In June, my son Nick and I hiked the Lost Coast of Northern California. It’s an extreme hike – there’s no trail for much of the way – and it took us four days and three nights. We started at Shelter Cove and hiked north to the mouth of the Mattole River. Most people start north and hike south (it’s recommended, one reason being the wind is allegedly at your back). But the wind was at our backs the first day. We were also fortunate in our timing: the best hiking is at low tide and when we started the tide was going out. Since it was 2:00 in the afternoon and we were stiff from driving six hours we decided to make it a short day.
It was tough: a long slog through loose sand and then rocky beach. We made it to Gitchell Creek, about 3 ½ miles, but it was windy and exposed so we kept on till we reached Buck Creek at about five miles. Two guys had already set up in the sweet spot. We found sites on the bluff overhanging the beach but didn’t care for those, so we camped on a flat bit of sand on the beach. We looked carefully at the tide line and dug down into the sand a foot or so to see if it was damp and made sure to put the tent on the dry. The sand was super soft, great for sleeping on.
The stars were out that night. It was beautiful. The water came within about five feet of the tent and we slept fitfully till around midnight when the tide went out again. Then we slept the sleep of the righteous till morning. We had amazing weather the entire trip: sunny, warm, light wind, and only a few wisps of fog flowing in and out of canyons and rising around hills from time to time.
Two more guys that showed up the evening before expressed astonishment at seeing campers on the beach when they looked over the bluff in the morning but no one seemed interested in talking to us. After everyone left we saw many people hiking south, but no one going north like us. We stalled till the tide began to go out: the trail from Buck Creek to Miller Flat can be impassable at high tide. Even when passable it’s rough.
Buck Creek was pretty. While the tent and sleeping bags, damp from dewfall, dried in the sun, we explored the gully. We startled a timber rattlesnake but he didn’t rattle and crept slowly into his den. There was a lot of poison oak, and lots of wildflowers and noisy little waterfalls. Nick saw an otter.
When the tide started to go out around 2:30 we hiked another 5 ½ miles to Big Creek, passing beautiful Shipman Creek where I kind of wished we had camped the previous night. We saw close to thirty hikers going south, but when we arrived at Big Creek and dropped our packs we were the only ones there. On the way we passed Big Flat Creek where you can look up the canyon to Kings Peak, at 4,087 the highest point on the coast north of Big Sur.
Big Creek is a wide flat with a veritable forest of driftwood. It’s more exposed unless you follow the creek into the trees. There were shelters and we found a really nice one like a little fortress to sleep in. We preferred sleeping close to the ocean in the open: bears and cougars and bobcats haunt these remote, wild canyons and we wanted a defensible space. We did see a bobcat in the evening up on the rocks above our campfire. (Note: backpackers need a California campfire permit.) We heard him banging around checking out a can of evaporated milk we had unwisely saved for morning coffee. His eyes burned in our headlamps. He was absolutely unafraid. Nick told him to be off and he left, casually loping down toward the sea. We washed the can out and burned it in the fire, crushed it, and added it to our small bag of trash.
On Day Three we hiked six miles to Randall Creek. We started early, around 7:30 at the lowest low tide. Today was Saturday and we saw close to forty hikers, all heading south. When we got to Randall Creek, we decided to go two more miles to Cooskie Creek, the last camp site before the Mattole. We wanted a short day on the last lap and we had been taking it pretty easy. Cooskie Creek campsite seemed well-used. We got the impression (confirmed by the next day’s events) that people would come this far and then turn around and go home.
We were the first to arrive and we snabbed a good campsite not far from the beach and sheltered from the wind that came up in the afternoon. We soaked our tired bodies in the cool stream and then made dinner. Hikers started arriving till the place was full. Luckily the campsites are fairly private and spread out. Since we had explored earlier we were able to steer newcomers to campsites upstream. That night as we watched the sun set from the beach we had lots of company.
The last day Nick and I proved our mettle. Part of the trail runs along bluffs so you get a break from the beach, but even though we had our earliest start yet taking advantage of low low tide we were still scrambling over large seaweed encrusted boulders at the foot of sheer cliffs much of the way. We had heard from other hikers that it took five hours from the start of the trail (our finish) to Cooskie Creek even though it was only six miles. Forewarned, we attacked the trail with such determination it only took us 3 ¾ hours and we arrived at trail’s end three hours early for our rendezvous with Rebekah, who had graciously offered to shuttle us back to the truck at Shelter Cove. Exhausted but exhilarated, we found a vacant campsite with a water spigot where we cleaned up and sat in the shade till she arrived.
It was a great trip. The landscape is stunning, there’s plenty of water (boil or bring a filter), there are many good campsites and shelters and we had the best weather imaginable. We only used the tent one night and it was so pleasant in camp I didn’t even read. It was great to get into the rhythm of living out of doors with just the stuff in our packs.
There were drawbacks. The amount of hikers was astonishing considering it’s the Lost Coast. The Lost Coast has clearly been found. On the other hand, it’s not surprising given the perfect combination of great weather, the end of the school year, and the early morning minus tide. Also, we found out the trail had been closed the previous weekend (Memorial Day) due to a manhunt for some criminal roaming the area and that probably doubled the amount of people hiking the trail once it opened again.
We were surprised at how many people seemed to be novice backpackers, or weren’t backpackers at all. We saw three men in jogging shorts and trail runners with ultra-light backpacks sprinting along the bluffs as though they were doing all twenty-four miles in one day. They may have been using one of the connecting trails that drop down from the King Range, but it still seemed odd.
One kid at Cooskie asked Nick if it was okay to drink the creek water. Nick told him he was taking a risk if he did. The kid asked if an iodine tablet would help. Nick said he didn’t think so. Iodine? The kid went up the creek a ways, filled his bottle and left. Hmmm…
We also noticed people tottering over the uneven terrain as though they hadn’t got their sea legs. Several people fell and one woman jacked up her elbow. Another guy said he had to carry his girlfriend’s pack around a point because she couldn’t do it (there are lots of spots where you have to stop and time the waves and then run around quick – not easy on slippery rocks with a backpack on) and he got hit in the back by a wave. On the beach we saw a woman struggling to pull her partner up off the sand where they’d been sitting watching the sunset. He looked like he was having a rough time. They had come from the north, one of the last groups to arrive. Next morning about 5:30 they took off back north with their trekking poles. I guess they’d had enough.
A word about trekking poles: this is not a good trail for them. Tracks in the sand showed where hikers were dragging their poles. We saw poles get stuck in rocks and crevices and people almost fall as a result. Visions of downed hikers impaled by their poles danced in our heads. We saw quite a few people carry their poles tucked under their arms. I mean, what’s the point? I’ve always suspected trekking poles were an expensive gimmick. I don’t like hiking with things in my hands. It’s extra weight and I can’t use my hands, and on this trail I needed hands, elbows, feet and knees to get along. Poles may be useful on long, flat paths similar to cross-country skiing, but they didn’t seem useful to Lost Coast hikers.
Another thing: some people were friendly but some seemed almost offended by our presence. They were probably expecting more of a wilderness experience (so were we) but hey, you could at least wave and smile. Also, there were two bad things about Cooskie. First, there was no firewood. The area was picked clean. People burned driftwood, but it smoked horribly. The worst part was that in the morning there was no place to take a dump down by the tideline unobserved unless you walked a long way. The places one might use up the canyon were way too common. Awkward.
The number of people who brave the Lost Coast Trail surprises me. Its dangers include: steep terrain, rocks and boulders, tide, ticks, rattlesnakes, skunks, bobcats, bears, mountain lions, poison oak, high cliffs, and uneven and slippery footing (creeks, logs, mud, seaweed, deep sand and the occasional sneaker wave). At Punta Gorda the wind was so severe I could lean on it as I hiked. Because his pack was so high, Nick got blown around a bit, and there were some close calls at the cliff edge.
I’m not sure I’d do this hike again. There are lots of wonderful places to backpack in Oregon and there are fewer people. But I have some ideas how to make it better if I do go back. One thing we did right is get to camp early and find a good site every day. Next time I’d like to hike to Shipman the first night. It seemed very little used. Then I’d go to Big Creek again and camp for a couple of nights to explore the canyon and forest upstream. It seemed to offer the best opportunity to experience the true remoteness of the Lost Coast. Then I’d hike out south again, maybe staying at Buck Creek. The north section of the trail is freaking hard. And incidentally, I didn’t see anywhere I’d want to bring a kayak in.
There are three things you need: flip flops for camp, a first aid kit (I got three blisters), and a tide table. A tide table is crucial. We had a much better time than the poor suckers who went without. I also had a map as well as a three-page description of the trail downloaded from someone’s blog. I had to read the description backwards since it was written going north to south, but it was helpful to know more or less what to expect and to have some information about the landmarks, history and names of places you pass. Another thing: I think I’d go in January or February during a mild spell. You get some of the balmiest weather early in the year and you’d probably see a lot fewer people.
Why did we do this trip? Nick started the hike with some friends a few years ago but they had to abort when one of them (not Nick) fell and hit his head rounding one of those rocky points. There was a huge knot on his head and they worried about concussion so they backed off to a campsite where they stayed a couple of nights before going home. Also, in middle school one summer I hiked the trail with a youth group and again in my late teens I did a two-nighter with Nick’s dad. Both Nick and I wanted to go back. So it was nice for us to complete the entire Lost Coast trail together. And now we know what we’re capable of. It’s a good feeling.
Ed Anderson and daughter Aiko race in Reef Madness; son Nick and I backpack the Lost Coast. I know some of you (Kenny, Scott) are getting your kids into the world of outdoor adventure too. It’s rewarding to see the younger generation coming up. We’d love to hear YOUR story about adventures with your kids!