California's Lost Coast is lost no longer. Permits are now required to hike the northern half, from the mouth of the Mattole River to Black Sands Beach on the outskirts of Shelter Cove. The number of known overnight visitors to this stretch of beach and headlands tripled in the last decade. The total number of visitor days (multiply amount of visitors by the length of stay in days) has risen from 12,400 in 2006 to 34,400 by the end of 2015.
Beginning this last January (2017), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began charging $6 per hiking group. In May the fee went up to $10. Overnight hikers are now limited to sixty people entering the northern half of the Lost Coast per day from May 15 through September 15. From September 16 to May 14th, the BLM lowers the number of permitted entries to thirty people per day.
According to BLM area field manager, Molly Brown, “The new permit system will help meet the intent of the Wilderness Act by reducing overcrowding. Current use levels have negatively impacted the wilderness character of the King Range Wilderness, particularly along the Lost Coast Trail.”
If you are thinking about backpacking the northern half of the Lost Coast in the winter, when the out of area tourists are less likely to be around, remember that it is still a twenty-five mile trek from the mouth of the Mattole to Black Sands Beach. Beyond the Punta Gorda Lighthouse remains, three miles into the hike, travelers are subject to being trapped by high tides from the mouth of Sea Lion Gulch to below the mouth of Randall Creek. On Day Two or Three of this sort of backpack adventure, the high tide warning applies again from just south of Miller Flat, for about three and a half miles, to approximately a half mile south of the mouth of Buck's Creek. Along with those obvious perils, beach hikers should check weather conditions for possible ocean swells and in any semi-narrow stretch of sand always be alert for sneaker waves.
I guess the good news is that the influx of tourist hikers brings more money to Shelter Cove, Ferndale, Garberville, and the tiny town of Petrolia, tucked in near the mouth of the Mattole River. The bad news is that you can't just make last minute plans for this section of the Lost Coast anymore.
On the other hand, the southern half of the Lost Coast is still a cheap thrill, devoid of daily quotas. Since the “Iron Ranger,” where you paid a parking fee, was destroyed at Usal, backpackers can leave their vehicles for free. That's what my long time backpacking pal, Steven Steelrod, and I did during the last week of June. We shuttled another car around to Hidden Valley, the northernmost entry point for the southern half of the Lost Coast Trail. Many folks, with less gumption or time on their hands, bypass the Hidden Valley to Needle Rock section. From Hidden Valley to Usal, it's a thirty mile backpack journey, best done in three overnight campouts along the way.
Another good news, bad news situation: Motor vehicles used to be able to drive beyond the Needle Rock Ranch House another two and a half miles or so to a grassy parking area just a quarter mile from Bear Harbor beach. In recent years this road has given way to large slides in a number of places, making it impassable for all motor vehicles, but just fine for foot traffic. This cuts down on the number of mindless yahoos who used to be able to drive to Orchard Camp then party hearty at Bear Harbor, though Steve and I saw evidence of beer cans and other party litter, including a deflated Class of 17 balloon, left over from the previous weekend at our campsite just up from the beach.
Below Bear Harbor the Lost Coast Trail turns a bit more rugged. Not only does the path rise and fall almost a thousand feet several times, summer hikers will do well to wear long pants. The main reason is an abundance of nettles, hanging close to and, in some places, across the trail. Throw in numerous thistles, wild blackberry vines, and the occasional patch of poison oak and any backpacker will get their share of joint wrenching twists and turns avoiding the stinging, scratching, stickery foliage.
Then there are the elk. We saw elk everyday of our trip from Hidden Valley to Usal. I had two middle of the trail encounters. Seemingly the best method for dealing with elk is too stay at a relatively safe distance, remain as calm as possible, speak in low yet somewhat commanding tones, and eventually even the biggest bull elk will meander out of your way. Eventually could mean five to ten minutes or more. These large animals are apparently accustomed to human traffic along the Lost Coast. A note of particular warning: elk rutting season occurs in October and/or November. Much more caution must be observed regarding elk at that time of year. In other words don't backpack the southern half then.
Along with the nettles, thistles, and occasional poison oak, the last fifteen miles of the Lost Coast Trail, south of Bear Harbor, is rife with small to medium landslides that have diminished or destroyed short sections of the trail. There are places where ropes are tied to large, downed fir. The ropes are there to help hikers swing up and over the good sized logs without losing balance. Other sections of downhill have eroded away to nothing more than loose dirt and pebbles, providing ample opportunities for landing on your backside. In addition, between Little Jackass Creek and Usal, there are a couple of places where the pampas grass thickets have completely enveloped the trail. Thankfully, some earlier hikers have hacked a tunnel through the sharp-edged pampas.
Though sections that should have taken three to three and a half hours turned into four and a half hour slogs, Steelrod and I emerged unscathed on the the last afternoon of June. There are people/companies that provide shuttle service from Usal to Hidden Valley or Needle Rock, but driving your own two cars allows you the time to stop at “The Peg House” on 101 (Steve calls it 'The Pig Out'), on the east side of the highway, opposite Standish-Hickey State Park. At “The Peg House” do not skip the chance to purchase a side order of oysters with your burger or sandwich.
Both the northern and southern sections of the Lost Coast Trail require bear canisters for overnight storage of food, sunscreen, toothpaste, etc.
(No bear canisters required @ malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)