None of the paths through Tolowa Dunes State Park have disappointed. Once you get over the fact there are no old-growth redwoods to be seen — except the occasional ancient stump in the sand — a whole different world unfolds with myriad attractions: Meadows, forests, lakes, beaches and, of course, the dunes.
The 4-mile Long Trail Loop delivers all of those except for a lake, but it makes up for that by touching up against Sweetwater Creek as it meanders to the sea from its birthplace at Dead Lake.
After parking at the end of Sand Hill Road (refer to the map at www.tolowacoasttrails.org), we walked through the gate, hung a right, and found ourselves in a wind-swept meadow that had us immediately wishing we’d brought one more layer of clothing.
Fortunately, it was only six minutes to the shelter of the woods full of pines, firs and spruces, as well as an abundance of huckleberry bushes sporting their new red leaves (too soon for the berries).
Soon the trail began opening up again, eventually turning sandy as the trees gave way. About 10 more minutes and we beheld a dune panorama. In the distance we noted a sandy pinnacle. Its attraction convinced us to trek all the way to the beach rather than turn left (south) along the foredunes. Both choices appear on the map.
The sandy monolith enlarged as the ocean came into view. A path veered just right of the beach-grassy knoll, but we couldn’t resist summiting it and step-sliding down to sea level. Forty-five minutes after our departure, we were at the Pacific, its waves slapping with power against a coastline a bit more sloped than Pebble Beach or South Beach.
An approaching pickup illegally driving the beach was only a slight distraction as we neared a cluster of driftwood at the mouth of Sweetwater Creek. A half-hour after hitting the coast, we reached the confluence and stopped for lunch.
A modest path east through the sand and grass got us back onto the part of the loop also known as Sweetwater Creek Trail. We’d been walking again for about six minutes, the ocean out of sight behind us, when we inadvertently rousted a big bird into flight. We veered off-trail to where it had arisen and discovered a delightfully meandering inland section of Sweetwater Creek, one bank swathed in yellow flowers.
As with any Del Norte hike, the time invested had paid off handsomely.
The hike: The 4-mile Long Trail Loop in Tolowa Dunes State Park traverses meadows, forests and dunes to the beach and back. It includes a section of Sweetwater Creek Trail.
Highlights:Strikingly diverse scenes and memorable moments, such as clearing a pinnacle of sand to behold the surf and arriving at the log-strewn mouth of Sweetwater Creek.
Sweat level: There’s really no climbing, but you may perspire a bit putting on or taking off layers of clothing in response to the changing conditions in the wind, shade and sun.
Getting there: Go west on Old Mill Road off of Northcrest Drive, continuing onto Sand Hill Road until it curves south and ends at a circular parking area.