Surfing the Lost Coast
Dave Rumberg, our Director of Acquisitions, shares his guide to hiking (and surfing!) the Lost Coast in northern California.
You don’t always think about hiking to surf. We’re lucky that most beaches in the Bay are easily accessed from the parking lot you drive to. But there are a few places where great surf spots can only be accessed to those willing to hike and camp out. I would like to introduce you to a stretch of coast North of Mendocino where engineers constructing the Pacific Coast Highway determined the coastline was just too rugged and difficult to navigate; a place called the Lost Coast. There lies a 25 mile stretch of hikeable beach from Mattole Campground to the Black Sands Beach trailhead. There’s a 12 mile hike from Black Sands Beach to Big Flat where there is a terrific spot to surf. Wonderland Trail Guide has a great trail guide book for the area.
Dave Rumberg on the Lost Coast.
Timing the tides will be the most important factor to consider for your trip (and not just because of the surfing part of your trip). You will need to consider tides, wind, and swell since parts of the trail become un-hikeable and even dangerous when the tide is high. Once you’ve decided on a date range, you will need to purchase a wilderness permit at Recreation.gov. Use the Shelter Cove Harbor tide chart to pick a series of days where there is midday low tide. You’ll want to time both directions of your hike to hit the shaded area of the trail near low tide:
The wind is also an important consideration as your hike to Big Flat faces the prevailing wind direction. It is advisable to avoid periods of days where the wind is expected to be in excess of 10 mph, especially if you’ve got a giant surfboard in tow. It’ll feel like having a sail on your back, pushing you in the wrong direction. Look at wind reports by hour for timing your hike to Big Flat.
Lastly, swell is important for obvious reasons; it wouldn’t be ideal for you to hike through wind and high tides just to arrive at a flat swell when you got there.
What to Pack
Sports Basement has a 2 person backpacking rental package that’s perfect for this trip. If you have your own gear or are borrowing gear, a good dew or rain fly for your tent is a must. Remember, you are camping on the coast and anything left outside overnight will get wet.
Please note the bear canister is included in the rental package. Besides bears, which are rare, there are other smaller creatures with finely tuned noses that will locate the trail mix left in your backpack and promptly chew a hole into it when you’re not paying attention. I highly recommend you keep all food in the canister. Trust me on this one.
You will also need to consider adding water filtration. There are creeks nearby to get water, but I highly recommend bringing your own water and using it sparingly until you’ve located a water source. I really like the 10 liter gravity flow by MSR. It can be a hands-off means to get a lot of water for drinking and cooking, especially if you have a few people in your camping party. What is convenient is that you don’t need to sit hunched over your water source. You simply scoop up the water in your bag, carry it back to your campsite and let it hang to do the filtering while you’re enjoying the sunset or preparing a meal. I paired my filter with a 20 liter water cube by GSI Outdoors to store filtered water. The gravity bag has a fitting that screws right into the water cube. When empty, the cube is pliable and easily made small for packing.
Remember that you're hiking on trail, sand, and cobblestone. I think hiking boots are a better choice than trail running shoes since sand will definitely load up in your shoes as sections of the hike have you navigating through loose sand. Plus, hiking boots offer added stability when you are carrying a load on your back.
Lastly, I simply lashed the surfboard on the backpack. It was much easier than attempting to carry it under my arm. Either way, the surfboard does create a wind sail, which means you will absolutely be frustrated if it is too windy.
Where to set up camp
There are plenty of driftwood campsites and fire pits to pick from. Most surfers choose to camp on the bluff overlooking the waves, but it is a bit more wind affected.
The surf spot should be evident - it's a big, sweeping, right hand point break. The entry is a mix of reef, cobblestone, and beach depending on where you elect to paddle out. There are a few take off zones and you can chew off as much or as little as you feel comfortable. The picture below shows a great overhead day in October (see the small spec of a surfer on each wave).
Coming from the Bay Area, you will be heading North on Hwy 101. You’ll need to exit off Hwy 101 once you reach Garberville, head West on Redwood Dr. until you reach Briceland Rd, turn left heading West. The drive on Briceland Road will have you feeling like you're lost. Look for an intersection where Briceland Road feels like it turns into Shelter Cove Road, stay on Shelter Cove Road. When you come into town take a right on Beach Road. There is a parking lot up on the hill above the trailhead.
Happy surfing and hiking!