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Hike the Lost Coast Trail: Why the LCT is So Special

The main portion of the Lost Coast Trail runs for 24 miles from Mattole Beach to Shelter Cove along the headlands of the King Range National Conservation Area in Northern California. This rugged landscape earned its name when the state’s famous Highway 1 had to be routed inland to avoid the steep cliffs and desolate nature of this coastline, resulting in still largely wild coastal landscape.

Kenna Sarae      Trip Report       9/10/2020
Kenna Sarae
Trip Report
9/10/2020

The Trail

As one of the (if not the) only true coastal wilderness experiences in the contiguous United States, the Lost Coast Trail is unparalleled in its magic. The trail itself never strays more than a hundred or so yards from the shore, when it’s not just traversing the rocky beach. This lends to days of endless views overlooking the ocean, whale watching, and catching sunsets on the ocean horizon. Dispersed camping is abundant, and hikers get to spend their nights on bluffs, below waterfalls, and on the beach itself. The Lost Coast is on Sinkyone and Mattole native land (1).

Photo by Kenna Sarae

The Experience

The abundance of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife is in many ways a time capsule of preindustrial California. Deers, coyotes, and black bears all brave the steep cliff sides and often explore the rocky beaches for food before disappearing back up narrow creek valleys. In the right season, elephant seals use this section of coast as a migratory resting space and can be seen fighting for a warmer spot in the rookery on the beach or on nearby rocks. Migrations of humpback and other whales are abundant in the summer as they swim south for winter. (On my first trip on the LCT I was lucky enough to hike the entire day alongside a humpback whale, so now I only hike the trail southbound in hope of it happening again!)

The Lost Coast Trail is subject to dramatic tidal changes (hiking has to be planned around high tides to avoid impassable sections), which means a treasure trove of benthic creatures are left on the shore twice a day. Low tide exposes tide pools full of pink and purple urchins, red and orange sea stars, sea cucumbers, and crabs of every size. High tide leaves beautiful ribbons of colorful kelp, crab shells, urchin skeletons, and since passed sea stars along the shore.

Photos by Kenna Sarae

June to August the trail is engulfed in California’s famous fog, with periodic sunshine exposing the turquoise water.

Water is abundant on the Lost Coast Trail, making it feel much like a Pacific Northwest fairytale. In springtime, the hills are a bright green and bursting with wild flowers, and every drainage out of the mountains is flowing, many of which create beautiful waterfalls off of the dramatic cliffs or seeping out of rocks. Once the hills turn golden in summer, there is rarely a stretch of more than a mile or two without a clean, flowing water source. June to August the trail is engulfed in California’s famous fog, with periodic sunshine exposing the turquoise water. The near-flat nature of the trail can make it accessible to less experienced hikers. There are, however, significant stretches of beach walking. The beaches of the Lost Coast are primarily mid- to large- sized rocks, which can make the going difficult for folks with bad knees or ankles.

As such, the LCT is a year-round trail. Limited permits are distributed, which, in combination with the abundant dispersed camping, means a relatively remote, quiet experience. I have hiked the trail multiple times, in multiple seasons, and keep coming back to its shores again and again. The Lost Coast Trail is unmatched by any other trail I’ve hiked.


Permits on the Lost Coast Trail

Wilderness permits are required to hike the Lost Coast Trail and are distributed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They are free but include a $6 processing fee. Permits for the following year open in October (2021 permits will be available October 1, 2020) – reservations are typically made very early, so it’s worth planning your trip far in advance. With smaller groups, you can sometimes have good luck with a last minute trip as other party’s plans change and permits become intermittently available. 

(1) Native Lands App – https://native-land.ca

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Showers Lake Vista, Tahoe Rim Trail
Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association
A lake reflects a nearby wildflower meadow and trees.
Showers Lake Vista, Tahoe Rim Trail
Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Trail guides that get you to places you’ve dreamed of.

As the makers of Guthook Guides, Bikepacking Guides, and Cyclewayz, we help you navigate the most popular trails around the world on your smartphone. Our hiking guides and biking guides work completely offline. Let Guthook guide your next adventure!

Download our popular hiking and biking guides!
About the Author

Kenna Sarae

Kenna-Sarae grew up in Northern California visiting her grandmother’s cabins along the PCT, which helped catalyze her love for the outdoors and interest in backpacking. She is particularly passionate about the intersection between sustainability and outdoor recreation, connecting with womxn and communities that have been historically underrepresented in outdoor spaces, and pesto pasta. You’re likely to find her having an impromptu dance party with her pup, whether it’s while backpacking, climbing, mountain biking, or just on the side of the road. Kenna-Sarae also collected the data for our Lost Coast Trail guide!