Lost Coast Romance

Mattole River to Smith-Etter Road
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In the King Range National Conservation Area .
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From the trailhead at the end of Lighthouse Road, you can pick up the California Coastal Trail (CCT) by either walking due west to the sideline and following the dark sand beach south, or heading south-southwest along an old jeep track near the base of the bluffs. The latter choice shortens the distance by about l/8 mile, but offers less firm footing, important if you're carrying a backpack.

Pass a seasonal creek dropping from the steep bluffs at 3/4 mile. Beyond 1-1/8 miles you pass the more reliable creek of Smith Gulch usually jammed with wildflowers. Round a sandy point rimmed by tidepools at 1-1/4 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 2-1/2 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 2-5/8 miles. Beyond the ford the Cooskie 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 3-1/2 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 3-3/4 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 4-1/2 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 4-3/4 miles, the walking becomes easier at the base of steep bluffs and cliffs.

At 6 miles you reach the broad deep canyon of Cooskie Creek. Sheltered camps lie within 1/4 mile up the canyon. The Cooskie Creek Trail crosses the creek about 3/4 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 7-1/4 to 7-3/4 miles, massive landslides have jumbled the cliffs above the beach. Around 7-1/2 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 8 1/8 miles. Narrower and more wooded than Cooskie 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 8 3/8 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 9-1/4 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 9-3/4 miles. Another spur trail forks left to ascend Spanish Ridge at 10 miles. Continue southeast along the broad Hat, once the site of a sawmill from which lumber was hauled to market by ship.

Reach the broad flood plain of Spanish Creek canyon at 10-7/8 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 11-l/2 miles above a broad beach. Continue along the sandy jeep track, passing Oat Creek at 11-7/8 miles as it spills from a twisting rocky gorge. The jeep track meets the western end of the Smith-Etter Road at 12-1/2 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 Cooskie 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 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 Cooskie Creek and back. If you're game for some steep hiking, you might return on the Cooskie Creek Trail which offers rewarding views.

Distance: 12 1/2 miles (20.1kilometers).

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.

South End 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 dwarf-sized 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

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.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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