TOP: Rhododendrons adorn Damnation Creek Trail near the trailhead.BOTTOM: Rhodies are at their peak. (The Daily Triplicate)
Two short treks into floral forests
A single hike just won’t do with so many wildflowers blooming in the woods.
Instead, today we tackle two short treks, the first of which will put you in the middle of a redwood rhododendron wonderland almost as soon as you get out of your car, and the second of which contains enough plant diversity to be considered a “special botanical area.”
As if the redwood forests aren’t magnificent enough, this time of year they’re splashed with the audacious pink and purple of rhododendron blooms. They’re easily viewed in small bunches from vehicles driving along U.S. Highways 101 and 199, and if passengers look closer (drivers should keep negotiating those curves), they’ll glimpse vast expanses of rhodies deeper in the woods.
But you don’t have to go much deeper. Drive south on 101 about 8 miles past the Enderts Beach Road turnoff and you’ll reach the Damnation Creek Trailhead. Park, get out, hit the trail and enjoy almost-instant gratification.
The first stretch of Damnation Creek Trail is rewarding any time of year, as if it was landscaped redwood-style to show off the best of the North Coast. The design includes a wealth of rhodies that right now are so prolific they stretch over the trail in spots.
This pre-summer fashion adornment can be enjoyed throughout the redwoods, and it’s a great time for long treks in the woods. But for close-up sensory overload, the rhodies may not get any better than what immerses pedestrians just a few hundred feet from the trailhead.
So this little trek doesn’t really have to be a hike at all. Turn around just before the trail begins its steep descent toward the beach, and you’ve bagged a low-impact visit to a once-a-year floral paradise. On the other hand, it can be the beginning of three memorable journeys: north or south on stretches of the Coastal Trail that follow the original Redwood Highway, or stay on Damnation Creek Trail for the aforementioned drop to the beach (a strenuous 4.2-mile round trip).
Parks officials are also recommending the Hiouchi and Hatton trails off Highway 199 for those looking to take in rhodie shows.
The Myrtle Creek Interpretive Trail follows an old mining ditch. (The Daily Triplicate/Richard Wiens)
Rhododendrons are only the beginning of the plant display that awaits you on the Myrtle Creek Interpretive Trail off Highway 199 about 7 miles past its junction with 101. But first a couple of tips for the trip.
The “interpretive” part of this mile-long stretch consists of 15 informational guideposts. Several of these stops are less than forthcoming, however, because their information is missing. It’s best to stop off first at the Hiouchi visitors center on the north side of 199 about 5 miles past 101. Ask for one of the free Myrtle Creek brochures, which are kept under the counter. This contains all the guidepost information, which unless you’re a botanist will be essential to understand what you’re seeing, plus a brief history of the former gold-mining site.
Brochure in hand, drive 2 more miles through Hiouchi before pulling into an unmarked parking area on the right just before you’d reach the bridge that leads to South Fork Road. A tiny sign on the other side of the highway understates the location of the Myrtle Creek Trailhead.
A good bit of gold was panned from Myrtle Creek starting in the 1890s. When the easy pickings were gone, an elaborate hydraulic mining operation was established. An early effort at blasting the gold out of the rocks and soil with a high-powered hose created a deep cut in the earth at the trailhead. After a fairly steep climb for about 1/10th of a mile, the trail levels out on a ridge that runs next to a ditch that was built as part of a more aggressive gold-flushing effort.
The long abandoned mining operation created the path for this trail, but its geologic location is the star of the show. It straddles two climates, meaning you start out on the edge of the cool, humid coastal region with redwoods, Douglas firs and yes, rhododendrons. Soon, however, you’re under the influence of the warmer interior and serpentine soil rich in iron and magnesium. These are rarer environs, and while some plants cross over, there’s a whole new roster of attractions, including the carnivorous pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica) that’s always a hit at flower shows.
At this point you may find yourself consulting that brochure quite a bit when you hit a blank guidepost. Laura and I certainly needed explanations of some of the unusual plants we encountered.
The walk plays out to the babbling soundtrack of Myrtle Creek. At trail’s end, there’s a spur to the right that descends to the water. Myrtle Creek flows year-round, and we found ourselves beside both shallow rapids and a lazy pool that would have made a nice swimming hole on a warmer day.
Myrtle Creek Trail was one more reminder that Del Norte County offers more than the world’s tallest trees and some of its most scenic shorelines. As if anyplace needs more than that.
THE HIKE: Myrtle Creek Interpretive Trail, a 2-mile round-trip off Highway 199 about 7 miles past its junction with 101, and the opening stretch of Damnation Creek Trail off 101 about 8 miles south of the Enderts Beach Road turnoff.
HIGHLIGHTS: The walk above Myrtle Creek transitions from coastal redwoods to inland serpentine soil, and the foliage changes before your eyes. As for the Damnation Creek Trailhead, immediate immersion in a redwood rhododendron paradise if you act now.
SWEAT LEVEL: Myrtle Creek starts with a moderate climb for about 1/10th of a mile, then levels off. You barely need to get out of your car to enjoy the rhodies at the Damnation Creek Trailhead, but if you choose to keep going on the descent to the sea, you’ll drop plenty of sweat on the way back up.