Every hike begins with great expectations. And while the redwoods at Russian Gulch State Park proved less grand and the fern canyon less lush than expected, we still found plenty to enjoy.
Our out-sized expectations were driven by a sunny hike six months earlier at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 190 miles to the north.
That park is home to the most extensive old-growth redwood trail system in the world and a fern canyon so eye-popping that the World Heritage Site appears in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.”
Frankly, Russian Gulch can’t compete with that resume. But it does have plenty of lovely forestland, a talkative creek, a 36-foot tall waterfall and a 60-foot-deep ocean-side blow hole!
The hike from the car up Russian Gulch’s North Trail into the redwoods began with great promise. But once we reached the top of the grade, it quickly became apparent that the long-ago loggers who harvested the original forest to make roofing shingles had been thorough.
Classic stands of redwoods soaring above dense carpets of ferns are spotty at best on the flatlands above the gulch. The trees thicken, however, along the damp downhill path back into Fern Canyon, where we enjoyed moody mid-morning fog.
Our best decision of the day was to detour onto the Falls Loop rather than simply return to the car on the Fern Canyon Trail. A moderately strenuous but largely satisfactory mile later, we found ourselves at the park’s unnamed waterfall, enjoying our sack lunch on a bench in a tiny box canyon at the base of the 36-foot cascade.
Sated with sandwiches and raw veggies, we saved a mile or so and some elevation by skipping the remainder of the Waterfall loop and retracing our steps to reconnect with the Fern Canyon Trail, our synapses alight with reminiscences of our experience at Prairie Creek.
Alas, the fern-covered canyon carved by Russian Gulch Creek is much wider and not as steep as its northern namesake. Unprotected from sunshine much of the year, the ferns looked a bit ragged during our December visit. And the creek-side logging road through the canyon lacks the charm of navigating the actual creek bed up north. Even the fall color had come and gone. We’re pretty sure we saw the last leaf flurry of the season.
Detouring again as we neared the parking lot, this time up the South Trail, we found a stunning stand of redwoods with a classic fern carpet as we hiked up and out of the canyon. Unfortunately, the trail deposited us on a Pacific Gas & Electric right of way at the edge of a small subdivision.
After losing then rediscovering the return trail amid the power lines, we considered taking a trail extension to the blow hole overlook. But our day hike had grown long, the trail muddy.
Besides, hot food and cold beverages awaited us in the Village at pre-pandemic Mendocino. We had great expectations.
Note: As of publication of this post on Aug. 29, 2020, Russian Gulch State Park was open but the Fern Canyon Trail was closed for renovation. Find current info on the park website here. We visited the park in December 2019.