The Lost Coast Trail 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; 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. Because it's built to state park standards there aren't any really steep or technically difficult sections.
Although there aren't actually a lot of redwoods here, the trail does pass through a small stand about 5 miles in, which is the destination for this hike. There are also a few smaller stands of redwoods, particularly Chase Grove, of which perhaps a few dozen trees can be seen from the trail in a scenic ravine. The redwoods 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. The woodland as a whole, though, is quite scenic and varied.
Long pants are recommended to protect against poison oak. Although there isn't a lot of it (the first two and a half miles hardly have any), parts of the trail are somewhat overgrown and the occasional small sprig of poison oak hiding in the undergrowth among the many other 3-leafed plants can be difficult to spot.
This hike, headed south from the Visitor Center, is by far the most popular in the area, even among day hikers. However, the first two and a half miles are a somewhat dull dirt road, so if you just want a short hike, consider going north on the Lost Coast Trail instead. Although the trail to the north is narrow and overgrown, it's quite a bit more scenic than the dirt road.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
The 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 first two and a half miles of the hike follow an old, overgrown section of Briceland Thorn Road. Until recently it was possible to drive this stretch of road, but a landslide near the beginning has made it too dangerous and the road is now closed to vehicles. The road is pleasant but unexceptional; compared to what follows it's a little dull. However, the road is much more open than the singletrack trail and has the only ocean views of the hike. Near the end the road narrows and becomes almost indistinguishable from a singletrack trail.
The Lost Coast Trail proper starts out with a pleasant stroll along a level path cut through tall, dense blackberry brambles. The trail passes some campgrounds. A short spur to the right crosses a footbridge and leads to a beach; here you can see the cliffs that you'll be walking on top of. The main trail continues to the left, becoming somewhat faint and overgrown as it passes through a meadow. Fortunately it soon opens up again as it comes under the tree canopy. In general, the trail is overgrown whenever it comes out from under the trees, but most of the trail is under the trees and in good condition.
The trail climbs along a ravine, then turns and winds its way up a hillside, passing a few stumps and the remains of an old road. The trail levels out and passes through an attractive fir grove. Eventually it descends slightly into another ravine with trickling creek where a few good-sized redwoods grow.
The trail continues at a roughly constant elevation, although there still seems to be a lot of up-and-down as it meanders engagingly through dense green woodland.
After an extended climb, the trail tops out at a pair of small knolls, then begins to descend. For a while, the trail leaves the forest and becomes a little faint and overgrown, though it's always easy to discern the trail. Finally, the trail re-enters the forest, turns away from the coast, and begins to descend through a fir grove that soon gives way to redwoods. This is School Marm Grove. It comes as something of a relief to have a mile-long stretch of straight (at least between the switchbacks), clear trail where you can walk at a normal speed. The redwoods get larger as you descend, reaching their largest size right at the point where the trail bottoms out.The camp consists of four campsites that are widely spaced over the next half-mile or so.
Wheeler Camp has five campsites which, unusually, are very widely spaced out over the next three-quarters of a mile of trail. The first campsite is in a small clearing next to the redwoods.
A second campsite is located at the intersection with the Wheeler Trail, which is an unmarked trail to your left that also leads past the campground's outhouse. The Wheeler Trail 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.
The trail continues through an attractive alder grove and open fields before reaching a small cove with a wide black sand beach, which is the turnaround point of the hike. There's one campsite right next to the beach and two more on the overgrown trail just past and slightly above the beach.
© 2010, 2016, 2017 David Baselt