to Spanish Creek, but it had already been a long day and we couldn't pass up such a perfect campsite.

We opted not to have a fire that night because we'd been contending with high winds all day. Though we'd hoped the breeze would die down as night fell, it didn't. It took three of us to set up my borrowed REI Quarter Dome tent because tent pieces kept flying away. Once the tent was safely staked down, I dropped large rocks on top of them for extra security. One brave member of our party camped under a tarp, which thankfully stayed secured all night.

We had to pass around the large rock outcropping in the center of the photo before high tide covered our trail. I took this shot about 45 minutes before scheduled high tide...eeek!

Over the course of the afternoon and evening, several other groups made it to Randall Creek and camped nearby. All in all, including the five tents for our ten person group, there were an additional seven or eight tents set up around us. Though it was more crowded than most of us hoped it would be, the fact that it was a holiday weekend made how busy the area was understandable, as did knowing there are only a handful of established sites with impassable-at-high-tide trail in between along the Lost Coast. (Of course, having our neighbors cook right next to our tents and then leave their bear canister outside our doorway all night wasn't ideal.)

Watching the sunset after dinner at Randall Creek.
After a delicious dinner, which included a complimentary sample of Backpacker's Pantry's new Beef Pho meal for me (highly recommended, especially if you're into salty noodle soups like I am, and it cooks faster than the directions suggest), we set our alarms for 6:30am and turned in.

To be continued...Randall Creek to Black Sands Beach and tips for hiking the Lost Coast Trail still to come!


Lynn said…
I love the Lost Coast! My boyfriend and I camped south of Shelter Cove near Needle Rock in October. It was the height of trimming season, so we had some interesting encounters with the visiting trimmers! We only did a day hike on a section, but the whole trail is definitely on my bucket list.
Katie L said…
A day hike on the trail sounds amazing! There are so many parts of the King Range I want to go back and see. Climbing on top of one of the mountains and taking in the view from there was something we'd talked about, but we were all too tired :). Good luck planning a trip back and let us know if you do!
calipidder said…
I haven't been to the Lost Coast in years - I want to go back! We've done the Shelter Cove - Mattole stretch with a big group by splitting in half with each group hiking a different direction and meeting for the middle night. We'd exchange car keys and meet back out on 101 for lunch the last day. I've always made sure to be in the North to South group since it seems like it would be harder going the other way.

And finding that sweet spot in the sand with the perfect purchase where it's not too soft and not too wet - then turning back and looking at the wiggling line of footprints. Ah memories. :)
Katie L said…
That's so smart, Rebecca! We did talk about splitting the group in half, especially given we had ten people and two cars, but the time we'd spend driving around made it not worth it, IMHO.

I'm actually going to do a tips/tricks post next week, and part of it is going to include why you should hike north to south :)

And yes, finding the sweet spot in the sand, or transitioning from soft sand to hard amazing!
100Peaks said…
This is definitely on my bucket list and I can't wait to read the rest. I am really excited to try the new Pho and see if it's legit. My wife is Vietnamese and I have been assimilated into her gigantic family for almost 30 years.
Katie L said…
Awesome! I'm excited to hear about it when you go. It's definitely worth the trip.

As I've never been to Vietnam, nor known anyone who's had legit Pho, I can't wait to hear your opinion on it. It's delicious for sure, but I can't comment on its authenticity!
Jeff Hester said…
I'm with Derek -- I want to try the Pho!

I loved hiking the Lost Coast Trail last year. We did it over four days in July and had the most amazing weather. I wrote up our trip report in a 5-part series -- an overview and a day-by-day report.

This is one of those trails that I'll definitely go back and hike again.
Katie L said…
Jeff, your trip report series was a HUGE help when I was learning about the trail and what to expect. Thank you so much for sharing everything!

I'm looking forward to continuing to keep up with all things SoCal Hiker :).