Insider's Guide: The Lost Coast, King Range National Conservation Area, California

Get tips from our expert on exploring beaches, mountains, and redwood forests on California's Lost Coast.
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Get tips from our expert on exploring beaches, mountains, and redwood forests on California's Lost Coast.

The Payoff
In Northern California’s remote King Range, the peaks rise thousands of feet from the sea along a stretch of coastline so precipitous that engineers rerouted the Pacific Coast Highway inland. Sure, it’s hard to get to—but where else can you hit mountains, beach, and redwoods on one trip?

The Insider
Most hikers try to complete the Lost Coast Trail once. Wilderness ranger Paul Sever has hiked it more than 50 times.

Hiker the Classic
The 24.6-mile Lost Coast Trail links Mattole Beach (northern end) to Black Sands Beach (at Shelter Cove); you’ll want a shuttle (info below). Plan it so the wind is at your back (bit.do/LostCoastWind), and aim for a minus tide so you can explore the tide pools. “Venture out onto the rocks and look for pockets of water to find starfish and anemones,” Sever says. Bring a knife to harvest mussels if there isn’t a quarantine (check at bit.do/LostCoastMussels).

Bring a Tide Chart
Three sections of the Lost Coast Trail are impassable at high tide (mileage from Mattole): Punta Gorda (mile 2.4), between Sea Lion Gulch (mile 4.7) and Randall Creek (mile 8.8), and between Miller Flat (mile 16.6) and Gitchell Creek (mile 21.4). Using your tide chart (bit.do/LostCoastTides), begin the tricky sections within two hours after high tide.

Best Campsites
You can camp anywhere on the beach, but the best sites are beside mountain streams that flow into the ocean, which you’ll find roughly every 2 miles. Many hikers stop at Randall Creek (mile 8.8 from Mattole), so Sever suggests pushing on to quieter Spanish Flat (mile 9; great for spring flora like lupine and California poppies) or hanging back at Cooksie Creek (mile 6.8; cool rock formations). Note: Be prepared to camp earlier than planned if a rising tide could prevent you from crossing one of the coast’s narrow stretches.

Don't Miss Sea Lio Gulch
Whether you’re thru-hiking or just hiking part of it, stop off at Sea Lion Gulch (mile 4.7 from Mattole). Sever recommends going in June or July to see newborn sea lions or March or April for baby seals.

Keep Going South
Many hikers end at Shelter Cove, but the Lost Coast actually extends another 26 miles south in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. This southern section offers an entirely different experience, as the trail winds up and over coastal bluffs and through old-growth redwood groves, descending only a few times to secluded coves. Explore the 16-mile section between Bear Harbor and Usal Campground for a sampler.

Go High
Get it all—mountains, beach, and redwoods—on this three-day, 20.9-mile loop that tags 4,088-foot King Peak. From the Saddle Mountain trailhead, link the King Crest, Rattlesnake Ridge, Lost Coast, and Buck Creek Trails to create the loop. You’ll gain more than 4,000 feet overall. Sever recommends camping at Bear Hollow Creek (mile 8.2) on day one in the mountains for easy water access and Buck Creek (mile 16.4) on day two on the beach for wildlife viewing.

Best Car Camping Site
“Car camping on the beach is a can’t-miss California experience,” Sever says. Get it at Mattole Beach, and, from there, try a 2.4-mile dayhike to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse. Sites are $8 per night and first-come, first-serve.

Forage for Gourmet Mushrooms
The dense, rain-saturated woods of the King Range provide the perfect habitat for mushrooms, including edible chanterelles and matsutakes. You may pick up to 5 pounds for yourself each day without a permit from September through April.

Trip Planner
Season Year-round, but early fall is best to avoid spring rain and summer fog. Permit Required (free); self-register at the trailhead. Bear canisters required everywhere. Shuttle Prices vary; look into Lost Coast Adventures (lostcoastadventures.com) and Lost Coast Shuttle (lostcoastshuttle.com). Contactbit.do/LostCoast