Backpacking California’s Lost Coast Trail

Lost Cost TrailThis 26-mile stretch of rock-strewn Northern California coastline was supposed to be a highway—but it was too rugged for the construction equipment, so the builders of Highway 1 decided to leave it untouched. Now it’s California’s most undeveloped stretch of shoreline, accessible only to hikers and backpackers with a sense of adventure. Think misty marine mornings, jagged rocky cliffs, and sweeping sandy beaches. And the best part? It’s free for the taking.

How To Get There
Roughly five hours north of San Francisco, the Lost Coast Trail is located on the edge of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) King Range National Conservation Area on the western edge of Humboldt County in Northern California. The northern edge of the wilderness area is the town of Ferndale, and the coastline wanders for roughly 90 miles of undeveloped inlets—the longest stretch of undeveloped Pacific coastline in the United States outside of Alaska.

There are two stretches of the Lost Coast Trail: the north section and the south section. On the north section, you’ll be walking on boulders, pebbles, and sand. On the south section, the elevation gain and loss makes hiking much more challenging—some estimates even cite 12,000 feet of change, which is more than traveling in and out of the Grand Canyon. Most hikers visit the north part of the trail, heading south from Mattole River for roughly 26 miles.

There are several commercially operated shuttle services in the area. Research which stretch of the coastline you’re interested in hiking, then arrange for a ride so you can hike one-way, then hop a lift back to your car.

Lost Cost TrailWhen To Go
While the trail is technically possible all year, most hikers choose the warmer and drier months between April and October. You’ll need to track the daily tides, because there are several key sections where cliffs and waves combine to make the trail impassable at anything except low tide. Invest in a local tide table, and make sure you know how to read it. Also, keep in mind that the wind usually blows in from the northwest—which means it’s often more pleasant to hike from north to south, so the wind is at your back.

Camping
You can legally camp anywhere, but to minimize your environmental impact pitch your tent in a previously established campsite. Sites are first come, first serve, and most are located next to seasonal freshwater streams, which are handy for cooking and refilling drinking water supplies. Remember that all water used for drinking, cooking, and doing dishes should be treated.

It is required that food be carried in a bear canister, and every member of each team is required to be carrying at least one bear-proof container for storing food and other scented items. Maintain conversation and carry bear spray while you’re hiking to keep the bears away. Remember, all your food must fit inside the bear canister, so plan your meals accordingly.

And Finally
Don’t forget your camera! You’ll see black bears, elephant seals, sea birds, otters, and more. The sun rises over sweeping panoramic views, and the Pacific Ocean glistens in the distance. Wear lots of sunscreen, take lots of pictures, and don’t forget to take off your shoes and feel the sand between your toes.

Self-register for permits (free) at Mattole River trailhead (ca.blm.gov/arcata). For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management, or check out this free guide to the Lost Coast Trail.