Walk Your World: Meadow, dune, forest and sea

Written by Richard Wiens, The Triplicate May 13, 2013 03:57 pm

Driftwood is strewn across the sand at the mouth of Sweetwater Creek at the south end of the beach portion of the hike.
Driftwood is strewn across the sand at the mouth of Sweetwater Creek at the south end of the beach portion of the hike. Del Norte Triplicate / Richard Wiens
It happened again. After five-plus years in Del Norte, Laura and I discovered another great hike practically in Crescent City’s backyard.

None of the paths through Tolowa Dunes State Park have disappointed. Once you get over the fact there are no old-growth redwoods to be seen — except the occasional ancient stump in the sand — a whole different world unfolds with myriad attractions: Meadows, forests, lakes, beaches and, of course, the dunes.

The 4-mile Long Trail Loop delivers all of those except for a lake, but it makes up for that by touching up against Sweetwater Creek as it meanders to the sea from its birthplace at Dead Lake.

After parking at the end of Sand Hill Road (refer to the map at www.tolowacoasttrails.org), we walked through the gate, hung a right, and found ourselves in a wind-swept meadow that had us immediately wishing we’d brought one more layer of clothing.

Fortunately, it was only six minutes to the shelter of the woods full of pines, firs and spruces, as well as an abundance of huckleberry bushes sporting their new red leaves (too soon for the berries).

A sandy pinnacle heralds the trail’s arrival at the ocean’s edge.
A sandy pinnacle heralds the trail’s arrival at the ocean’s edge. Del Norte Triplicate / Richard Wiens
Another 13 minutes and we arrived at a junction offering a right turn to the east, but we stayed straight and in eight more minutes came to a giant spruce on our right. Upon closer inspection, we discovered unmapped wetlands behind it, along with the requisite bugs of spring.

Soon the trail began opening up again, eventually turning sandy as the trees gave way. About 10 more minutes and we beheld a dune panorama. In the distance we noted a sandy pinnacle. Its attraction convinced us to trek all the way to the beach rather than turn left (south) along the foredunes. Both choices appear on the map.

The sandy monolith enlarged as the ocean came into view. A path veered just right of the beach-grassy knoll, but we couldn’t resist summiting it and step-sliding down to sea level. Forty-five minutes after our departure, we were at the Pacific, its waves slapping with power against a coastline a bit more sloped than Pebble Beach or South Beach.

Huckleberries before the berries.
Huckleberries before the berries. Del Norte Triplicate / Richard Wiens
We headed south, between the grassy dunes and the surf. Sandpipers did their dance. St. George Reef Lighthouse materialized offshore.

An approaching pickup illegally driving the beach was only a slight distraction as we neared a cluster of driftwood at the mouth of Sweetwater Creek. A half-hour after hitting the coast, we reached the confluence and stopped for lunch.

A modest path east through the sand and grass got us back onto the part of the loop also known as Sweetwater Creek Trail. We’d been walking again for about six minutes, the ocean out of sight behind us, when we inadvertently rousted a big bird into flight. We veered off-trail to where it had arisen and discovered a delightfully meandering inland section of Sweetwater Creek, one bank swathed in yellow flowers.

Sweetwater Creek meanders toward the sea.
Sweetwater Creek meanders toward the sea. Del Norte Triplicate / Richard Wiens
After that we settled into a wide, sandy two-track path for the half-hour walk back, the meadows and trees more intermingled than on the path out. A final scenic payoff opened out to our left, a vast open space backed by tall, wind-shaped trees. We reached the car about two hours and 20 minutes after we’d started — and 20 of those had been spent picnicking.

As with any Del Norte hike, the time invested had paid off handsomely.

TRAIL NOTES

The hike: The 4-mile Long Trail Loop in Tolowa Dunes State Park traverses meadows, forests and dunes to the beach and back. It includes a section of Sweetwater Creek Trail.

Highlights:Strikingly diverse scenes and memorable moments, such as clearing a pinnacle of sand to behold the surf and arriving at the log-strewn mouth of Sweetwater Creek.

Sweat level: There’s really no climbing, but you may perspire a bit putting on or taking off layers of clothing in response to the changing conditions in the wind, shade and sun.

Getting there: Go west on Old Mill Road off of Northcrest Drive, continuing onto Sand Hill Road until it curves south and ends at a circular parking area.