They may be in Humboldt County, but the incredible trails of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park are within Del Norte's sphere of influence, being closer to Crescent City (about 35 miles) than they are to Eureka (about 48 miles).
I've written about various stretches of this old-growth wonderland eight times before, but unexplored territory still beckoned. We just had to find it, which involved unfolding a park map and marking all the trails previously traversed.
With that task came memories of Fern Canyon, the Gold Bluffs section of the Coastal Trail, remote Carruthers Cove and up-and-down jaunts amid some of the gnarliest monsters to be found in redwood country.
We were pleased to discover there were at least three more distinct sections to hike. On a Saturday in late January, we chose a route that would include creekside lowlands, heart-pumping switchbacks and a nice long stretch of one of the park's specialties: ridge-walking.
The park is huge, and requires some map study before setting out in any direction because many of the trails intersect. Whatever path you choose, you can't go wrong in terms of scenic rewards, but you can get lost.
The modified loop route we chose included stretches of four trails, and while we planned the journey specifically to avoid going over old ground, it wouldn't be a bad introduction for someone lucky enough to be visiting the park for the first time.
We parked at a trailhead after driving south on Newton B. Drury Parkway for about five miles. It's the second roadside trailhead offering a clear path to the right (west), the first one being Ossagon Trail. Parking on the right at our launch point, we could have crossed the road and embarked east on the Rhododendron Trail. That's another place we haven't been yet - a promising journey for another day.
Instead, we headed west and after just a tenth of a mile turned left onto Prairie Creek Trail. While the creek itself begins several miles farther north, this is the start of the trail that bears its name. You could follow it south nearly four miles to the Visitors Center, which come to think of it would make a fantastic out-and-back with no climbing.
We had other plans but still got to enjoy walking south on a 1.4-mile stretch of the trail, crisscrossing the creek at the base of seemingly never-ending redwood towers and lush ferns. About 20 minutes in we encountered a fallen redwood that never hit the ground. It was sprouting new growth out its side and spanning the creek. Nine minutes later, we craned our necks to follow the contorted skyward path of a corkscrew-shaped tree.
At times, the redwoods gave way to some rival Douglas firs, gnarly in their own right. Being still at creekside, there was no shortage of varied foliage. It was almost hard to leave it all behind, but after following the creek for about 45 minutes we turned right on Zigzag Trail 1 for some switchbacked climbing. It was only a half-mile path, but it took 25 minutes to ascend to new level ground.
Turning right on West Ridge Trail, we walked only about 200 feet before encountering a dramatically-placed bench facing west into a canyon containing the headwaters of Godwood Creek. Note to fellow travelers: This is a prime picnic spot.
The park's ridge trails are hard to beat, often sloping far off to both sides as you look straight out at the mid-sections of redwood giants. Towering spruces joined the Doug firs as occasional interlopers, but the reds still ruled the woods stretching out east and west.
After a mile and a half of mostly level ridge-walking, it was decision time. To the right was Zigzag Trail 2, a half-mile descent to the car. Or we could stay on West Ridge for another 1.3 miles to where it intersects with the Friendship Ridge Trail. This would be a total out-and-back addition of 2.6 miles, but we'd never been there before. It was too soon to head for home when we had the chance to experience another section of the park. So off we went.
This stretch of West Ridge proved not as level and was mostly downhill enough on the way out to have us thinking of the return climb. The single-track trail eventually widened into what was obviously a former forest road.
All in all, it wasn't our favorite stretch, but it did fill in the map and ensured we had a complete cardiovascular workout by the time we turned around at Friendship Ridge and retraced our steps to the junction with Zigzag 2.
We were back on our magical loop route, and it was all downhill from there.
Reach Richard Wiens at firstname.lastname@example.org.