Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail

I first heard about the Lost Coast Trail in college, and while I didn't manage to do it back then, it's always been high on my bucket list. The idea of backpacking on the beach seemed so unusual. This year Ryan and I got permits for a mid-July weekend.

The Lost Coast is a stretch of beach in Humboldt County in Northern California. It's notably remote because the terrain didn't allow for the highway to be built near the beach. The King Range runs parallel to the trail, right next to the beach.

There's also technically a southern section of the Lost Coast Trail which is much less hiked and doesn't require a permit. This section is not as beachy and mostly goes through the mountains.

Trip stats

Dates: July 7 - July 9, 2023
Distance: 25 miles
Elevation: +/- 1600 ft
Weather: ~50-80F, mostly clear
Permits required: Yes
Bear cans required: Yes


About the trail

The hike is about 25 miles long. Usually it's hiked north to south, starting from Mattole, but we saw lots of groups hiking it the other direction. The reasoning for going north to south is apparently so the northwest wind will be at your back. Also, the paid shuttles support going this direction.

The hike is usually done in 2-4 days. We did it in 3 days, which felt fairly leisurely, but we had to rush a little to fit the hike during low tide. We camped at Spanish Creek and Buck Creek.

Summer is the most popular season for hiking the Lost Coast Trail. It can rain any time here, but it tends to be colder and rainier during the off season.

In terms of navigation, this hike is very straightforward, since it just follows the beach. However there are several sections where the trail leaves the beach, usually to bypass a section that's can't be crossed on the beach. Sometimes the turnoffs can be easy to miss, so if you encounter a particularly sketchy section it could be that there was an overland route. There were also some places where it looked like the original trail had eroded off the side of the hill, so you might have to deviate from the route on the map.

Ocean things

There are plenty of places to camp on the Lost Coast Trail. All of the popular campsites are by a creek, and the campsites are almost all under 2 miles apart. This also means you technically don't need to carry much water with you.

The terrain varies a bit. Sometimes it's soft sand, which was my least favorite. I tried to walk on the wet, packed sand as much as possible, but sometimes there's only soft sand. Some sections are gravel and small rocks (also annoying). Other sections are medium sized rocks that you have to hop and watch your feet on. Thankfully some of the trail goes into the bluffs, which is mostly dirt. Walking on sand kind of sucks, but in my opinion sucks way less than hiking uphill in high altitude. I mostly kept around a 2 mile per hour pace, and was fairly consistent, and probably a little faster than my pace on most backpacking trips.

It tends to be rainy and the rain can be unpredictable, so it's advised to bring rain gear. Since it was summer and there was no rain on the forecast for our trip, I only brought a rain jacket.

Leave no trace

The proper way to poop is to dig a hole (6-8 inches) on the beach below the high tide line.

I'm not sure if there are guidelines for dumping stuff directly in the ocean, but I washed food bowls and other clothes in it. At one site, the creek flowed straight into the ocean, so I washed things in there too, right where the stream meets the ocean.

Outside of the summer season you're normally allowed to build campfires out of driftwood. The permit will probably provide more exact info on when these days are, since it varies year by year. The fire season happened to end a week before our trip.


A fun part of hiking on the beach is that there are sections you can only pass through in low tide. There are three impassable zones on the hike – one really short one in the beginning, and two 4-mile ones. One guideline is to only go through the impassable zones when the tide is under 3 feet. This site has tide prediction charts.

NOAA tide prediction chart

This was the chart for our hike. On the actual site you can mouse over and see more detailed times. The red sections show the times where the tide is under three feet (aka safe to walk through the impassable zones). On day 1, the safe tide times were between 5:30am and 1pm. Day 2 went from 6:30am and 1:30pm, and day 3 went from 7:30am to 2pm. There was also a small window of low tide at night, but luckily we got to our site both days without having to hike that late.


Most people hike this one way, which means you need to find some way to transport between trailheads, which are about a 2 hour drive apart. Currently Lost Coast Adventures provides shuttles from Shelter Cove to Mattole Beach. This is the least time consuming method, although it gives a little bit less flexibility in terms of starting time. Otherwise you could take two cars, and park one at either trailhead. Or you could coordinate with another group and swap cars after the hike. Even though we would have preferred to start earlier on the first day to get in the low tide window, it wasn't worth the extra time it would have taken to set up the cars ourselves.

The shuttle company had two starting time options — 7am and 12am. Because of our tide chart we had to leave at 7am, which meant we had to stay the night before in the area. Nadelos and Wailaki campgrounds are the closest camping, but both happened to be closed at the time. Tolkan campground is also fairly close, and there are a few hotels in Shelter Cove. We stayed in a hotel in Redway, about a 40 minute drive away. We were originally thinking of visiting Humboldt Redwoods State Park the day before, but ran out of time.


The Lost Coast Trail is popular so you will likely have to get permits in advance. Permits are released on October 1 for the upcoming calendar year and cost $10.

Surrounding area

The Lost Coast Trail is in the far north of California and since I rarely come up here, I wanted to explore some of the surrounding areas while we were there. Our original plan was to see Humboldt Redwoods State Park the day before (the Avenue of the Giants is allegedly a really good scenic drive), but we ended up not going. There are lots of nice beaches along Highway 1, but after doing the Lost Coast I felt like I had seen enough beaches. Mendocino is about 3 hours south of Shelter Cove. It's a very small and very cute little town with some cute shops, and we spent one night there after the hike. (I think another group in our shuttle van was also planning to go to Mendocino.)

It might be hard to find a gas station close to Shelter Cove so don't wait to get gas there. (Apparently there's a tiny one at the Shelter Cove General Store.) The closest normal gas station is in Redway/Garberville. I was also thinking of getting fast food for breakfast for the early morning drive to Black Sands Beach, but there are in fact no fast food restaurants in the Garberville area. It is very remote.

Trail log

Day 1: Mattole Beach to Spanish Flats (10.3 miles)

The morning of, we left Redway at about 5:45am and arrived at Black Sands Beach trailhead a bit before 7am. There were three other groups in our shuttle. The shuttle guide gave us a little 10-15 minute informational talk before we did the 2 hour long, windy drive up.

After we arrived at Mattole Trailhead there was a bit more information and then we were free to start the hike, at about 9:15am. Since the low tide window ended at 1pm, which gave us less than 4 hours to hike, and we had about 8.5 miles to go before the end of the impassable zone, it was going to be close. We figured we could stop at Cooskie Creek if we didn't make it in time.

The beginning of the trail is soft sand. I was hoping that the entire trail wouldn't be like this.

Since we were short on time, we didn't explore as much as we otherwise might have, but we still looked at some beach debris. Along the trail there are a few privately owned cabins. I'm not sure how often these ones are in use, but it would be an interesting place to live.

The Punta Gorda Lighthouse was constructed in 1912. You can go inside and climb to the top. Inside the lighthouse it's bright and airy and there are a couple of closets.

Shortly after the lighthouse you reach Sea Lion Gulch. We only saw one group of elephant seals lying on the beach. Sea Lion Gulch is the last spot before the impassable zone, and is also a potential campsite.

View from the bluffs of a rocky coastline.

The impassable zone meant more beach hiking. I recall much of it being either packed sand or large chunky rocks. We accidentally missed one of the bluffs sections of the trail and had to instead scramble over a rock pile section to avoid the water.

We reached Cooskie Creek at 12:30pm. From here it was just under 2 miles to the end of the impassable zone. We estimated it would take us until 1:30 to get there, which would be 30 minutes past the 3 foot tide mark, but we went for it anyway.

For some reason these impassable zone sections felt like they went by quickly.

It was sort of calm here with the ocean closing in on the side, and the fog.

Grey ocean in the fog

There's a small pinch point right before you reach Randall Creek, where a rock juts out, but it's very short and we had no problem running across between waves (the tide was at about 3.5 feet). Other than that, we were never too close to the water, although we could see the tide rising on us. There was another group at Randall Creek so we decided to go forward a bit before stopping for lunch.

After Randall Creek the beach opens up and the cliffs turn into a large flat grassy area. We found a piece of driftwood and had some instant mac and cheese for lunch. We were cooking for lunch since we had a lot of time to kill, given that we would get to camp so early.

The remaining 2 miles to Spanish Creek was dirt trail slightly above the beach, which was nice.

We reached Spanish Flats just after 3pm. There were some driftwood campsites on the beach. We took one with an existing fire ring (which we couldn't use) and some nice places to sit. In addition to the campsites on the flats, which are very exposed to the beach and sun, there are also some sites in the trees by the creek.

Blue ocean and hills view from the camp

It was really hot when we arrived at camp so after setting up we sat by the creek in the shade for a while.

Picture of little green tent amid a bunch of driftwood

And then we just hung out at the beach for hours. It got a lot cooler as the sun went down. For some reason no one else was camped here, so we had the entire beach to ourselves.

For dinner we had an attempt at ramen pad thai (instant ramen, peanut butter, chopped peanuts, sugar, and canned bagged chicken).

Sunset beach view with orange to blue sky

Day 2: Spanish Flats to Buck Creek (8.8 miles)

Big rocks on the beach at sunrise, morning fog

We got up at 6 to get the hike in during the low tide window. After tearing down camp and making coffee it was almost 7 when we actually started hiking. I tried this Starbucks instant coffee that comes in individual tube packets and I didn't like it very much.

Another foggy morning view of the beach

Everything looked very nice in the morning fog.

Campsite is in a little hollow in the trees
A cute forest site at Kinsey Creek

The beginning of the day was going quickly; so far all the hiking was easy and off the beach. Hiking on the beach is definitely unique, but I loved the view from the bluffs sections.

Wider trail through the grass, probably driven over by cars

There was a section where the mountainside was covered in burned trees. We also passed by another house which was much larger than the previous cabins but still looked sparsely used. The trail here was wide and traversable by car.

We reached Big Creek at 9am. It looked like a nice place to camp.

Trail goes higher up, looking down at the coastline

After Big Creek the trail climbs higher into the hills.

We saw some deer here.

A big brown multi-story house
This house actually looked occupied

Finally we reached Big Flat at around , which was right before the start of the impassable zone. There were several groups here, and we also saw some rangers who checked our permits. Big Flat (as the name implies) was a large, flat area with potentially a lot of spots to camp on the beach. At Big Flat, the hiking went back to a soft dry sand.

Even though we were better on time than the first day, we still didn't have time to take a leisurely pace. Again for some reason felt like the impassable zone sections went by quickly.

panorama of the buck creek site, me, tent, and ocean

We reached Buck Creek at 12:30. Buck Creek is in the middle of the impassable zone. All of the sites are a little bit up a hill, and each site is a well defined patch of dirt. At Spanish Creek only one part of the creek was easily accessible, but here, there was a long section of creek with lots of rocks to sit on. The beach area here was much smaller, though, and more rocky. Another group arrived at the site right around 1:30, at the end of the low tide window.

Green garter snake around a stick by the stream
Garter snake about to jump into the creek

Like yesterday, it was hot. It felt at least 15 degrees cooler by the creek. It was even a bit chilly with the breeze. We saw a couple of garter snakes next to and inside the creek.  

Looking down at the ocean from inside the tent

We spent much of the afternoon going back and forth between the creek and the tent. At one point we set up the sun umbrella over the tent for extra shade.

Before the hike I was concerned it would be hard to find a place to poop, since the beach is so open, but if you're at a campsite past hiking time it should be fairly easy to just round the corner on one of the cliffs.

Sunset with a sun flare to the left of a jagged cliff line
Sunset with orange sky and silhouette of the side of the mountain over the beach

For dinner we had some instant mashed potatoes with some more bagged chicken.

At the end of the day everyone at the site was at the beach watching the sunset.

Day 3: Buck Creek to Black Sands Beach (5.2 miles)

Grey ocean with some fog clouds

Though the last day was low in miles, much of it was again soft sand walking. Since before reaching Buck Creek, you could see the end of the trail as the coastline was curved in a crescent shape.

We reached the trailhead at about 10am. After the hike we drove down to Fort Bragg and got lunch there, and the trip continued to Mendocino.

Thoughts on the trip

This is probably the most leisurely backpacking trip I've been on. The mileage wasn't so low, but there was no elevation gain and the tides force you to have a huge amount of downtime during the day. We got lucky that for us the time was all grouped at the end of the day rather than at the beginning or somewhere in the middle. I've never had this much downtime while backpacking; it's always been a little rushed to set up camp and get dinner done before dark. By the late afternoon, I'd basically forgotten about the hiking earlier in the day and it was just a normal beach day.

We had good weather on this trip, maybe a little on the warm side. Nighttime temperatures were mild, too, maybe in the 40s/50s at the lowest. Even filtering water was enjoyable. There were no bugs, and the water was clear and fast flowing and easy to reach.