Trip Report - The Lost Coast Trail
Fields of Gold (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.
By Matt Pritchard
Our return to the Lost Coast was four years in the making. Ever since our inaugural trip to the area in July of 2001, we've been trying to find the time to make our way back. We held onto great memories of empty beaches, curious wildlife, and breathtaking sunsets. During the first trip, we only explored a short section of the trail, opting for a low-key weekend at the beach. This time around, we aimed to see what other treasures this remote section of coastline held, as we hiked the 25-mile northern section of the Lost Coast Trail.
With a bit more planning and four more years of experience under our belts, this trip was off to a great start by the time we took our first steps down the trail. We had Thursday and Friday off of work and got a jump start on the drive by staying Wednesday night at Scott and Jena's in Rohnert Park. On Thursday morning, we enjoyed a low-key drive north on 101 before heading west for the sleepy town of Shelter Cove. This is actually where we planned to end our hike. A few weeks earlier, we had scheduled a shuttle to drive us to the northern trailhead where we would start our hike.
Roxanne, our chauffeur, was right on time and talked our ears off all the way to the trailhead - about 45 minutes to the north. She handed us a tide table, told us to be careful and bid us farewell as we adjusted our packs and got ready for a mellow first day of hiking. The sky was clear and a gentle breeze invited us toward the beach. Our destination was only three miles away - the Punta Gorda Lighthouse. When we visited in 2001, this area was our home for two nights and we wanted a chance to reminisce. Also, the Punta Gorda Lighthouse offers some pretty great photo opportunities under the right conditions (unfortunately, the incredible light we saw on our first trip didn't make a repeat performance this time). While Jody napped, I got myself re-acquainted with the area, photographing some very cooperative seals and sea lions.
We planned our hiking to be heavy on the second and third days, allowing for ample drive time on our first and last days. These long hikes had to be timed just right to cooperate with the tides. The northern section of the Lost Coast Trail has three "intertidal" sections - areas that are literally under water during high tide. We passed the first of these spots (Windy Point) on our first day. The other two intertidal sections are considerably longer at 3 to 4 miles a stretch and we planned to deal with one each on our second and third days. After leaving the lighthouse on Friday morning, the trail meandered along the bluffs to a point above Sea Lion Gulch - the beginning of our intertidal zone. Realizing we'd arrived well before high tide, we dropped our packs and sunned ourselves for an hour or two before heading down to the beach where the trail continued.
Better than half of the Lost Coast Trail isn't actually a trail at all. It is more of a suggested route, tracing a path down long stretches of rocky and sandy beaches. The feeling is incredible as you hike a stone's throw from the pounding breakers, listening to the distinctive barks of the sea lions, smelling the fresh sea air. The downside is the tempo of your travel. Rocky, sandy beaches make for slow hiking, but it's really hard to complain considering the setting. We eased into a slow and steady pace and after several hours and a few tricky stream crossings, we arrived at Kinsey Creek - our second campsite.
For a second night we were spoiled with a righteous site on the bluffs overlooking the beach - close to stream water and knee-deep in gorgeous wildflowers. About an hour before sunset, the clear skies yielded to ominous, dark-grey clouds that rolled in from the south like a band of misfits. Despite a drop in temperature and some stiff winds, the storm had more bark than bite and we never saw a drop of rain that second night.
Jody isn't known for her acute sense of balance, and stream crossings are usually an opportunity for both worry and high comedy.
We enjoyed a lazy morning on Saturday, taking our time to break camp so we could hit the intertidal section well after high tide. Early in the day, we came across another swift stream crossing. This one was precariously bridged by a narrow, wet log that sat a good four or five feet above the water. I made my way across and turned around to keep an eye on Jody, hoping she would motor across it without psyching herself out. Jody isn't known for her acute sense of balance, and stream crossings are usually an opportunity for both worry and high comedy. After surveying multiple options, she approached the log and began an ill-advised side shuffle walk across the slick surface. After four or five steps, she wobbled a bit and instinctively crouched down. As if in slow motion, she lowered herself, tipped to one side and gravity took over. She toppled off the log and landed square on her backpack in the stream. Scrambling to her feet, she got back to dry land, swallowed her pride, and straddled the log as she shuffled herself to the other side (the hiking equivalent of the underhand free throw). Despite her little dip into the drink, she was mostly dry, thanks to her pack, which took the brunt of the hit.
Even with the best of intentions, we hit the intertidal section pretty early in the outgoing tide cycle. This wasn't a problem for the most part - we just had to hike a little higher on the beach to avoid getting wet. But every once in a while, we'd come to a point where the rocks jutted too far into the water and staying dry involved watching, waiting, and then running like hell (see pictures below). This added a bit more excitement to the hike.
The trail eventually headed back to the bluffs above the beach and opened up to the aptly named Big Flat. The narrow trail grew into an arrow-straight, grassy road marked by three distinctive tire tracks. It wasn't long before we realized this wasn't a road, so much as it was a landing strip for small planes. Several private cabins dot the Lost Coast Trail and the means for reaching them are extremely limited. This was the coolest solution we had seen yet and we envied the people that had their own fly-in cabin on the most remote section of coastline in California.
After another deep stream crossing at Big Flat Creek, we stumbled across another surprise - a pair of surfers at Miller Flat. I had read that the area attracted hearty surfers willing to hike nearly 8 miles from Shelter Cove, but we hadn't expected to see anyone out there. I wished we had seen them hiking in with full packs and surfboards strapped to their backs. Gitchell Creek and our final campsite arrived before long and we set up our tent on a patch of beach surrounded by some really good "sitting logs". Another amazing sunset got me thinking about how spoiled we had become over the past three days - empty trails, beautiful campsites, abundant wildlife, clear skies, and more wildflowers than we had ever seen - at times, literally paving the trail in ribbons of yellow and orange.
A bit of rain moved in overnight and lingered in the morning. By the time we started hiking, the skies had cleared and four miles of black, sandy beach lie ahead of us - leading the way to Shelter Cove. Stream crossings had become second nature as we splashed through knee deep water without giving it a second thought. The parking lot at Black Sands beach was a welcome sight for tired bones. We dropped our packs by the car, celebrated with a long, smelly hug and settled in for a long drive home - content that we had seen the Lost Coast Trail in all of her splendor and glory.
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