By Zach Urness
When the world’s tallest trees are just one highlight of a hike — and maybe not even the main highlight — there’s a good chance you’ve found a pretty spectacular place.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park fits that description.
Located in the heart of northwest California’s redwood empire, Prairie Creek is a place that blends 300-foot trees, coastal canyons, sandy beach and roaming herds of Roosevelt Elk in a destination 50 miles south of the Oregon and California border.
While there are plenty of things to do here — camping, mountain biking and bird watching to name a few — I arrived last month with one specific goal in mind: to hike the James Irvine-Miners Ridge Loop.
Known as the best overall hike in the redwoods, and among the best on the West Coast, this 13-mile journey weaves through a trio of northern California’s most dramatic assets: old-growth forest, Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach.
“For me, it has always been the iconic hike of the redwoods,” said James Wheeler, park ranger for the Redwood National and State Park system since 1986. “It’s a pretty long walk — and not everybody is going to be up for it — but whenever people say they want to spend four or five hours in the redwoods, this is the trail I recommend.”
The Redwood National and State Park system is a fragmented combination of four parks spanning 131,983 acres of northwest California’s coast.
At one point, virgin redwood forests covered 2 million acres of northern California and southern Oregon. Today, only five percent of that old-growth remains and about half is protected within the RNSP system.
Prairie Creek is among the more popular parks because it offers more options. It has easy access to the beach, along with mountain biking trails and backpacking sites. But in recent months it has also been the subject of vandalism that’s captured national headlines.
Officials were forced to shut down Drury Scenic Parkway, the main road into Prairie Creek, after it was revealed in March that people were sneaking into the park at night with chainsaws and cutting chunks of material called burls off redwoods.
Burls are bumpy growths around the base of redwoods key to the tree’s ability to reproduce and protect itself from insect damage and disease.
Problem is, they’re prized for wooden objects like coffee tables and bar tops due to a beautiful, swirling pattern. Chunks of burl can sell for thousands of dollars, making them attractive targets for thieves in the depressed economy of rural Humboldt County.
Two arrests have been made but the parkway remains closed late at night, said Candace Tinkler, chief of interpretation and education at RNSP.
“Our goal is not to impact visitors at all, and 99 percent won’t even notice the closure unless they’re out and about at 2 a.m.,” she said. “But we’re still taking active measures to pursue poaching violations. We’ve put a dent in it, but it’s still an ongoing concern.”
Before setting out on the James Irvine-Miners Ridge Loop, there’s an important question to ask yourself: do I want to hike 6.1 miles or 13 miles?
No matter how great the scenery, nothing ruins a hike quicker than being exhausted, and this route is not easy.
If you’re doing a one-way hike, set up a shuttle by following Davidson Road to the Fern Canyon Trailhead and leaving a car.
Otherwise, strap on your hiking boots and make sure to bring your camera.
Start by following the main trail out beyond the visitor center, following signs for James Irvine Trail. The trees are massive right off the bat, but so are the crowds so don’t dally.
After one mile comes the junction of James Irvine and Miners Ridge trails. The loop begins here, and my preference is to go right (especially if you’re doing the one-way shuttle hike).
The magic of James Irvine Trail isn’t just that the redwoods are massive (and they are), but that the trail is long enough for the crowds to thin dramatically. After a few miles in, you feel immersed in that ancient, primeval forest.
Fossils show that relatives of today’s coast redwoods thrived in the Jurassic Era 160 million years ago and the sensation here is of visiting a place that hasn’t changed much since the time of the dinosaurs.
The redwoods thin as you get closer to the ocean — they’re not salt-water tolerant, according to Wheeler — and are replaced by red alder and spruce almost as impressive, in a dark forest thick with moss and lichen.
The next highlight arrives at mile 5.5, with signs pointing to Fern Canyon. A trail shoots downhill and, after stepping off the trail completely, you find yourself in a narrow flat-bottom ravine with canyon walls shooting 50 feet overhead. True to its name, every inch of the canyon walls are covered with ferns, creating the sensation of hiking through a hanging garden.
In winter and spring, Fern Canyon requires some creek-hopping and climbing over downed trees, but around Memorial Day, the park usually installs bridges that make it hiking easier.
Fern Canyon is just 0.6 miles long and soon opens up onto the next highlight: Gold Bluffs Beach.
Home to high bluffs overhanging the undeveloped beach, this stretch of wetlands and sand is often populated by Roosevelt Elk.
Once you emerge from Fern Canyon — and reach Fern Canyon Trailhead — it takes a short hike through wetlands to reach the sand. The crash of the surf and salty air is a welcome change after 6.1 miles in dense forest and a narrow canyon.
If you’re doing the one-way hike, enjoy the sand and surf before heading home. If you’re here for the full tour, kick off your shoes and follow the beach left for 1.4 miles of sandy bliss.
Although the beach doesn’t have any markers, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Gold Bluffs Beach campground on the left, where you’ll cut back across the sand and cross Davidson Road to the Miners Ridge Trailhead.
Miners Ridge winds back through even more old-growth redwood forest — there are even fewer people on this trail — completing the loop and bringing you back to the visitor center in 5.3 miles.
It’s a full day on the trail, but between the redwoods, canyons, beach and wildlife, there are good reasons this tour of Prairie Creek is known as perhaps the best redwood hike in the world.