This loop feels like an amusement park attraction
There are a few precious places that seem almost too perfect - as if they must be manmade facsimiles of nature's wonders, like riding the Matterhorn or Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland.
Amusement park designers couldn't improve on the old-growth redwood experience awaiting those who strike out north from the Visitors Center at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. And while a rollercoaster through the redwoods might be a nice concept for a new attraction in Anaheim, the real thing is better viewed slowly, on foot, giving hikers time to verify that what they're seeing is real, not fantasy.
Don't take my word for it. Dan Brett, author of the Redwood National and State Parks edition of "Best Easy Day Hikes," marvels that today's journey departs the Visitors Center and "immediately delves into some of the most impressive old-growth redwood forest in California - or the world, for that matter."
Better than the behemoths in Jed Smith? Loyal Del Norters might ask that. The answer is that it doesn't matter. Why argue over the relative merits of two sections of hiking heaven? This park may be in Humboldt County, but the visitors center is only 33 miles from Crescent City and thus more in our sphere of influence than that of Eureka, another 50 miles south of Prairie Creek.
The journey's first attraction was what had to be one of the
longest wooden walking bridges on the North Coast. It crossed Prairie
Creek rippling with runoff, and at the far end was built around a
symmetrical giant approaching the size of the Stout Tree in the Del
Norte grove of the same name. Welcome to Redwoodland! And no waiting in
More big boys rose up in manifestations ranging from twisted twins
to cathedral clusters, strengthening the effect that this was all
somehow designed with biped tourists in mind. After 12 minutes we took a
right on James Irvine, and soon crossed Godwood Creek on a shorter
wooden bridge. Our oohs and ahhs and camera clicks drowned out the
umphhs of the steady climb that soon ensued. Another 20 minutes and we
reached the junction with Miner's Ridge.
This would begin the loop, and it also meant decision time. Both
our hiking books recommended staying right on James Irvine. The Redwood
National Park Trail Guide suggested turning left on Miner's Ridge. Then
again, the guide said the full loop would be 10.3 miles long, while
every other source told us it would be seven-something.
We chose to go left because it was the higher path and we figured
on doing our climbing while we were still fresh. Miner's Ridge proved
steeper than expected, but if you're doing the loop, this is the way to
go no matter what the hiking books say. We did our sweating early, and
hardly noticed as the redwood hits kept coming, along with plentiful
spring trillium abloom in the relative high country.
An additional reward: This was a true ridge trail, with
tree-studded slopes falling away on both sides. It was originally a
wagon road that brought supplies and workers to the gold mines at Fern
Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach.
The redwoods got even better, or at least burlier. They never seem
to run out of new looks, and we hit an especially gnarly stretch. We
could have stopped and spent the rest of the afternoon fantasizing about
the shapes we discerned in the knotty outgrowths. A wizened wizard's
face. A bird head. Demons.
The magical ridge-climb continued for about a mile, then leveled
out and descended a bit before reaching the junction (2.2 miles out from
the Visitors Center) with the Clintonia Trail, which would serve as the
buckle in the loop route. We took a right and immediately embraced two
First, the turn made us sense that we were already pointing back to
the Visitors Center, something we weren't ready to do, especially now
that we were on level ground. A map check dissuaded us of the notion. We
had simply veered due north.
Second, an expansive spruce grove gave the impression we were no
longer in Redwoodland. We kept walking and the redwoods resumed, broken
up by occasional Douglas fir interlopers and other canyon-bottom
conifers. The map showed a hairpin curve ahead that we suspected meant
more climbing. Wrong again! The route proved curvaceous and level, even
descending a bit before reaching the junction with the James Irvine
Getting that climb out of the way early was continuing to pay off.
The trail, named after a Southern California real estate developer who
frequently came north to fish, meandered at a common, low altitude for
most of the three and a half miles back to the Visitors Center. There
were quaint wooden steps, path-clearings cut through fallen logs, long
views of the zig-zagging route ahead and more gnarly giants. One had
recently split apart, depositing a massive cluster of splinters at
I suspect some Bay Area-oriented tourists think of Prairie Creek
Redwoods State Park as the northern terminus of redwood country.
Compared to the magnificent solitude of Del Norte's old-growth groves,
we experience a veritable traffic jam of pedestrians every time we visit
here. On this day, that equated to about 10 fellow hikers encountered
over the course of seven-plus miles of scenic serenity.
They were all smiling, almost smirking, as if they alone had
discovered some long-lost treasure.
A walk in the North Coast woods will do that for you.
THE HIKE: A journey of about 7.6 miles that starts at the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Visitors Center and loops through parts of the Miner's Ridge and James Irvine trails, with the Clintonia Trail in between.
HIGHLIGHTS: Old-growth redwoods so gnarly and well-placed that they seem to have been designed as an amusement park attraction. Dual panoramic views from the Miner's Ridge Trail enhance the sense that you're visiting someplace laid out for the optimal redwood experience.
SWEAT LEVEL: Some significant climbing, but if you take the loop clockwise andndash; the opposite of what hiking books recommend andndash; you'll sweat early and then luxuriate on a curvaceous, mostly level path later. Go the other way and the climb will be much longer, but more gradual.
GETTING THERE: Take U.S.Highway 101 south to the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, then go south again to the Visitors Center, a 33-mile drive from Crescent City.