Even as the northern half of the 53-mile Lost Coast Trail has become one of the hottest destinations for California backpacking, the stunning southern half—in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park—is much less visited. This is in part due to the difficulty of access and rough condition of the trail through the state park. But hearty visitors are rewarded with stunning beaches, ample wildlife viewing, and terrific redwood groves.
In a previous post, I covered some logistics of covering this section and described the 7.6-mile section connecting Needle Rock Visitor Center with Wheeler Camp. In this post, I cover the next 3.6-mile stretch between the black sand beach at Wheeler and the next camp at Little Jackass Creek, another challenging section that can be covered as an out-and-back day hike from Wheeler or part of a broader through-hike from Needle Rock (or farther north at Mattole or Shelter Cove) to Usal Beach. Little Jackass boasts a beach that is arguably even more spectacular than Wheeler—and is a frequent landing pad for a variety of seabirds, sea lions, and harbor seals.
Sinkyone Wilderness State Park’s Wheeler Camp—a 7.6-mile hike in itself from the Needle Rock Visitor Center—boasts access to a serene and lonely blank sand beach set in a scenic gulch below Jackass Ridge. Campsites are spread out over a 2/3-mile stretch, from the beach to the edge of the School Marm Grove of giant redwoods, with few bad sites in the bunch. The most popular option—if one can brave the frequent wind—is to camp just off the beach itself, where Jackass Creek slithers around the sand and empties into the ocean.
This description of Wheeler to Little Jackass thus starts from the beach, where hikers should look for a thin trail heading south along a berm perched several feet above the tidal flat. The path quickly gains height, coming precariously close to a 15-foot drop on the right, before rising to an open gulch with a few stone and concrete remnants of the logging community that once dominated this drainage until its closure in the mid-20th century. Views from here to the beach and mouth of Jackass Creek are terrific and get even better as the Lost Coast Trail winds southward.
The onward route passes through dense thicket, some of the worst on this heavily overgrown trail, starting in thistle and other coastal scrub before rising to a layer of ferns and Douglas firs. After skirting an initial ravine, the steep trail switchbacks up a verdant hillside, with another terrific view back to Wheeler at around 0.45 miles. The subsequent climb feels like something straight out of Jurassic Park: a thick jungle of head-high undergrowth, with lush fern-studded slopes beyond.
The relentless climb, one of several on the route, eases a around the one-mile mark, where hikers can take a spur trail heading right, out to a ridgetop above Anderson Cliff, an imposing, near-vertical bluff that drops nearly 700 feet to the Pacific Ocean. The northward vistas to Wheeler Beach—with the Bear Harbor, Shelter Cove, and King Range in the distance—are simply jaw-dropping, some of the best along the entire Lost Coast. Be extremely careful though—as there is no barrier between you and a death-inducing drop to the rocks and coast below.
After returning to the main trail, bear right and drop down through a Douglas fir forest, followed around 1.4 miles by the first of a couple meadows of coastal scrub with some limited views of the ocean. All throughout, the thicket is dense—although the treefall obstacles are not nearly as frequent as the Needle Rock to Wheeler section. After rising to a low notch, the trail drops again through another meadow—follow the trail hugging the edge of the woods.
From here the Lost Coast Trail begins a sharp and brutal ascent, skirting around a woody drainage and switchbacking up to a point more than 1,000 feet above sea level. The summit crest, at about 2.5 miles, leads into an equally steep descent, dropping out to a woody finger of Jackass Ridge, then sharply cutting left and resuming the downhill into the deep-cut Little Jackass Creek drainage.
Once out of fir layer and down into the coastal scrub, the thistle returns, but hikers are rewarded with their first unobstructed view down to the beach at Jackass Creek. Thinner than Wheeler, the beach here is nonetheless similar, with a stream feeding into the ocean cove with high waves.
Finally, the trail descends away from the ocean and passes an outhouse on the right. Take a hard right here, passing the pit toilet, to continue toward the beach, about 2/10 mile from the Lost Coast Trail. Like at Wheeler, there are multiple campsites here, with the best situated just off the tidal flat. The beach at Little Jackass is notable for being a sanctuary for sea lions and harbor seals, as well as a multitude of seabirds, such as pelicans, ospreys, and sandpipers. Lucky visitors may spot migrating whales out to sea.
Even though the distance is relatively short (3.6 miles), many hikers may seek to camp at Little Jackass because the onward route is even more challenging. Others may push to the next camp at Anderson Gulch and Usal Beach. Day hikers must return the way they came, back up 1,000 feet and down again to Wheeler, finishing a challenging 7.2-mile out-and-back.
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