Prairie Creek Redwoods doesn’t need a gimmick. But if the idea of Bigfoot prowling a towering old-growth forest or of tiny flesh-eating dinosaurs scrambling through a fern-laden canyon stimulates your imagination, then head to California’s Humboldt County.
Humboldt is the scene of more Bigfoot sightings than any other California county. It also is part of the Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis producing region in the United States. (Coincidence? Perhaps.) In addition, Steven Spielberg chose the park’s Fern Canyon for scenes that appear in the second installment of his “Jurassic Park” movies – “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997). And let’s not forget Gold Bluffs Beach.
No wonder it takes both the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation to manage Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks, plus Redwood National Park. The four-park system has been designated as both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
That’s a lot of “wow” to unpack. So, let’s start with the forest:
The James Irvine Trail
Some online sources describe the James Irvine Trail as the world’s most beautiful redwood hike. “Impossible!” you say. “What about Muir Woods National Monument? No contest. Slash the number of annual visitors and spread them across 14,000 acres rather than 540 and you’ve got Prairie Creek Redwoods. Wow.
The roughly 5.5-mile trail begins at the Prairie Creek visitor center, not far U.S. 101. You’ll likely find elk grazing in the small prairie just east of the forest adjacent to the park’s primary campground. We arrived at about 10 a.m. on the last Saturday of June and found plenty of parking.
As we climbed the slight elevation gain from the trailhead, the sounds of other visitors evaporated and me found ourselves mostly alone in a cathedral of redwoods as tall as 300 feet on a soft, well-maintained trail winding through a carpet of ferns. Did we mention “wow.”
We enjoyed the shade of the deep green canopy above us …
… found faces in the bark and burls of the trees …
… and marveled at stair-steps of mushrooms climbing the trunks.
The occasional magnificent bloom caught our eye. Mostly, we enjoyed the quiet majesty.
The trail seemed endless, perhaps because The Geek stopped again and again and again to capture the essence of the trail on film.
The short breaks gave MontaraManDan the opportunity to stare upward and pivot slowly to take in the detail among the grandeur. Slack-jawed drool was probably involved. No kidding, folks. This trail is something special. Wow.
Need a break? Look for the table for two bolted to a bridge across Home creek.
As the trail descends toward the creek, the redwoods thin and sunlight makes for brushier vegetation. The trail here is still very nice, but the magic is broken … until you get to Fern Canyon.
The chatter of visitors rises as the trail descends into the canyon carved out by Home Creek. The creek bed serves as the trail, with moveable boardwalks available to help keep feet dry by bridging the meanders. We visited during dry season. We’re pretty sure this is not a place to visit on a rainy day.
The narrow canyon’s 50-foot walls are covered top to bottom with ferns, reminiscent of an ivy-covered castle wall. (Or, Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered walls, notes unapologetic Coastside Cubs fan MontaraManDan.)
Spielberg used the confines of the canyon to chilling effect as the location for a deadly attack by a pack of tiny but voracious Compsognathus dinosaurs that bring down dinosaur hunter Dieter Stark. But have no fear. “Compys” are extinct. If you see one – or the pack – perhaps ease up on Humboldt County’s top export.
Gold Bluffs Beach
Most of the foot traffic in Fern Canyon consists of day-trippers who drive through the woods and up the coast on Davison Road, a mostly unpaved track that narrows to a single lane in spots and ends at Gold Bluffs Beach. The dust was thick on the SUVs that lined the beachside parking lot the day of our visit. The 6.6-mile drive can take a half hour or more in good weather.
We continued past the parking and onto the long, broad beach itself. The beach is littered with driftwood, and we didn’t have to walk far to find a slab well away from the parking hub-bub to rest our feet and enjoy a bit of lunch while watching the waves crash ashore and the seabirds play. We spotted a single harbor seal playing in the surf nearby.
Why “Gold Bluffs”? Forty-niners caused a stir when they found gold flakes on the beach in 1850, but the excitement fizzled as the amount of gold unearthed wasn’t worth the effort.
We took a bit of a detour on the hike back, branching onto the Clintonia and Miner’s Ridge trails before reconnecting with James Irvine Trail. No dinosaurs, no Bigfoot and no cannabis. It didn’t matter. Wow.