Packrafting the King's Range Loop: Linking California's Lost Coast with the Mattole River.
Why Packraft the King Range Loop?: As packrafters, the loop route is one of the most compelling reasons for hiking with your paddling gear. How often do you get to go on a river trip where you start and end at the same place? Now think of the number of loop routes out there that also include a wilderness costal hike. That's what makes the Lost Coast-Mattole loop truly a unique route. On its own, the Lost Coast is an incredibly scenic and rugged section of coastline known for its abundant marine life and wildflowers. Now add some whitewater and a scenic forested river to the mix and you have the recipe for a great packraft adventure.
The Lost Coast Hike: The Lost Coast offers a very unique costal wilderness hiking opportunity. Those wishing to do the packraft loop will be traveling north to south from Mattole Beach Trailhead to Black Sands Beach Trailhead. This direction of travel also has the added benefit of hiking with the persistent prevailing northwest wind at your back. While the hike largely travels at or near ocean level, there are dozens of creeks and streams descending from the King Range which ensures that there is plenty of freshwater along the route. Camping is possible anywhere on BLM land, but there are some more commonly used sites identified in the map embedded below the "Tides" section. The walking alternates between sand or cobble in the tidal zones, to well defined trails traveling along the grassy benches above beach level. We elected to do the walk over two days, but many backpackers chose to add an additional day to enjoy the excellent tide-pooling, wildflowers, and marine mammals for which the coast is known. While this trip report is focused on the Lost Coast as a leg of a packraft loop, a quick google search will yield a wealth of backpacking-specific trip reports.
Tides: The most logistically important element of a Lost Coast trip is understanding how to plan your trip to be in alignment with the right tidal schedule. The are three sections of the route that are impassable at high tide (specifically above 3 ft.). It's necessary to time low tides with daylight hours to clear the route's pinch points. Before you pick up a permit, check out this incredibly helpful interactive tide chart to ensure a trip will be possible during you desired dates. The map embedded below (from hikingguy.com) highlights the tidal zones, some potential hazards and some common camping areas along the Lost Coast.
Permits: Once you have determined the tide schedule for your trip, you will need a permit for the King Range National Conservation Area through recreation.gov. Permits become available for the subsequent year on October 1st. In the winter and early spring rainy season, the Lost Coast tends to get less traffic and we found it to be really simple to pick up a cancelation permit less than two weeks ahead of our mid-April trip. Check out the BLM webpage for all the permit regulations, tide safety information, and trip planning resources.
Connecting the Lost Coast to the Mattole River: While the paved road between Shelter Cove and Thorn Jct. is by no means wilderness, it's the quickest and shortest way to connect the Lost Coast with the river, making this cool loop possible. We found hitching this section to be an easy option given how accustomed the residents of Shelter Cove are to helping hikers. Biking or hiking are also possibilities, just keep in mind that there is a net gain of 2500 feet on this windy road and there isn't any shoulder. There would appear to be many creative ways, albeit longer, to connect existing NCA trails and dirt roads and minimize your time on the paved stretch.
The Mattole: While not necessarily a destination river, the almost parallel northwest course of the Mattole allows Lost Coast packrafters to take the liquid conveyor belt back to the start of the loop. We were surprised by the wild nature of this run, especially given most of the land surounding the river is privately owned. While there are a few bridges that cross the river where signs of civilization are consolidated, much of the rest of the run is in an undeveloped river corridor. The river can be divided into two sections in terms of difficulty and character:
The Upper (Thorn Jct. to Ettersburg, 11miles): Tight boulder gardens with lots of small, mid-stream trees and vegetation in play. Mostly class III in difficulty with two rapids that stand out as class IV. The first of these rapids is just below the confluence of Nooning Creek and is very undercut with lots of vegetation in the entry. Perhaps paddleable at some flows, we found this to be a reasonable portage on river right. Despite being brushy, we found this section to be quite beautiful and fun. While this section would be less boney at high water, it would not be appropriate for paddlers without class IV experience do to the serious hazard of strainers.
The Lower (Ettersburg to the ocean, 48 miles): While the final 48 miles could be split into multiple sections, I have grouped it together due to its similar character. Below Ettersburg, the river channel widens and alternates between section of braided class II whitewater and short slow moving canyons. There is one rapid, just above Honeydew, where the river breaks character and drops through a long class III boulder garden at the site of an old landslide, before returning to its typical meandering nature. The final approach to the coast below Petrolia mellows to class I with the potential for some upstream wind off the ocean.
Flows: There are multiple gauges on this river: one at Ettersburg and one closer to the mouth at Petrolia. I only include the link to the Ettersburg gauge because it is more relevant to determining if the "upper" section is paddleable, which is likely the limiting factor of the route. This write-up suggests a flow range of 300cfs-900cfs using the Ettersburg guage. Having only paddled this stretch at our flow of 320cfs, I would agree that I wouldn't want to go much lower that 300cfs, even in a packraft. 900cfs might be a great level for advanced paddlers but, as mentioned, the narrow and vegetated nature of upper section adds to the potential hazard as the run gets pushier. I would wager that 400-600 would be a great flow that fills in the run without blowing out the pools between rapids.
Camping on the River: At just under 60 miles in length, the Mattole will likely take at least two days of paddling to complete, especially on the low end of flows. While the west side of the King Range and the Lost Coast are almost exclusively public land, the east side of the range is mostly private. Luckily, there are a few great camping options on public land along the river, so packrafters will need to plan their mileage intentionally and know exactly where they are on the map before camping. In the 1st Caltopo embedded above, I have outlined the few BLM managed plots that are adjacent to the river. During our trip we looked at each one and determined that all have good gravel bar camping options (at least between low to moderate water levels). Double check my recommendations with the public land layer of your preferred mapping software as this could change over time. We paddled the last 40 miles of the Mattole (from the final possible BLM parcel to the mouth) in one day, which was a bit of a slog at our low flow of 320 cfs. We later discovered there is a county park (noted on the 1st map) with paid camping. Spending a second night on the river there would break up the travel more evenly and allow for a less intensive final day of paddling when water levels are low.