In July 2019 a small wildfire burned along Usal Road between the Usal Beach Campground and Highway 1, cutting off access to the campground and the southern trailhead. It’s not clear when the road will reopen.
The exceptionally scenic Lost Coast Trail winds over dramatic, high seaside bluffs and through deep, redwood-filled canyons. The unspoiled and remarkably varied scenery includes remote black-sand beaches and patches of old-growth redwoods. Throughout the hike, no development at all is visible; this is one of the few spots on the California Coast that doesn’t have any roads or buildings.
The southern half of the trail is exceptionally challenging, with an extreme amount of up-and-down for a coastal trail. Worse, it’s unfortunately not very well-maintained. Much of this section is heavily overgrown with brush, and erosion makes parts of the trail very difficult and somewhat dangerous. There isn’t a lot of poison oak, but with the occasional sprig hiding in the brush and lots of thorny brush, it makes things a lot easier to wear long pants.
The northern half of the trail is easier but less dramatic. It runs through miles of lush, attractive coastal woodland high up on top of the rugged coastal cliffs. There aren’t a whole lot of ocean views in this area, since most of the trail is lushly wooded and on summer days is often in the fog. Although it’s in a wilderness, the trail is fairly popular and is generally in good condition, without any really steep or technically difficult sections.
Just getting to the trail is a bit of an adventure. Both the northern and the southern ends can only be reached by 6-mile drives over the coastal bluffs on steep, bumpy dirt roads. Both roads are about the same difficulty. During the summer dry season, I’ve never had any problem driving them in a Honda Civic, and I’ve even seen Mini Coopers and a Volkswagon campervan do it with no problem. The biggest worry is that you might meet a huge pickup truck coming the other way while you’re on a steep climb. If it’s rained within the past few weeks, though, the road gets treacherously slippery and sometimes becomes completely impassable.
Here’s the northern trailhead location in Google Maps.
Take Highway 1 to Usal Road. The beginning of the road (Google Street View) is completely unmarked except for two warning signs. The worst part of the drive is the initial steep, narrow, sandy climb to the top of a bluff. After a nice wide, level portion, there’s a steep, sandy, but slightly easier descent to Usal Beach. There’s no parking fee at the southern trailhead.
Here’s the northern trailhead location in Google Maps.
The northern trailhead is about an hour and a half from Highway 101. Take one of the Redway exits and continue to the town of Redway, then turn onto Briceland-Thorn Road toward Shelter Cove. The road climbs though attractive countryside. Turn left onto Briceland Road. Interestingly, there are a few isolated old-growth redwoods along the side of the road. Just past the Mendocino county line, the road passes a larger old-growth grove to your right. This grove is actually an isolated part of Sinkyone Wilderness.
Go straight at the “four corners” intersection, where the road becomes dirt. The road can be steep, bumpy and uneven, and it’s not easy to pass if you encounter another car driving in the opposite direction. Fortunately the drive out is usually easier than the drive in. Wind your way down until you reach the Needle Rock visitor center, where there’s a gate across the road. Park in the pullout across from the visitor center and pay the $6.00 parking fee.
The length of this section is misleading; it feels more like 10 miles and will take at least as long as a typical 10-mile hike.
The trail begins at the Usal Beach campground, named for the USA Lumber Company, which built a sawmill here in 1889.
The campground doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t even have defined campsites, but there always seem to be spots available. Despite its remoteness, the large campground is very popular and can be a bit of a zoo on summer weekends, with cars constantly driving by on the dusty roads and radios blaring. There are no park rangers or any other staff present, and I’ve heard that people illegally off-road on the beach, set off fireworks, and even shoot guns late into the night. Fortunately, all of this is left behind within the first mile of the hike.
The trail begins with a climb along an attractive redwood-covered ridge. About a half-mile in is a brief break in the woods with a nice viewpoint. There’s a little up-and-down as the trail continues through woods and open coastal scrub.
At mile 1.5 the trail begins a steep and unpleasantly brush-clogged climb up an exposed hillside. This is the worst brushy section of the entire trail; it continues for about a mile but feels never-ending. It’s a relief when the trail finally enters the woods again, where it becomes blissfully wide and clear (if I’m doing an out-and back, on the way back I’ll usually cut over to the dirt road at this point so that I can skip all the brush). The descent into Dark Gulch is mostly clear and easy; at one point there’s an attactive little patch of old-growth redwoods, with 3 or 4 medium-sized trees visible from the trail.
The crossing of Dark Gulch, including the last few descending switchbacks and the first few ascending switchbacks, is by far the most heavily-eroded part of the trail. The loose, sandy soils within the remarkably steep-sided canyon have resulted in steep, sandy up-and-downs, slumped trails, and dangerously narrowed hillside cuts. It’s quite a slow and unpleasant half-mile.
The trail finally improves as it climbs out of the canyon, but then there’s more brush. In fact this second hill feels like a smaller version of the first. Fortunately it’s much shorter, and it also has the best views of the entire hike, of the glittering ocean and the impressively tall, steep, redwood-covered bluffs both to the north and south. It’s really remarkable to think you have, or will, climb to the top of the imposing bluffs.
It’s another easy descent through redwoods to reach Anderson Gulch. The very bottom of the trail, however, is lined with stinging nettles.
Anderson Camp is the least scenic of Sinkyone’s trail camps; it’s OK, but there isn’t anything exciting about it. There are two campsites: one under the trees next to a brook in the bottom of a steep-sided canyon, and another in a grassy field next to the toilet. The toilet is completely exposed in the middle of a field. Any remains of the enclosure have likely been used for firewood, and all that remains now is a plastic vent pipe lying nearby in the grass.
There’s no path to the shore from Anderson Camp.
After another climb there’s a long, level section of trail. Unfortunately this part of the trail follows the route of an old logging road and has become heavily overgrown with 8 foot tall purple pampas grass, an invasive plant that commonly grows on the sides of logging roads in redwood forests. In places it’s so thick that you can’t even see the trail or, for that matter, anything else except for grass. What could be a nice, easy, and scenic section is instead slow and annoying. The overgrowth finally clears up as the trail begins to descend through a pleasant redwood forest; this section, like most of the redwood-covered parts of the trail, is exceptionally smooth, clear, and easy.
Little Jackass Creek (not to be confused with Jackass Creek, which is further down the trail at Wheeler Beach) has the most attractive campground of the hike. For that matter, it’s one of the most attractive campgrounds in any redwood park. It’s one of the highlights of the hike. Located in a lush glen surrounded by precipitously steep, high, redwood-covered hills, the campground is set in an old-growth redwood grove (maybe part of the Sally Bell Grove), with 10 or 12 medium-sized redwoods visible from the trail. There aren’t actually a lot of places where you can camp under old-growth redwoods, and none of them can really compare to this campground. Unusually, there are also maples; the lighter foliage of the maples contrasts with the darker, more formal-looking redwoods and gives the grove a distinctively friendly, leafy appearance. The burbling of a little brook fills the grove, even in late summer. A short trail leads to a secluded beach. In fact the entire area is so secluded that even on a Labor Day weekend, I didn’t see a single person in the area all day.
After Little Jackass Creek Camp, the trail climbs steeply out of the canyon. Typically for a south-facing hillside, the climb is scrubby, overgrown, occasionally poison oak-infested, and a little rough, but unlike the previous hills, it improves as the trail climbs. Overall, even though this is the biggest climb of the hike, it’s much less brushy and eroded and therefore not nearly as difficult as the previous climbs.
The top of the hill marks the end of the really hard part of the trail; the rest of the Lost Coast Trail has a much more reasonable level of difficulty. The landscape changes, too, with more woodland and less scrub.
There’s a nice, easy descent through mixed woodland, then a short but brushy climb, and finally another easy descent through an attractive grove of small redwoods. Near the bottom, the trail becomes brushy and overgrown again.
The overgrown trail descends to a small cove with a wide, secluded black sand beach, the most scenic beach on the trail. There aren’t any signs, but Wheeler Camp is spread out over about the next three-quarters of a mile of trail. It’s the only Sinkyone campground to be so spread out. The first two campsites are just before and slightly above the beach, and a third is right next to the beach; all are exposed to the sun and wind.
After the beach, the trail continues through an attractive alder grove and open fields before reaching the intersection with the Wheeler Trail. A fourth campsite and an outhouse can be found here. The Wheeler Trail is an unmarked trail to your right that used to be a mainline logging road; until 1960 a sawmill was located right here at the bottom of the road, and timber was stacked up in the little valley between here and the beach. Today no sign of this activity remains and the area feels remarkably wild and remote.
Much further down the trail is a final campsite in a small clearing next to some redwoods.
The trail starts climbing through School Marm Grove, the largest old-growth redwood grove on the trail. The largest redwoods are right at the bottom of the hill; they tend to be slightly twisted and gnarled and lack the height or the magnificent, straight-as-an-arrow appearance of the redwoods in the major redwood parks. As the trail switchbacks uphill, the redwoods get progressively smaller, then give way to fir. Thanks to the tree cover, the climb is blissfully clear of brush.
Reaching the ridgetop, the trail leaves the woods and becomes a little faint and overgrown, but with some nice ocean views. After climbing over a pair of small knolls the trail more or less stays around the same elevation for a while, although there’s still a lot of up-and-down as it meanders engagingly through dense green woodland.
The trail crosses a ravine with a trickling creek where a few good-sized redwoods grow. This is Chase Grove. After the redwoods, the trail runs through an attractive fir grove.
After descending past a few stumps, the trail bottoms out and becomes somewhat faint, rough, and overgrown as it runs along a stream.
The trail passes three backcountry campgrounds. Bear Harbor Camp is the best since it has two very nice sites right next to a little cove. These sites are almost always occupied, often by big groups with lots of little kids who have walked in from the Needle Rock parking lot. Two other sites are further from the cove and don't get any ocean view, but they’re still pretty nice and are more sheltered.
Railroad Camp is in a pleasantly wooded area, but it’s been closed for a few years due to the danger posed by some unstable eucalyptus trees.
Orchard Camp used to be a car campground before Briceland Thorn Road was closed. It has three sites by a brook in a little wooded glen. There’s no scenery to speak of, nor is there any beach access or really anything at all of interest nearby. On the other hand, the sites are pleasantly wooded, sheltered by the surrounding hills, generally quiet, and feel more private than Bear Harbor.
The last two and a half miles of the hike follow an old section of Briceland Thorn Road. At first the road is so narrow and overgrown that it’s almost indistinguishable from a singletrack trail. Until recently it was possible to drive this section, but a landslide near Needle Rock has made it too dangerous and the road is now closed to vehicles. The road is pleasant but unexceptional as it winds over some low, partially-wooded hills; compared to the singletrack, it’s a little dull. However, the road is much more open and has some ocean views.
Just past the end of the trail, north of the Needle Rock Visitor Center, are three more campgrounds. Barn Camp is right next to the visitor center and parking lot, and is the most popular because you don’t have to walk very far from your car. There are four sites, plus a cabin (the barn); two sites are on an exposed, open hillside with nice ocean views, while two others are tucked away in a wooded ravine.
Streamside Camp has three sites. Site 1 is a tiny site wedged onto a steep embankment under some trees; site 2 is bigger and is set well back from the trail in a clearing; and site 3 is on an exposed hilltop with a great ocean view. .
Jones Beach Camp is a very nice campground with four sites, the largest of which is under some huge eucalyptus trees. It’s on a scenic bluff a five-minute walk from Jones Beach. Although it’s pretty popular, it doesn’t feel as busy as Bear Harbor. There’s a 0.2-mile trail from the campground to the main road, but no pullout on the road where you can park. Even so,there are always a few cars parked precariously on the side of the narrow road.
© 2010, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021 David Baselt