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Walk your world: Faded Highway

Ghosts of early automobiles haunt section of Coastal Trail

The old Redwood Highway stretches into the misty forest near where the Coastal Trail intersects Damnation Creek Trail. Richard Wiens/The Daily Triplicate
The old Redwood Highway stretches into the misty forest near where the Coastal Trail intersects Damnation Creek Trail. Richard Wiens/The Daily Triplicate
Sometimes, ironically, a good hike requires not one but two cars. Leaving a shuttle vehicle at the destination, then driving to the starting point, works well for a one-way journey.

Using cars to set up this particular hike seems appropriate, anyway, because you’ll soon be traversing a stretch of the original Redwood Highway that opened the far North Coast to the automobiles of the 1920s.

Heading north from Wilson Creek, it snaked through the redwoods before veering onto coastal bluffs all the way to Enderts Beach. Its designers, alas, were overly ambitious in their attempt to cleave a highway from the heart of the wilderness.

Officials soon tired of the constant land slides and in 1935 replaced it with a more stable but less scenic route farther from the ocean.

The brief lifespan makes this stretch of highway history that much more quaint. And these days, there’s no traffic, even though it is part of the Coastal Trail.

For more pictures from this hike click here .

It’s almost seven miles from the Damnation Creek trailhead off today’s Highway 101 to the Enderts Beach trailhead at the parking lot just south of the overlook. Unless you’re game for a 14-mile round-trip with plenty of climbing, the two-car system is the way to go. Leave the first in the Enderts Beach parking lot, then drive back to 101 and head south.
 Trail Notes
 ■  THE HIKE: A nearly 7-mile journey, mostly on the Last Chance Section of the Coastal Trail and much of it following the old Redwood Highway.
■ HIGHLIGHTS: In spots, evidence of the highway is strong, including glimpses of the solid white center line and milepost signs. Also some nice old-growth redwoods and views from ocean bluffs.
■  SWEAT LEVEL: There’s one strenuous uphill climb. Other than that, if you make it a one-way trip as recommended, it’s mostly level or downhill.
■  GETTING THERE: Leave one car in the Enderts Beach parking lot, then drive a second car south on Highway 101 to the Damnation Creek trailhead. Walk a little over half a mile on that trail, then turn right (north) on the Coastal Trail/old highway.
■ BOOK NOTE: You might enjoy “Touring the Old Redwood Highway, Del Norte County,” by Diane Hawk. It’s full of trivia about the auto camps and other attractions that sprang up along the route after it opened in the 1920s

Damnation Creek Trail is well-named, because if you give in to the temptation to follow it all the way down to the beach, you’re staring at 1,000 feet of uphill on the return trip. Again, this prescribed journey along the highway of yesteryear is designed to avoid such travail, so it won’t follow this trail for long

Speaking of yesteryear, the very first stretch of this path follows the old county wagon road built in the 1890s. Horse-drawn stages could make the trip from Crescent City to Requa in a mere “ten to sixteen hours, dependent upon the weather,” according to a 1934 state highway department document. Parts of the road were surfaced with wooden planks — imagine the bumpy ride on those stagecoaches — but there really was no evidence of the wagon road along this brief section.

The highway’s white center line can still be spotted, even in mostly overgrown areas. Richard Wiens/The Daily Triplicate
The highway’s white center line can still be spotted, even in mostly overgrown areas. Richard Wiens/The Daily Triplicate
Still, the trail did bring instant gratification. Only a few feet from Highway 101, Laura and I were enveloped in old growth redwoods, the mist punctured by shards of sunlight. What was that up ahead, coming our way? Oh, two short-trippers armed with their espresso-to-go cups. That explained the one other car in the trailhead pull-out. We would encounter no other humanoids.

We came upon the intersection with the Coastal Trail just over half a mile from the trailhead, sparing us for this day from the plunge to the beach on Damnation Creek Trail. Turning right, it was immediately apparent we were no longer on a path originally designed for hiking. It was wide and level, and patches of old pavement showed through the forest debris. It wasn’t long before we started seeing traces of the old highway’s solid white center line, and after that a few blocky milepost signs along the side.

Hiking trails that follow old roads are generally less satisfying than narrow, meandering pathways made only for walking and perhaps mountain biking. The trees and foliage aren’t quite as intimate, and the footing is so predictable. But this place was entrancing, evoking images of the jalopies of the ’20s and ’30s rounding the bends, their occupants perhaps seeing the redwoods for the first time as they drove north from the Bay Area or south from Oregon.

The road itself took on many manifestations: at times we could see the full width of the old pavement, then it faded to two wheel tracks with a grassy line in the middle, then to a single track in the grass, and finally to what just seemed to be an overly wide, unusually leveled-out hiking trail.

Evidence of just how hard it must have been to keep traffic flowing was rampant. The trail was frequently squeezed by the residue of long-ago slides. There were a few fallen trees to climb over. And about two and a half miles in, the original roadway was washed out where it crossed Damnation Creek. Fortunately, a walking bridge had been constructed nearby, allowing us to continue as what had been a northerly route veered west.

Hunger kicked in as we passed a stately row of redwoods. The foliage was thick on either side, so we partook of a standing-room-only lunch. Soon the old road would reach the ocean bluffs, where the redwoods meet the sea, just like all those long-ago travelers were promised in the ads for the wondrous new highway ...

Crescent City appears in the distance from a stretch of the Coastal Trail.  Richard Wiens/The Daily Triplicate
Crescent City appears in the distance from a stretch of the Coastal Trail. Richard Wiens/The Daily Triplicate
Okay, full disclosure. After the no-sit picnic, Laura and I turned around and hiked back to the Damnation Creek trailhead. The truth is, I figured out this two-car, one-way trip that I’m recommending here after the fact. I can tell you about the rest of hike, however, because the next weekend we started from Enderts Beach and traipsed all the way to our previous week’s lunch spot before doubling back, so we have done the entire route. And trust me, the one-way trek is the way to go if you can come up with that shuttle car to leave at Enderts.

Do as I say, not as I did.

So we’ll continue from here. The route meandered west and we began catching glimpses of the blue sea. When it hit the bluffs and turned north, we were on a stretch of quintessential Coastal Trail, redwoods to our right, the Pacific to our left, complete with occasional views of Crescent City. Amidst the foliage, eagle-eye Laura spotted an ancient plaque dedicating a redwood grove to World War I veteran Alfred Anson.

Clearly we were still on the old highway at that point. Just where the Coastal Trail leaves it remains a mystery to us. We know the road-builders of nearly a century ago were hell-bent on following the bluffs, and that the route had more than its share of maintenance problems (as in sections falling into the ocean). By the time we began a moderately challenging climb that lasted a half-mile or so, I’m pretty sure we were just on a hiking trail. We could no longer sense the ghosts of early automobiles.

There were other oddities, however. Vast patches of clover stretched out on either side of the trail. On the sunnier side, the clover leaves were all closed up, apparently to ward off the heat. On the shadier side, the leaves spread out in the traditional clover presentation.

Near the summit, we couldn’t resist reaching out to a particularly reddish redwood. Touching its bark was like pushing your fingers into soft cork that would crumble if you weren’t careful.

The final descent toward Nickel Creek and Enderts Beach was long and steep, a real knee-strainer. But if you set out from Enderts heading south, you’d be climbing about 1,000 feet in maybe half a mile. That’s what you can avoid with the recommended two-car approach.

Past Nickel Creek and the turnoff to the beach path, we rejoined the old highway on the stretch of bluffs familiar to anyone who has walked south from the Enderts Beach parking lot. In fact, every time you drive on Enderts Beach Road you’re following the original Redwood Highway, because this is the path it took away from the bluffs and into Crescent City.   

With its motels and auto parks, the thriving timber town and fishing port must have been a welcome sight to motorists emerging from the precarious wilderness.


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