Lost Coast Trail Part I

Along the northern coast of California is a stretch of land so rugged that the road crews constructing Highway 1 didn’t dare tackle it. This stretch is the Lost Coast. Here the land rises sharply from the sea, reaching heights of 4,000 feet within only 3 miles of the shore. Since this sort of geology is so rare along US coastline, it was an obvious destination!

The Lost Coast Trail stretches 26 miles from the mouth of the Mattole River to Shelter Cove. While the mileage is not great, there are two stretches that are impassable during high tide. Because of the need to cross these sections at low tide, it is best to make the trip in 3 days.

Thursday, May 17, 2012 – The Drive

We hit the road out of Berkeley at 3pm in an effort to beat the traffic. Our first destination was the Shelter Cove trailhead. Since we were doing a point-to-point hike, we took two cars to run a shuttle.

After about 3.5 hrs of driving, we turned off Highway 101 in Garberville, where we stopped for gas and a bite to eat. As we left the restaurant, a man working there stopped us to talk about the Lost Coast. He told us to keep our eyes open because we may “see some large tracks in the sand… or maybe some larger tracks…” He said this with a bit of humor in his voice, and I assumed he was referring to the tracks from bears and Bigfoot!

View from the parking lot at Shelter Cove

From here we headed to the coast along a winding country road and dropped off Paul’s car in Shelter Cove. Now, with 4 of us pilled in my car, we headed north. According to my GPS, the drive would take us back over the King Range to Ettersburg Rd. This would get us to the northern trailhead in about 1.5hrs.

However! Near the top of the ridge we passed King Peak Rd. Paul said that he remembered Google telling us to take this road. So, in defiance of my GPS, we took off down King Peak Rd.

This road is labeled on the map as being paved… it is not! It starts out as a nicely graded gravel fire road. All was going well until we came around a dark turn and found ourselves looking at a rather interesting stream crossing. The water wasn’t deep, but there was definitely a sharp dip getting into and out of the stream. After a bit of planning, and kicking everyone out to lighten the load, we went for it, and made it… but not without scraping both bumpers along the way.

With that behind us, we continued… how much worse could it really get? Two more tricky stream crossings later, we got to a fork in the road. Our path took a steep turn downhill, which included a significant rut about the width of my wheel base. While the Vibe had performed so well on the streams, this was definitely too much for it. Slightly misled by Google, we turned around.

Getting back out proved a bit trickier than getting in, but once we were back on paved road it was easy driving to the Mattole river. With our minor 2hr detour, we rolled into camp at the Mattole River Trailhead at 12:45am.

Friday, May 18th, 2012 – Mattole River to Spanish Flat

I woke up at 7:30am to a bright sky lighting up the tent, birds chirping, and a chill in the air.  We had about 4 miles to hike before getting to the first impassable section, and high tide peaked at 11:15am. We left camp at about 9am with the goal of getting to the impassable  section by lunch.

Starting our way south from the Mattole River

We started out hiking on the beach. The sand made this quite difficult, so we followed the trail just off the beach. It was nice walking on a surface that didn’t slip away beneath your feet with every step!

The sun was out and the views were amazing! Such a different environment than anything I had ever experienced….

As we continued down the coast, the wind picked up significantly. The strong gusts would occasionally catch my backpack like a sail and throw me off balance.

About 2 miles in, we arrived at the abandoned lighthouse, where we met three northbound hikers, who were using it as shelter from the wind while enjoying their lunch.

Abandoned lighthouse

Rocky land meets crashing waves, blocking our path down the beach

After passing the lighthouse, we reached the high tide section. The tide was on its way out, so we had plenty of room to hike. A short ways in, we reached a section of rock that stuck out into the ocean. With the waves crashing against the rock, we were left scrambling over steep scree in order to pass.

It was not easy going, but Charles ran up and over without giving it a second thought! He may have been a mountain goat in a past life…

Charles waiting up for those of us who aren’t in touch with our inner mountain goat

Past this section, it was back to the beach where we continued down the coast. At this point my feet and hips were really starting to feel the effect of hiking across miles of sand and fist sized rocks.

Once past the high tide section, we were able to get off the beach and back onto the trail. The trail took us across grassy meadows and through a few stream crossings. After pausing for a moment waiting for everyone to cross one stream, Paul took the lead and nearly stepped on a snake. I was a few steps behind him when he let out a good yelp and quickly turned to run in the other direction, nearly plowing me down in the process!

Paul pulling out the camera by the Spanish Ridge Trail

As we approached Spanish Flat, we pasted a sign post marking the Spanish Ridge trail. The trail was completely overgrown, and without even a path through the grass where someone may have walked, it was clear that no one had traveled on it in quite some time. I suppose it’s a good thing we weren’t trying to take it…

Once at Spanish Flat we set up camp behind some trees to get shelter from the wind, which was still blowing hard. It was about 5pm, and it was time to make some food.

As the evening went on, we made our way down to the beach to set up the cameras for the sunset. The wind had let up a bit, though a few strong gusts continued to throw sand at us.

The sunset was beautiful! The sky over head was clear, and there were a few clouds on the horizon to give us some spectacular colors. We even saw a few whales swimming off in the distance.

Once the sun was down, the stars came out in full force. Every time I get out of the bay area, I’m amazed at how many stars are up there.

Sun set off the Lost Coast from Spanish Flat

Check out Part II of this trip HERE!

Check out more photos from this trip on Flickr


Its 2012 and what better way to start off the new year than with a trip to some Hot Springs!

Luckily for me, there are some high quality hot springs just a short ways down the coast in Big Sur, CA. The Sykes Hot Springs are a very popular destination, and get to be quite crowded during peak season. One resource even said that the crowd can reach the triple digits! (This was quite surprising to me considering its over 10 miles of hiking to reach the springs.) I was hoping that since it is January, and between holiday weekends, that there would not be too much of a crowd. However, the weather has been behaving more like early summer than winter, so I really had no idea what to expect.

I left Friday night to head down to Santa Cruz for the night and pick up my former housemate, Cheyenne. We wanted to get an early start on the trail in order to maximize the time at the hot springs, so we rolled out at the wee hour of 6:30AM and headed down Highway 1. It was early, but we were quickly rewarded with a spectacular sunrise.

The view was just too nice to not stop and enjoy it!

We got to the trail head shortly after 8AM and found a parking lot full of cars. Some had clearly been there a while, and others were filled with people getting ready to start hiking. Without wasting time, we grabbed our packs and started down the trail.

Ventana Wilderness. Damage from the wildfire can be seen on the sign post.

There was not much warm up before the trail took off up the ridge in a series of steep switchbacks. They were serious… the only thing nice about them was the fact that they were basically at sea level. Once to the top, we followed the Pine Ridge Trail along the Big Sur River Valley. After about 2 miles, we entered the Ventana Wilderness. This area has been recovering from a wildfire about three years ago. Most of the old trees showed signs of the fire, and other parts were covered with thick new undergrowth (including lots of poison oak, yuck).

The trail made several steep descents and ascents in and out of the valley making for a fairly tough hike, but offering the occasional scenic overlook to the up coming mountains of Big Sur, or back to the vast Pacific.

Ocean view

Yup... I'm stuck

Along the trail, we came across a significant number of downed trees. It was many more than any other trail I had been on, and most looked fairly recent. My guess is that most came down during the strong winds that moved through California at the end of last November. In most cases, downed trees are not much of a problem, but since these were Red Woods, they routinely presented a bit of a challenge… they are after all, very big trees. Eventually, maneuvering over and under the trees became humorous as I occasionally got stuck under them, or Cheyenne’s legs just weren’t quite long enough to easily cross over.

This tree formed a nice bridge

We made it to Sykes Camp at about 2PM. The camp seemed pretty empty, but we knew there were several groups not far behind us. So we crossed the river (very cold) and set up camp. I had brought my new 4-season tent, which was over kill for the conditions since it was basically summer, but I wanted to use it, and since Tahoe doesn’t seem to be getting snow anytime soon, this was my chance. Cheyenne joked that we would have no trouble finding it in the dark because the orange rain fly is so bright it probably gives off light… we later found this was not so far from the truth…

With camp set, we took off down river to find the hot springs. I knew they were about a half mile down stream of the camp, but the trail was not well established. As we worked our way down the river bank, we passed several camps that looked as if they had been there a while. At this point I was hoping there would still be room left in one for us.

Heading down river to the hot springs

Coming around a turn, I saw the first hot spring… There was no water in it! I was disappointed until I realized that someone had a trowel and mortar out and was working on it. How nice of them… but we moved on to the next. There were two more springs, one was full, but the other had plenty of room!

The water was the perfect temperature (~100F), and the air was cool enough that a nice cloud of steam rose from the surface. A stone and mortar wall had been built to contain the water and it was filled directly from the side of the mountain. It was about 4 feet wide, 6 feet long and deep enough to get completely submerged and sat right on the edge of the river. (I didn’t take a picture of the springs out of respect for the nude bathers.)

Cairns marking the hot springs

We joined the one person who had already occupied the spring, and were quickly joined by 4 others. As we relaxed and chatted in the warm water, a line began to form as those who started the hike behind us caught up. After about an hour and a half, Cheyenne and I decided it was time to trek back to camp and round up some dinner.

Back at camp the number of tents had exploded. People were gathering wood, making fires and it more closely resembled a park’n pitch campground than a backpacking camp 10 miles from the trailhead! But as the sun set, it was quite apparent that the people here were much more respectful of their neighbors than your typical car-camper (plus there were no obnoxious generators).

Lunch spot

The next morning we were the first ones out of the camp. Again, there was little time to warm up the legs as the trail quickly climbed up away from the river. This was an out and back trip, but this direction was slightly easier, despite the continuous ups and downs of the trail. By the time we stopped for lunch, a couple of the groups from camp had caught up with us, and we continued to leap frog them all the way to the parking lot.

As we got closer to the trail head, we began passing day hikers. Some in small groups, some walking their dogs, but the most interesting was a family that was out with their parrots perched on some sticks. I must say, this was the first time I had seen someone take their bird out for a walk!

We had made it back to the car, which is always a nice feeling, but it meant the trip was over and it was time to go back to reality… but not before stoping for a burrito in Santa Cruz, mmmmm…

I even managed to get back to Oakland in time to catch a spectacular sunset!

Watching the sunset over the Golden Gate (btw... this is the view from my house!)

As always, additional pictures can be found on Flickr


Pine Ride to Sykes Hot Springs on Everytrail.com

Backpacking California from Wilderness Press

Dendrophobia is the fear of trees