Not your traditional hiking, backpacking, biking, or bikepacking loop, instead this trip, along the Lost Coast, combines it all. The southern half of the Lost Coast may push you physically with the amount of elevation gain it has, but its scenic views, from high and low, will make it all worth it. We squeezed our trip into two days, but, but you can also do day hikes or week-long backpacking trips. Read below to learn about acquiring a wilderness camping permit, what you should pack, or just some quick information on the Lost Coast. You can also read about and view photos from our trip.
Route: Usal Road + The Lost Coast Trail (loop) Date: May 26 – 27, 2018 Trailhead:40.035239, -124.025433 Terrain: mixed paved, dirt and gravel road + narrow brushy, dirt trail Distance: 53.28 mi Elevation Gain: 17,486 ft # Nights: 1
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The Lost Coast is a remote section of coastline in Northern California, with the Lost Coast Trail extending from Mattole Beach to Usal Beach and passing through both the King Range National Conservation Area and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. It earned this name from depopulation in the 1930s and lack of road development because of the ruggedness of this section of coastline. Outside of Alaska, the King Range Wilderness is the longest undeveloped coast in the United States.
The Lost Coast Trail can be divided into three sections, which can be linked together or hiked separately.
North: Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach, 25mi
Most popular sections. Lots of hiking on beaches and timing of tidal constrictions is important. This section has the least amount of elevation gain.
Middle: Shelter Cove to Needle Rock, 9.21 mi
Least popular due to its lack of scenic views of the ocean and amount of elevation gain.
South: Needle Rock to Usal Beach, 19mi
Most rugged section, brief access to coves, but mainly snaking through the mountains, cutting inland at riverways.
Quick Info About the Lost Coast
King Range National Conservation Area does require a backpacking permit for $10/permit reservation
Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, does not require a backpacking permit, but has a $5/night self registration fee
There are no tidal constrictions along the southern half of the Lost Coast (Shelter Cove to Usal Beach)
Don’t underestimate the elevation gain along the coast
Do plan to camp at the various beaches!
Bear canisters are required for backpacking in the King Range National Conservation Area and strongly suggested in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park
Shuttling cars is not direct and will take at least 2 hours 40 mins
ViewRanger is an app that provides downloadable trail guides, outdoor maps, and powerful GPS navigation features.
You know you went to a cool area when there is no detailed, quality map available for sale. But, if you feel the need to purchase one, you can buy California’s Lost Coast Recreation Map by Wilderness Press. We haven’t used this map, but, after reading reviews, it sounds like you are better off using maps provided by the BLM and state. Alternatively, you can get the app ViewRanger and download our routes or use one of the maps listed in the references section.
In order to overnight camp/backpack in the King Range National Conservation Area a permit is required. Sinkyone Wilderness State Park does not require a permit, but you must pay a self registration fee at the start of the trip.
King Range National Conservation Area Camping Permit
No permit is required, but there is a camping fee of $5/night (/person? /tent? . . . we couldn’t find any information on this), which is paid at the trailhead.
Packing List for the Lost Coast
There is poison oak, stinging nettles, thistles, and tall bushes growing into parts of the trail. If any of these things bother you, cover your skin by wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt and consider where you place your pack or trekking poles.
Some of the most important things to bring for bikepacking on the Lost coast (+ some fun things for your free time).
Getting to the Lost Coast
To backpack or bikepack the southern half of the Lost Coast, you can either park near Shelter Cove, Usal Beach, or, if you want to skip the middle section (Shelter Cove to Needle Rock), Needle Rock Visitor Center. The shuttle from one end of the trail to the other is quite long, being at least 2 hours 40 min, and the roads are a bit rough (being either windy, bumpy, steep, etc). “In wet weather, roads may be impassable. RVs and trailers are not recommended in any season.” – Sinkyone Wilderness State Park
Parking at Usal Beach
This is a giant campground, but you should plan to leave your car in the trailhead parking lot.
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of shuttling cars or don’t have the means to, there are two shuttle service providers in the Lost Coast region that hold Special Recreation Permits from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). If you plan to use one of these, be sure to call ahead and book your shuttle.
The trip starts out with one of us saying, “Hey, we should try and do something more adventuresome this weekend…I can barely remember what we did last weekend” and from there the epicenes only escalates.
We decide to do a backpacking trip along the middle and southern parts of the Lost Coast in Northern California. We begin by thinking through our hiking plans, scratch that, there wasn’t much thought that went into this besides that we wanted to hike the Lost Coast Trail.
After looking into transportation logistics, we realize that there is no direct paved road connecting two points along the southern part of the Lost Coast Trail. The shortest route is a 64.5mi bike ride on Briceland Thorn Rd to route 101 to highway 1 and then on Usal Rd, connecting from Shelter Cove to Usal Beach. . .longer than we were interested in. Instead, we opt for a more direct route, starting at a parking lot near the junction of Shelter Cove Rd and Chemise Mountain Road, biking down Chemise Mountain Road to Usal Road (four-wheel drive road), and continuing riding until Usal Beach. This route works out to being 25.28mi, much more manageable, assuming the road is in good shape. Our first bike packing trip!
Day 1: Biking Shelter Cove – Usal Beach
We start off with a gentlemanly start, waking up near Andersonia on Saturday morning and heading to Shelter Cove around 8:30am. We really should have driven up to Shelter Cove Friday night to get an early start Saturday morning. We arrive at the trailhead and begin packing our packs, pumping our bike tires up, and pulling together food. With what we are about to get ourselves into finally starting to set in, we camel up, drinking as much water as we can.
It’s 11:30 AM, we awkwardly get on our bikes, having never biked with a backpacking pack before, and head off down the Chemise Mountain Road, Philip on his mountain bike and I on my hybrid. Not the most ideal setup for bike packing, but heck the best gear for a trip is the gear you already have. . .otherwise, you’ll end up spending all your money on the things you “need” and not have the means to do the things you want. Once off the pavement and on the old four wheel drive logging roads (Usal Road), the biking begins to slowdown and the entertainment factor increases. We pass abandoned old sedans down in the gulches, that look like a drunk person’s night ride mistake, and an assortment of jeeps and old trucks pass us blurbing something about how biking this road is a bad idea.
Around 18mi in we realize we haven’t been drinking enough water and start getting Charlie horses in our legs. To avoid our muscles seizing up, we start walking the uphills and sitting on our seats on the downhills. Even getting onto the seats of our bikes to bike the downhills causes Charlie horses in our calves, so we find side banks to get onto our bikes from. By this point, the ride has transitioned from fun to a slow trudge. 25mi later, we are on the final stretch, smelling the campfires and hearing the sounds of vehicles on the beach.
We arrive at the beach, surprised by the number of people here and the chaos of motorcycles and cars driving all over the beach, in the river, and across the grasses that specifically state “no vehicles”. The area is littered with debauchery, or, as a state park volunteer described it to us later on, “it is the wild west”. The most frustrating part of all of this, is that these are the sorts of people that ruin the freedom of these places for everyone by having the access get shut off. Being as exhausted as we are, we make the best of the situation and start making dinner and setting up the tent. Just before sunset, we go to bed. Within 10 min, the first round of fireworks begin to go off over on the beach. Not too big of a deal, as it is already quite noisy. 30 min later, fireworks are launch 50 feet from our tent. At this point we have had it, we pack up, stash our bikes in the woods, and start hiking the Lost Coast Trail. On the bright side, we will have to hike less tomorrow. . .
Five minutes into the hike and we are already happier! It is nearly a full moon, we are back to being hydrated, and amped from the Advil that we had taken before going to bed. . .we have gotten a second wind. The trail is very brushy, literally having to hike through bushes of flowers that go above our heads and sections have sluffed off down the steep slope, making the trail quite narrow. The hiking is quite slow for being on a trail. Out of deliriousness, we begin joking that we should just hike back to our car in a straight shot without sleeping. A mile away and we still see fireworks going off at Usal Beach. We see multiple sets of glowing eyes, first a fox, then a herd of mail elk, and last some deer. There aren’t many things that gets my adrenaline going more than a set of glowing eyes in the woods at night. Four miles later around 12:30 AM, we arrive at a heavily used campsite in Dark Gulch and decide to call it a night. Resting our heads on our pillows, all we hear is the creek running and insects humming.
Camping in Dark Gulch along the Lost Coast.
Day 2: Hiking Usal Beach – Shelter Cove
We wake up slightly sore from the day before, wishing we had gotten ten hours of sleep instead of seven, and continue hiking on the trail as it weaves in and out of gulches, headed downhill on the way in and uphill on the way out. The north sides of mountains are covered in trees and the forest floor consists of ferns or clovers, while the southern sides are more brushy with flowers and in the direct sun. After having passed, Anserson Gulch, Northport Gulch, and Jackass Creek, there is a fairly steep ascent with few switchback and then the trail flattens out, running along a ridgeline. The next beach is at the North Fork of Jackass Creek, which forms a pool just before entering the ocean.
After the North Fork of Jackass Creek there are some rolling hills and I’m really starting to feel fatigued from the elevation gain that we just did when hiking out of each gulch. We hadn’t considered the elevation gain when planning our hike. With how much distance we still have to cover, I start to think we might not finish hiking until 4 AM. But, there is something about pushing your body in this way and seeing what it is capable of that makes it exciting.
Around 16.5mi down the trail, we hit an old road, Bear Harbor Road, with two tire tracks and grass in between. The trail flattens out and opens up considerably, with the steep hillsides and cliffs turning into small meadows. We reach Needle Rock Visitor Center and sit down in the shaded grass to put on more sunblock. There is an old couple that volunteers here and we begin talking about the time they tried biking across the US when they were younger. The old woman brings us out two cold glasses of ice tea. They are surprised by the distance we have hiked that day, specifically because of the amount of elevation gain involved in doing so, and are surprised that we are planning to hike to Shelter Cove. We decide we should get going because we still have a considerable amount of elevation to gain.
Standing up, we feel rejuvenated. Normally, we try taking as few breaks as possible and making them as short as possible because these are what really decrease the distance you hike in a day. Apparently, our bodies really needed a break. The trail remains relatively flat until we reach Whale Gulch. The section from the visitor center to Whale Gulch ends up being our favorite section of the hike.
Log crossing at Whale Gulch Creek.
Hiking up Whale Gulch.
From here, it switch backs up a steep slope through another forest of ferns. By this point, we are on the homestretch and in “zombie mode”, hiking in silence focusing on taking it one step at a time until we reach the van. We finish the hike around 10:30 PM, having walked 28.31 mi with an elevation gain of 11,739 ft in less than a twenty-four hours, and are exhausted.
This hike was easily one of our hardest day hikes, but oh so fun!
View from Chamisal Mountain as the sun is setting.