Four-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco, a stretch of California coastline bulges west where the highway steers inland in favor of less rugged terrain. The Lost Coast beckons ambitious and intrepid hikers in search of unforgettable scenery and a wilderness experience that differs greatly from that found along the Pacific Coast Highway. To hike this one-of-a-kind coastal trail, you’ll have to venture into treacherous territory that roadbuilders thought better to let be.

If you’re up for the challenge, though, hiking California’s Lost Coast will reveal one of the finest examples of isolated coastal wilderness in the United States. You’ll need to be alert for rogue waves and rockfalls, and identify threats like rattlesnakes and poison oak. You’ll clamber over slippery boulders, trudge through ankle-deep sand and gravel, and study tide charts to safely navigate narrow shores.

The Lost Coast officially stretches northward from Sinkyone Wilderness State Park for 35 miles to the mouth of the Mattole River, and the verdant 68,000-acre Kings Range National Conservation Area boasts over 80 miles of trail. But when most people say, “Lost Coast Trail,” they are referring to the popular 24.6-mile beach route between the Mattole River and Shelter Cove. Here’s a guide to get you ready for that hike.

Before you go

Photo: Danita Delmont/Shutterstock

To avoid any confusion about permits, here’s a line from the reservation website: “Permits are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis through Recreation.gov. There is no lottery system for King Range Wilderness permits and there are no walk-in permits available at the King Range Project Office.”

Between May 15 and September 15, the daily quota is 60 people per day entering the trail. Thirty people per day are allowed the rest of the year, and all permits for the following calendar year become available in October. A non-refundable, $6 reservation fee applies to each permit, and permits are good for up to five people, with a maximum group size of 15 (requiring three permits). Commercial groups and organized tours are required to have a special use permit. Contact the Bureau of Land Management’s Kings Range Project Office for an application.

Bear canisters are required for storage of all scented items — food, toiletries, and trash — and are available for rent at area BLM offices and some local stores. Check the Bear Canister section of the BLM’s Kings Range website for options, and refer to Matador’s backpacking gear guide for a rundown on what not to forget for the trek.

Another thing to consider before you go is which direction to hike. Prevailing winds in the area typically blow south to southeast, thus the more popular direction to hike is south. Most of this guide is organized with that in mind. If you do plan to hike north, remember that the shuttle service providers generally operate northbound only, and consider this if you plan to use one of the shuttles.

Arriving at the trailhead and planning ahead for the end

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Plan your exit strategy early and arrange to have a vehicle at your endpoint. Then, either drive another vehicle to your starting point (planning to retrieve it after the hike) or use one of the shuttle services. Book these well in advance. Also, if you plan to use a shuttle, consider taking it on your way in, before you hike, so you’re not worrying about finishing exactly when your shuttle is booked. This gives you the chance to have your car waiting for you at the end point. The Bureau of Land Management’s Trip Planning Guide, available on the website, currently lists three licensed shuttle service providers: Lost Coast Adventures, Mendo Insider Tours, and Bill’s Lost Coast Shuttle.

If you don’t use a shuttle, you’ll be driving either to Black Sands Beach or Mattole, and the route to the trailhead will follow winding, narrow, and steep roads as you head coastward from US 101. To hike northbound, turn off US 101 at the Garberville/Redway exit and follow the signs for Shelter Cove, 22 miles away. For southbound hikers, Mattole is a 42-mile drive from US 101. Exit the highway at Ferndale and follow the signs to Petrolia, where you’ll turn onto Lighthouse Road and head to the trailhead.

On the trail

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Give yourself two nights on the trail, taking three days to hike the 24.6 miles. An eight-mile daily pace is plenty over the variable terrain you’ll encounter. And consider the tides, which may force you to wait for safe travel conditions each day. While you enjoy the scenery on your hike, keep a few important details in mind. First, never turn your back on the ocean. Rogue waves can approach at any time and much of the hike is done directly on the beach.

Also, a small area north of Punta Gorda and two large sections of trail are impassable at high tides, and you’ll need to plan your trip to approach these sections as the tide is going out. From north to south, the four-mile section between Sea Lion Gulch and Randall Creek and the 4.5-mile stretch from Miller Flat to Gitchell Creek are impassable at high tides. Get updated tide information from NOAA. It’s also a good idea to check the surf, as you won’t want to be out there during huge ocean swells.

In general, California’s coastline is public seaward from the mean high tide mark, but plenty of private property lies just off the beach. Obey posted no-trespassing signs, and stay out of cabins. Expect to cross several creeks while on the trail, many of which can become impassable during and after heavy rains. Learn to identify and avoid poison oak and ticks, and watch out for rattlesnakes, especially among piles of driftwood.

North to south trail descriptions

Photo: Robert Stolting/Shutterstock

Mattole to Punta Gorda Lighthouse
Distance: 3.2 miles

As you leave the parking lot at Mattole, you’ll first be walking among sand dunes and grasses before descending to the beach as you round the bend where the Punta Gorda lighthouse comes into view. As noted above, this small section around Punta Gorda can be impassable during high tide.

Punta Gorda Lighthouse to Spanish Flat
Distance: 6.3 miles

After exploring the lighthouse, which was operated by the Coast Guard between 1912 and 1951, you’ll be walking on trail above the shore before eventually descending to the rocky beach and entering the high tide zone around Sea Lion Gulch. There, the trail begins a four-mile section mostly sandwiched between the ocean and the cliffs, where variable and rocky trail conditions are the norm. Watch for signs directing you around large outcroppings, which can be impassable at all tide levels.

At Cooskie Creek, you can get a reprieve from the tides and camp upstream from the beach if you wish. From there to Randall Creek, you’ll need to be on your toes as rocks can tumble down from above while waves crash against your feet. After Randall Creek, the trail continues on the grassy bluff through Spanish Flat, which is a popular place for camping.

Spanish Flat to Miller Flat
Distance: 6.6 miles

Continue along the elevated, grassy trail beyond Spanish Flat for the better part of the next four miles, passing beneath two large parcels of private property. Around Big Creek the trail will again descend to the beach, and from there to Miller Flat, you’ll occasionally be afforded the luxury of choice since you can shift between beach and grassy trail as you choose. This area is another popular overnight option as you’ll have covered roughly two-thirds of the trail.

Photo: Bryan Brazil/Shutterstock

Miller Flat to Gitchell Creek
Distance: 4.8 miles

At the south end of Miller Flat, the last section of impassable-at-high-tide trail begins. Plan on walking this 4.5-mile section in one push if you can. If you can’t, retreat up Shipman Creek or Buck Creek to wait out the tide. Again, you’ll be walking over difficult, rocky terrain between breaking waves and crumbling cliffs. As you arrive at Gitchell Creek, you’ll be out of the high tide zones for the remainder of the hike.

Gitchell Creek to Black Sands Beach
Distance: 3.7 miles

This last section may seem easy, and indeed, you’ll nearly be done. But sinking in deep sand and gravel with each step will keep you from establishing a victory-lap pace. When you arrive at Black Sands Beach, your trek down California’s Lost Coast Trail will be complete.

If you didn’t use the shuttle service when you started, you’ll need to retrieve your car at this point. Give yourself at least two hours to drive the 50 miles between trailheads. Remember to check road, trail, and weather conditions before your trip and carry a tide table. Call the BLM King Range Project Office at (707) 986-5400 or the BLM Arcata Field Office at (707) 825-2300 for any questions. A good map can be downloaded on the BLM’s website. Buying a map at one of the field offices is recommended.