Lost Coast Backpacking Guide & Journal: Hiking Mattole to Black Sands Beach
When I had first heard of the Lost Coast, I’d heard it from a surfer’s mouth, picturing long beaches and riders on sea pipelines. But this is not bikini weather, but where the King Range National Conservation Area spills out into the sea, rough oceans form robust waves, and create some of the most beautiful landscapes in California.
The Lost Coast is not a misnomer: highways avoid it while a few low-quality roads reach this place, giving the twenty-five-mile stretch of beaches and cliffs a solid sense of isolation. In the three days my friends and I spent on the trail of the Northern Section, from Mattole to Black Sands Beach, we often walked barefoot beneath the wild Californian landscape.
The Lost Coast is more a game of planning and preparation than anything else. We have broken it up for you to cover your ground and check some necessary boxes.
If you want to skip to my personal journal/experience hiking the trail, click to jump to that section below.
- The Hard Facts. The most basic info on the route.
- When to Go. There is peak season and the offseason, but newer rules lead to our next section…
- Permits. Plan in advance!
- Difficulty. And how the trail rates for any previous dispositions.
- Doggos and Puppers. If you can even bring the little bud with you.
- Which Way to Hike. Go with the wind.
- Beware the Intertidal Zone. Check your tides.
- Surfing the Lost Coast. The mystique of chasing waves after a hike in.
- Sights on the Lost Coast. What you'll come across on the trail.
- Water Sources. Freshwater streams all along the route.
- Fires. Most likely a “no.”
- Northern Californian Flora and Fauna. The usual suspects.
- Bear Canisters. More essential than you’d think.
- Lost Coast Shuttles. A few services to move you between trailheads.
- Our Itinerary. Our personal triumphs and tragedies.
- What to Pack for the Lost Coast. Some of our good ideas.
- Additional Information.
The Hard Facts
The trek of the Northern Section runs 24.6 miles (39.6 kilometers) from the Mattole Trailhead to the Black Sands Beach Trailhead. While there is a Southern Section loop in the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, the Northern Section stands as the most popular, with more trail on the beach and having no elevation gain at sea level.
You’ll need about 2-4 days on the trail, depending on how fast you want to hustle through it. A three-day, two-night trip seems to be the perfect amount, so you can cover some ground yet relax and enjoy the scenery.
The trail is also a point-to-point trail, meaning your entrance and exit are very far away. There are shuttles that bring people from Black Sands Beach at Shelter Cove (the southern trailhead) to Mattole (the northern trailhead). Or you can bring two cars to act as your own shuttle between points.
Finally, you need bear canisters. They tend to be sparse in the area, but the Bureau of Land Management requires every group to carry one, just in case. You can pick them up at an REI or your local outdoor store or rent them from nearby places in Mendocino County.
When to Go
Being on the Northern California Coast, the offseason is cold and rainy though the trail is on the beach. April to October are frequently recommended, but months like May and September are great to get some sun and beat most crowds that are shooting for summer months.
Northern California is not known much for casual swimming. We did dip in a few times after long days (“showering,” if you will) but the water temperature is consistently just over 50°F. Furthermore, bring layers for warmer days but colder nights.
What to Pack for the Lost Coast
- Layers. Pack for warm days and cold nights.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses, as there is not a lot of tree cover on the trail.
- Bring camp shoes (i.e. flip flops) so your dogs can get out of those sandy and salty boots.
- A tarp to keep your tent clean from sand.
- And, of course, bear canisters.
- A cozy blanket and packable camping pillow.
- Check out our 10 Backpacking Essentials for more tips on what to pack on your trip to the Lost Coast!
Lost Coast Trail Permits
Our first trip was in 2015, when all you had to do was pick up your permit at the trailhead and tie it to your pack before heading out. But since 2017, the Bureau of Land Management requires reservations, permits, and a small fee.
At peak season, from May 15th to September 15th, they allow 60 entries a day, while the rest of the year the allow 30 per day. Unfortunately, this really can’t be a trip you do on the fly, so be prepared to plan this one out.
Permits cost $6 per group but being so popular, you really have to book your calendar out. Permits are available October 1st for the upcoming year.
Difficulty – Moderate
If you’ve walked on sand before, a lot of the Lost Coast is not too difficult. Your average step is a little slower as it sinks into the sand, which can be tiresome. Occasionally, the trail rises on coastal cliffs and buttes just above the beach, which are standard trails with some hills (but no elevation gain!).
However, parts of the trail on the beach come right under cliffs and onto stony beaches. The smooth, sliding rocks can range from the size of a football down to a pebble, which makes for a less steady path. We had to choose our steps, careful not to roll our ankles.
I had messed up my right knee from running at the time and, after a long day on the rocks, my knee began to seize up, requiring a lot of stretching at camp. If you have bad hips, knees, or ankles, the rockier parts of the beach can be very difficult and injurious to your joints.
In addition to the rocky beaches, the ledges and small drops rise out of the sand, leaving you to scrabble over uneven rocks and down some sliding slopes. Ultimately, they are not too difficult to climb over, but they change your stroll on the beach to a bit of a challenge.
We don’t want to discourage you; on most sections of the beach we took our shoes off and walked barefoot in the surf for several miles. While we had to lace up for some trickier sections, the miles in the seafoam really make this trip particularly special to the Lost Coast.
Doggos and Puppers
Some of our dogs love the surf and playing on the beach. However, if you’re walking almost twenty-five miles, the sand and small rocks are not great for your dogs’ paws. You can bring little paw booties, but ultimately it’s recommended that you leave your beloved best friend at home for this trek.
Which Way to Hike
You can go Black Sands to Mattole (south to north) but there is a reason we’ve titled this Mattole to Black Sands Beach: wind direction. Usually the wind moves southeast, coming down from a cold north along the coast. It is a little more popular to go from north to south but if you’re really trying to change it up, many people head the opposite direction as well.
We actually hit this one by chance, going north to south, on a whim. It paid off because we had the wind at our backs the entire time with a little push forward. Also, if the wind speed were to pick up, you would not want sand whipping up into your face.
Beware the Intertidal Zone
While we nailed the route direction with the wind perfectly, we did not check our tides. After a few miles into the first day, after the Punta Gorda lighthouse, the trail dips down to the beach next to a sign that warns you of the tides taking over the trail.
There are almost ten miles of “impassable zones” along the trail, where tides rise up over the beaches up to the base of the cliffs. We were bold or stupid, trying to beat the tides. We ran from cove to cove in the early parts of the tides, playing chicken in the waves like kids.
Eventually, we were all soaked. My knee began to act up from the running and, in an effort to scrabble through a small cliff alcove, a breaker soaked me from the waist down. I spent the rest of the day trudging to camp.
We don’t recommend doing any of that. However, we recommend timing your tides with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Tide Predictions Chart. This way you can time your day around the impassable zones and stay dry.
Surfing the Lost Coast
There are not a lot of swimmers up north past the Bay Area. But there is a sort of glory to backpacking your board in several miles to reach the surf. While we didn’t ride any waves, you can read up on surfing the Lost Coast via National Geographic or go more in depth with Teton Gravity Research.
Sights on the Lost Coast
The Lost Coast, as mentioned, is untouched by nearby highways. There is a sense of solitude and being “out there.” A lot of wreckage from ships and ruins from houses adorn the coast in an eerie but charming way.
The Punta Gorda lighthouse is a short derelict beacon that you come across in your first hour on the trail. It’s been long abandoned, but you can climb up the old stairs and peek up and down the coast.
Driftwood shelters are more common in the middle of the trail, as the beach widens and flattens out (not in the impassible zone). You’re not allowed to make your own fort or add to an existing one, but you can camp in or near one for wind shelter.
Fortunately, this one is very easy. The Lost Coast trail runs with the ocean on one side and many rivers on the other. There are over half a dozen freshwater sources coming down from the hills.
Always bring a freshwater filter and remember to check upstream a little way to see where you’re filtering from or what may be trickling down in the water that you’re about to drink.
During fire season, fires are strictly not permitted, not even on the beach. If you camp in one of the four designated campsites that you have to pay for, they come with fire rings that you can use year-round.
But, when it is not fire season (from offseason to very early peak season), you can have fires on the beach to warm up in the nights and mornings. Remember to pack it out and leave no trace for the next group that comes along.
Northern Californian Flora and Fauna
There are some typical characters on the Lost Coast to be wary of on your journey. While everyone supposes the trail runs solely on beach, the trail meanders on open, grassy meadows above the waves and next to freshwater streams that house some Northern Californian regulars.
When near rivers or any greenery, keep an eye out for poison oak. It’s not entirely prevalent, but if you choose to bring your dog, make sure it doesn’t go diving in the stuff to bring back to you.
Long stalks of tall, dead grass populate some of the meadows, which means ticks. Make sure you stay on the trail and even check yourself after a long day for any of these little burrowing bugs. Also, in dryer parts, lurk rattlesnakes. Good rule of thumb: stay on the trail.
On the beach, Northern Elephant Seals spend most of their days soaking up sun. They are lazy and blubbery, but, like any wild animal, don’t go anywhere near these guys.
If you’ve been camping in Northern California, these things won’t shock you. Nor do the presence of bears. While people can go many trips without seeing one, it only takes one time of seeing one to really make you prepare around them. (Remember to bring your bear canister!)
Simply slinging your food up won’t do. Besides being a requirement, bear canisters are a good idea for food storage and protection from other critters in the future. Place your food, toiletries, and trash into the canister and wedge it under a log or some rocks far away from your site before you call it a night.
You can pick one up at any local outdoors store (REI, Next Adventure, etc.) or rent from these nearby places:
King Range NCA Project Office
768 Shelter Cove Road, Whitehorn
Hours: Mon-Fri, 8:00am-4:30pm
BLM Arcata Field Office
1695 Heindon Road, Arcata
Hours: Mon-Fri, 7:45am-4:30pm
Petrolia General Store
40 Sherman Avenue, Petrolia
Hours: Mon-Sat, 9:00am-5:00pm; Sun, 11:00am to 4:30pm
Lost Coast Adventure Tours
210 Wave Drive, Whitehorn
Office Hours: Mon-Fri, 10:00am-2:00pm
Lost Coast Shuttles
When we went, we brought two cars to establish a shuttle between the two trailheads. The road, while short, can take about ninety minutes to two hours to navigate.
While some offer group discounts, shuttles can be expensive. In the end, it was cheaper for us to bring two cars and pay for that gas instead of paying for three seats in a shuttle, though it may have been a little more time-consuming.
If you only have one car, try one of the Lost Coast shuttle services that run from Shelter Cove at Black Sands Beach north to Mattole:
Lost Coast Adventure Tours
210 Wave Drive, Whitehorn
Office Hours: Mon-Fri, 10:00am-2:00pm
Bill’s Lost Coast Shuttle
Shelter Cove, CA
Mendo Insider Tours and Transportation
If you’re looking for a place to stay at the beginning or end of your trip (or just dying to stay out of the city one more night), there are several options near Shelter Cove. Nadelos Campground and Wailaki Campground are both fifteen minutes from Shelter Cove. Nadelos has eight sites with reservations, while Wailaki has thirteen and is first-come, first-served. Both are $8 per night.
A little further out from the southern trailhead is the Tolkan Campground, providing a little solitude at $8 per night.
Near the northern trailhead is the Mattole Campground, located near the trailhead. Also first-come, first-served at $8 per night.
Prep Day: Local Brewing Co. and REI
Before our trip even started, we met at a brewery in San Francisco to discuss the route, which way to go, who would be driving, where we’d stay, etc. The only thing we neglected was the tide charts, which would come to bite us in the ass later. We settled on three days and two nights, giving us ample time to hike eight or so miles a day in the morning and early afternoon and then relaxing into the night.
We then went to our local outdoor store, the downtown REI on Brannan Street. We bought a bear canister and our freeze-dried meals before heading home to pack up.
Travel Day: San Francisco to Nadelos Campground
Our trip began on Friday of Labor Day weekend. We waited out the traffic, eating burritos in the last days of summer. We hit the road about 6:30pm and drove the four hours to Nadelos Campground, just fifteen minutes from the Black Sands Beach trailhead at Shelter Cove. While our friends in the city were going out and drinking in the summer air, we were setting up camp in the dark, in what seemed like a loss. I had planned the trip, and told my friends reassuringly that every mile would be worth it.
We pitched the tent, crawled in our bags, then passed out.
Day One: Mattole Trailhead to Kinsey Creek
We woke early Saturday morning, ate a quick bowl of oatmeal without much conversation, and went to Shelter Cove. We were able to park in the neighborhood easily before jumping in the other car.
We took King’s Peak Road to Wilder Ridge Road to Mattole Road before coming to Petrolia, our last civilized stop. We stocked up at the general store on junk food—quick, cheap calories for energy—then arrived at Mattole Trailhead.
The trail opened up on the bluffs beside the sea. The sand crunched softly beneath our boots. To the left we had the Californian hills, to the right we had the Pacific. We spent much of the first day this way, admiring the meeting point of two great natural forces.
The first checkpoint we came across was the Punta Gorda Lighthouse, extinguished but beckoning us in the distance. It was abandoned, of course, and we climbed through to the top, reveling in its eerie charm.
I had not planned the trip quite as well as I’d thought. At a point on the trail, the tides rise up on the cliffs and make the trail on the beach difficult to hike. A group of four ahead of us decided to wait it out, which would be into the evening. We were impatient. We ran for it.
We spent the next three to four miles along the base of the cliffs, running from waves when we had to, walking leisurely when there was a long break. Eventually the ocean soaked us from not running fast enough with heavy backpacks, and a wave took me by surprise and doused me entirely. We were foolish, but we laughed with the sun setting and our feet swimming in our boots. But our ill-advised sprint had a payoff: we camped alone on a beach between two impassible zones, trapped for the night on an ideal spot, near Kinsey Creek.
Day Two: Kinsey Creek to Buck Creek
On the second day, we went barefoot in the sand. We had not planned that the wind would push us south, helping us hike even farther on the second day. We passed a large, flat beach where people had set up driftwood forts for wind protection or even to sleep in. The ramshackle huts on dark sand were enticing, but ultimately, we wanted to camp alone.
We spent our breaks crawling through abandoned homes, wondering who lived there. The “lost” aspect gives this place a lot of magic. While there is highways and businesses along the rest of California, this place seems largely untouched.
That night we soaked in the river of Buck Creek campground, a fresh water creek that fed into the ocean and watched the sunset again. We elected to sleep without a rain fly, so we could see the stars through the mesh ceiling of our tent.
Day Three: Buck Creek to Black Sands Beach
The next day, Labor Day itself, we woke early and hiked the last few miles in the morning mist. Our trip was only three days on the trail, but it gave us some of the best moments we had experienced in any Californian wilderness. After scrabbled on some large stones beneath a cliff, the trail mellowed out to a final obsidian stretch on Black Sands Beach.
On the road back home, we took Highway 1 southbound to North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg for a few victory beers and actual food.
Bureau of Land Management
Arcata Field Office
1695 Heindon Road
Arcata, CA 95521-4573 2
King Range National Conservation Area
PO Box 189
768 Shelter Cove Road
Whitethorn, CA 95589