The Lost Coast Trail

Posted by Ryan C. Jerz on November 16, 2018

This is a trip that has long been in my sights, but more importantly, in Chad Hartley's sights. He has been talking to me about it for a few years. He has attempted it once, and ran into crappy weather while also having the option to turn back (something we'll get to later), so he did. But the desire to complete it never left, and I always wanted to take a run at it, so we did.

For some background, here is the Wikipedia entry on the Lost Coast. In short, it's the most secluded part of the California coast, basically inaccessible by road, and incredibly beautiful.

That secluded, inaccessible part of the description is important, though. What it means is this: you either drive two cars down there and park one at the end before trekking up to the start, or you have to pay for a shuttle service to drive you one way or the other. The most logical thing to do would be to park at the end and shuttle to the beginning. That's what we did. The shuttle ride is about 90 minutes on windy mountain roads and through the heart of Humboldt County. That means when you do it in early November you get the added bonus of smelling a lot of weed being cut. I have no idea how much of what we saw was legal or illegal, but I definitely understand how it can be hidden, as that part of the world is secluded and provides plenty of cover.

The 90-minute ride does nothing to quell the onset of anxiety, if you get that. I do on these types of trips. Part of why I do them is to overcome it in preparation for another possible attempt on Denali, where I had terrible days as a result of anxiety. You have a long time to sit and think about how you'll be dropped off in an area with no cell service and no real way out except walking the 25 miles to the other end.

When we arrived at the trailhead, the driver was unloading our packs and remarked that mine felt wet on the bottom. He was right. I started digging through because the bottom was where I keep my sleeping bag. If a water bottle had leaked and soaked my sleeping bag, things would be pretty shitty for me. As I was digging through, the driver said goodbye to my companions and left. I was slightly panicked because I didn't actually know yet whether I was in bad shape. Luckily, I was not, but the brief panic was not exactly helpful. Fortunately, it was probably just the left over of some water that had spilled on the van carpet before we had left. I was fine, and we got on our way.

The cast of characters on this trip were as follows:

  • Me, a moderately experienced backpacker and camper with a history of lugging too much extra weight on trips for fear of forgetting one ultimately inconsequential thing
  • The aforementioned Chad Hartley, who had been working on finding the time for this trip for a few years
  • Bob, a friend of Chad's brother-in-law who was a pretty experienced backpacker and marathoner, and also a talented camp cook

Not making it was Chad's brother-in-law, Greg, who had a last minute (like, morning we were supposed to leave) emergency at his house that kept him home. The three of us were pretty confident in the plan, and excited to get out and see what we'd only heard was a pretty amazing trek.

The plan included three or four days, depending on how fast we were. Because we'd have to walk on beach sand for a great portion of the hike, we really didn't know what kind of time it would take. So, we laid out two potential itineraries. At the outset, it became clear that we'd only need the shorter option. The stopping points lined up in areas that we knew we'd make and made sense with the tide schedules we would have to heed in order to pass at a couple of locations.

That itinerary:

  • Day one -- trailhead at Mattole Beach to Sea Lion Gulch -- only about five miles, but we didn't get on the trail until 2:30 and sunset was in the 5:30 range, so a short day was necessary
  • Day two -- Sea Lion Gulch to Miller Flat -- a 12-mile day that we were thinking about extending if the timing was right, which would have made it 16 and past one of the tide zones while making day 3 much shorter, but the plan was Miller Flat
  • Day three -- Miller Flat to the finish at Black Sands Beach -- This was eight miles of almost entirely beach sand walking, which is why shortening it was a possibility

Day One -- Mattole Beach to See Lion Gulch

Right off the bat, you walk for about a mile on sand. It's fine for this because you just started and you're feeling great. Also, it's immediately beautiful. The water is crashing to your right and the sun this time of year hangs low reflecting off the ocean giving you a perpetual feel of an imminent sunset. It's great, but make sure you sunscreen your face up.

Two and a half miles into the hike, you reach a couple of buildings. Yup, someone lives there, in probably one of the most secluded beach properties that exists, certainly in California, a guy named John lives full time. We were told about John by the shuttle driver, who said he's a really nice guy who just likes his own company. We didn't see him, or really any sign that he was there at the time. You reach the house after rounding a small bend that brings the Punta Gorda lighthouse into view.

The lighthouse is another mile or so from John's place, but clearly visible, making that spot all the more cool. As we approached the lighthouse, we saw that there was someone there. A single guy with a pack and some other items was hanging out. He said he'd be hanging there for the day so we probably wouldn't see him up ahead at all. We messed around at the light house for a few minutes then moved on.

After the lighthouse, you get your first taste of an elevated view. Some cliffs overlooking the ocean become your path, and you walk on a trail about 50 feet above the shoreline. This makes life much easier than walking along the beach, and would become a welcome respite from the arduous task of navigating rocks and sand at parts all along the trail. Before long (another 1.2 miles) we were at Sea Lion Gulch. We set down and explored a bit. Bob looked for wood to build a fire, but was unlucky in that most of what was usable was too difficult to carry back. We looked down the path a ways and notice what appeared to be a structure in the distance. We talked about trying instead to reach that, making tomorrow's trip a bit shorter, and decided against it due to the walk along the beach looking a bit tight with the tide and not really being able to gauge the distance and time it would take to reach.

Within a half hour, three hikers came by and we talked for a minute. They decided to continue on to that same spot on account of having plenty of daylight to use up. We watched them go and realized what looked tight on the beach was not really much of a danger. They got to the spot about a half hour later and we were bummed we hadn't made the call to go on. No big deal, though, and we settled in for the night. I had a beer and some Southern Comfort to drink and Bob had some Japanese whiskey. That was good.

Day two -- Sea Lion Gulch to Miller Flat

We had all agreed to take our time on the trip, so waking up around 8:00 was great. After lounging around and packing up, we hit the trail at 10:00 expecting to hike for around six hours to Miller Flat. Within the hour, we made it to the old structure that had served as a camp for the three guys we saw the day before. It was an excellent spot to stay, with flat areas that we were jealous of.

There are plenty of creeks that run into the ocean on this trail. The named ones are larger and tended to be running healthily, while the smaller ones were dry. But they did create crossings that could be difficult to navigate when we were in an elevated spot on the trail. We ran into one of these after climbing out of one creek crossing and following what looked like the trail, staying on top of the bluff. After a quarter mile or so, we came to another creek crossing and hit a dead end. So, we doubled back and realized we should have dropped to the beach at the last crossing. Once we figured it out, it was no big deal, but it always sucks to have to redo parts of the trail.

As the day went on, we crossed creeks and kept an eye on where we were along the trail. We were spread out for a long portion of the first half, and got together every hour or so to have water, fill up at a creek, and discuss what was coming up. We had decided to pass Spanish Flat and stop at Oat Creek to fill up on water. We got to Oat Creek at about 2:00. It marked roughly the halfway point of the total hike. I immediately crossed the creek and stopped on the south side. Chad and Bob stayed on the north side. It was a lovely little spot -- shaded and cool. It had been a lot hotter than we had anticipated with the sun both shining down on us and reflecting off the water almost the entire day.

After a break I was packing up and getting ready to head out. I looked up to see Chad falling almost stiffly backward. As he got closer to the ground he bent at the hips and landed on his backside, whipping his head back and smashing it into a rock. I immediately yelled "holy shit!" which alerted Bob. Chad sat up and was totally dazed. He then reached back and had blood all over his hand. Bob was on it and had a first aid kit out quickly. I bounced back across the creek to help out. There was a lot of blood, and my stomach sank. Here we were, halfway done with the hike, equally distant from the start and finish, with no cell service and no way to contact anyone. Even if we had gone back in the direction that we knew was safe and easy, we had no car to get to. That was at the finish. Chad was bleeding, and he had hit hard, so we knew there would likely be a concussion.

We worked as well as we could cleaning up Chad's head. Bob had plenty of gauze pads, so we held them on until the bleeding stopped. Then we wrapped his head using a scarf Bob carried with him. We had the wound covered, but over the course of about 15 minutes, we witnessed Chad actually lose his memory. He had immediately explained that he bent down to put something in his pack, then stood up quickly and got lightheaded. That's what caused the fall. Only now, he was asking what had happened. He also repeated every couple of minutes that he was having short term memory problems and asking us if we knew what had happened to him. It was pretty scary.

Meanwhile, Bob thought he might be able to get a text out, so he was scrambling back toward Spanish Flat to see if it would work. It didn't. I tried the emergency feature on my phone (press the side button five times) because I thought I had heard it could work even without cell range. I either heard wrong or didn't hear, because it didn't work. So, we regrouped and asked Chad questions. He did know where we were, but not specifically. He still didn't remember what had happened. By this time, it was about 30 minutes after the fall. Our only real choice was to keep walking. One way or another, we had to get to where we could either make a call or reach the car.

The shuttle driver had told us that at Big Flat or Big Creek (we couldn't remember which) there would be a tiny bit of service for a non-AT&T user. Chad and I both use AT&T, but Bob was a Verizon guy, so that was encouraging. We were able to get Chad on his feet and walk a bit down the road and back to make sure he was steady before crossing the creek. In the time we had been stopped, he went through about two liters of water. We insisted that he drink all he could possibly fit into his body while he sat. Once we saw he was steady enough to cross, Bob helped him across. Bob and I divided up what we could from Chad's pack to lighten his load, and Bob and refilled all of our water while Chad and I started slowly down the trail.

Within a half hour, Chad was remarking that he felt much better than he had all day. His head was hurt where it was cut, but no headache and no nausea, which we learned later was a very good sign for a concussion. Bob caught us as we hit Big Creek, which cut a line deep into a valley back toward the King Range. When I looked at it, I knew that would be the place we'd get a cell signal, and it was. We were able to text a wilderness certified doctor that Chad knows, and he told us that, yes, Chad definitely had a concussion, but without vomiting and headache, he was fine to go to sleep for the night. Prior to that, we thought we may have to hike all the way out to get Chad some medical attention. Hearing that he would be fine was a huge relief.

Now we just had to get to Miller Flat. Big Creek was still a three mile hike from Miller Flat, so we had to move. The sun was beginning to make itself scarce at this point. We crossed Big Flat, which houses an airstrip and a small compound with two houses. There were lights on in the house, which took us by surprise. We were feeling pretty good at this point. After the interminably long airstrip, which is essentially the trail in that section, we hit Big Flat Creek (a different one than Big Creek). It marks the end of Big Flat and the beginning of Miller Flat. We debated whether to cross to camp or stay on this side. I realized that I have an aversion to not crossing the creek when we get to it, so I pushed for us to cross. We did, and were rewarded.

Beautiful camping spots close to the creek were awaiting, and we put in for the night. It was already dark, so we set up quickly and ate. Chad was banned from having any whiskey, so Bob and I made sure to drink enough for him. We made sure Chad was still feeling fine and rewrapped his head. The uneventful rest of the evening was welcome.

Day 3 -- Miller Flat to Black Sands Beach

Knowing we had a pretty tough stretch of hiking ahead of us, we woke up a bit earlier than the day before. We wanted to be at the impassable tide zone just after high tide so that we could time our crossing as efficiently as possible. After a quick breakfast and packing up, off we went to cross Miller Flat and head to the beach for a long, final walk across sand and rock to the finish.

We got to the impassable zone about 30 minutes after high tide, which is what we had planned. It was still impassable, as far as we could tell. After climbing down from the trail to the beach area, we were able to get a few hundred yards before we reached a small rock outcropping that jutted into the ocean. We'd have to wait here for a bit.

After 15 minutes passed, the tide didn't seem to be going out much, if at all. I decided that I would take my pack off and move quickly from our spot to a rock about 60 feet away to see what came next. I got wet. But it wasn't bad. I was standing on the rock and saw that we only had another 20 feet or so before we had some dry beach for a hundred yards or so. I reported back, and we planned to take it on one at a time.

This scenario played out a couple more times before we were past the worst of the tidal zones (and perhaps the tide went out a bit more) until we hit Shipman Creek and were on sandy beach for what looked like miles. It looked like miles because it was miles. The slog was real. We were moving at about 2.5 miles per hour, which is a good pace, but it felt like a real effort just to keep that up. Mitchell Creek was next, about four miles from Miller Flat, and past halfway for the day. Once we crossed there, it was the home stretch. We could see the houses in Shelter Cove that dotted the hillside. The shuttle driver had warned us that we would see them early, and not to think you were almost done until you hit Split Rock (it's called Split Rock because it's split in two and you walk through it) where you'd be less than two miles from the finish.

The sandy beach was frustrating for me. I eventually put in my headphones and listened to a podcast just to give my mind something to do other than stew over the tough terrain. It was marginally helpful. In retrospect, I should have just enjoyed the last of the beach sounds I would get, but I struggle with understanding that sort of thing. Eventually, I could see Split Rock ahead, probably about a mile off. We rested there and got psyched for the final stretch.

It turns out that Split Rock is only about a mile and a half from the finish. That was a welcome development. I was wearing down and ready to be finished with this. Don't get me wrong; it was a wonderful and beautiful trip, but I was worn out with the previous day's adventures and the difficulty of the sand. To top it off, a foot injury I had from running was flaring up and made it a bit more painful than it should have been to simply walk. So, yeah, I was done.

We reached the end and headed to the car. We enjoyed a beer and drove into Shelter Cove to eat at a brewery there. It turns out the brewery is great. The burger was good, and they had eight or nine of their own beers on tap, which took us by surprise in a town so secluded from everything else in northern California. After enjoying a beer and burger, we went to Garberville to get Chad checked out at the hospital before deciding we should just push through to home instead of staying somewhere else for the night. Nothing felt better than sleeping in my own bed that night.