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Still Wild 

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

click to enlarge Sand verbena blossoms on the ocean beach near Ossagon Rocks.

Photo by Mark Larson

Sand verbena blossoms on the ocean beach near Ossagon Rocks.

An unexpected "staycation" benefit of this pandemic era has been getting to know local locations I hadn't spent much time visiting.

Next time you're driving in northern Humboldt County, take one of the U.S. Highway 101 bypass exits onto Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway into Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Fifty miles north of Eureka, it is now one of my favorite day trips.

You don't want to bypass massive old growth redwood trees, a waterfall, a fern-lined canyon, wild Roosevelt elk, beautiful wildflowers and rhododendron blooms, more than 100 memorial redwood groves and spectacular beach rock formations. You can also find 75 miles of walking trails and two campgrounds (reservations only). And, as we discovered on a recent early June visit, you won't find a memorial stone monument honoring Save the Redwoods League founder Madison Grant that was placed in Elk Prairie in 1948 (see sidebar story for details).

click to enlarge A sign along the Gold Bluffs road warns to avoid Roosevelt elk cows with calves. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • A sign along the Gold Bluffs road warns to avoid Roosevelt elk cows with calves.

Before you go, check the park's website www.parks.ca.gov for details about COVID-19 guidelines, other rules (no dogs allowed at Fern Canyon) and road conditions. As you drive U.S. Highway 101 from the south, stop first at the Redwood National Park Visitor Center south of Orick for a park trails map and the latest road conditions. (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.)Coming from the north U.S. Highway 101 bypass exit, your only option for park information is driving 8 miles south to the Elk Prairie Visitor Center.

click to enlarge A tall waterfall coming off the bluffs at Gold Beach along the Coastal Trail north of Fern Canyon. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • A tall waterfall coming off the bluffs at Gold Beach along the Coastal Trail north of Fern Canyon.

Heading north from Orick, keep your eyes open for Roosevelt elk — they could be anywhere, including the park trails and crossing the highway. This is prime habitat for what was once the last surviving herd in California. They can be especially dangerous in the late spring/summer, when the cows have calves, and in the fall, when the bulls are in rut. On one October hike, an aggressive bull elk blocked me from exiting a trail near the Elk Prairie visitor center until a park ranger got in his pickup to gently herd the bull elk out of my way.

Next recommended stop as you head north is Elk Meadow, just off U.S. Highway 101 on Davison Road; it has good parking and visibility for elk viewing. A short way down Davison Road are restrooms, picnic facilities and multiple trail options, including the relatively new Berry Glen Trail that takes you to Lady Bird Johnson Grove. I highly recommend the 3-mile Trillium Falls trail loop here. Good signage takes you to its first trailhead on the right and it's a relatively short, uphill walk to visit one of the few waterfalls in the park. A big leaf maple tree backdrops the falls and the bridge across the creek. Like most of the park's trails, the rest of the trail loop features several memorial groves, lots of trillium and other wildflowers in the spring. I'm always amazed this preserved section of old-growth redwoods wasn't logged back in the day, given its proximity to the highway.

Continue on Davison Road (check for road conditions and be aware the gravel road cannot accommodate trailers or vehicles more than 8 feet wide or 24 feet long) for another 6 miles to Gold Bluffs Beach and access to Fern Canyon and the campground (reservations only and no electricity, water or sewage connections for RVs). In the summer, the parking lot at Fern Canyon often fills by noon, so visit early in the day. Elk graze along the beach or near the road, so be careful.

click to enlarge Walking up the small creek in Fern Canyon when seasonal bridges were available. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • Walking up the small creek in Fern Canyon when seasonal bridges were available.

My wife and I greatly enjoy the photography opportunities and the 1.2-mile walk into the narrow, high-walled Fern Canyon, which was a backdrop for Jurassic Park. We wear rubber boots or river sandals as there's a good chance you'll get your feet wet in the shallow creek while avoiding the crowds or finding the perfect photo composition. Other hiking options include going north on the Coastal Trail to see a high waterfall coming off the bluffs or east to the visitor center via the James Irving or Miner's Ridge trails. I recommend a longer walk through beautiful old growth redwoods here by parking at the visitor center at Elk Prairie along the Parkway and walking the 11.6-mile loop to Fern Canyon and back via the James Irving and Miner's Ridge trails.

After entering the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway from the south, again watch for elk in Elk Prairie as you head north. Stop at the visitor center and restrooms (you may have to park along the Parkway and walk in, as spaces fill up). From here you have a wide range of trail choices, with the flattest being the enjoyable and scenic Prairie Creek Trail to the north. After following the creek for 1.6 miles in lush undergrowth and tall trees, I recommend turning right and crossing the Parkway to visit the Big Tree, one of many giant old growth redwoods in the park. Or you can drive north on the Parkway from the visitor center to the parking lot for a short walk to the Big Tree.

click to enlarge The signage at the Big Tree suggests there are many other "big trees" to look at in the park. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • The signage at the Big Tree suggests there are many other "big trees" to look at in the park.
We've also enjoyed the nearby Cathedral Trees Trail, Foothill Trail and Rhododendron Trail here, along with a walk up and back on the Cal Barrel Road when it's closed to traffic in the off season. As you continue north on the Parkway, check your map for other trailheads on both sides of the road and watch for memorial grove signs.

One of our favorites any time of year is the 3.8-mile-loop Hope Creek/Ten Taypo trail about 6.2 miles north of the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway entrance. It features lots of trillium earlier in the spring, hundreds of Columbia lilies in June and usually fewer people.

At the same parking area on the opposite side of the Parkway is the more heavily used out-and-back, 4-plus-mile Ossagon Trail. We enjoy this trail through redwoods and spruce forest to the ocean beach and the Ossagon Rocks, but then puff our way back up the 800 feet of elevation gain on the way back to the car. It's the only trail in the park open to mountain bikes, and riders often loop south on the beach's Coastal Trail to Fern Canyon and back to the Elk Prairie Visitor Center.

click to enlarge An unusual snowplant found along the top of the Hope Creek trail. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • An unusual snowplant found along the top of the Hope Creek trail.

There are 111 memorial groves located throughout the park, some with signs that are aging or broken by falling branches and trees. You'll see the Joseph and Zipporah Russ Pioneer Grove sign along the Parkway (with a local connection to Russ Park in Ferndale) and my favorite name: the Grove of Happy Memories. See Save the Redwoods League's map of memorial grove locations here.

Finally, a unique vehicle-free and ADA-accessible walk we enjoy is the Hike and Bike Day on Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway the first Saturday of the month from October to May. The parkway is closed to all motorized vehicles for a chance to bicycle, skate, stroll, roll, saunter or skip with leashed pets as far as you want to the north park entrance from the visitor center through 10-miles of old growth redwoods.

click to enlarge Sighting a young Barred Owl along the Ossagon Trail was a special treat on a August hike. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • Sighting a young Barred Owl along the Ossagon Trail was a special treat on a August hike.

Remember to always be aware of your surroundings and wildlife, such as bears, elk or mountain lions, carry a map, plenty of water and snacks, and let someone know where you plan to hike if traveling alone. Enjoy the gifts of stillness and the wildness of nature.

Mark Larson (he/him) is a retired Humboldt State University journalism professor and active freelance photographer who likes to walk.

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Mark Larson

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