Richard Wiens, The Triplicate

Old logging road trail has its ups and downs

We were just getting into the up-and-down rhythm of Rellim Ridge

Trail, massive redwood stumps bearing witness to its logging road past

and sprawling branches of sitka spruces highlighting the look of its

newer woods.

Then the Coast Guard helicopter buzzed us.

At least that's how I irrationally perceived the startling first

moment, although that "whup whup whup" of its rotor blades seemed

awfully close overhead.

Walking behind me, Laura had the advantage of seeing the spectacle in addition to hearing it. She said it was an owl rousted from its trail-side refuge into a brief flurry of flight.

I bought that, even though afterward we couldn't spot it in the trees. Rellim Ridge Trail doesn't give up its secrets easily, and there are important facets that we still have to accept on faith even after completing the journey from Howland Hill Road to Hamilton Road and back.

For instance, the map says it's an 8.2-mile round trip, but we were breaking in a new pedometer I got for Christmas and it gave us different readings for each half of the out-and-back. Apparently, as I think it said somewhere in the instructions, I really do have to program it to reflect the length of my stride.

More compelling is the mystery of the views from the trail. We'd heard, and even read in the Redwood National Park Trail Guide, about "panoramic views of Crescent City." But we chose to make this passage on a cloudy January Saturday - when that recent series of storms was a mere forecast. The sprinkles we'd prepared for held off, but the sky was still smothered in gray.

Panoramic? If you say so. However, I later heard it on good authority from a park employee that the steady growth of those pesky second-growth redwoods now pretty much blocks the westward vantage points even on sunny days.

Guess we should've seen it back in the '80s, but if you ever watched the movie "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," maybe you did. It's said that director Steven Spielberg used the view, later super-imposing the lights of L.A. over Crescent City.

Whatever. Here's what we can say with certainty about hiking Rellim Ridge.

After Howland Hill Road turned to dirt southeast of town, we drove maybe a fourth of a mile before parking on the right next to a closed gate for the road leading to the Outdoor School. A sign mentioned only the school, but we followed the road for a little less than half a mile, passing one unmarked trail to the right before reaching the beginning of Rellim Ridge Trail, which was marked.

I previously mentioned the up-and-down pattern, which I suppose is to be expected along a ridge. In addition to the old-growth stumps (some of which still bear loggers' marks) the width of the trail is further evidence of the timber harvesting that began in the area a century and a half ago. Look closely and you'll occasionally see signs of old fencing from the logging companies' cattle and sheep-raising ventures.

Today, much of the path is again heavily wooded with younger redwoods, Douglas firs and big-leaf maples. The most striking arboreal feature is the plethora of sitka spruces, their green branches stretching out on all sides like giant potato sprouts. About two and a half miles in, one full-size spruce was growing straight out of a redwood stump.

Soon after, we began what we soon dubbed "The Great Decline," well over a mile of mostly downhill hiking. We emerged into the brightness of a brief clear zone, glimpsed another ridgeline off to the east, then hit an impressive stretch of Doug firs. The path grew so grassy on the final part of the descent that it was almost like walking on a manicured lawn.

The problem with a "Great Decline" on an out-and-back trek, of course, is that it must be followed by a "Great Incline." That might have made us tarry a bit longer than we would have otherwise at the turn-around point near the Hamilton Road gate (just two-tenths of a mile in from Highway 101).

Shortly after we started back, we were rewarded with a sight we'd missed on the way down: an antique but sturdy sign welcoming us to Redwood National Park.

With a few breathers, the ascent wasn't as bad as we'd imagined. Still, we were relieved to level out at the point where the Mill Creek Horse Trail splits off from Rellim Ridge.

We were close to rejoining the path connecting Howland Hill Road to the Outdoor School when Mr. Owl struck again. This time I recognized the sudden pounding flutter for what it was - we were at the exact spot where the great bird had done its helicopter imitation earlier!

Its prolonged proximity to the path (perhaps nesting there?) indicated even an owl knows not many people find their way onto Rellim Ridge. It was no doubt more startled than us by the twin encounters.


THE HIKE: An 8.2-mile round trip through mixed-growth woods that still feature vestiges of long-ago logging.

HIGHLIGHTS: Massive old-growth stumps dot this wide trail. Still alive are sitka spruces with their incredible networks of branches, include one full-size specimen growing straight out of a redwood stump.

SWEAT LEVEL: Level stretches are at a premium along this up-and-down trail, so periodic rest stops may be necessary.

GETTING THERE: From the north, start at the pull-out on Howland Hill Road next to the gate for a road to the Outdoor School. From the south, start at the park gate on Hamilton Road.