Stones Unturned: Hiking California’s Lost Coast

Stones Unturned: Hiking California’s Lost Coast

25 miles of Northern California coastline—left alone.

The Lost Coast is America’s westernmost point. It is a singular, stunning stretch of coastal wilderness: undeveloped and unforgiving. Steep cliffs rise from the surf, so dramatically that the state could not safely construct a highway. The rugged terrain forced the Pacific Coast Highway away from its eponymous coast, ensuring civilization could never spill onto the black sand beaches. The land and water seemed to say: stay away.

And humans obliged. In 1970, the surrounding King Range mountains became the nation’s first National Conservation Area. Centuries before, the Mattole and Sinkyone people were the careful stewards of this treacherous land. Call it lost, stolen, or conserved: the coast has long been­­ left to its own devices.

Today, the only way to experience this extraordinary place is by hiking it. The 24.6-mile northern stretch of the Lost Coast Trail is a coveted backpacking adventure. So much so, that I logged onto the website at the exact moment, early in the morning on October 1st, when the limited number of permits were released. Nearly a year later—during California’s most intense heat wave on record—I hiked the trail with my two friends Jeremy and (also) Jeremy.

Hiking the Lost Coast is as much as a logistical challenge as a physical effort. Our journey began with a 5am wakeup in Redway, California—a sleepy redwood town (not that we got any sleep) four hours from San Francisco. A dawn drive brought us to the Southern trailhead at Black Sands Beach. We parked our car and boarded a small shuttle, which weaved through the weed farms of Humboldt County en route to the Northern trailhead at Mattole Beach. From Mattole, we started hiking south—toward an eventual return to our car at Black Sands. Signage is few and far between, but if you keep the ocean in sight on your right, you know you’re on the right path.

The ocean is the main character in this story. At times, it is the protagonist. A shimmering beacon of blue beauty; a calming soundscape of crashing waves; a pulsating home to incredible wildlife. But in many moments, the ocean is the antagonist. A fickle, unpredictable threat for sneaker waves; a powerful force of lethal riptides; a lonely expanse of muted grayness. Blogs and alarmist guides warn you of the Pacific’s unruly behavior, casting a shadow of fear and uncertainty as you hike next to it.

Day 1: 7 Miles

For our first day on trail, the ocean was friendly: sparkling from the bright, blinding sun. We planned to hike seven sleepless miles, from the Mattole trailhead to Cooskie Creek — one of the first freshwater sources on the path and a common first-night campsite.

In order to get to Cooskie Creek, we would need to pass through 1.5 of the 3 impassable zones—areas which are unsafe to hike at high tide. Jumbled rocks fill these thin slices of coastline, so narrow that hikers have no escape in the event an encroaching wave puts them in danger. These sections require backpackers to carefully cooperate with the ocean. There’s no way around it. At low tide, the ocean is your friend. At high tide, it is your foe.

In my back pocket, I carried the daily tide charts. Each day, we studied the timing of the morning and afternoon low tides, to coordinate our passage of the impassable zones during these safer moments. The first small pinch point came just before the now-defunct Punta Gorda Lighthouse.

Punta Gorda Lighthouse, built in 1911 and decommissioned in 1951, was known as the “Alcatraz of Lighthouses” for its remote location and difficult access. The Coast Guard had one horse, named Old Bill, who served as the only mode of transport to the lighthouse for more than thirty years. Now the only creatures who keep watch of Punta Gorda are the resting sea lions, who are not very attentive. These fin-footed social animals lounge in protected areas near shore, sleeping on top of each other. It’s been a few months since their breeding season, so there’s not much urgency in this community.

As the trail moves from beach to bluff, the terrain becomes mostly flat, dusty, and dependable. These “terraces” offer beautiful views of the ocean below, giving hikers a safe distance and a grand perspective. Just offshore, on small rock islands, the sea lions make their presence known. Sharing real estate with squawking sea birds, they bark as loud as they can—creating a chaotic chorus of mating calls, declarations of hunger, and the other news, sports, and weather they like to discuss.

At the highest point, known as Hat Rock, we got our first impression of the larger shape of this part of the coastline. Coastal chaparral and pine-forested greenery mirror Mount Tamalpais, and sharp rises from the ocean resemble Big Sur, but the Lost Coast entirely unique in its emptiness. We did not see a single other hiker on the first day on trail.

Aiming to make camp by 6pm, the threshold time for the tides, we pushed through the first half of an impassable zone (2 miles) to reach the nestled, protected site at Cooskie Creek, where we found more hikers resting for the night. We arrived just in time to enjoy a bagged backpacker meal—coconut rice with banana—and watch the sun tumble below the Pacific horizon.

Shortly after last light, each group re-upped their water supply by filtering freshwater from the creek. One hiker shouted that he spotted three rattlesnakes near his tent—a danger we had been warned about, because they are most prevalent in the warmer months. The rattlesnakes find shelter in cracks of driftwood, piles of rocks, and other coastal scrub; but they are a dormant threat unless you step on or otherwise surprise them. So, we watched our steps, and slept to the steady hum of breaking waves.

Day 2: 10 Miles

Cooskie Creek is a safe ravine in the middle of a 4-mile impassable zone. We needed to clear the remaining 2 miles at the lowest possible tide. That morning’s low tide happened to fall at 5:30am, so we awoke at 5 with a plan to pass through at dawn. Climbing out of our tents, we looked out at a sea of darkness—except for the comforting sight of scattered headlamps. The other groups all agreed: this was the best time to complete the impassable.

Thick fog enveloped the beaches, rendering the impassable zone nearly invisible. The only discernible features of the coastline were the black, wet, sharp rocks that cut through the fog. The previous day, the shimmering blue ocean made the impassable zones feel innocuous and doable—but this morning’s passage felt like a treacherous exploration of an unknown planet, coupled with a fast chase to avoid a threatening tide. It was the same terrain, and the same mileage, but transformed weather cast an intimidating shadow on the ocean. Friend turned to foe.

Careful focus and effective trekking poles helped us complete the day’s first 2 miles faster than we anticipated. We shared a delayed breakfast and coffee at Randall Creek, the first freshwater source after the impassable. Creeks like Cooskie and Randall are scattered throughout the coastline. The running water comes from the King Range mountains and gives life to a beautiful array of plants and wildlife on its way. At these spots on the trail, the creeks spill into the ocean: a chance to see the dynamic intersection of fresh and saltwater.

The entire Lost Coast is a showcase of the power of water. As much as the ocean is a fountain of life for the entire planet, it’s also defined by its devastating and destructive force. This region offers a stark reminder—saltwater carves the jagged rocks and geologic formations, slowly wearing down pebbles into sand and trees into weathered white driftwood. The freshwater, on the other hand, furnishes flourishing creek ecosystems amid otherwise dry chaparral. The water gives, and it takes. It builds, and it breaks.

We had 8 more miles to hike that day, in order to maintain a pace in sync with the tides. We climbed away from the beach and started walking along a sweeping flat terrace. That morning’s fog slowly thinned, but remained, and cast a white glow over the yellowing trail.

The terrace trail bends and turns to reveal some surprising structures. At different points in the path, we encountered three small cabins that sit at the foot of the mountains, each a few hundred feet from the ocean.

Completely disconnected from civilization, these structures are nothing more than wood huts with beds and cooking equipment—in their rusted remoteness, the cabins hold tremendous mystery. Who built this home? How did they transport the materials? Have the cabins been passed down for generations, long before the 1970 conservation effort?

The Lost Coast soundscape mixes crashing waves, whipping wind, squawking sea birds, humming insects, running water, and the occasional barking sea lion. You can hear the ocean’s fortitude; the strong rip currents drag rocks and pebbles from the shore, pulling them rapidly into the surf—creating a loud, unmistakable clatter. But still, the Lost Coast is quiet. As acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton likes to say: quiet is not the absence of sound. Quiet is the absence of noise. In this quiet, I felt a sense of deep, embodied presence: in the place, in the company of close friends, in the moment of my life. Presence is a sensation I chase within the chaotic tenor of city life. But in the silence of the Lost Coast, presence found me.

The only noise we heard, in four days of hiking, was the sound of a small private plane. Near the end of our 10 mile day, we heard the plane’s engine soaring above us. It appeared to land just out of view. A few minutes later, the plane took off and departed in the other direction. Soon, the trail turned into a runway, and the runway led to a beautiful home, much more elaborate and contemporary than the others.

We made the safe assumption that whoever was staying in this cabin had departed on the plane just a few minutes prior. The house is stunning demonstration of remote living; wood, stone, glass, and terracotta textures define the architecture. A wood-fired stone hot tub sits across from solar panels—the only hint of connectivity and electricity we encountered in all 25 miles. An extraordinary estate hiding in plain sight.

Close to the home is Big Flat, our second campsite — where another creek emerges from the King Range and funnels into the Pacific. We set up our tents on patches of soft gray sand and watched yet another sunset, tucking into an extended, restful stay at this gorgeous campground.

Along the steep King Range cliffs, there are no roads to alter the path of a fire. These areas burn without human influence, following the natural (and regenerative) course of forest fires. Evidently, a recent fire had torn through the woods near Big Flat, leaving charred and desolate mountain faces in its wake.

Day 3: 4 Miles

We spent a slow morning of cards and conversation at Big Flat. The afternoon low tide would fall at 6pm, and we needed a long window of time to safely complete the next 4-mile impassable zone. On this afternoon, the fog had not yet burned off — leaving us with a cool climate and muted coastline.

At this point on Day 3, we only had 8 miles left. No rush: we would take a leisurely two days to complete it. As we hiked through the final impassable zone, my eyes kept track of my feet, watching every step closely so I wouldn’t slip or twist an ankle between the rocks. My attention oscillated between my hiking boots, our conversation, and the dramatic divide between forest and sea. The Douglas firs and sugar pines seem to reach for the ocean, stopping just short of the lapping waves.

As low tide neared, the sun began to peek through the clouds and slice through the fog, illuminating pockets of glistening grass. At the time, I was stunned by the beauty of the grass—tall green stems capped with razor-sharp golden-brown leaves—and how they seemed to grow everywhere in sight. It wasn’t until returning from the trip that I learned that this Pampas grass are an invasive species. The species was introduced as an ornamental plant and for erosion control, but soon colonized bare ground all over the California coast. Every year, each plume produces up to 100,000 seeds, which get widely dispersed by the Lost Coast’s consistent winds and have no trouble growing in its harsh climate. The sharp leaf blades are undesirable—even dangerous—as food or shelter for birds and other wildlife. The spreading Pampas grass continues to displace native plant life and endanger local biodiversity.

The prevalence of the Pampas from shore to summit accentuates the extreme profile of the King Range cliffs. These mountains have the steepest rise in the shortest distance from sea level across the entirety of the California coast.

Down at sea level, especially at low tide, the Lost Coast reveals the wildlife that do belong. Collections of starfish adhere to the wet rocks, washed and battered by the constant pressure of the ocean. We watched as a raft of five river otters emerged from the ocean, sprinted across the beach, waded through a freshwater creek, and weaved their way through the trees back into a larger river. Small herds of deer congregated to graze and nap on the coastal scrub, while wrecks of seabirds convened for morning meetings on the beach. We did not encounter the famed elephant seals, whales, rattlesnakes, and the occasional bear known to wander these areas.

Our final campsite was at Gitchell Creek, which is an important habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead (and river otters, evidently) that the Bureau of Land Management has taken a special interest in protecting. Here we filled our water bottles and backpack bladders for the final time. We pumped the creek water through our water filter’s plastic tube, which had broken the day before. It was as urgent a problem as any on the trip. The filter was our only way of drinking potable water. So we jerry-rigged it with duct tape to save the contraption and stock up on the last liters we needed to complete the trail.

Day 4: 4 Miles

The coast is so dynamic in shape and weather that four days felt like four seasons. On the final Sunday morning of hiking, a thin layer of fog rose above the ocean, casting particular uncertainty on the miles ahead. We awoke to an unexpected noise from a group of “powered paragliders,” who use backpack motors to fly over the mountains and beaches.

At this point, we only had a short 4 mile hike to get back to Shelter Cove, the nearest town and the site of our parked car. The day’s grayscale gradient gave the final stretch a dramatic feel. After three days of hiking on sand and slippery rocks, we were not tired of it. The Lost Coast Trail is the perfect amount of physical difficulty; and if you take enough time, you can slowly traverse it and enjoy every bend, beach, and bluff. If anything, the final stretch was our most energetic — fueled by the imminent promise of real food and a cold beer at Shelter Cove’s Gyppos brewery.

Our last obstacle was to navigate the infamous Split Rock, which is known for dangerous sneaker waves and the occasional fatality. By hiking up and around it, we passed this final warning zone, and savored the last stretch of utter privacy and natural wonder of this incredible place.

Hiking the Lost Coast in early September 2022 was very good fortune. Elsewhere in California, a record heat wave and wildfires endangered people and ecosystems all over the state. But the heat wave inland coincided with a time when the coastline was just about as temperate and clear as it ever is. Our packed raincoats proved to be extraneous, as we didn’t feel a drop of the more than 100 inches of rain that batters this area each year.

We were maybe most lucky to be hiking during a full moon. On our second night, a stunning blood orange moon peeked out from behind the King Range mountains, casting its glow on the beaches of Big Flat. It was the only night clear enough to see the moon—the grand emergence of a hidden force influencing the entire trip. We had the moon’s gravity (not to mention the sun’s) to thank for the rising tides we avoided, and the receding tides we took advantage of.

Tides. I had never given them so much attention. The rhythmic wave pattern. The precise predictability. The incredible interplay between the earth’s rotation and the gravitational pulls of the moon and the sun. When we observe the tides, we can feel these forces greater than human control. 

Each day, the ocean takes two long breaths.

It inhales. The tide rises. It exhales. The tide falls.

Inhale, rise. Exhale, fall.

Over 4 days on the Lost Coast, we lived in sync with 8 oceanic breaths.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

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