Hatton-Hiouchi: A world-class trail 6 miles from town
We hadn’t gone far before we started to laugh, partially from amusement but mostly from the joy of our good fortune to live in such a place as this.
Laura and I had been traipsing around the North Coast for nearly two years, dabbling in old growth here, coastal trails there, sometimes even seeking new scenes in Humboldt and Curry counties. But we had never ventured onto Hatton Trail a mere 6 miles or so from Crescent City.
Perhaps it was because the trail got no write-up in either of the hiking books that have otherwise proven so useful since we moved here from Colorado.
Or maybe it was because the Hatton trailhead is hidden in plain sight right across U.S. Highway 199 from the entrance to Simpson-Reed Grove, a well-known stopping point for travelers seeking quick access to redwood giants erect and fallen. There are usually a few vehicles parked north of the highway, but you can bet most visitors drive on after gaping at the grove without checking out what’s on the other side of the road.
Fall colors brighten the Hiouchi Trail west of the Smith River. (The Daily Triplicate/Richard Wiens)
Awakening two weeks ago to a gray Saturday that looked like it might deliver rain, we didn’t want to drive far to hike. What the heck, we’d try Hatton and continue onto Hiouchi Trail if we weren’t getting wet.
The close-in course we settled on turned out to be one more spectacular reminder that Del Norte County is a hiker’s paradise.
Barely out of the car, we were faced with a choice: go straight onto Hatton Loop or turn left onto the main trail. We’d actually taken the loop before, a delightful 10-minute jaunt through the redwoods, so instead we headed straight into unchartered territory.
We soon realized we were amid yet another Jedediah Smith State Park treasure trove. The trail was well-groomed, cushy and level as it wound through ferns, felty moss and old-growth towers basking in the mist.
Ten minutes in, we came upon a fallen tree that never made it to the ground. It spanned the trail at least 10 feet above us. Like many dead redwoods, it provided the base for a lot of new growth, but this base was suspended in mid-air, a floating greenway. We’d never seen anything like it.
We crossed wooden bridges above tiny creeks awaiting winter rain. Our eyes were drawn upward by the stretch of ancient wooden climbers. I don’t know whether the trees along here reach higher than elsewhere in the park, but they seemed taller.
After a southward start the trail turned east. We could hear Highway 199 traffic, and eventually caught glimpses of the road, but we were still in our own world. A mile and a half in, we took an out-and-back side trip to Lohse Grove. The map said it was four-tenths of a mile to the turnaround. “How will we know when it ends?” Laura asked as the trail thinned. I thought the query inane until the path really got overgrown. When indeed? We retraced out steps to the main trail, resolving to advise others to skip Lohse Grove.
Red berries, possibly from a California honeysuckle, that might be best left untasted. (The Daily Triplicate/Richard Wiens)
Soon the Smith River came into view on our left, while huckleberries beckoned to the right. We ate a few, whetting our appetite for a picnic at the water’s edge just south of the Hiouchi Bridge.
We weren’t the only ones lunching. Before descending to the riverbank, we had encountered first a small snake and later a miniature frog on the trail. Laura loves frogs. She admonished this one to beware of slithery predators. As we walked back across the river rocks after eating, we encountered another snake, this one with tiny frog legs dangling from its mouth.
Maybe Laura should be careful what she conjectures about. Maybe she should’ve been focusing on that night’s lottery numbers.
It never did rain, so we continued south on what was now the Hiouchi Trail. We did our first significant climbing and negotiated a walk-through tree along the path. The scenery changed because we were following the course of the river below, but we were still in the land of the giants. We ate a few more huckleberries but eschewed a bright red variety we were unfamiliar with.
Hatton-Hiouchi is a consistently rewarding journey, and we were almost disappointed when we reached the turnaround point at the river’s confluence with Mill Creek, close to Stout Grove and nearly 2 miles beyond our lunch spot. In fact, we walked a bit on the heavily wooded, autumn-colored Mill Creek Trail before finally starting back.
When you’re doing an out-and-back, a nice hike one way guarantees a good return trip. We were probably a half-mile from our car when we encountered the day’s first fellow hikers, another couple clearly enjoying the redwood splendor they’d happened upon. We looked at each other conspiratorially, everyone no doubt thinking, “Can you believe there’s no one else out here?”
Then again, it had taken us nearly two years to get there.
HIGHLIGHTS: Old-growth redwoods the entire length of the trip, including a dead one that didn’t make it to the ground, instead spanning the trail to create a mid-air greenway. Nice views of and easy access to the Smith River.
SWEAT LEVEL: Easy to moderate throughout. The only reason you’ll sweat is because you’ll be tempted to walk farther than you’d planned.
GETTING THERE: The Hatton trailhead is on the south side of U.S. Highway 199 directly across from Simpson-Reed Grove and 3 miles east of the Highway 101 interchange.