The Lost Coast Trail is a 25 mile thru-hike on the Northern California Coast. The LCT is California’s wildest and most remote coastlines and follows along sandy beaches, rocky shores, and grassy beach bluffs. Stretches along the trail are only crossable during low tide and best hiked during the spring/fall months for less crowds.
Permits to Backpack The Lost Cost Trail
Planning your route for the Lost Coast will require you to do some research beforehand. For starters, you’ll need to reserve a permit through recreation.gov. Permits are first come-first served and are released on October 1st every year for the upcoming calendar year and are only available online. You are allowed to reserve 3 permits and each permit is limited to 5 people.
(NOTE/UPDATE (2022): I have been able to hike this trail twice now. Once with a low tide at the early hours of the morning, starting at sunrise each day, and once at night. Make sure you check the tides for your time frame before trying to book that date. Crossing the impassable zones starting at night is something I would not due again. It is much scarier, and we saw a shi- ton more bears during the second sandy section because they come to the beach to find shellfish.)
When reserving a permit you will need to know:
➢ How many people are in your party?
➢ What dates are you trying to hike? There are quotas depending on the time of year.
- May 15 – September 15: 60 people allowed to enter the trail per day
- September 16 – May 14: 30 people allowed to enter the trail per day
➢ What trailheads are you starting and ending at? Most backpackers will start at Mattole Beach and end at Black Sands Beach near Shelter Cove. This is known as the Northern Section.
I Have A Permit, Now What?
There will be some planning to do before starting on the trail. You will want to look into the tides for the area and when you will be able to pass the sections of trail that are only able to be crossed during a lower tide. It is recommended that you should hike the four mile sections when the tide is below 3 feet, as a rule of thumb, but it will not be as stressful as it sounds. There are a few campgrounds in each of the zones and a lot on either sides. Even if you get off schedule, you will have options.
There are hikers who choose to disregard these warning and cross during higher or incoming tides and as a result have been seriously injured or drowned. It is extremely dangerous to cross the sections during a high tide because of sneaker waves and strong currents. It only takes one wave to knock you off your feet. As long as you are smart and use your intuition, you will be fine.
There is also a small section of impassable zone near Punta Gorda Lighthouse- If you stick to the bluffs trail instead of on the sand you can pass this section no problem.
Getting To The Lost Coast Trailheads
The second thing you will want to think about is transportation. This hike is a true thru hike and goes point to point. Whether you hike it Northbound or Southbound you have a few options to get back to your car.
➢ Bring Two Cars: The drive to either end of the trail is about an hour and a half through winding roads. There is a lot of parking at either end
➢ Arrange A Shuttle: You can book a shuttle though Lost Coast Adventure Tours for around $85.00 per person. Discounts are given for groups of 6+.
➢ Get Dropped Off/Picked Up
If you are driving, or are bringing two cars, fill up on gas before getting down to Mattole or Shelter Cove. When getting directions to either of the two points it is likely you will not be able to find gas unless you go back up to HW 101 which will add an extra hour and a half.
The drive to Black Sands Beach and Mattole Road is a bit long and has a lot of potholes and a few stretches of unpaved road. Drive with caution and try not to pop a tire.
When leaving or arriving I also recommend driving through Humbolt Redwoods State Park. Its free to drive through and has amazing views of some towering redwoods. It is located right off HW 101 and is next to Avenue of the Giants, another awesome route.
What To Pack for The Lost Coast Trail
10 Things to Think About Bringing on Your Trip
① A Phone Charger- Although you wont have service on the the trail, I found the AllTrails app to be extremely useful to find where the trail stays on the sand and goes into the cliffs or bluffs. It became a necessity by the end of the trip. A solar powered bank is really useful to have handy, especially since this area gets so much exposure in parts.
② GPS Device- We use a Garmin that can send our coordinates and a message to a preloaded list of people. Very helpful in a situation like this where we cant call out and might get stranded in sections. I really like the SPOT devices because they are simple and on the cheaper side for GPS devices.
③ Sun Protection- Bring sunblock with Zinc in it and a wide brimmed hat! On our first and second day before starting the “impassable zones” we had to wait on the beach bluffs for low tide. We ended up setting up our tent for a little less sun exposure and made sure to lather up more sunscreen. Make sure you have Chapstick with SPF in it too.
④ Entertainment- Chances are you will have to wait for tides at some point and you’ll have some down time. While a 5lb book wouldn’t be my first recommendation, a magazine, small novel, cards, or backpacking games are a must. This Wild + Wolf Campfire Game Set includes playing cards, dice, score cards and game instructions.
⑤ Blister Tape– Blisters are extremely likely on this trail because of the sand. I switched to hiking in my Chacos the second day and still got them. If I didn’t have Blister tape- it would have made for some really hard miles.
⑥ Shoes- The reason I put shoes on here is I really want you to choose your shoes wisely. I brought my hiking boots and Chacos because I had a feeling I would want or need them both and I was right. Hiking in the sand with bigger boots was really frustrating if your shoes are well-ventilated or well supported. I felt like my steps sunk in the sand a bit more than my usual steps and a lot of sand got in my shoes. While hiking in Chacos or hiking sandals is my usual forte- it was also a bit difficult. I did end up getting blisters and there is a decent amount of poison oak and the small spikey plants on the bluffs. Every few minutes I had to stop to pull a spine out of the bottom of my foot. I really wish I had a lightweight hiking shoes for this like the Atra LonePeaks or Keen Terradorra Waterproof Shoes.
⑦ Rain Gear- The weather changes quickly here and weather forecasts reflect the same! Although it did not rain on our trip- we both brought rain gear just in case. I have a Marmot Precip Jacket that I have used for ages.
⑧ Trekking Poles– This is a completely preferential thing. We saw 4 groups total on the trail and none of them had poles. I honestly think it made crossing the rocks easier, especially in the dark. I also kept my pole baskets on so wouldn’t sink in the sand. REI has a great blog post on how to choose trekking poles or hiking staffs that are right for you.
⑨ Although our trip was not allowed to have campfires- if you are lucky enough to have this I would recommend bringing some sort of Firestarter on your trip. Even homemade fire starters would be a great thing to pack since a lot of the driftwood or firewood is partially wet. Make sure to use a fire ring that is already made. It is recommended to build your fire below the high tide line so there is no chance of the embers re-igniting.
⑩ A calm attitude- Hiking this trail can cause some people STRESS. Believe me when I say that if you are worried about the zone crossings- you shouldn’t be. The chances of a rogue wave crashing on you on the beach is nearly impossible and the worry that we ran into more was just getting our shoes wet. As long as you are aware of the tides you will have plenty of time.
You can check out a general list of my current backpacking gear here.
General Information for Hiking The Lost Coast Trail
➢ Please remember LNT Principles while on this trail- it is essential in maintaining the beauty of this trail and preserving it for years to come.
➢ Contrary to the usual cathole, the requirement for the Lost Coast Trail is to dig your cathole 6-8 inches into the sand below the high tide line. Make sure to pack out all toilet paper used.
➢ Bear cannisters are required. There are a lot of bear activity during the second half of the trail at the second large impassible zone. They are curious and very active at night time, but very skiddish. Keep it that way and scare the crap out of them if they are near. Let out your best “AYYYEE-YOO!” every once in a while.
➢ Creek crossings can become impassable after storms. Cross with caution during wet seasons and read some trail reviews before going.
➢ During dry seasons, check if stoves or campfires are permitted. Campfires are frequently banned because of wildfires and are normally market on signs at Mattole and Black Sands Beach
➢ You can pick up a trail map at kiosks at either end of the trail as well as look at information regarding the tides.
Best Campsites on The Lost Coast Trail
You’ve made it to the trail- that’s great! Get ready to enjoy some of the most beautiful and remote coastlines in California. In my opinion, here are the best campgrounds to stay at on the lost coast trail. Campsites are from North to South.
Mattole Beach: Start/End of the trail. Good sized campground with pit toilets.
Punta Gorda Lighthouse: Several sites on top of a bluff just north of the first zone crossing near Sea Lion Gulch. This is a great spot if you need to spend the night in order to hit a low tide. Is very exposed to wind and the sun but a great place for a sunset.
Cooksie Creek: (Our night 1 stop) Great campsite with several sites that are inside a canyon. Winds changed in the middle of the night but did not cause an issue. Great spot to stop halfway through the tide. The section south of here is very rocky and was a bit challenging hiking in the dark.
Randall Creek: Right on the end of the first zone- has a few campsites above the high tide line. My second time on the LCT we stayed here are there are a few options high up on the bluffs that were nice, but we opted to stay on the beach for some wind shelter and it was great.
Spanish Flats: Great bluff area that is easy hiking with a lot of space. There are several spots that have driftwood walls but they are limited.
Kinsey Creek: A great option right on the creek with a lot of protection from the wind and sun.
Big Creek: Very similar to Kinsey Creek but a little more exposed. The creek was much wider but more dry when we passed through mid-summer.
Big Flat: Just a bit further than the creek with much more space next to the beach but more exposed.
Shipman Creek: Popular site in the second zone but looked like it had a good amount of space
Buck Creek: (Our night 2 stop) Great campsite with lots of room the further back you go. Almost all of the sites are protected. Go above the bluff for camping, it looked like there was a fire ring and site that was cleared on the beach and it was wet in the morning from high tide.
Gitchell Creek: End of zone 2 and looked to be a popular stop for people going north from Shelter Cove. Mostly beach camping and not as much protection. Home to a family of very cute river otters. I stayed here the second time I did the LCT and it was a great site!
Horse Mountain Creek: A smaller site that is mid way from Gitchell Creek to Shelter Cove- probably would not recommend because you are very close to the end or the start of the first zone- get those miles in if you can! This is a very beautiful stretch of the black sand part of the trail. Saw lots of bear tracks near here.
Black Sands Beach & Shelter Cove: Parking lot area to start/end the trail. There is no camping allowed near the parking lot or on the trail.
Have you done the LCT and see something that I missed? Did you hike in the wet season or have a different experience on the trail?
Leave a comment down below and let others know your top tips for hiking the Lost Coast Trail!
You can read more about my trip on the Lost Coast Trail on my travel journal post Backpacking The Lost Coast Trail
Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links, which means if you buy something through those links my blog will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps me to create free resources like the one you just read, so thank you for the support!