Your feet get wet, your car needs to be washed and you are okay. Prairie Creek in Humboldt County is a measure of what to expect for a short, picturesque hike through Fern Canyon at Redwood State Park.
The neighboring Fern Canyon Loop Trail in Gold Bluffs Beach measures just one mile. The elevation change is only 150 feet. But the route takes you into a narrow canyon, with a 50-to-80-foot high wall on each side as a primordial jumble of green, almost straight.
If the scene sounds familiar, it is understandable. Parts of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” were filmed 25 years ago, as well as parts of the BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs.” The special-effects team has included scamming dinosaurs of film in postproduction, but when you splash now, it’s much easier to imagine a spinosaurus or ceratosaurus lurking behind the next log.
It’s also easy to spot that you’re far from Southern California – because there’s water everywhere.
The walls are weeping. The shoots are dripping. Home Creek rifles through the valley and under foot. Unless you are a wizard who jumps rock to rock and balances on loose logs, your feet and ankles will get wet. Maybe your shins too. (Bring water boots.)
They mix here with sword ferns, five-finger ferns, lady ferns, chain ferns, deer ferns – northern red-legged frogs, Pacific giant salamanders and sometimes Roosevelt elk. Tall trees throw deep shade, but photographer Myung Chun and I also hit sunny patches.
I felt guilty while enjoying such a rare setting after such a short, easy walk. But I am beyond that.
“We’ve done Yosemite and seen the Sequoias. But we wanted to see the red trees. They are different. It’s beautiful,” said Jim Newton, a hiker with his family from Maryland.
The second half of the loop is a more traditional route through the Sitka Spruce forest on the high ground. When I finish, I turn to rehearse the wet bit.
And I didn’t feel guilty about doing that, because this summer, the Rangers are experimenting with a cap on summer traffic on this route. For the first time, rangers prefer to book their summer-side parking in advance or climb the canyon from the park visitor center, a 10-mile round trip on the James Irvine Trail.
The requirement remains in effect until September 30th. The day’s use fee is $ 12 cash at the entrance, whether you come in the summer or not. Dogs are not allowed.
Under the new system, Rangers offer 35 cars with a half-day reservation from 8 am to noon, 35 pm to 1 pm and 20 day reservations. That usually means no more than 90 cars per day on the sludge access road – a dramatic change from 2019 and 2021, when rangers counted an average of 250 cars per day. In those days, rangers say, the valley was full of hikers.
The new booking requirement, the pilot program, may cut the spontaneity, but it follows the national model. Rangers across the US, including many first-timers, are placing restrictions on damage and crowdfunding efforts, as waves of park visitors visit the Stir-Crazy Pandemic. (The need for summer day-trip reservations at Yosemite National Park until Sept. 30 is part of the same trend.)
Chun and I arrived at the hikers’ noon hike at about 1am. I have spoken to many and have not heard any complaints about the reservation requirement or foot traffic.
“I’d love to see people fall in love with nature,” said Kim Hill of Washington, DC. “But I want them to fall in love with nature when I’m not.”
If park officials decide the booking requirement is successful, it is likely to return on May 1 next year.
Whenever you go, don’t underestimate the drive to Fern Canyon Trailhead on Davison Road. It is a 7.5-mile, all-dirt entryway that typically has two shallow stream crossings (depending on the weather). Rangers are recommended but do not require SUVs and high clearance vehicles. On a sunny day when we arrived, we built a road in a rented Chevrolet Malibu, no problem.
Footnote to hikers who hate the company: Davison Road will be closed Sept. 26-30 for grading. So if you want to be alone or almost alone in the valley, wait that week. Then hike 5 miles (and 5 miles back) to Fern Canyon from the Park Visitor Center on the James Irvine Trail.
If you go
Where to hike: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 127011 Newton b. Drury Parkway, Orrick; (707) 464-6101.
Where to sleep: Trinidad Inn, 1170 Patrick’s Point Drive, Trinidad; (707) 677-3349. Nine rooms. I paid $ 123 for the smallest. Reservations by phone only.
Trinidad Bay B&B, 560 Edwards St., Trinidad; (707) 677-0840. A good view of the bay, pier and seasstock below. Four rooms, usually around $ 325- $ 395. Overnight.
Where to eat: Once you get north of Arcata in Humboldt County, the dining options are reduced. We had a lunch and a dinner at the Lighthouse Grill (355 Main St., Trinidad; (707) 677-0077). I had eaten well at the nearby Heady’s Pizza and Pour (359 Main St., Trinidad; (707) 677-3077) but this time it was crowded and there was no indoor seating, so we moved clearly. If you need breakfast at 7am try Murphys Market & Deli (Main and View Streets, Trinidad; Deli (707) 677-9473).