Lost and Found: Backpacking California's Lost Coast Trail

Alone along the sand and surf of California's Lost Coast.
Alone along the sand and surf of California's Lost Coast. Matt Palmer
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On the third morning along Northern California’s Lost Coast Trail, I awoke to discover large imprints in the sand just outside of camp. I followed the tracks down toward the surf line. There, kneeling in the wet zone left by the previous night’s high tide, the pad and claw marks proved unmistakable: Black Bear.

I stood and looked south, following the bear’s progression along the coastline. The tracks stretched out and eventually disappeared into a golden haze of dawn light, autumn hillsides, and salty ocean spray. Behind me, back at camp, tents unzipped and coffee water boiled. Besides the bear, and my companions, no other soul disturbed the morning for miles. I smiled. This was no ordinary trip to the beach.

Matt Palmer

My friends Matt and Mark and I ended up on the Lost Coast Trail somewhat by mistake. The California Coast was, in fact, the last place I would choose for a backpacking trip. Like most native Californians, I grew up making annual pilgrimages to the Pacific Ocean. I knew firsthand that from Fort Bragg to Santa Barbara the coastline contains a smattering of tourist villas, whale-watching pullouts, and an unparalleled amount of access points full of flip-flopped families huffing over the dunes with towels and chairs. While lively and fun, the California Coast never seemed very wild—and it always drew a crowd.

This fall would prove to be different. An early season snowstorm canceled our High Sierra trip and sent us scrambling to find an alternative location. In our search we stumbled across a description of the Lost Coast Trail. There was no other option.

Matt Palmer

A week later we entered the King Range Conservation Area and parked at the mouth of the Mattole River, the northern trailhead for the Lost Coast Trail.

Our vehicle sat alone in the parking lot. Here, the mighty King Range sweeps out of the foggy Pacific Ocean and forces Highway 1 thirty miles inland. The lack of highway access spares the adjacent sea-edge from campgrounds and crowds. Within the Conservation Area, popularly called the Lost Coast, over 42,000 acres of its core have been designated by Congress as official wilderness and is thus protected from further development and motorized intrusion.

Matt Palmer

The Lost Coast Trail runs through this wilderness section. We shouldered our packs, took a quick picture, and crossed onto the beach beneath blue October skies.

The first day found us bouncing back and forth between a snaking path along the coastal bluffs and trekking along the beach itself. The LCT is less of a trail, more of a route: From Mattole, the route runs south along the coastline and terminates twenty-five miles away at Shelter Cove. On our left, golden grassy hills climbed thousands of feet to the crest of the King Range. Here and there water trickled out of the mainland and nourished vertical stripes of green algae among tan cliffs. Further south, rushing creeks cut deep canyons through the range. On our right, the ocean dazzled and rolled: white foam mixed with green, blue, and turquoise.

Matt Palmer

As we would find over the next few days, hiking the LCT invoked a sense of wanderlust equally present in classic alpine wilderness areas or river canyons—an endless ‘what’s around the next corner’ sense of anticipation.

The narrow causeway between vertical continent and infinite ocean focused our attention onto the micro-landscape, and new discoveries lay behind every curve of the coastline: A sea otter, foraging among the wet rocks, that sprinted toward the surf at our approach. An abandoned lighthouse, the paint peeling from its red roof. White rocks, as big as houses, draped with the blubbery bodies of thousand-pound sea lions that bellowed into a pink evening sky.

Matt Palmer

The landscape continued to change as we journeyed south. Near the end of our trek the trail arrived at a large opening called Miller Flat. A quarter mile wide and several miles long, the flat looked like a sliver of African savannah plopped along the Pacific, complete with wavering grass, spiky chaparral, and dwarfed, flat-topped trees. We pushed a flock of meadowlarks down an old airstrip once used to smuggle drugs out of California.

On the last night, for a grand finale, we pitched our tents on a wide ledge above the beach and watched the autumn twilight dance across the ocean surface. Our cook stoves whispered with promises of a hot meal. The sun dropped in height and hue, from yellow to orange to deep red, and then slipped out of sight. An hour later, as an encore, two big October moons met on the watery horizon: one real, one a reflection. The moons shimmered like a mirage, merged into one, and disappeared.

Matt Palmer

The Lost Coast Trail has forever changed my perception of not only the California Coast, but also what a wilderness backpack trip can be. Until that point I thought that wilderness only existed above 7,000 feet or hidden within deep river canyons. I was wrong. Over those four days we saw more bear tracks than people, passed more coastal cliffs than crowds, and heard only the cry of seabirds. Sometimes, the best backpacking trips occur in places you least expect to find them.

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