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Re: Lost Coast trail description

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Lost Coast trail description
September 16, 2018 12:13PM
I hiked the Lost Coast Trail in July. It's an interesting and unusual hike that I think will be of interest to many forum readers. While planning it, I found plenty of information online, but good information was hard to come by. The goal of this report is to be maximally useful for first-time LCT hikers.

What is the Lost Coast?
The Lost Coast is so named because it has no highways. Highway 1 pulls far inland because the area has steep mountains very prone to landslides. The exact definition, though, depends on whom you ask. In the broadest sense, it's the entire area from Ferndale (Humboldt County) in the north to roughly Rockport (Mendocino County) in the south, a distance of about 60 miles. This area has no highway, but it does have a handful of roads and towns. The most notable of these is Shelter Cove; this is your best bet if you want a "civilized" place to spend the night.

Unlike many other backpacking destinations, such as the High Sierra we know and love, the Lost Coast is not pristine. Even protected areas have obvious remnants of human habitation -- and sometimes more than remnants.

What is the Lost Coast Trail?
If you're reading this, you're probably looking for hiking trails. The Lost Coast has two nature preserves: the BLM's King Range National Conservation Area covers the middle part, and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park covers the south end. (The north end is not protected.) Each one has a trail that is called the "Lost Coast Trail", and they are very different from each other. For purposes of this report, "Lost Coast Trail" or "LCT" without qualification refers to the BLM trail, which is more popular by far. I will use "Sinkyone LCT" for the one in the state park.

The BLM LCT runs from the BLM's Mattole campground in the north to Shelter Cove in the south, a distance of about 25 miles. Most of it is on the beach, with large stretches considered impassable at high tide (more about that later). About 1/4 of it is on a series of grassy coastal plains, a few feet above sea level (from north to south: Spanish, Big, and Miller Flats). A few trails branch off and ascend into the King Range, but these are typically little-traveled and poorly maintained.

The Sinkyone LCT runs from Needle Rock Visitor Center in the north to Usal Beach in the south. It mostly runs through the mountains, descending to the sea in a few places. Its steep climbs and lack of consistent ocean views probably deter many visitors in favor of the BLM trail. The less reliable shuttle service for the Sinkyone LCT compounds the situation. However, people do hike the Sinkyone LCT, and some have combined both into one trip.

Why hike the Lost Coast?
In the BLM's words, the LCT "offers one of the few coastal wilderness hiking experiences in the United States." It entails some unique challenges (thus the many warnings in my report), but also unique opportunities. Wildlife on the LCT includes a breeding colony of northern elephant seals, nesting seabirds, and tidepools. The constantly shifting fog creates ever-changing vistas. Scheduling your hiking around the rhythm of the tides gives a different experience from hiking on dry land. The many creeks flowing into the ocean are uniquely beautiful, and in the southern part of the trail the forest spills all the way down to the beach. And you can hear the surf from the entire trail.

As a teaser, Bay Area residents can travel to Point Reyes and dayhike on the beach from Limantour to Sculptured Beach. It's quite different, but if it appeals to you, you may like the LCT.

If you have a dog, the BLM lets you hike with it! We saw many dogs on the trail, large and small.

Maps and charts
The definitive map that everyone seems to use is "King Range National Conservation Area", published by the BLM (from here on, "the BLM map" ). Presumably, you can pick up a copy at the BLM office on Shelter Cove Rd. We got ours from the shuttle driver. I've tried and failed to find it for sale online. (It's actually prepared by a private company, but not listed on their website.) This map (PDF) has much of the same data, but with additional heavy shading showing administrative boundaries that's not useful for hikers. The BLM map shows mileages, areas impassable at low tide, and private inholdings. The main drawbacks are the large scale (1 inch to 1 mile, or 1:63,360); the 100-foot contour interval; and lack of vegetation shading (it's colored by elevation instead).

For most trips, I get a custom USGS map from MyTopo. For this trip, I didn't seriously consider it. In retrospect, browsing MyTopo online, I see that this was a mistake. The 7.5-minute series maps show more detail. They also attempt to distinguish sections of actual trail from sections of beach (and singletrack trail from dirt road). Navigation is not so easy, between the scarcity of distinctive landmarks and the frequent fog, so the extra detail really is helpful.

Map nerds will appreciate carrying both the BLM map and a USGS one. Alternatively, you can just get a USGS map and transfer the missing data onto it yourself.

Of course, you also need to carry a tide table. I found this graphical tool from NOAA helpful.

Trailhead details and logistics
The northern trailhead of the LCT is the BLM's Mattole campground, on the beach off of Mattole Road. It's small and beautifully situated, but has no running water and the sites feel very cramped. It requires self-registration and a fee of $8 per night. The Mattole River is near at hand, but beware of pumping water from it because it drains cattle ranches and, yes, cannabis farms.

The southern trailhead of the LCT is Black Sands Beach in Shelter Cove. It could be mistaken for a city beach, but it's on BLM land. The main parking lot is on top of a steep headland, about 100 feet above sea level. Here you will find drinking water, bathrooms, and even a picnic table, but actual parking is scarce on weekends. To reach the beach from the lot, hook around the south side of the headland to the auxiliary lot (basically a loading zone -- parking is allowed only with a handicapped placard).

The drive between Mattole and Shelter Cove is about 2 hours. If you want to drive yourself, use the Ettersburg road, not the very rugged King Peak Road. In any case, the road has some rocky, badly eroded sections that could easily damage a car. And even if you have a high-clearance vehicle, you may want to spare yourself the hassle by hiring a shuttle. We used Lost Coast Adventure Tours. Their 10-passenger vans make up to 4 scheduled daily trips from the Black Sands Beach parking lot to Mattole campground. Return service is not normally offered. Trips with fewer than 4 registered passengers are canceled. Our driver has lived in Shelter Cove for years and knows the trail well; I have incorporated some of comments into this report.

Lost Coast Adventure Tours may be able to shuttle you for the Sinkyone LCT as well, but I don't really know. Connecting from the BLM LCT to the Sinkyone LCT on foot is possible, but not easy or straightforward. The BLM recommends leaving the beach 2 miles north of Shelter Cove via the Horse Mountain Creek Trail, then heading south via King Peak Road and Shelter Cove Road to the Hidden Valley trailhead. (Do not attempt to hike other sections of Shelter Cove Road; they are narrow, steep, and very dangerous for pedestrians.) From Hidden Valley, another 9 miles of trail lead to Needle Rock, via Chemise Mountain (2598'). Sturdy hikers may also be tempted to hike along the beach between Needle Rock and Shelter Cove, but the way is barred by a rock outcrop called "Point No Pass", about a mile south of town. (I have a kayaking book that identifies a second "Point No Pass" about 3 miles north of Needle Rock.)

Theoretically, the Lost Coast has dispersed camping. In practice, people huddle into a few established camping areas, mostly at the mouths of the named creeks. These have the obvious advantages of reliable water and flat ground. If you're really craving solitude, though, you may be able to find a spot on the beach by one of the smaller, unnamed creeks.

In a couple of places, people have built driftwood structures for protection from prevailing northerly winds. You will see many fire rings, but the BLM forbids campfires during the dry season. No matter how much fog there may be on the coast, the interior is one big tinderbox.

The instructions on the back of the BLM map say to dig your cathole in the intertidal zone and pack out your toilet paper. There isn't enough room on the LCT for people to fan out to bury their waste.

Timing and trip duration
Typically, people hike from north to south, completing the LCT in 2 nights. However, we found people taking anywhere from 0 nights (a trio of runners) to 4 nights (us and one other party). We also found people hiking south to north, as well as "yo-yo" hikes from both trailheads. We found the southern part of the trail to be the most interesting. Out-and-back hikers may find it a good idea to start at Shelter Cove and turn around at Punta Gorda.

If you catch a few clear days, you may be able to hike the LCT at any time of year. But to play it safe, hike between May and early October. I wouldn't want to be caught anywhere on that trail during a winter storm. Rains are very heavy (100 inches or more per year), and pounding surf and storm surge make huge stretches of beach impassable. Plus, there are no bridges, so fording those creeks during a storm would be treacherous.

On the other hand, summer brings fog, often heavy. I normally like fog, but I found that it could be a drag. We had extended periods when we couldn't see anything above about 100 feet elevation. You should have better views if you hike in the early or late season.

Side trips
Trails do ascend the King Range from the coast and side trips are possible, although it seems that few hikers take them. The BLM map has short descriptions of each one. It sounds like the Spanish Ridge, Kinsey Ridge, and Horse Mountain Creek trails are in better condition. The Cooskie Creek Route, although marked as a trail, is officially a cross-country route.

On a recommendation from a fellow hiker, we took the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail from Big Flat. This trail is not for beginners: it has heavy growth of poison oak in a few places, and it fords Big Flat Creek twice. Otherwise, it's a delightful trail that shows aspects of the King Range that you will not see on the coast. About a mile and a half from the beach, you reach a third ford, separately crossing Big Flat Creek and its north fork. Here are two delightful swimming holes, one on the main creek and one on the north fork, the latter one built up with an inconspicuous rock dam. Even if it is cool and foggy on the coast, you are likely to find summer warmth in this canyon, along with complete solitude. Past the swimming holes, though, the trail becomes more and more eroded and overgrown.

Sea hazards
I have already alluded to sections of the trail that are impassable at high tide. Before I discuss them one by one, some general notes. The first thing to know is that there are no hard and fast rules for passability. Actual conditions depend greatly on surf. During my trip, surf was light, between 1 and 3 feet. (The marine forecast showed NW swell of 6 feet or higher, but for whatever reason this did not translate to pounding surf on the beaches.) We found most of the "impassable" sections to be passable in tides up to +4 feet.

In more adverse weather, you will not have it as easy as we did. The elevated "flats" in the middle part of the trail have small bluffs that drop onto the beach. While traversing these areas, we noticed that the tops of these bluffs are often lined with big logs of driftwood. The idea that the sea could reach that high blew our minds. According to NOAA, tides in this area do not exceed 8 feet, but it seemed that much higher water would be needed to deposit those logs. Apparently, that's what a strong winter storm can do.

Finally, even if you can pass an area safely under current weather conditions, that doesn't always mean that you should. In many areas, the best footing is often on wet sand well below the high-tide mark, and high water will push you onto parts of the beach that are passable only with difficulty. So, unless you have an urge to walk on soft sand or boulders, avoid hiking the beach at high tide.

Here are the impassable sections identified on the BLM map, from north to south, with my observations:
  • Punta Gorda itself. We passed it on a tide of 2 or 3 feet without even noticing it.
  • A rock formation south of Sea Lion Gulch, unofficially called "Hat Rock". This is not clear on the BLM map, so please refer to this helpful post by Lost Coast Ranger, and in particular the second photo. Note the large, round rock, maybe 20 feet high, with a flat boulder perched on top of it. There's nothing else like it on the entire trail. BLM has designated an inland bypass route, about half a mile long, reaching about 300 feet elevation. When approaching from the north, just before Hat Rock, you will find a large, steeply climbing gully. Ascend it briefly until you see a trail climbing the south bank. Continue climbing on this trail until you reach a trail junction and a wooden post, less than 1/4 mile from where you left the beach. When approaching from the south, you may also see Hat Rock, basically the mirror image of Lost Coast Ranger's photo, but by the time you reach it you've missed your trail and need to backtrack a bit. I don't have a sufficiently clear sense of the south approach to give detailed directions for it. It begins with a steep climb, and may be a little tricky to find.
    With a tide of about -1 foot and light surf, we saw people passing Hat Rock on the ocean side. Your mileage may vary.
  • 4 miles from Sea Lion Gulch to Randall Creek. There's a particularly unpleasant rock outcrop immediately north of Randall Creek. On the south side of Randall Creek, a trail immediately climbs the bluff and continues all the way through Spanish Flat.
  • 4 miles from the south end of Miller Flat to Gitchell Creek. This section begins spectacularly, with the Miller Flat trail climbing a very steep and heavily eroded bluff, then dropping to the narrow, rocky beach with the use of a couple of bedrock handholds. Those who wish to avoid the blufftop traverse and the handholds can descend to the beach farther north, near the inholding. One more challenging spot remains, about half a mile south of here, which I call the "Pinch Point". For about 20 feet, you have to traverse a bedrock shelf under an overhanging rock outcropping. Don't hit your head on the overhang, but mind the waves at the same time! South of the "Pinch Point", the beach opens up nicely.

Land hazards
The LCT offers a wide variety of walking surfaces, from dry, soft sand, to firm, wet sand, to fine gravel that remains soft even when wet, to big boulders good for hopping. (Unlike talus in the mountains, these boulders have been pounded by the waves for eons and are pretty well set in place.) The constantly varying surface makes walking pace difficult to predict. The good news, though, is that the really tiring sections rarely last more than a mile or two. Budget 25% to 50% longer for walking on the beach than you would for hard-packed, level trail.

The LCT also has poison oak. It doesn't grow on the beach itself, and the trail through the named "flats" is wide enough that you don't need to worry about it too much. We did have an unpleasant poison oak encounter, though, around Punta Gorda. Here, in the long stretch of soft sand that I just mentioned, we found a hard-packed trail leading through grass and brush just inland from the beach. We gladly took it, but before long it became so overgrown with poison oak that we had to plan each step carefully. In retrospect, it might have been better to sink in the sand than to deal with the poison oak.

The final hazard that I need to note is a route-finding hazard linked to the poison oak. South of the lighthouse, my companion opted for the trail with the poison oak, but I chose the beach. Before we knew it, the trail began to climb the hillside, reaching an elevation of 100 feet or so, so that we couldn't see or hear each other. Apparently, the hillside trail ends with a forced descent to the beach at Sea Lion Gulch. None of this is clearly shown on any of the maps.

Human impact and crowding
The Lost Coast is not pristine wilderness. The Sinkyone LCT passes former dog-hole ports used for logging. I don't know if there were any on the BLM LCT, but there are definitely abandoned dwellings, including Punta Gorda lighthouse and a few old cabins. There are also at least three active dwellings on private inholdings, reached either by 4WD road through the interior of the King Range, or by air. The most elaborate structure (other than the lighthouse) is a two-story house, actually within sight of the beachside campsites at Miller Flat. However, the people who live here won't bother you any more than they want to be bothered themselves.

Sadly, many of the campsites show considerable human impact. In a few places, hikers have built shelters out of driftwood. In other places, we found hikers' trash (including abundant toilet paper at otherwise gorgeous Shipman Creek). We also saw some marine flotsam, such as scraps of rope. Just south of Punta Gorda, we found one blade of an old ship's propeller, bearing a foundry mark from San Francisco. How it arrived on that beach is beyond me.

It seemed that about a dozen people were setting out on the trail each day. At our first and last campsites (Punta Gorda and Shipman Creek, FWIW), we had the beach to ourselves for at least half a mile in both directions. At Randall Creek, there was one other party of two. At Big Flat Creek, there were a few other parties, but the camping area here is unusually large, so everyone spread out. Hiking in the mornings, we did pass some other creeks where people were bunched together in a way that backpackers usually aren't. It's really the luck of the draw: once the tide comes in, it can either keep newcomers out of your cherished spot or trap you with chance companions.

One final piece of advice
Always have a backup plan. We talked to a pair of hikers on the shuttle who were planning a 2-night trip, but took an extra day off work in case they got stuck for a third night. One day when we had downtime, we dayhiked 2 miles down the beach to scout the upcoming tricky section and assess the feasibility of carrying our packs through it on an iffy tide. These are just examples. I would recommend carrying good headlamps so that you can hike in the dark if need be.

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 07/16/2020 09:25PM by iivvgg.
Re: Lost Coast trail description
September 22, 2018 08:43PM
never mind

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/16/2020 09:26PM by iivvgg.
Re: Lost Coast trail description
October 12, 2018 09:29AM
Thanks for the info on this. I've been looking at this hike for a few years, but haven't done any serious planning yet. This has lots of good info to keep in mind.
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