Amber waves of grass, nourished by recent summer rains and slanted by sea winds, were the prevalent sight. Not water, even though we were trudging along a finger of land that divides lakes Tolowa and Earl.
The map had seemingly promised otherwise, but this was Tolowa Dunes State Park, a mystical place both barren and lush where heavily foliaged lakes and marshes abut sandy bluffs and craters. Every foray here has sprung surprises - why should the Peninsula Trail be different?
On paper, it looked like the perfect route for simultaneous views of the two sprawling lagoons north of Crescent City. But Lake Earl, so easily accessed by car from the east, is a reclusive giant when approached on foot from the west. On this route, Lake Tolowa was less shy, but still distant for much of the trek.
The diversity of Tolowa Dunes makes even the choice of footwear challenging. Sandals for sand? Sneakers for grassy wetlands? Hiking shoes for hard-packed trails?
The journey started sandy as we headed north from the parking lot past the Lake Earl Wildlife Area Information Center at the end of Old Mill Road. There was no trailhead sign, only a notice about dog restrictions and a small kiosk offering bald eagle trivia.
The sand gave way to firmer dirt and after five minutes we arrived at a two-track superhighway of a path. There was no sign, but this was Cadra Point Loop Road - passable by car but closed to traffic. We turned right and followed the road through dense woods and open stretches.
Side-trails to the right offered access to Cadra Marsh at the south end of Lake Earl, but the paths were overgrown. After about 20 minutes we reached the end of the woodsy experience at a clearing with a surprising glut of signage, including a kiosk with bird info and a reminder that dogs should be on leashes. A wide, grassy path to the right led to nearby Cadra Point. We'd been this far before and knew that the mushy terminus was still in marshland, even though it offered a panoramic view with the lake stretching northward and the Coast Range in the distance.
We kept going north, in search of new takes on the lakes. Another three minutes brought us to the junction with Lakeview Trail. It was marked only by a no dog/no horse sign, but we knew it to be a delightful up-and-down trek along a lengthy ridgeline with more views of Earl through the trees.
Alas, like seemingly every side trail in this summer of periodic precipitation, the path was awash in tall grass. We continued on Cadra Point Loop Road, which cut twin-swaths through the grass and passed by occasional clusters of trees that stood out like oases. After about a half-mile there was one more side-trail to the east - it led to Goose Point at Earl's western edge, but it too was pretty much impassable.
We were now in uncharted - for us - territory and starting to wonder if the view would ever change, although the Pacific had come into sight in the distant west. When we reached the junction with the Peninsula Trail, there was no pronouncement to that effect, just a sign pointing left for the continuation of Cadra Point Loop Road. We turned right and beheld andhellip; nearby water!
It was McLaughlin Pond to our left, stretching north and white-dotted with egrets. For the full mile and a half of the Peninsula Trail, tall grass traced our path but the view west was wet, first with the pond, then with Lake Tolowa. A couple of times we glimpsed the elusive Earl to the east, but he never lingered.
It was just after one of those sightings that a gang of elk materialized ahead of us as if posing for a picture. This was not the typical bull elk and his harem, rather a mixed crowd of about 14. They vamoosed at our approach, but as we rounded a wooded bend, half of them awaited just a few feet away. They obligingly went into a trot as I clicked my shutter and wished my camera had a motor-drive.
OK, here's the truth about the Peninsula Trail: It doesn't go all the way to the northern tip of the peninsula. We could have bushwhacked our way to the point and checked out the narrow passage from Earl to Tolowa, but again, the grass was lanky this summer and no one seemed to be mowing the dunes. I'd have plunged ahead, but Laura demurred.
So we retraced our steps, this time stopping at Cadra Point for the full Lake Earl view that had eluded us farther north.
A mysterious fellow, that Earl.