Humboldt Section 13

Mattole River to Smith-Etter Road, King Range National Conservation Area

Humboldt Section 13

Mattole River to Smith-Etter Road, King Range National Conservation Area

The Lost Coast even the name sounds dramatic and romantic, especially in a state as heavily populated as California. California's Lost Coast certainly qualifies as a dramatic landscape. It stretches roughly 80 miles along a rugged, lightly traveled coast, backed by a dozen peaks rising more than 2000 feet, crowned by the 4087-foot hulk of Kings Peak. Two dozen year-round streams cascade down deep, steep-walled canyons in a landscape so rugged the highway builders just shook their heads and went elsewhere. Of the four roads that reach this wild coast, two are one-lane dirt and all are twisting and steep. Yes, dramatic fits as does remote. Whether the Lost Coast qualifies as romantic depends upon your point of a view. Do you like to carry a backpack? Will you still like it when you're walking on miles of shifting sand or over high ridges? Can you forego the simple pleasures of civilization? Tables, chairs, hot showers and beds are all in very short supply along the Lost Coast. We find the Lost Coast romantic, but romance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Now for the facts. CCT runs the entire length of the Lost Coast, roughly the next 64 miles of the trail. First it passes along 24½ miles of wilderness beach in King Range National Conservation Area where in some places you have firm footing on dirt road or trail, in a few places you'll be scrambling over slippery rocks, but most of the way you walk on beach sand, firm in places and miserably soft in others. This section and the next cover this beach portion. The third Lost Coast section, Humboldt County Section 15, ironically follows a paved road 4½ miles over a 2000-foot high ridge; the Alternate Route is both steeper and harder. The fourth, sixth and seventh Lost Coast sections, Humboldt County Section 16 and Mendocino County Sections 2 and 3, take to the high country because no continuous route exists along the coast where cliffs rise as high as 1000 feet. Their cumulative elevation gain is 8000 feet with even more elevation loss. Fortunately you never climb more than 1450 feet before making a major descent. Slightly more than half way along the Lost Coast, the fifth section, Mendocino County Section 1, offers a respite, winding through gorgeous coastal terrain at the heart of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park for 2½ miles with only 500 feet of elevation change.

We most heartily recommend that hardy souls visit the Lost Coast, but being prepared and physically fit are essential for hiking the entire Lost Coast. So is having enough time. We suggest at least seven days to walk the entire 64 miles, although the Whole Hikers did it in 6¼ days. The other choice is hiking the Lost Coast in smaller pieces. Our trail sections provide ideas how to break it into more manageable chunks.
From the trailhead at the end of Lighthouse Road, you can either walk due west to the tideline and follow the dark sand beach south, or head south-southwest along an old jeep track near the base of the bluffs. The latter choice shortens the distance by about ⅛ mile, but offers less firm footing, important if you're carrying a backpack.

Pass a seasonal creek dropping from the steep bluffs at ¾ mile. Beyond 1⅛ miles you pass the more reliable creek of Smith Gulch usually jammed with wildflowers. Round a sandy point rimmed by tidepools at 1¼ miles. The bluffs protrude at Windy Point just beyond. The beach narrows and gets rockier as more seasonal streams drop to the beach.
At 2 miles you round the westernmost point of Punta Gorda where Conical Rock lies offshore. As you pass an old road descending from the bluffs at 2½ miles, the Punta Gorda lighthouse ruins come into view. For a break from beach walking you can follow a firm roadbed along the base of the bluffs.
Pass two cabins on the first of several private inholdings before Fourmile Creek at 2⅝ miles. Beyond the ford the Cookie Creek Trail forks left, climbing east along a ridge. This Alternate Route is a CCT high route, the first of three CCT high routes on the trail. (The other two are in Big Sur and the Santa Monica Mountains. CCT continues down the coast on a firm track across grassy bluffs, passing crumbling ranch buildings. Gorda Rock lies offshore.

At 3 miles a path forks left to the lighthouse ruins. The light station, built after the wreck of the Columbia claimed 87 lives here in 1907, guided ships along this windswept, fogbound coast for 40 years. Today only the squat concrete tower remains. BLM razed the other buildings in 1970.
Continue down the coast on the old jeep road, crossing several more creeks.
Beyond Willow Creek at 3½ miles you can return to the beach or climb a hill to stay on the road. The road provides one more chance to return to the beach at 3¾ miles. Either route comes to steep Sea Lion Gulch at 4 miles. Its gully offers a water source and shelter from the wind. Sea lions, cormorants and pelicans inhabit Sea Lion Rocks offshore.

The beach narrows after the gulch. Around 4½ miles the beach may be impassable at high tide. When you pass through the narrow spot, slippery rocks of uneven sizes slow your progress. After you pass a barn and cabin above the beach at 4¾ miles, the walking becomes easier at the base of steep bluffs and cliffs. At 6 miles you reach the broad deep canyon of Cookie Creek. Sheltered camps lie within ¼ mile up the canyon. The Cooskie Creek Trail crosses the creek about ¾ mile upstream with private property not far beyond.

CCT continues along the Lost Coast, requiring a few hundred feet of boulder hopping before the footing improves as the beach widens at the base of cliffs draped with waterfalls. From 7¼ to 7¾ miles, massive landslides have jumbled the cliffs above the beach. Around 7½ miles walking gets rough with large, uneven rocks on a steeply slanting beach, then loose sand and gravel slow progress. After you pass Reynolds Rock offshore, the bluffs show greatly twisted rock strata created by geologic folding.

Come to the mouth of Randall Creek at 8⅛ miles. Narrower and more wooded than Cookie Creek, Randall Creek also provides pleasant camps a short walk upstream. A road along the bluffs beyond the canyon provides firm footing down the coast. Just 250 feet from Randall Creek, the northern end of the Spanish Ridge Trail ascends from your road. Your path crosses rolling grasslands at the base of steep bluffs. Beyond 8⅜ miles you cross a small spring-fed stream where watercress grows.

The marine terrace along the shore broadens as you hike toward Spanish Flat. Beyond 9¼ miles a mostly level footpath crosses the lower bluff as the old road takes to higher ground. Pass two seasonal streams jammed with wildflowers, the second also with watercress and mint. The grassy headlands get broader and flatter as you reach the north end of Spanish Flat around 9¾ miles. Another spur trail forks left to ascend Spanish Ridge at 10 miles. Continue southeast along the broad flat.

Reach the broad flood plain of Spanish Creek canyon at 10⅞ miles with several campsites nearby. After dropping to the creek, climb to a mostly level grassland and follow it down the coast. After an old corral, you come to pioneer Paul Smith's cabin at 11½ miles above a broad beach. Continue along the sandy jeep track, passing Oat Creek at 11⅞ miles as it spills from a twisting rocky gorge. The jeep track meets the western end of the Smith-Etter Road at 12½ miles, halfway along the King Range Lost Coast.

ALTERNATE ROUTE: A CCT high route traverses the King Range south of Punta Gorda, but it is steep, longer than CCT, and hard to follow in places. From the south side of Fourmile Creek, follow the Cookie Creek Trail inland. After 10 miles it joins the Telegraph Ridge Jeep Trail. In another mile you have the choice of continuing along the road to Smith-Etter Road to link with the Kings Crest Trail (see Humboldt County Section 14 Alternate Route) or descending the Spanish Ridge Trail to return to CCT at the beach.

SUGGESTED ROUND TRIPS & LOOPS: The hike to Punta Gorda lighthouse and back makes a nice, if often windy, day hike. It takes a full day to get to Cookie Creek and back. If you're game for some steep hiking, you might return on the Cookie Creek Trail which offers rewarding views.

Distance: 12½ miles (20.1 kilometers).

Open to: Hikers, equestrians.

Surface: Beach, trail.

Access point: Mattole River Recreation Site.

How to get there: Leave Highway 101 at South Fork/Honeydew exit, Milepost 36.1 from north, Milepost 35.5 from south. Take Mattole Road west 23 miles to Honeydew, then turn right and follow Mattole Road 14 more miles to Lighthouse Road just before Petrolia. Go left on Lighthouse Road about 5 miles to its end at the beach.

Other access: Smith-Etter Road (steep 4-mile hike to CCT).

Difficulty: Moderate

Elevation gain/loss: Minimal, depending on route you take.

Cautions: This isolated country is far from towns and services. Watch for the dwarfsized timber rattlesnakes that live along the Lost Coast, especially in and around the creek canyons. Several points may be impassable at high tide.

Further information: Bureau of Land Management (707)825-2300 or 468-4000.

Facilities: Chemical toilet, campground, picnic area at access point. Phone in Petrolia.

Campgrounds: Mattole River Recreation Site is at start of section (no water). Primitive camping allowed along route. A. W. Way County Park is 7 miles east of Lighthouse Road on Mattole Road.

Lodging: Lost Inn and Ziganti's are in Petrolia. Mattole River Resort is near Honeydew.

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