This loop feels like an amusement park attraction
Amusement park designers couldn’t improve on the old-growth redwood experience awaiting those who strike out north from the Visitors Center at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. And while a rollercoaster through the redwoods might be a nice concept for a new attraction in Anaheim, the real thing is better viewed slowly, on foot, giving hikers time to verify that what they’re seeing is real, not fantasy.
Don’t take my word for it. Dan Brett, author of the Redwood National and State Parks edition of “Best Easy Day Hikes,” marvels that today’s journey departs the Visitors Center and “immediately delves into some of the most impressive old-growth redwood forest in California — or the world, for that matter.”
Better than the behemoths in Jed Smith? Loyal Del Norters might ask that. The answer is that it doesn’t matter. Why argue over the relative merits of two sections of hiking heaven? This park may be in Humboldt County, but the visitors center is only 33 miles from Crescent City and thus more in our sphere of influence than that of Eureka, another 50 miles south of Prairie Creek.
The journey’s first attraction was what had to be one of the longest wooden walking bridges on the North Coast. It crossed Prairie Creek rippling with runoff, and at the far end was built around a symmetrical giant approaching the size of the Stout Tree in the Del Norte grove of the same name. Welcome to Redwoodland! And no waiting in line.
More big boys rose up in manifestations ranging from twisted twins to cathedral clusters, strengthening the effect that this was all somehow designed with biped tourists in mind. After 12 minutes we took a right on James Irvine, and soon crossed Godwood Creek on a shorter wooden bridge. Our oohs and ahhs and camera clicks drowned out the umphhs of the steady climb that soon ensued. Another 20 minutes and we reached the junction with Miner’s Ridge.
This would begin the loop, and it also meant decision time. Both our hiking books recommended staying right on James Irvine. The Redwood National Park Trail Guide suggested turning left on Miner’s Ridge. Then again, the guide said the full loop would be 10.3 miles long, while every other source told us it would be seven-something.
We chose to go left because it was the higher path and we figured on doing our climbing while we were still fresh. Miner’s Ridge proved steeper than expected, but if you’re doing the loop, this is the way to go no matter what the hiking books say. We did our sweating early, and hardly noticed as the redwood hits kept coming, along with plentiful spring trillium abloom in the relative high country.
The redwoods got even better, or at least burlier. They never seem to run out of new looks, and we hit an especially gnarly stretch. We could have stopped and spent the rest of the afternoon fantasizing about the shapes we discerned in the knotty outgrowths. A wizened wizard’s face. A bird head. Demons.
The magical ridge-climb continued for about a mile, then leveled out and descended a bit before reaching the junction (2.2 miles out from the Visitors Center) with the Clintonia Trail, which would serve as the buckle in the loop route. We took a right and immediately embraced two misconceptions.
First, the turn made us sense that we were already pointing back to the Visitors Center, something we weren’t ready to do, especially now that we were on level ground. A map check dissuaded us of the notion. We had simply veered due north.
Second, an expansive spruce grove gave the impression we were no longer in Redwoodland. We kept walking and the redwoods resumed, broken up by occasional Douglas fir interlopers and other canyon-bottom conifers. The map showed a hairpin curve ahead that we suspected meant more climbing. Wrong again! The route proved curvaceous and level, even descending a bit before reaching the junction with the James Irvine Trail.
Getting that climb out of the way early was continuing to pay off. The trail, named after a Southern California real estate developer who frequently came north to fish, meandered at a common, low altitude for most of the three and a half miles back to the Visitors Center. There were quaint wooden steps, path-clearings cut through fallen logs, long views of the zig-zagging route ahead and more gnarly giants. One had recently split apart, depositing a massive cluster of splinters at trailside.
I suspect some Bay Area-oriented tourists think of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park as the northern terminus of redwood country. Compared to the magnificent solitude of Del Norte’s old-growth groves, we experience a veritable traffic jam of pedestrians every time we visit here. On this day, that equated to about 10 fellow hikers encountered over the course of seven-plus miles of scenic serenity.
They were all smiling, almost smirking, as if they alone had discovered some long-lost treasure.
A walk in the North Coast woods will do that for you.
THE HIKE: A journey of about 7.6 miles that starts at the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Visitors Center and loops through parts of the Miner’s Ridge and James Irvine trails, with the Clintonia Trail in between.
HIGHLIGHTS: Old-growth redwoods so gnarly and well-placed that they seem to have been designed as an amusement park attraction. Dual panoramic views from the Miner’s Ridge Trail enhance the sense that you’re visiting someplace laid out for the optimal redwood experience.
SWEAT LEVEL: Some significant climbing, but if you take the loop clockwise – the opposite of what hiking books recommend – you’ll sweat early and then luxuriate on a curvaceous, mostly level path later. Go the other way and the climb will be much longer, but more gradual.
GETTING THERE: Take U.S.Highway 101 south to the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, then go south again to the Visitors Center, a 33-mile drive from Crescent City.