Archive for September, 2011

Hiking California’s Lost Coast

On Friday, I drove from Seattle to the tiny town of Shelter Cove, California, to hike the Lost Coast trail with my sister and brother-in-law.

Before this trip, the furthest north I had been in California was San Francisco, and the furthest south I had been in Oregon was Portland.

That leaves more than 600 miles of uncharted territory in between, and the part that I saw turned out to be eminently likeable: dotted with charming little towns, pleasingly kitschy tourist attractions, towering redwoods, and rugged coastline.

The drive was uneventful, though near the California border I briefly considered picking up two hitchhikers. They looked so much like harmless hipster backpackers that I felt sure they wouldn’t murder me. Plus, dusk was falling and I would have liked company for the foggy, hilly roads I expected to encounter ahead, but the taboo against picking up hitchhikers as a woman driving alone was too strong and I drove by.

I met my hiking companions at the Inn at the Lost Coast in Shelter Cove, which was spacious, clean, comfortable, and affordable. Located on bluffs above the ocean, it has great views. As a bonus, it has a clean and fully functional hot tub and a cheerful espresso bar.

Our cell phones didn’t work in Shelter Cove or anywhere along the trail, though we were told that U.S. Cellular has service in the area.

Day 1: Mattole Beach to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse

We planned to hike the 24 or 25-mile trail from north to south, so we set off in the morning for Mattole Beach, about an hour and a half’s drive north over steep and winding roads. We stopped in tiny Petrolia to rent bear canisters and headed to the trailhead.

On the first day, it was foggy, with a strong wind blowing from the south. The forecast had called for rain the next day, but as it turned out, the rain came through earlier, in the middle of the night, and had cleared by morning. We enjoyed blue skies and sun for the rest of the trip, winding up with lopsided sunburns because the sun was mostly to our right as we headed south down the coast.

hiking to the lighthouse

We had only planned to go the Punta Gorda lighthouse, about three miles, the first day. I had thought the lighthouse itself might be a nice place to sleep, but it wasn’t especially inviting, though I could imagine it being a welcome shelter in really wet or windy weather. We decided to keep walking until we found a campsite we liked, which happened at the first creek past the Lighthouse. The tide was low, so we spent some time exploring the tide pools, and then set up camp in a driftwood shelter that nicely blocked the wind from the south.

drying out after night-time rain

Black bears are supposed to be common in the area; hence, the requirement of carrying bear canisters. My sister shares my fear of bears, so we set up our tents side by side, planning to sleep with our heads towards the shelter (our “bearicade,” tm my sister). This way, we reasoned, a bear would have to approach us from the foot-end of our tents, eliminating the most terrifying of bear-related possibilities: hearing a bear snuffle around your head in the middle of the night, or tearing into the tent to grab you by the shoulders.

In other bear-related precautions, we used our bear canisters scrupulously—putting everything scented into them and placing them a healthy distance from our tents both nights. We saw no signs of bears other than some old footprints and scat, but as we later found out, not everyone was so lucky.

The most excitement the first evening came when we saw three hikers start to climb uphill from the beach not far from our campsite. At first, we thought they were backpackers headed for a secret camp spot they knew of, but they seemed to be having trouble and were moving slowly. Examining them with our binoculars, we discovered that each had a rifle, and we eventually guessed that they were hunting deer, though we never saw them take a shot.

Though we later learned that it was probably perfectly legal, it was a bit unnerving to have three men with rifles positioned on a hill above our campsite, occasionally scoping us out with their binoculars in return for our scrutiny. Plus, I was a little nervous about what would happen if they shot something—would they take the head and leave the body for bears or mountain lions to come investigate during the night? So, we were glad when darkness—it was almost a new moon—finally forced them to retreat the way they had come.

Day 2: Punta Gorda Lighthouse to Big Flat

The wind blew and the rain fell hard during the night, but it was calm by 7:00 the next morning, and sunny weather was pushing out the fog and clouds.

We packed up and hiked about a mile on overland trails amid humid clouds of lemony scent from some unfamiliar plant, before hitting the first section of trail marked on our map as impassable at high tide.

hiking during the outgoing tide

About 30 minutes after high tide we set out, occasionally dodging waves and timing a dash around a big rock. Seemingly curious sea lions stared at us from the surf and appeared to follow along as we picked our way down the shore. About a mile or so in, we reached a particularly hairy point where we waited another 20 or 30 minutes for the tide to retreat and chatted with three older fellows from Oregon doing the same trip at a more leisurely pace.

We stopped for lunch at Randall Creek, which looked like a lovely spot to camp (Spanish Creek, further along, also looked nice), and crossed Spanish Flat. Here, we had our best wildlife sighting: a playful family of otters that appeared to be living in a large metal drum that had washed up on the shore.


We considered camping at Big Creek but decided to push on, walking three more miles, mostly over meadow, until we came to the next running creek at Big Flat.

The sun was setting by the time we had set up camp in another driftwood shelter, and shortly after it set, sand fleas began to plague us. They flung themselves in hordes at our lantern and cookstove, piling up curled-up, reddish, and dead. I found three at the bottom of my pre-dinner cup of miso soup and I may have eaten some. It was disgusting, but they eventually subsided, and we enjoyed the spectacularly starry moonless night before hitting our tents.

Big Flat in the morning

Day 3: Big Flat to Shelter Cove

We had another leisurely morning the next day because we had to wait again for the tide to go out.

The first bit of the trail when leaving Big Flat turned out to be the most problematic tide-wise; after a couple of miles, we found ourselves on wide beach all the way to Shelter Cove.

waiting for the tide

The last few miles, slogging down the beach on shifting sand, were a challenge, but some interesting encounters broke up the monotony.

First, we passed a dead octopus. Then, ran into the hitchhikers I had passed by two nights before in southern Oregon. They explained that they had been hiking the PCT but quit in Washington when the weather turned cold and rainy and headed south instead to do the Lost Coast trail. They complained about their map, and, possibly feeling bad about not giving them a ride, I suggested that we give them our better map, which we did. In the process, we may unfortunately have given them my sister’s driver’s license, because it was later missing and was in the same bag as the map. No doubt, it was my fault; karma at work.

Finally, we passed a surfer headed to camp at Big Flat and catch a coming swell, who told us he had been camping there two nights before when a bear ripped into his tent while he was sleeping and proceeded to eat all his food and trash his gear. My sister and I pretended we hadn’t heard him.

When we finally and gratefully made it off the beach and on to solid ground, we had to hike another mile or more over a big hill, cursing the lack of foresight that had led us to leave our car in the hotel’s parking lot instead of at the trailhead.

We planned to stay at the Shelter Cove RV and Campground, but when we remembered that the hotel had a hot tub we opted for luxury instead. We watched a lovely sunset from the hot tub, and, after showers all around, walked across the street to have dinner at the surprisingly delightful Chart House.

The Chart House is run by proprietors Jonathan and Ann Burke, aka Cap’n John and Tugboat Annie. It’s a small place and appeared to be unexpectedly busy on the night we dined. They had clearly called a friend in to help out, and they were running out of silverware and dishes. Our expectations for the food were low, but everything turned out to be delicious.

My drive home was as uneventful as the drive down, though there was a field mouse in my car when I first got in it (my brother-in-law confirmed this with an independent sighting) and I am not sure if it left. Thus, I steeled myself for the possibility that it would jump on my shoulder or run across my foot while I was driving and I would face the greatest challenge of my life so far in not swerving off the road or into another car. Thankfully, if it is still in my car, it has been discreet; I’ve seen no further signs of it.

Distance aside, I think I’d be more likely to return to the Olympic Coast, where I hiked earlier this summer. In my opinion it has better scenery and tidepool-life: we didn’t see the kind of colorful anemones and sea stars that abound on the Olympic Coast. But, the weather is probably better on the Lost Coast, at least in the summer and fall (it was a nice change to camp without freezing), and there is no denying that it is a scenic and interesting part of the country and worth a visit.

We hiked north to south, but based on the scenery alone, I think it might be better the other way; it felt more varied on the northern half of the trail, and I would prefer to get the several-mile unbroken beach slog out of the way at the beginning instead of leaving it until the end. Finally, be sure to bring a bear canister (it’s not only required but apparently a good idea to ensure a restful night), a tide chart, and a map showing which parts of the trail are impassable at high tide.


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