Richard Wiens, The Triplicate

As ferns rise overhead, obstacle course demands attention

The sign said "Fern Canyon Trail" with a right-pointing arrow. Sothat's the way we turned, onto an unmanicured trail upward into thelush woods.

Turns out it was one of those signs indicating you should get ready toturn at the next major intersection, but we didn't know that until ourobscure little trail pretty much petered out altogether. At least itafforded us a view of the canyon seen only by those who go the wrongway.

We retraced our steps. If computer-generated dinosaurs could find their way to the floor of Fern Canyon as they did in the sequel to "Jurassic Park," Laura and I were confident we could do the same.

The misleading (to us, anyway) sign, combined with the lack of any fellow travelers on a Saturday morning who might know where they were going, proved to be just one of the hazards of making our first visit to the famous Fern Canyon in the dead of winter.

First, there was the drive. If you're up for a long hike, you can access Fern Canyon from other parts of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (buy a map in advance or get one at the visitors center). But Laura was suffering from a cold, and there was rain in the forecast, so we opted for a motor route that would land us in a beach-side parking lot quite near our destination.

This meant staying on Highway 101 southbound on an express route that skipped both park entrances (we'd done the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in better weather than this). A few miles beyond the park's southern boundary, less than 3 miles before we would have hit Orick, we turned west onto Davison Road.

Davison soon turned to dirt as it climbed into the redwoods, and it did a pretty good impersonation of Howland Hill Road back home in Del Norte. We'd left the Jeep at home because a hiking book said we wouldn't need 4-wheel-drive. The ruts and bumps had us regretting that decision even before we hit the first of three water-over-the road spots. I veered our VW Jetta along what looked to be the shallowest pathways, and we arrived at the empty parking lot 8 miles and probably a half-hour after leaving the highway.

One other road hazard: a $6 day-use vehicle fee required at an unmanned park entrance station.

It's supposed to be a short jaunt from the parking lot on a stretch of the Coastal Trail to the start of the Fern Canyon loop trail, but this is when our aforementioned confusion kicked in. And it didn't completely abate even when we got back on the Coastal Trail and reached the mouth of the canyon. Home Creek was flowing pretty good along the canyon floor, so it took us awhile to grasp that we had to share the hiking route with the waterway.

We postponed that challenge by electing to take the loop clockwise, which meant veering left (north) onto the James Irvine Trail and out of the canyon almost as soon as we had entered it. Now this was a civilized hiking trail, complete with stretches of wooden planking and some of the best sun-rays-through-the-trees effects we'd seen since moving to the North Coast.

We opted for a side trip by turning right down some wooden steps that led to Alexander Lincoln Prairie. It's an empty meadow now, but it once was home to a gold-mining operation dating to the late 1800s. Indeed, the company's hydraulic mining method - washing away topsoil with high-pressure water cannons to uncover buried gold - created Fern Canyon's narrow walls and flat bottom. Nature added the finishing touches after the mining ceased, adorning the canyon walls with curtains of ferns.

That, of course, was what we here to see, so we doubled back to the main trail and soon reached the turnoff to the right - well-marked with another "Fern Canyon Trail" sign - that led us down wooden steps mushy enough to make us wary of slipping on banana slugs.

Soon we were on the canyon floor. I'd like to say that we were immediately mesmerized by towering walls of ferns, but the truth is we were immediately preoccupied with the fact that we were again sharing the pathway with Home Creek. This brings me to another seasonal hazard: For the better-weather months, the park puts out plank bridges to help hikers criss-cross the creek. These bridges were long-gone, meaning we had to concentrate less on the scenery and more on keeping our footing as we stepped across rocks and logs in the creek.

I like to think of myself as well-balanced, but I would never make it as a tightrope-walker. My shoes were soon wet from a couple of missteps, eliciting the slightest of chuckles from Laura, who stayed high and dry. I was starting to wonder whether the canyon floor was going to prove traversable all the way back to its mouth when we encountered a hiking party coming the opposite direction.

"Are your feet still dry?" I asked an adolescent boy. "Kind of," he replied with a knowing expression that I translated as, "Get ready to get wet, old-timer."

But now we could see other hiking parties coming our way. Everyone else, it seemed, had chosen to take the loop counter-clockwise and experience the canyon floor at the front end of their journey. I was heartened that so many others had already made it across the obstacle course that lay ahead of us.

It still wasn't easy, and I managed to get a little soggier, but we found ourselves spending more time looking up. Good timing, because the walls of ferns got uniformly greener as we neared the canyon's mouth.

The moral of the story is that, if you can only visit this place once in your life, you might want to do it at prime time when the creek is down and the plank bridges are up. But if you're game for some extra adventure - and willing to risk damp feet - experiencing winter in Fern Canyon is worth the trip.THE HIKE: A 1-mile loop, half of it on a ridge just north of Fern Canyon and the other half on the canyon bottom.

HIGHLIGHTS: Plenty for such a short distance, but the signature canyon walls adorned with ferns has to be No. 1. On the higher portion, a long stretch of wooden planking keeps hikers dry - temporarily.

SWEAT LEVEL:This is a walk in the park until you hit the canyon floor. Then adrenaline kicks in as you try to crisscross the creek by picking your way over rocks and logs. In late spring, parks officials install plank bridges to make the journey easier.

GETTING THERE: Drive south on Highway 101 into Humboldt County, past the exits for Prairie Creek State Park, then go right (west) on Davison Road for 8 miles of mostly dirt (there's a $6 day-use fee as you enter the park). From the parking lot, walk briefly north on the Coastal Trail, then turn right into the mouth of the canyon. You can do the loop clockwise by taking a quick left onto James Irvine Trail, or experience the canyon bottom first by doing the loop counter-clockwise.