The Lost Coast Trail is one of the classic California backpacking adventures. The 60 mile stretch from Mattole to Usal is broken up only by the community of Shelter Cove. If you have ever dreamed of hiking the northern section of the Lost Coast, this guide will serve as a blueprint to make that dream a reality.
Lost Coast Overview
The Lost Coast is the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline in California. This makes it a unique point to point hike that stays primarily on the Pacific ocean for most of the length of the trail.
While it is a low key and scenic hike, There are still dangers to watch out for while doing the trail. In particular, there are places where you need to watch out for wildfires. And, there are a few sections on the trail that are impassable when the tides are too high.
The full length of the northern section is about 25 miles. This is the distance from Mattole to Shelter Cove. It is possible to do this section in 2 days, but the coast is gorgeous, so I recommend doing it slower. In fact, I think it is best to do at least 4 days, and take a zero day while you are there.
Most people will hike North to South. This is because the coast is very windy, and walking south will keep the wind to your back. This guide will also follow the North to South direction.
The first ~3 miles will be on a beach with some sandy dunes. This will give you a first taste of the long stretches of beach walking ahead. Right from the trailhead, the scenery will begin to blow you away.
After 3 miles, you will get to the lighthouse. It’s a scenic spot, and great place to stop for lunch. Right near here is the elephant seal colony. If you come in the winter time, you will get to see hundreds of seals and elephant seals sunbathing on the beach.
Passed the lighthouse, you will head up onto some high bluffs before getting dropped on the beach for the first big impassable zone. These four miles are only possible to walk when the tides are below 4 feet. This section will be slow. Most of the 4 miles will be on slippery rocks down on the beach.
When you get passed the impassable zone, the trail will go back up on the bluff, and the next 4 miles will be really fast. But, you will get dropped back on the beach. There are a couple miles where you will be in between a landslide and some large waves. This is not marked as a hazard, but I would excercise caution when tides are above 5 feet.
At about mile 16, you arrive at Big Flat. A really large camping area. From here, you have another mile and a half on trail before dropping back down to the beach for the second large impassable zone. This section is 4 miles long and extremely rocky.
The last 2 miles are on the sandy Black Sands Beach, and then you return to Shelter Cove.
Hiking the north section of the Lost Coast requires a permit. Permits become available for the entire calendar year on October 1 of the previous year. For example, if you want to hike in 2023, then you will be able to get a permit starting October 1, 2022.
The permits are available on Recreation.gov. The permits for very high demand dates like Labor Day or Independence Day will be gone very quickly, so be prepared. The maximum group size is only 3 people.
If you are more flexible with your dates, or willing to go midweek in the winter, then it is possible to get a permit pretty last minute. Also, even if you don’t get the date you want, check back on the website. Sometimes people will cancel last minute.
A few other things to keep in mind on the Lost Coast: you are required to carry your food in a hard sided bear canister and you are not allowed to start a camp fire.
How to Get There
The two trailheads, Mattole and Shelter Cove, are both roughly a 5 hour drive from San Francsico. The kicker is that they are two hours between each other. The most common thing for people to do is to take a car to Shelter Cove, leave it there and then shuttle to Mattole to start.
If you are hiking in a group with multiple cars, you can do this yourself. Just be prepared for an extra two hours at the start to leave the first car, and an extra two hours at the end to pick the other car back up.
There are three companies that will run shuttle service for hikers.
Lost Coast Adventure Tours
Bill’s Lost Coast Shuttle
Mendo Insider Tours
I personally went with Lost Coast Adventure Tours and I cannot recommend them highly enough. They were super accommodating despite me being a solo hiker.
Do note that not all of the shuttles run all year round. Mendo Insider Tours and Lost Coast Adventure Tours both shut down in the winter, with Mendo Insider having a shorter season. Bill will do a shuttle all year round, but you have to talk to him to make sure it will work out.
Weather on the Lost Coast
This is a coastal hike in northern California, so the weather will be mild all year round compared to most of the rest of the US. It generally will not get prohibitively cold in winter, and it generally will not get over hot in the summer fall. In fact, this is one of the top 5 hikes to do in California in the Winter!
With that said, if you are not familiar with California weather, there are two seasons. The rainy season lasts through the winter months and the dry season is Summer and Fall. In a normal year, February and March will have the most rain, but you can still get windows of nice weather during this period.
Conversely, there can be some sweltering heat waves in the Summer. These can’t be predicted at the time when you get permits, but know that it can happen. Increasingly, California is prone to wildfires in the summer and Fall. Even if there is no wildfire in the area, smoke from a fire hundreds of miles away can blow into the region and make the air toxic. The highest risk of wildfire and smoke for this region will be August and September.
The one thing to be particularly aware of is the wind. The coast can get extremely windy, and it’s a good idea to hike this trail with a windbreaker and sunglasses.
Hazards on the Lost Coast
The Lost Coast is a coastal hike, and so the hazards are specific to the ocean.
The main one that the rangers like to warn hikers about is the tides. As I mentioned above, there are three sections that are impassable if the tides are above 4 feet, with two of those sections being over 4 miles long.
The general advice for these zones is to only enter while the tide is going out, and to give yourself a buffer window of two hours (so plan to be out two hours before the tide is 4ft). This will allow you enough time in case something goes wrong.
Both of the long stretches do have creeks that you can climb up if you find yourself in a bind. Unless you are planning to camp at one of these creeks, it is better to just plan to push through than to rely on them.
I would say don’t even start this hike unless you have at least looked at the tide tables. But, in case you left the tide tables at home, if you use Lost Coast Adventure tours to shuttle you, they will provide you with maps and tide information.
The other major hazard is sneaker waves. These are waves that are abnormally large compared to the surf. The advice that rangers give is to never turn your back to the ocean. Even if you are a strong swimmer, getting swept out in the frigid pacific with all of your backpacking gear will be a bad situation.
What to Bring
- Gossamer Gear 50 Litre
- Gossamer Gear the One
- ground tarp
- Montem Trekking Poles
- REI Sleeping Bag
- Nemo Sleeping Pad
- Thermal pants and shirt
- Base layer shirt
- Baseball Cap
- wool gloves
- Sawyer Squeeze
- Cnoc bladder
- water bottle
- Trail runners
- 2 pairs of socks
- sun screen
- garmin in reach mini
- battery pack
- Bear Cannister