The Lost Coast—6 days to walk 64 miles of the wildest and most dramatic coastline in California, traversing black sand beaches, blooming wildflower flats, dense temperate rainforests, and steep mountain ridges that drop into the crashing sea below. The trail fords over two dozen year-round streams that cascade down steep-walled canyons, meeting the ocean at cobble and driftwood beaches. As we hiked the Lost Coast, we were surrounded by fantastic colors as it exploded in full spring—electric green ferns, pink rhododendrons, red shaggy tree bark; yellow poppies and purple lupine against black sand and teal sea.
The trail along the Lost Coast has two very different parts. The northern half of the trail follows long stretches of wilderness beach or headlands, where one can stay near the shore. For the southern half, the Lost Coast Trail takes to the high country, because the coast is more precipitous, with occasional pocket beaches separated by steep cliffs that rise as high as 1000 ft. Smack dab in the middle of these two halves is Shelter Cove, an outpost town where we delighted in pizza midway through our trek.
The first few days were warm and sunny, and we enjoyed divine dips in idyllic streams, where the water was clear and cold as it flowed out of the green mountains to the beach. These soaks kept us happy and refreshed as we walked over sand and cobble with our heavy packs. We thoroughly enjoyed the epic geology—the cliff sides of the King Rage fall off or crumble into the Pacific, and the fierce north coast waves pull the crumbling earth into the ocean.
One morning, as we rounded a rocky point, we came across an otter in the tidepools dragging a lingcod in its mouth! The waves came up and the ling slipped from its mouth, but the otter easily snatched it back up again. So cool! The next day, we found a snake swimming in a creek with a large fish in its mouth, one that was at least three times the size of its head. We watched the snake try to wrestle the fish down its throat.
We walked across several wide-open flat meadows, which were blooming with wildflowers—poppies, lupin, dandelions, indian paintbrush, wild radish, and more.
The best campsites are found, not made, and we found some lovely ones—including a rad driftwood log shelter, complete with a fire ring, benches, a hearth, and stunning views. That evening, the sky was salmon pink to the north and periwinkle lilac moonlight to the south over pine-covered hills, as the sun dipped into the big blue Pacific.
One morning, we emerged from our tent in a misty morning fog and looked across the grassy coastal prairie where we spotted a herd of Roosevelt Elk munching contentedly against a backdrop of rolling ocean waves and forested mountainsides. At least twenty-five strong, the herd of females and juveniles grazed their turf, with buns covered in white tufted fur and necks of dark chocolate brown. The males cruise their mountainous territory separately from the herd, then join up in autumn for The Rut, where the dudes compete in epic showdowns for special time with lovely lady elk.
We quietly left our elk friends and continued on, climbing and descending the ridges and gulches of the Sinkyone Wilderness, a perpetual knitting–then unravelling–of the elevation gains we made. We climbed through fir forests, which had been clear cut of their virgin redwood groves by European settlers of the 1800s, and imagined how beautiful the forested hillsides must have been before they were logged.
We came upon a small stand of old growth redwoods along a babbling waterfall stream with ferns waving in the breeze. The forest canopy towered above us, with redwoods standing strong and tall, and patches of bright green maple leaves tessellating in lacey patterns against the blue sky. Our map showed that this was J Smeaton Chase Grove, named after the author/adventurer J Smeaton Chase who travelled on horseback along the coast in 1911 and recorded his journey in poetic prose in California Coast Trails: A Horseback Ride from Mexico to Oregon. We love Chase’s description of the forest:
“On every stump and fallen log, and on every fork and bulge of living tree, little elves’ gardens of small plants and fungi were growing, — dainty sprays of vaccinium, red and orange toadstools, barberry, gaultheria: and the roadside banks were set with myriads of ferns, while mosses grew to such size that I sometimes mistook them for a young growth of some stiff, heathery plant.”
The Lost Coast rewards hikers who commit to the rugged and remote setting with exquisite scenery and unforgettable experiences. But this is not a hike for the faint of heart–the hike is strenuous and conditions can be unforgiving. Power Nature commands respect, and even California’s early, ambitious highway engineers conceded to Her force. In his book, A Walk Along Land’s End, John McKinney explains, “The Lost Coast is so rough—rougher than Big Sur’s coast—that it even thwarted California’s highway engineers; much to their frustration, they were compelled by geography to route Coast Highway inland more than twenty miles.”
Thank goodness for this separation from vehicles and roads! The Lost Coast, in its rugged and wild beauty, is truly a treasure. We are so thankful to have experienced this amazing stretch of coastal wilderness.
We woke up in our boat-in campsite feeling like we were in the jungle. Hummingbirds zoomed through the clearing above our tent, chirping and buzzing overhead. The morning fog accumulated in dew drops on the leafy walls around us. We packed up and took a last look around the lush little spot we had made our home for the night and hiked out to the coast, skirting around the rocky promontory, Sharp Point, that separates Stone Lagoon from the Pacific.
We walked along a stretch of shoreline until we reached Big Lagoon, where we carefully navigated around the edge of the dune vegetation to avoid crushing precious dune flowers– yellow sand verbena, silky beach peas in deep purple and bright magenta, and delicate pink morning glories. Strewn throughout the low, flat vegetation were huge pieces of gray, rugged driftwood, weathered and seasoned by the forces of the north coast ocean. Occasionally we saw a crow, once a small shore bird, but nothing else moved except busy little ants bustling around in their expansive sand universe.
The four lagoons that make up Humboldt Lagoon State Parks are Stone Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Freshwater Lagoon and Dry Lagoon. We walked miles down the sandy stretch of coastline in front of the lagoons and saw multiple pairs of gray whale moms and babies parading by, puffing their oceany breath out of blow-holes into heart shaped sprays, the signature gray-whale spout. We rounded the beach and came into a sheltered cove before we reached a rocky point called Patrick’s Point, where we savored the sunset views. It was our first time getting into camp early enough to relax, stretch, and write before the sun set and we soaked it all in!
We spent the next morning at Patrick’s Point tidepooling with Michelle, an environmental scientist with California State Parks, who showed us around at low tide. She told us that over 60 species of algae had been identified in the tidepools. She also showed us at least five species of nudibranchs, scandalously colorful “sea slugs” that are our favorite tidepool discoveries! Bubblegum pink Hopkins’ Rose, spotted orange and white Sea Clown, bright yellow Sea Lemon– these little gems are the stars of the tidepools for us. We also saw tidepool sculpins, gumboot chitons, ochre stars, and iridescent seaweed.
Michelle showed us bumpy sea stars and spiny purple urchins, and told us about sea star wasting disease, which causes otherwise healthy sea stars to melt into mushy blobs of disintegrating flesh. Scientists have been studying this plague of sea star deaths, which has resulted in mass die-offs of stars all along the West Coast. The disease is caused by a virus and is exacerbated by warmer water temperatures and the changing ocean climate. That morning, researchers from Humboldt State University were out surveying the Patrick’s Point tidepools to document the disease and contribute to statewide studies.
We wanted to stay in the tidepools forever, exploring each nook and cranny for vibrantly colored creatures, but we had to keep heading south toward Mexico! We began the long walk down Patrick’s Point toward Trinidad, enjoying sweeping views of the bright teal waters and rocky outcroppings along the coast. We dropped down from the bluffs onto Moonstone Beach, a lovely spot where folks were out enjoying the coast with family and friends. We trekked down a long sandy stretch of beach, and camped for the night at Clam Beach County Park, tucked away behind the expansive dunes that make Humboldt County spectacular.
The next day was a crazy one! We had three interviews: a phone call for a print story, a short TV interview, and a live radio show. We did our best to sound interesting and intelligent, while also staying on track with our 13-mile hike planned for the day. Not an easy task! The day ended with us completely lost in a labyrinth of sand dunes, our legs feeling like lead as the sun sank towards the horizon. Eventually we made it out to the road, and met up with Alisan, who brought us to Bertie and Jo’s house for the evening, where we were treated to warm showers and grilled salmon that Jo caught. Thank you Bertie and Jo for taking care of us after such a long day.
Two major obstacles in Humboldt County were Humboldt Bay and the Eel River. Routing inland to the road bridges would have added dozens of miles to our journey, so we were really hoping to find a way to boat across. Through Alisan’s hard work, we found Jens and Tyrone of Mad River Tackle and Fishing My Life Away guide service in Arcata. They offered to help us get across BOTH of these bodies of water–amazing! We kayaked across Humboldt bay with Jens (and Chinook!), and they used a drift boat to ferry us across the Eel River. We are so thankful for these guys, and all of the other trail angels who have been helping us along the way.
While traveling through the area, we got to explore Arcata, a cute college town where Humboldt State University is based. We had two fun experiences in Arcata. One was exploring the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, which includes 307 acres of estuarine habitat. The marsh is also part of the City of Arcata’s unique wastewater treatment facility. Wetlands naturally filter and purify water, and in Arcata, they are used as a final treatment step, to turn wastewater into a resource. We met George Ziminsky, an incredible coastal steward who is constantly volunteering his time to pick up trash, clean graffiti off of signs, and improve trails. George–you are an inspiration!
Our second Arcata experience was attending Ocean Night, a Surfrider event at the Arcata Theater Lounge. Delia Bense-Kang, Humboldt Surfrider chair, invited us to say a few words about our journey and the CCT; it was a great opportunity to spread the word about the trail! Afterwards, we were so happy to relax with a beer and watch some surf films. Delia was kind enough to host us for the night, and we loved learning more about her life up in Humboldt: surfing the cold waves (we are still too wimpy), working at the Northcoast Environmental Center, and volunteering at Surfrider. We have met some incredible ocean women who are doing great work to help the coast and Delia is definitely one of them–go marine ladies! (Check out the article Delia wrote about us, here)
The Humboldt coastline challenged us once again, with rugged terrain along the rocky coast that forced us inland to avoid an impassable section of beach between False Cape and Cape Mendocino. This section of coast is the western-most stretch of land in California, and it can only be walked at extreme low tides, which didn’t align with our time there. We had to pass up and over the Coast Range to continue moving south, so we followed the paved road up, up, and away–over a summit of 1,880ft in less than 1.5 miles, on the steep and winding Wildcat Ridge. The views were unbelievable and definitely worth the crazy strenuous effort required to reach the vantage point where we could see miles of big blue Pacific Ocean to the north, south, and west. The Lost Coast was in sight, stretching along the dramatic coast for the next 80 miles, untouched by highway due to its extremely remote and rugged landscape. We’re wild ladies and we’re ready for the wilderness!
Feeling dead after our steep bike ride up Wildcat!
We started our 6th day on the California Coastal Trail on the north side of the Klamath River, where Oregos, a helpful Yurok spirit, is embodied as a large rock at the rivermouth. Oregos and her sister, another stalwart rock on the south side, help to guide the salmon up the Klamath to the Yurok people.
The Klamath River is the lifeline of the Yurok people, who have fished ney-puy (salmon) from the Klamath for thousands of years by respecting the connection between a healthy, abundant salmon population and their own wellbeing. Today, Yurok culture is still strongly linked to the salmon’s annual migration. Salmon are anadromous fish, which means they live in both fresh and saltwater. Salmon hatch in the Klamath River, then travel to the ocean to feed as adults. They then return to the river, making an incredible journey upstream to lay eggs in the same places that they were hatched.
We had to get from Oregos on the north bank to her sister rock on the south side of the Klamath River mouth. The river was peaceful that morning and we were so happy to see Ken and Kathy Cunningham, who run a salmon fishing guide service, pull up their boat to the small dock.
They jetted us up the Klamath River, giving us a quick tour of the area. Around each bend, an epic scene of forested redwood mountains awaited us, highlighting the pumping lifeblood that is the Klamath. Bald eagles and golden eagles nest in the redwoods, sometimes needing to duke it out with ospreys to steal their catch. Bears visit the river often, and lots of other wildlife too. Ken told us a crazy story about a mountain lion swimming across the river right in front of his friend’s boat. (Proof of this cougar story can be watched here)
Once we reached the south side, we hiked up and over an old coast-ridge road enjoying the scenic vistas, spotting whales in the distance! We finished the day by hiking some intense sandy miles down to Gold Bluffs beach.
Gold Bluffs Beach tells an important part of California’s gold rush story. In 1850, miners found flecks of “gold as fine as flour” in the sand. Rumors spread, and soon it was said that the sands of Gold Bluffs Beach were one half pure gold. Miners flooded the area, only to discover that the sands contained little gold, and extracting the small quantities of gold proved too laborious. The Gold Bluffs bubble burst, and miners were ashamed to have believed such tall tales of sand worth millions. Today, visitors can see a different kind of gold when the dune wildflowers bloom in spring, and yellow sand verbena shines in the golden sunlight.
Near Gold Bluffs Beach is Fern Canyon, which we explored on our layover day. Fern Canyon’s 50-foot walls are draped with lush ferns, moss, and other moisture-loving plants. The canyon resembles a hanging garden, and is home to seven kinds of ferns, including five finger, deer, lady, sword, and chain ferns. Ferns have a unique life cycle that involves spores rather than flowers or seeds. Spores are found on the underside of the ferns’ leaves, which are called fronds. New fronds unfurl from the classic fiddlehead shape, unrolling from base to tip.
The next day was quite a long one. We headed south along the beach, but unfortunately had to backtrack our steps to find the Skunk Cabbage trailhead sign, which was cryptically hidden among the many miles of dunes.
We walked the length of Skunk Cabbage Trail through forest and fern until it dropped us at Highway 101.
This is where the most brutal part of the trail began. The highway was busy with cars, with no shoulder and lots of blind curves. We were forced to the outside of the guard rail so as to escape the fast cars. There was a bit of room to walk on this side, but it was overgrown with thorny blackberry bushes and other prickly plants. Our time on the highway was thankfully barely a mile, but we were so thankful when we arrived at the gravel road that led to a levee along Prairie Creek. The levee path was our savior.
We were running late for our boat ferry across Stone Lagoon to our environmental campsite, so we had to speedwalk! This section of the California Coastal Trail follows the lagoon shore inland to avoid an impassable rocky point at Sharp Point. However, the trail was underwater due to high water levels from all the rain storms this year.
Bert Taylor, Coastwalk Humboldt coordinator and trail angel, informed us of the tricky trail conditions and arranged a canoe ride with fellow Coastwalkers and other blessed trail angels, Bertie and Jo. Without the canoe ride, we would have been in big trouble! Bert, Bertie, Jo, Jo, and Mo set off on a canoe/kayak adventure. We paddled away from the shore and into Stone Lagoon.
The lagoon was calm and lovely. Stone Lagoon sits in a low valley surrounded by redwood forest. As we paddled toward the other side of the lagoon, we glided past cormorants nesting in the trees. The bows of our boats cut through the brackish water, and it calmly lapped the sides of our vessels. We were so happy to be sitting down yet still making forward progress, especially after the grueling 13 mile day with super heavy packs. Bert, Jo, and Bertie are the coolest adventure ladies! Our hearts were glowing after visiting with these awesome and generous women. Thank you to these wonderful women for transporting us across the lagoon to our boat-in camp. They dropped us off on the bank and paddled away, towing the now empty kayak behind them.
MoJo Coastwalk has officially launched! We are en route on the California Coastal Trail.
We hit the trail on Sunday May 1, 2016 with perfect sunny weather in Del Norte County. The sand was radiating warmth, the waves were crashing into bright white foam, and we were ready to get some miles behind us.
We started our journey at the California Coastal Trail’s northern terminus at Crissy Field State Park at the Oregon-California border. Boots hit sand and we pointed them south toward their destination, 1,230 miles away at the California-Mexico border. With the Pacific Ocean on our right, and all of California before us, we marched onward along the CCT.
Approaching Pyramid Point on our first day
After a few short miles, we arrived at the crystal clear waters of the Smith River, California’s largest undammed river and one of its cleanest (#2 or #3 depending on who you talk to). Residents along the Smith draw their drinking water directly from the river, a testament to its purity. Mike of Mike Coopman’s Guide Service was waiting with his boat at the river, ready to ferry us across our first river crossing. Thank you Mike! Reach out to Mike if you are considering hiking this section and need to find a way across the Smith.
We did not want to leave the Smith River–it was so beautiful and clear!
On the other side of the river, we walked several miles down a sandspit sprinkled with sanddollars, and entered Tolowa Dunes State Park. The Tolowa Dunes were idyllic; a perfect ending point for our first day on the trail. We took off our packs, leaned against a driftwood log to soak it all in, and high-fived in the golden light when a mom and baby whale sighed puffs of breath from their blowholes, which hung in the air, illuminated against the setting sun.
The next morning we awoke near Yontocket, the spiritual center for the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ tribe. We said a few words of respect and gratitude before starting our trek down the broad sandy beach again. With heavy packs on our backs, we noticed the slanting beach slope in our tight left hips. Hope we don’t end up lopsided!
We were so thankful for our incredibly stylish gaiters, keeping sand out of our boots.
Most of the day was beach walking past dunes covered with European beachgrass, a nonnative plant that changes the naturally shifting dune dynamics and native dune plant communities. We ended our day at Point St. George near Crescent City with a view of the St. George Reef Lighthouse, six miles offshore.
Tolowa Dunes State Park is such a special place in Del Norte county. The sand dunes and wetlands are biodiversity hotspots, featuring over 1,250 plant, animal, and fungus species. This coastal area is recognized as a “Global Important Bird Area” and is a critical stopover on the Pacific flyway for migrating ducks, geese, and swan.
On our third day, we had our first hike-along in Crescent City. Folks came out to meet us at Point St. George in the morning, and we were overwhelmed by their kindness and positive support. Thanks to our first newspaper article in the Del Norte Triplicate, word got around that MoJo Coastwalk was coming through town. Thank you to all of our new coastal trail friends in Crescent City: Candace, Jeff, Martha, Martha, Nancy, Nancy, Jim, Kathy, and others we met along the way! We were especially touched by Jim Holmes and his wife, who generously donated to our cause. As we walked with our new crew, we were excited to see our first CCT sign on Pebble Beach Drive, and many more to follow through the harbor and out of town. County Supervisor Martha McClure even put up a MoJo Coastwalk banner for us along the trail–thanks Martha! We had a delicious seafood lunch at the Chart Room in Crescent City Harbor: crab, scallops, and fish. Yum! Big thanks to Jeff Parmer for showing us around town.
We loved the first crew to join us on the trail in Crescent City!
Our first CCT sign, spotted in Crescent City.
As we walked out of town, the view to the south perfectly illustrated Crescent City’s motto: where the redwoods meet the sea. Redwood National and State Parks lay before us–we were heading into the wilderness. For the next two days, we walked through virgin redwood forests and camped in backcountry sites in the park. The coastal fog blew silently through the redwoods, providing the trees with an essential source of water. Even when the ocean was out of sight, we could hear waves crashing far below, and occasionally the trees would part and offer sweeping views of the rugged coastline.
Where the redwoods meet the sea
Backpacking in a temperate rainforest–happy to have our rain gear!
Part of our path was on the Old Redwood Highway, which was once a thoroughfare for Model Ts, and is now a single-track hiking path. In places, the old pavement peeks through the forest floor and we imagined the automobiles of the 1920s bumbling over the coastal mountains. We want all highways to become trails.
During our journey we passed into the ancestral lands of the Yuroks, California’s largest tribe. Their culture is centered around the Klamath River and its abundant fisheries. One of our favorite paths was an ancient Yurok trail that guided us to a special hidden beach.
When we came upon the Klamath River on our fifth day, we were struck by its beauty. So thankful to be welcomed at the quaint and historic Requa Inn, we soaked our tired limbs in the hot tub and enjoyed our last night in Del Norte County.
Del Norte County is definitely delightful–we will be back!