Black Sand Beach ___Bureau of Land Management __flickr

Explore Black Sand Beach Shelter Cove: California's Lost Coast

Miles of undeveloped black sand beaches await you here at California's Lost Coast. The best way to visit these beaches is at the the quaint town of Shelter Cove on the Southern end of the Lost Coast.  Here you will find several beautiful beaches covered in black sand and pebbles. These unique beaches are pristine and picture ready. A short stroll can even  take you  from one beach to the next.

This is a great place to visit near the redwood forests of Northern CA. We stopped here after spending 2 weeks exploring the redwoods, and even as much as we loved the trees, it was a breath of fresh air to get a change of scenery and visit these breathtaking black sand beaches.

The road to the black sand beaches on the Lost Coast and Shelter Cove is really long and windy, so be prepared. (about 1 hr 10 min. drive from Humboldt State Park) It is really easy road to get car sick on. There are also no stops along the way so go to the bathroom before you leave and pack snacks for the drive.

Make sure to make this a  must see destination on your next California road trip.

Black Sand Beach

A bit about Black Sand Beach

The peaceful, picturesque city of Shelter Cove is home to scenic cliffs and beautiful beaches with black sand. Strong waves mean these beaches are not good for swimming, but they are great for walking, taking pictures, building rock towers, viewing tide pool creatures on nearby rocks, and seeing black sand. This area makes up the southern section of California’s 100-mile Lost Coast. This means there are 100 miles of natural, undeveloped coastline that can be hiked and explored. 

The sands of Black Sands Beach, one of Shelter Cove’s best beaches, is made of a dark sandstone called greywacke and an older, compressed shale produced by tectonic activity. Greywacke is a sedimentary mudstone made from small, mud-like particles (small pieces) containing iron and sandstone that eroded and were carried into the ocean from rivers and settled on the ocean floor.

The tectonic activity that compressed this shale is a result of three tectonic plate boundaries located just a few miles off the shore of Black Sands Beach--the thicker North American Continental Plate (making up the USA, Canada, and Mexico) and the two thinner oceanic plates (the Pacific Plate and the Gorda Plate) under the Pacific Ocean. Over time, the two oceanic plates partially subducted, or sank, under the thick continental plate, causing the continental plate to rise. This rapid rise of the North American Plate caused greywacke and compressed shale to rise up and form cliffs and beaches. The beautiful black beaches of California’s Lost Coast are formed when strong waves break parts of these cliffs down. The beaches become darker as the rocks continue to break down, because the black sand is heavier than the lighter sediment. When the lighter rocks break down, they are washed away by currents and waves. 

What you can see and do at Black Sand Beach in Shelter Cove.

Take a walk and play on the beach

The black sand beaches go on for miles starting at Little Black Sand Beach. Take a stroll along the beach and enjoy the serenity.  

Take some time to play in the sand. Don't play by the waters edge.  The waves of these beaches are powerful so keep an eye out for sneaker waves as you walk or play, and stay safe. Only walk along this beach when the tide is low for your safety.

Little Black Sand Beach Shelter Cove
Little Black Sand Beach 

Hike the Lost Coast Trail

This is a strenuous 25.5 mile hike that can take anywhere from 2-4 days. This hike is along the beach between the ocean and the mountains so you will need to be aware of the tides and dangers of this hike. Check out this website for details of hiking The Lost Coast Trail.

This hike should be done from north to south, starting at Mattole Beach and ending at Shelter Cove, and requires a permit. 

Black Sand Beach Shelter Cove
Black Sand Beach__Bradley West__Flickr

Explore the different coves. Little Black Sands Beach, and Shelter Cove Beach

Little Black sands Beach can be reached at low tide by walking south along Black Sands Beach. The waves that hit this beach are a little smaller than the waves at black Sands Beach due to the large rocks around the cove. Still watch for sneaker waves, and enjoy the views

Shelter Cove Beach you can drive you car down to this beach. It is a popular place for fisherman and boats and is protected by a jetty, so it might be safer for kids.

Little Black Sand Beach
Little Black Sand Beach  ___Bureau of Land Management __flickr

Watch Seals at Seal Rock Picnic Area and watch the large waves crash against the rocks

Seal Rock Picnic Area is a good spot to view seals, sea lions, shore birds and waves along the ocean rocks. Picnic tables are provided so you can relax.

The waves are powerful along this part of the California coastline. Watch and listen as they crash and create large splashes along the nearby rocks.   

Harbor seal on a rock
Harbor Seal --  Christopher Michel __ flickr

Drive to Mendocino Lighthouse

This small beautiful light house sits in Mal Coombs Park at the tip of Point Delgada. Picnic, relax, and take pictures as you enjoy the view.

Mendocino Lighthouse
Light House Shelter Cove__Jay Cross__Flickr

Black Sand Beach Pro Planning Tips

  • Season: July - Sept. when it is warm and has the least amount of rain.
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Time Needed: Day trip
  • Cost: Free
  • Stay out of the water! Sleeper (sneaker) waves on the beach are dangerous. Do not play in or near the water at Black Sands Beach. People have drowned here. 
  • Use caution. On our visit we played near the water, not in the water at Little Black Sands Beach. Locals told us it's safer, but still be careful. There are large rocks there to break up large waves. We still kept a close eye on the water for sleeper waves. (AKA sneaker waves)
  • Best beach to play near the water is Shelter Cove Beach. There is a rock jetty that blocks waves. It is also a boat launching area.
  • Because the waves are so strong, you might see sea stars on the beach. Take a walk and explore. We found seven sea stars on our walk near the rocks on the south side of the beach.
  • The drive to Black Sands Beach in Shelter Cove is long and windy. It's worth the drive, but be prepared if anyone gets car sick.
  • There are only a few restaurants in Shelter Cove.  Most close before eight and don’t open every day. Plan ahead of time.
  • Shelter Cove is a small town with a small airport and a few restaurants. It is peaceful, beautiful, and very laid back. Plan on a relaxing day trip or a weekend getaway.

More Black Sand Beach Favorites, Can you Spot it?

Black Sand Beach bonus! If you keep your eyes alert you will see some of the  unique and incredible things that make Black Sand Beach so incredible.

Black sand

Black sand is hidden under all the smooth black rocks covering the beach. The sand is made up of iron rich greywacke and shale, making some of the particles magnetic. These rocks have been weathered into sand by the strong waves that pound on the beach and cliffs.

black sand lost coast
black sand__kuhnmi__fiver

Ochre Sea Star

An ochre sea star has five arms and 15,000 tiny appendages called “tube feet” per arm. If it loses an arm, it can grow it back! These creatures throw up one of their two stomachs onto their prey to start digesting their food, then suck the stomach back in to finish eating. 

purple sea star
Ochre sea star__ Barb Ignatius on flickr

Sea Plantain

The sea plantain grows in sandy soils and cliffs in coastal areas. It can also grow anywhere the ocean’s salty spray reaches the soil. This plant is edible--its leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and its seeds can be eaten raw, cooked, or ground into flour.

 Sea Plantain
 Sea Plantain__Odd Wellies___Flickr_edited


Seagulls are white seabirds with  a strong body, and webbed feet. They are intelligent animals that can steal food from other birds, animals and even humans (like a sandwich straight out of kids' unsuspecting hands). They can also drink seawater.


Poison Oak

Do not touch poison oak. It creates an oil called “urushiol” that causes red rashes, blistering, and itching. Poison oak grows as a shrub and a vine. Its leaves, which turn red during winter, grow in groups of three. You can avoid this plant by remembering the saying “leaves of three, let it be!” 

Poison Oak leaves of three
Poison Oak__David Goehring__flickr

Black Sands Beach  is truly a unique destination. From its pristine black sand, seaside mountains, coastal views and lighthouse, there is something there for everyone to enjoy.  

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