We started the journey late into the day, probably too late in retrospect. Our minds were turning in the decision if our hike would have to wait. Smoky air blew around California with little signs of letting up. There was a small sign that the winds could switch directions after starting our hike Monday- so we took the chance, and packed.
The drive took 6 solitary hours from San Jose to Black Sands Trailhead. The curving roads of the 101 felt like an eternity in the darkness, only lit by the construction zones every few miles. Turning off near Garberville, the backroads led us to the parking lot where the trail south bounders leave their empty vehicles. The trail looked to be empty- only one other car was parked in the lot, the smoke likely the culprit. Leaving Reid’s car in the lot, we swerved back up the road to Matthole Road avoiding the potholes and crumbling asphalt. Arrving at Matthole Beach, we changed into our backpacking clothes, applied some sunscreen and set out on the trail mid-morning.
In preparation for the trail, we had researched the tide table and the zones of the trail we would need to cross when the water was below a 3 foot tide. Once we set foot on the trail, we were behind schedule and were already planning on changing our itinerary. We saw the Punta Gorda Lighthouse in the hazy distance and realized the first ‘impassable zone’ was actually not a problem at all. Back on schedule. Near the lighthouse were a few dozen Sea Lions and Elephant seals sunbathing on the sand.
Around 1 P.M. we stopped for lunch at Sea Lion Gulch. The sky was a mix between coastal haze and wildfire wisps. There were a few camping rings nearby and we set our gear down to forage through our bear can for some half eaten salami and trail mix. About an hour later, the tide was dropping below 3 feet and we started the first four mile zone, trying to make our way to Cooksie Creek before 4:30. My steps were heavy and the particles of sand were shifting around in my boots. We only had two miles left. Before long we came around a corner and saw our first camping area. Not another person was in sight, and the beach slowly disappeared with the progressing hours. We set up camp right on the beach next to a driftwood teepee.
After filtering some water at the nearby creek, we sat at our campsite and decided to eat an early dinner. There was a ban on campfires and camping stoves from the wildfires, so we had to cold soak our food if the meal required water. Reid was used to this by now, but my transition wasn’t effortless. I poured water into a silicone bag full of instant rice with teriyaki seasoning at lunch, and by 5 o’clock it had rehydrated nicely. I ate it with a bag of Chunklight Tuna that had sundried tomatoes. It was surprisingly good. Either that or my appetite determined that any nutrients were nearly restaurant quality.
Through worrying about wildfire smoke, I had prepared myself for the likelihood of a covered sunset. To our luck, the sun made a last minute appearance before disappearing below the horizon. The smoke had blown west over the ocean, creating a dark marine layer a few miles from shore. Fog was rolling in from the valley behind us, gently whipping the rain fly of our tent through the night.
The alarms were set for around 5:30am the next morning. The larger of the two low tides started at 12:30pm, and we left before sunrise to finish the section of trail on the beach before Randall Creek, the end of the first zone. I had a strong sense of urgency throughout this section. I was unable to realize that the time we had to hike the two miles was incredibly sufficient. Our headlamps reflected on the wet, rocky shore for the hour before first light; the mist glimmered in front of me. The air was damp and salty, and a blue hue encapsulated our surroundings.
After arriving at Randall Creek, we stripped off most of our layers, and I decided to try to hike for a while in my Chacos to give my feet some room to breathe. After another mile or so on the beach, the trail hopped onto the bluffs nearby, Spanish Flats. The flat is a grassy plain with a thin trail down the middle, with cliffs to our right as far as we could see the trail. Our pace nearly tripled being able to walk on solid ground. The miles today were going to be long, around 12 miles if we could make it to Buck Creek. Every so often we came across a small creek, and then set back into our rhythmic, meditative walk- step, pole, step, pole.
Every section of cliffs led to another. The ocean was a vibrant shade of blue, and every so often you could make our the heads of seals in the shallows. Flocks of pelicans migrating south soared through the whitewash, catching air with the cresting wave before flying over the top to wait for the next set.
After a few hours we came to nearly the end of the middle section of the trail. Our halfway mark had been passed, and we only crossed the path with one other group going north near a small area of private property. Its incredible to see immaculate houses in this remote of a location. A perfect green grass where grass should not grow, or a shack close to the sand with a driftwood fence and outhouse. Reid asks me what kind of person would live here. “Probably an author looking to escape the bustle of the city for solitude”.
A sign in the middle of the trail pointed down towards the beach right around where the second zone started. We had a few hours before we could safely cross the section, and we sat down on the cliff for lunch. Reid fell asleep within 20 minutes while I sought out non-existent shade. I staked my trekking poles into the ground and used my rain jacket as a tarp. Dirtbag engineering. It worked for a while, but I opted to set the tent for the remaining hour. Once the tides were low enough, we hiked down to the water and across a rocky beach. A few groups of people crossed us, and must have left their beach around the same time. We passed Shipman Creek and I made an estimate to where I thought Buck Creek would be. At this point we could see Shelter Cove, the last section of cliff that jettied out into the water.
Coming into Buck Creek I immediately spotted a campsite on the cliff that overlooked the beach. We went through our previous routine to set up camp- tent, filter water, and get out the bear can. For dinner this night I had brought a backpackers Pad Thai meal that I filled with water before starting the second section. To my absolute dread, the noodles were still completely hard. Gordon Ramsey wouldn’t even feed this trash to a dog. Luckily, I stashed away an extra tuna packet and ate that for my dinner with a KitKat bar and a few Hi-Chews. Not the most glamorous or nutritious, but still high enough in calorie. Now my dinner packet was 5 times heavier, and was completely inedible- great.
The clouds rolled in quickly, concealing any color from the sunset behind gray skies. We turned in early again in preparation for our last section in the morning. We had about 4.5 miles before Shelter Cove. Camp was packed like a well oiled machine, and I kept my cold soaked oatmeal in my backpack for later. My brain had not registered that it was “go-time” and was as foggy as the indistinct cliffsides in the mist. The rocky shores quickly turned to jet black sand, and made it easy to see animal tracks near the water. Most looked like a racoon or skunk looking for an early morning snack. The tracks of a black bear family led us into the foggy distance.
We arrived at Gitchell Creek and I stopped on a large driftwood log to empty my sandy shoes and ate my cold soaked oatmeal. I saw a few shapes moving in my peripherals and noticed three river otters playing on the sand nearby. When the mom noticed us, she yelled for the pups to find shelter. We continued following our bear family until Shelter Cove, never seeing our guides.
Throwing our backpacks into the trunk felt bittersweet. I wished that the hike took another day or two and did not have to end so soon but we had to leave for the bustle of the city. After grabbing my car at the other trailhead, we drove to the 101, crossing through a park of redwoods. Their trunks towered over the roads and we pulled off to marvel at them before leaving the coast. Have you ever experienced a silence that feels defeating? No car sounds, no birds, or insects buzzing overhead.
You can learn more about hiking The Lost Coast in my Know Before You Go | Guide to The Lost Coast Trail or on BLM.gov
Lands in California and all over the west coast have been put in dangerous conditions with wildfires in the past month. Millions of acres have burned in the western states, destroying beautiful forests and the homes of people who live in them.
In California alone, ‘as of September 14, 2020, a total of 7,718 fires have burned 3.7 million acres, more than 3.7% of the state’s roughly 100 million acres of land, making 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in California history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The intensity of the fires has been increased by drying and heating from human-induced climate change.’
It is essential now than ever to be aware of the impact that humans have on the environment and the place that we call home- our planet. Dangerous and deadly repercussions such as the 2020 wildfires will continue to occur if change is not made. CHANGE MUST BE MADE.
You can help by donating to the Western Wildfire Disaster Relief Fund through the American Red Cross to aid those affected by the 2020 fires and voting for policy makers and leaders in the 2020 elections who advocate for our planet. YOUR VOTE MATTERS.