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.