Want some spectacular hiking along the coast? Also hoping not to share that time with hundreds of other people? The Lost Coast Trail is a great choice. It is located in southern Humbolt and Northern Mendocino counties along a stretch of coast so rugged that the engineers who designed California's Highway 1, the coastal highway, turned inland rather than try to run a road through the area. My father and I hiked this trail in August of 2007 and it was one of the best backpacking trips I've taken in the last 3 years. Fair warning though, the spectacular scenery comes at a price. This is not an easy trip.
From Mattole Beach you head south towards the old Point Gourda Lighthouse. The "trail" reaches it in about 3 miles, but note that here, and elsewhere along the beach section of the trail, there may or may not be tread, and where there is there is often poison oak as well. So hiking on the sand, while tiring, is the best for this section.
At Point Gourda, and south, one will find shelters constructed of driftwood at which you can spend the night. Even in August of a dry water year, we found fresh water steams fairly prevalent. There are also some beautiful waterfalls on this stretch of coast. Whale watching can be great here as well and we spent the better part of one day just observing humpback whales, about 1/2 mile from shore, breaching and generally cavorting about. Probably the best whale watching of my life. Fair warning, parts of the trail are impassible at high tide, and we barely made it around one point as the tide came in. You will need a tide book.
Shelter Cove is a tiny community that you encounter about 25 miles into your hike. It is also the point at which beach walking ends. From here on, a series of roads and trails take you up and down ridges as the shoreline is too rugged to continue upon. In brief, you will leave Shelter cove following a road up and over a nearly 2,000 foot pass. It is a hot climb and stopping at the general store, about half way up, for ice cream bars, soda and cold fruit is highly recommended. Once over the pass, continue to Hidden Valley Trailhead, on a side road about 1/4 mile right of the main one.
From Hidden Valley the truly steep climbs and drops begin. The trail follows ridge lines from here until Usal Campground, about 25 miles away. It climbs over Chemise Peak and then drops very steeply down to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. A brief respite along the dirt park road brings one to the next stretch of the Lost Coast trail, nearly 17 miles of ups and downs to Usal Camp. This was far and away the most difficult stretch for us. You gain and lose over 5,000 feet in this stretch, and the trail tread is at times almost non-existent. But the scenery is stellar here too. You will hike among virgin redwood groves and come upon some stellar hidden "pocket" beaches. There are established trail camps along this section, and the state park does charge a fee of $3 per person to use these sites. No dogs are allowed on this section either.
From Usal Campground, the trail is the dirt Usal road, heading south about 6 miles to highway 1. We skipped this section, as we had parked a car at Usal campground. If you do this part, you will still have some nice coastal views and forest, but you will want to arrange a pickup at Hwy 1. There did not seem to be any good places close by to leave a car along the highway for a week. There is a transport service at Shelter Cove that for a fee will move hikers to their starting location, but we decided against that service.
On the whole, this is a stunning trip and highly recommended. Only the very steep nature of the trail and lack of tread in places keeps it from being rated a 5. If you do the hike, you will want to get a good map: the BLM and state park each publish one, and other commercially produced maps are available. The guide to the California Coastal Trail, vol. 1, also has useful information for trip planning. In all, this is a wonderful, but rugged hike. It is well worth a full week, though it can be done faster than that.
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