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Tides and Trails: A Backpacker’s Guide to California’s Lost Coast Trail

High Point

High Point:
400 feet (122 meters)

Total Ascent

Total Ascent:
Approximately 3,800 feet (1,158 meters)


Very Difficult


24.6 miles (39.6 km)

Route Type

Route Type:
Point to Point

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Embark on a 24.6-mile adventure along Northern California’s Lost Coast Trail, where rugged beaches, rocky headlands, and lush forests await. Plan carefully for tides and wildlife encounters to enjoy this remote, stunning coastline.


Nestled along Northern California’s remote and rugged coastline lies one of the most breathtaking and challenging hiking experiences in the United States: the Lost Coast Trail. This 24.6-mile trek through the King Range National Conservation Area offers hikers a rare opportunity to explore a pristine stretch of wilderness where the mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. The trail’s isolation and untouched beauty make it a haven for adventurers seeking solitude, dramatic landscapes, and a deep connection with nature.

The Lost Coast Trail is not just a hike; it’s an expedition through diverse terrains that include expansive sandy beaches, rocky headlands, and dense coastal forests. With the constant roar of the ocean as your backdrop, you’ll traverse areas teeming with wildlife, historic lighthouses, and picturesque campsites, all while contending with the challenges posed by the ever-changing tides and weather conditions.

This guide aims to provide you with comprehensive information to plan and execute a successful journey along the Lost Coast Trail. From essential preparation tips and a detailed trail breakdown to logistical considerations for getting to and from the trailheads, we cover all the key aspects to ensure your adventure is both safe and memorable.

Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or embarking on your first multi-day hike, the Lost Coast Trail promises a unique and rewarding experience. Embrace the raw beauty and rugged charm of California’s lost coast, and prepare to create memories that will last a lifetime.

Punta Gorda Lighthouse, CA

Getting to the Trailhead

The Lost Coast Trail has two primary trailheads: Mattole Beach to the north and Black Sands Beach to the south. Most hikers choose to start at Mattole Beach and hike south to Black Sands Beach, as this direction takes advantage of the prevailing winds and tides. Each trailhead is remote, and getting to them requires careful planning, particularly in terms of transportation and logistics.

Driving to Mattole Beach Trailhead

Location: Mattole Beach Trailhead is located at the northern end of the Lost Coast Trail, near Petrolia, California.


  1. From the South (San Francisco Bay Area):
    • Take US-101 North to the town of Garberville.
    • Exit at Garberville and take CA-254 North (Avenue of the Giants).
    • Continue on CA-254 for approximately 20 miles, then turn left onto Mattole Road.
    • Follow Mattole Road through the town of Honeydew and continue to Petrolia.
    • From Petrolia, follow the signs to Mattole Beach, approximately 5 miles further.
  2. From the North (Eureka):
    • Take US-101 South to the Ferndale exit.
    • Turn right onto Fernbridge Drive, crossing the bridge into the town of Ferndale.
    • Follow signs to Mattole Road and continue south through Capetown.
    • Continue on Mattole Road to Petrolia, then follow signs to Mattole Beach.

Parking: There is a parking lot at Mattole Beach Trailhead where you can leave your vehicle. However, space is limited, especially during peak hiking season, so arrive early to secure a spot. Overnight parking is permitted, but ensure your vehicle is parked legally and valuables are not visible to avoid break-ins.

Dusk at Mattole Beach Petrolia with distance view of mountains and water
Photo: James Sakaguchi / Adobe Stock

Driving to Black Sands Beach Trailhead

Location: Black Sands Beach Trailhead is located at the southern end of the Lost Coast Trail, near Shelter Cove, California.


  1. From the South (San Francisco Bay Area):
    • Take US-101 North to Garberville.
    • Exit at Garberville and take Redwood Drive through the town of Redway.
    • Turn left onto Briceland Thorn Road and continue west towards Shelter Cove.
    • Follow Shelter Cove Road, then turn right onto Beach Road, leading you to Black Sands Beach.
  2. From the North (Eureka):
    • Take US-101 South to the Redway exit.
    • Follow the same directions from Redway as listed above.

Parking: Black Sands Beach also has a parking lot for hikers. As with Mattole Beach, it can fill up quickly during peak times, so early arrival is recommended. Overnight parking is permitted here as well.

Black Sand Beach at Shelter Cove, California.

Shuttle Services

Given the point-to-point nature of the Lost Coast Trail, most hikers will need to arrange transportation between trailheads. Several shuttle services operate in the area, offering rides between Mattole Beach and Black Sands Beach. Booking a shuttle in advance is highly recommended to ensure availability.

Recommended Shuttle Services:

  1. Lost Coast Adventure Tours: Offers reliable shuttle services between trailheads and from nearby towns like Shelter Cove and Garberville.
  2. Shelter Cove Shuttle: Another option providing transportation to and from the trailheads. They also offer parking services for your vehicle while you hike.
Public Transportation

Public transportation options to the trailheads are extremely limited due to the remote nature of the Lost Coast. The closest major towns with bus services are Garberville and Eureka. From there, you would need to arrange private transportation or a shuttle to reach the trailheads.

Additional Tips

  • Fuel Up: Make sure your vehicle has a full tank of gas before heading into the remote areas around the trailheads. Gas stations are scarce.
  • Prepare for Rough Roads: Mattole Road and other access roads can be narrow, winding, and rough. Drive carefully and be prepared for slow travel.
  • Check Conditions: Road conditions can change, especially after storms. Check current conditions before you set out to ensure the roads are passable.

Reaching the trailheads for the Lost Coast Trail requires careful planning and consideration of transportation logistics. Whether you drive yourself or arrange for a shuttle, starting your adventure with the right preparations will set the stage for an unforgettable hiking experience along one of California’s most pristine coastlines.

Starting Point

  • Northern Trailhead: Mattole Beach, near Petrolia, CA
  • Coordinates: 40.2783° N, 124.3537° W

Ending Point

  • Southern Trailhead: Black Sands Beach, near Shelter Cove, CA
  • Coordinates: 40.0183° N, 124.0697° W

Man hiking on the Lost Coast Trail along the Pacific Ocean, California

Field Notes

Permits and Regulations

To hike the Lost Coast Trail, you’ll need a permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as the area is protected and the number of hikers is limited to preserve the environment. Permits can be obtained through the BLM website, and it’s advisable to secure them well in advance, especially for peak seasons. Make sure to familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on this fragile ecosystem.

Best Time to Hike

The best time to hike the Lost Coast Trail is from May to October, when the weather is more predictable, and the tides are generally lower. Winter months can bring heavy rains, high tides, and impassable sections, making the hike much more dangerous.

Tidal Planning

A crucial aspect of hiking the Lost Coast Trail is understanding the tide schedule. Certain sections of the trail are only passable during low tide, and failing to plan accordingly can result in being stranded or forced to backtrack. Obtain a tide chart for Shelter Cove and carefully plan your hiking schedule to navigate these sections safely.

Packing Essentials
  • Backpack: A comfortable, well-fitted backpack is essential for carrying your gear.
  • Shelter: A lightweight tent or bivy sack that can withstand coastal winds.
  • Sleeping System: A warm sleeping bag (rated for the season) and a sleeping pad for insulation.
  • Clothing: Layered clothing including waterproof and windproof jackets, warm layers, and moisture-wicking base layers. Pack extra socks and sturdy hiking boots.
  • Navigation: Topographic maps, a compass, and a GPS device.
  • Food and Water: Sufficient food for the duration of your hike and a reliable water filtration system. Water sources are available but should always be treated.
  • Safety Gear: First aid kit, emergency whistle, and bear-proof containers for food storage.
Important Considerations
Wildlife Encounters

The Lost Coast Trail is home to a variety of wildlife, including black bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes. Proper food storage is essential to avoid attracting bears. Use bear-proof containers and store them away from your campsite. Be vigilant and make noise to alert wildlife of your presence.

Water Sources

While there are several streams along the trail, all water should be treated before drinking. Carry a reliable water filtration system or purification tablets. Plan your water resupply points and ensure you have enough to stay hydrated, especially during the more strenuous sections.

Trail Safety

The Lost Coast Trail is remote and rugged, with limited cell phone coverage. Inform someone of your hiking plan and expected return date. Carry a satellite phone or personal locator beacon (PLB) for emergencies. Be prepared for sudden weather changes and high winds, particularly in exposed coastal areas.

Leave No Trace

Preserving the pristine beauty of the Lost Coast is vital. Follow Leave No Trace principles by packing out all trash, using established campsites, and minimizing your impact on the environment. Human waste should be buried at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, and campsites.

Highest Point on the Lost Coast Trail

The Lost Coast Trail primarily follows the coastline, so it doesn’t have significant elevation changes like mountainous trails. However, the highest point on the Lost Coast Trail is approximately 400 feet (122 meters) above sea level. This elevation is reached in the sections where the trail climbs over coastal bluffs and headlands. These points offer stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastline, providing a rewarding contrast to the beach and tidal sections of the trail.

Notable Elevation Points

  • Coastal Bluffs and Headlands: The trail reaches its highest elevations when it ascends over the coastal bluffs, particularly in the sections around Punta Gorda and the transition from beach to forested areas.
  • Big Flat Area: The trail climbs to higher elevations in this area, providing panoramic views of the surrounding landscape and ocean.

While the elevation gain is not extreme compared to inland mountain trails, the combination of rugged terrain and changing tides adds to the challenge and excitement of the Lost Coast Trail.


Trail Breakdown

Section 1: Mattole Beach to Punta Gorda Lighthouse (0 – 4.2 miles)

The trail begins at Mattole Beach, where you’ll be greeted by expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. The first section to Punta Gorda Lighthouse is relatively flat, traversing sandy beaches and coastal bluffs. The historic lighthouse, dating back to 1912, is a notable landmark and a great spot for a break. Keep an eye out for sea lions and harbor seals along the shoreline.

Section 2: Punta Gorda Lighthouse to Spanish Flat (4.2 – 8.8 miles)

From Punta Gorda, the trail becomes more challenging as you navigate rocky headlands and tide-dependent areas. The section between Sea Lion Gulch and Cooskie Creek can only be safely crossed during low tide. Spanish Flat offers a more forgiving terrain, with open meadows and opportunities for camping. This area is known for its wildflowers and abundant wildlife, including deer and various bird species.

Section 3: Spanish Flat to Big Flat (8.8 – 16.1 miles)

Continuing from Spanish Flat, the trail alternates between beach walking and rugged coastal paths. Big Flat is a popular camping area with access to freshwater streams. This section provides stunning views of the ocean and the surrounding cliffs. Be prepared for sections of loose sand and pebble beaches, which can be tiring to hike through.

Section 4: Big Flat to Black Sands Beach (16.1 – 24.6 miles)

The final stretch from Big Flat to Black Sands Beach is both the most beautiful and the most challenging. This section requires careful tide planning, especially around Miller Flat and Gitchell Creek. As you approach Black Sands Beach, the trail becomes steeper and more demanding. The reward for your effort is the striking black sand and dramatic coastal scenery. Black Sands Beach marks the end of the trail and the beginning of your return journey or shuttle ride.

Day-by-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Mattole Beach to Spanish Flat (8.8 miles)

Start your adventure at Mattole Beach, heading south towards Punta Gorda Lighthouse. Take time to explore the lighthouse and enjoy the coastal views. Continue to Spanish Flat, where you can set up camp for the night. This first day covers relatively easy terrain, allowing you to acclimate to the coastal environment.

Day 2: Spanish Flat to Big Flat (7.3 miles)

Depart Spanish Flat and navigate the tide-dependent sections carefully. Enjoy the diverse landscapes as you make your way to Big Flat. This day’s hike is moderately challenging, with varying terrain and stunning coastal views. Camp at Big Flat, where you can rest and enjoy the serene surroundings.

Day 3: Big Flat to Black Sands Beach (8.5 miles)

The final day of your hike is the most demanding, with several tide-dependent sections and rocky terrain. Plan your departure to coincide with low tide for safe passage. The approach to Black Sands Beach is strenuous but offers breathtaking views as a reward. Upon reaching Black Sands Beach, celebrate the completion of your hike and arrange your return transportation.

Alternative Itineraries

Four-Day Itinerary: If you prefer a more relaxed pace, consider extending your hike to four days. This allows for shorter daily distances and more time to explore and enjoy the surroundings. Camp at Punta Gorda Lighthouse, Spanish Flat, and Big Flat, breaking up the hike into manageable segments.

Weekend Hike: For those with limited time, a weekend hike from Mattole Beach to Big Flat and back is a great option. This out-and-back route covers some of the most scenic sections of the trail without the need for complex shuttle arrangements.


Completing the Lost Coast Trail is a testament to your perseverance, preparation, and appreciation for one of California’s most pristine and secluded coastal regions. As you emerge from the wild, having traversed sandy beaches, rocky headlands, and lush forests, you’ll carry with you the indelible memories of this unique adventure.

The Lost Coast Trail offers more than just physical challenges; it presents an opportunity to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and reconnect with the natural world. The constant presence of the Pacific Ocean, the sightings of diverse wildlife, and the solitude found in this remote wilderness create an experience that is both humbling and enriching.

This trail is a reminder of the beauty and power of untouched landscapes, and the importance of preserving such areas for future generations. By adhering to Leave No Trace principles and respecting the delicate ecosystems along the way, you contribute to the ongoing conservation efforts that keep the Lost Coast wild and wonderful.

As you reflect on your journey, from the planning stages to the final steps on Black Sands Beach, you’ll realize that the Lost Coast Trail is more than a hike—it’s a journey into the heart of nature, a test of endurance, and a celebration of the rugged beauty that defines Northern California’s coastline.

Thank you for taking the time to prepare thoroughly, respect the environment, and embrace the challenges of this remarkable trail. May your experiences on the Lost Coast Trail inspire future adventures and a continued commitment to exploring and preserving the natural world. Happy trails!

Additional Resources
  • BLM Lost Coast Trail Page: For permits, maps, and regulations.
  • Tide Charts: Essential for planning your hike around tide-dependent sections.
  • Leave No Trace: Principles and practices for minimizing your environmental impact.

By following this guide, you’ll be well-prepared to tackle the Lost Coast Trail and enjoy one of California’s most spectacular coastal hikes.

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