“You won’t see 100% of the whales you aren’t looking for.”
We embarked on this our second journey south on the northern section of the Lost Coast Trail, in the King Range National Conservation Area. A rugged section of Northern California’s coast, through Humboldt and Mendocino Counties.
We parked & met our friends at Shelter Cove, left a shuttle vehicle, then drove the ~90 minutes up to Mattole Beach and started the walk back south. Shuttling in this manner adds quite a bit of driving and one should note there is very minimal fuel locations in this remote area of the coast – shuttles beware! Bring a gas can! (or get to Petrolia before 5pm as we barely did.)
The Lost Coast represents a section of California coastline that was so rugged and difficult to tame that roads were forced inland, giving way to coastal mountains. This preserved miles of bluffs and cliffs of the King Range, and left a strip of narrow beach for foot travel alone.
This area is known for strong undercurrents and occasional rogue waves that can potentially pull hikers out to sea. Large sections of trail are known as “impassable” twice daily as the tides rise with waves lapping against the rugged cliffs. Watching the waves and the tide charts are imperative on this walk, knowing where your group is in relation to the moving tides. One can find many accounts of hikers who did not heed the tides and had dangerous experiences resulting.
The ocean is such an amazing ecosystem. Staring out to sea day in and day out one starts to see more and more wildlife swimming, flying and jumping all around. Birds dove from high in the sky like torpedoes splashing into the waves, then flying up out of the depths with some unfortunate prey dripping water from their clutches. Or most interesting were the curious seals following us along the beach, their shiny heads bobbing in the surf, intelligent-seeming eyes peering, intently watching us set up camp or cook our meals as we moved south along the continent.
The northern section of the Lost Coast Trail, stretches from Mattole Beach south to Shelter Cove’s Black Sand Beach for a distance of 24.6 miles. This hike is easily completed in 3 days, as I have done twice now, but I have come to appreciate this hike might be best over 4-5 days, taking one’s time and enjoying some of the gorgeous camp sites along the way.
The sunsets have amazing potential with the Pacific Ocean stretched out to your right over the entire hike. Remote beach front campsites to watch the blazing sun slide below the horizon.
Fresh water is abundant from small streams running down from the bluffs. Water treatment is necessary for safe consumption, but readily available along the walk.
The Punta Gorda lighthouse seen here (this is early in the hike, some pictures here are out of order). Punta Gorda, is Spanish for ‘substantial point’, which aptly names the lighthouse that rests on the tip of a large westward protrusion of land along this Northern California coast line. Mariners were befuddled by the lack of lights from the coast and a number of dangerous rocks that were known to lie just off the coast, sinking a number of ships of the era. It wasn’t until 1907, when a passenger liner and a steam schooner collided near here, claiming 87 lives and prompting congress to allocate funds for the lighthouse, that the significance of this beacon was recognized. The rusted boilers of the St. Paul, another ship wrecked here around the turn of the century, still rests on the beach near the lighthouse today.
Whale watching is a popular activity along the Lost Coast and from the town of Shelter Cove. The season for wale sightings peaks in the spring; April and May is known to be best when the grey whale is migrating south to warmer waters. Here is a significantly decomposed, small whale we found along the beach.
Check out this link about two large whales found washed ashore by this group on their trek:
There are so many opportunities to learn about the ocean and the wild ecology of the area while meandering south along the trail. Here is an octopus washed up onto the beach and below are some tracks we spied. You guessed it; those are bear tracks! Bear canisters are a must on this hike and here you see why. Bear tracks and bear sightings seem to be well documented in this wild stretch of California. This is as close to a bear as our group came, spotting these tracks looking down from a bluff at the beach below.
The trail primarily consists of uneven terrain along the Lost Coast. Expect to be walking on everything from dry trail, wet boulders and through loose sand along the way; keep in mind you will be making slower progress than you typically might while backpacking. Make sure to wear sturdy footwear and have long pants to protect those feet and ankles.
While this is no beginner hike, the Lost Coast trail is an amazing part of California and should be on any avid backpackers bucket list. We self-shuttled with our group this time but two years ago we found a local shuttle to drive us one-way. That time we left our truck at Shelter Cove and got a ride up to the start, Mattole Beach. Everything here feels remote and accordingly, the shuttles are not cheap. That being said- it takes a number of hours to drive back and forth after finishing your hike, there are little if any stores or gas between Mattole and Shelter Cove so plan accordingly for fuel, food and after-hiking beers/refreshments!
Beware to travel prepared in these parts! We nearly ran out of fuel in our Tacoma shuttling from Shelter Cove back to Mattole Beach after the hike; we headed for our best chance for fuel in the small town of Petrolia, CA. Ironically, the tiny town of Petrolia was the site of the first oil well drilled in the state of California in 1865. We lucked upon the small general store and gas station just closing for the night at 5pm. The clerk begrudgingly – but graciously – allowed us to pump a few gallons of fuel and we were back on our way. We travelled east into Humboldt Redwoods State Park and car camped there for the night, the Richardson Grove is a must if in the area. Just keep in mind that all driving on these small remote roads is very slow going!