Many years ago, Backpacker Magazine chose the Lost Coast Trail as their ‘Best Hike of the Year’. The pages were covered with incredible photos of a rugged coast, brilliant wild flowers and empty campsites. After reading the description, the Lost Coast had a spot on my trip list. Finally, eight or nine years later, this trip was to become a reality.
As we headed South down the coast from Redwoods, Barbara and I stopped into Eureka to knock out some chores and pick up a map for our upcoming trip. When we unfolded the map, and began counting the mileage, it looked like only 25 miles of hiking, instead of the 55-60 that we were expecting. (Later we would find out that there is indeed a southern 20ish miles, but it heads up and inland toward the redwoods.) We had originally planned to take 4 days or so to cover this section of trail. Now it looked like we could move a bit quicker.
We had a Plan B. Our friends Beth and Trevor had invited us on a group backpacking trip at Point Reyes National Seashore. If everything worked out, and the stars aligned, we figured that we could knock out the 25 miles in one day, camp for the night, hitch back to the car, and arrive at Point Reyes just in time for dinner.
The Lost Coast Trail lives up to its name. It follows the shore for 25 miles between Shelter Cove and Matole Beach (5miles from Petrolia). Essentially, it is in the middle of nowhere. The drive between the trailheads, is 2 hours. We arrived at the Shelter Cove Trailhead around 6 hoping that we could maybe hitch that night. Not a chance. Hitching from this sleepy coastal town, at the end of a dead end street, seemed next to impossible. We changed our plan to head north in the morning, and hitch in the other direction.
With a big 25 miles ahead of us, we wasted no time in the morning, and were walking on the black pebble beach by 645- not a bad way to start the morning! As we meandered up the trail, the coastal fog kept out the sun, but the temperatures were perfect. Sea lions barked at us from their rocky perches just off the beach. The pebbles changed to black sand, then grey sand, then tan sand. Later we walked over boulders the size of melons, and then onto smooth rocks that resembled the grey landscaping stone we used to have in the front yard around our bushes. The variety here was a amazing.
After following the beach for 7 or so miles, we walked up about 20 feet onto a coastal flat that was covered in dry grasses. It was nice to get out of the sand for a bit. One lucky family has a private in holding of land here in the park. They have a nice cabin tucked into the woods, and a personal landing strip that they maintain so that they do not have to walk in every time. A nice little set up if you ask me.
As we cruised through the grasses, I suddenly slammed on the brakes. No more than two feet in front of me was a rattlesnake basking in the sun. Both Barbara and I are a bit terrified of snakes. Quickly the little guy moved off of the trail and out of our way, but the damage was done. For the rest of the day, we walked extremely cautiously through grass- neither one of us really wanting to lead.
We made good time all morning, with the coastal fog slowly lifting. The tide was low at six, high at noon, and low at six again. In some places, at high tide, the trail is impassable, as waves would be crashing right up against the sheer rock that makes up some of this coast. Fortunately the stars aligned (or rather it is the moon, right?), and we were able to get up the trail without having to wait too much for the tides.
Eventually the trail came back off the grassland, and onto the beach. As we came down the hill, we could see the waves crashing into a wall of stone. This is one of the pinch points that we could not pass until the tide had gone out a bit. I decided to hike up the creek at the base of the wall, and get on top to see if we could get by.
Quickly I realized there was definitely no way to pass except by following the beach. But, if we timed our run just right, while the wave was receding back to the ocean, we could get around this rock wall, and onto the narrow beach on the other side. Barbara looked skeptical when I told her the plan, but once I started untieing my shoes, she followed suit.
“Ready….. One… Two… Three… GO!”
We started our barefooted sprint through the wet sand and made it safely around the corner before the next wave came crashing in. We perched ourselves on the narrow 10 foot wide beach, giggling and smiling at how much fun this place is. Looking down the coast further, it was obvious that this little game of racing the waves was going to go on for a while. Awesome! We wasted no time, laughing the whole way, beating most of the waves. Eventually the tide went down enough that we no longer had to play this game and so we put back our shoes and continued our beach hike.
About 22 miles into the hike, we came up to an old lighthouse- one of the most remote lighthouses on the entire west coast. Built in 1910, it served its purpose until 1940s. We climbed the very steep, narrow, winding staircase to the top and soaked in the view.
From here we rounded the bend (called Punta Gorda), and made our way through the extremely fine sand toward Matole Beach. We rolled in around 630, and quickly cooked and devoured our dinner. We had hoped that the hitching from Matole Beach would be easier than at Shelter Cove. The town of Petrolia was just 5 miles up the road, so we figured this place would have more traffic. A local who was camping for the night, told us otherwise.
“Are you from around here? This is a pretty remote part of California.
Hitching probably going to be pretty tough. Good luck.”
As we finished up dinner, a fellow named Paul came by and saw our packs. He said that if we didn’t want to pay for a campsite, we could share his- he was on a motorcycle, and had a big campsite with plenty of space. We took him up on his offer, as there didn’t seem to be any cars leaving the campground that night.
Paul was kind enough to share not only his space, but also his campfire. We warmed ourselves and chatted with him until our bottle of wine was empty. A great end to a solid day of walking
We woke up at six and quickly disassembled the dew covered tent, quietly slipping out of camp so as not to wake Paul. We decided that hitching from the end of a dead end road would be tough, so we walked the 5 miles up to the junction. Arriving around eight, we waited and waited and waited for our first hitch. It is very difficult to hitch when there are no cars going in your direction. Eventually, through a series of 3 hitches and 4 hours we were able to make it back to the car.
Word to the wise, do not try this hitch if you are going to the Lost Coast Trail- bring two cars and shuttle. It’s awfully remote, and there are some sketchy things going on in the area that make it unsafe for hitching. Trust us.
All in all, the Lost Coast lived up to its reputation- absolutely stunning!
Once at the car, it was onward to Point Reyes!
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