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Van Duzen Venture 

Hiking along the river and trails of the county park

The stairs to Humboldt Grove, a testimonial to the hard work of dedicated trailblazers.

Photo by Meg Wall-Wild

The stairs to Humboldt Grove, a testimonial to the hard work of dedicated trailblazers.

My spouse and I follow winding State Route 36 on a lovely July day. We, like many, have not been out in a long time and it feels good to be wandering, even with masks. We follow the bends and gentle curves that weave through Hydesville and Carlotta, the landscape changing from river bottom to forest. Glimpses of the Van Duzen River tantalize us. 

We pull into the main entrance to Van Duzen County Park, the 276-acre home of three old growth redwood groves. Quiet envelopes me. A lone yellow payphone stands out. There is no cell phone service. 

Many a family memory is born in the waters of the Van Duzen River at Swimmer's Delight Campground. But we are here to hike. 

After a quick chat with the camp ranger, we know to look out for poison oak. I am allergic, so the long pants I wear are necessary. The ranger also tells us one footbridge is down. With the pandemic and budget stressors like the closed Pamplin Grove group camp, I fear for this trail. The affordable $5 per car day use fee suddenly seems underpriced. 

We head for the day use parking lot by the river. The magnificent view backdrops picnic tables with people munching contentedly. A family splashes as we pick our way along the rocky shore. The 30,000-year-old bluff on the opposite bank is in danger of collapse from the river's relentless wear. The area is roped off with the best danger sign ever: "It is not often we get to witness a natural geological event in our lifetime. We thank you for your patience as we let nature take its course."

We both grin. 

The river curve sweeps left as it hugs the south bluff. We walk upstream before dipping back onto the camp road. This was just the warm-up.

We head back toward the state route, a trail marker prodding a right turn. "Van Duzen Nature Trail" in bright yellow letters on park brown, painted on the end of a fallen redwood. We duck onto the dark green path as a car rolls past.

The Humboldt Grove Trail parallels the state route. What the road crosses with hearty bridges, the park's trail spans with redwood stairs and walkways. I marvel at the effort. Hand-built, heavy timbers bolted together over a rough ravine. I hold onto the rails, grateful for access to such a spot.

We wind around, up and down, using walking sticks to hold back overenthusiastic undergrowth. A crossroad offers a path to the highway entrance to Humboldt Grove. From here to the river the path is more heavily used, a shorter way to the water without navigating the stairs. 

I can see why the Nature Conservancy thought this place special, gifting it to Humboldt County in 1981. Humboldt Grove is filled with the ancient energy of massive roots and towering spires. Dappled light falls on ferns that border expansive views, mountains and trees all pointing up, up. Our path starts to fall. A slight breeze rattles the treetops as we relish the cool shade.

We pick our way down a slope and find ourselves back at the river. Sunlight is everywhere, skittering across waters scattered willy-nilly by jagged rocks. We sigh, picking through unfamiliar geology. Jadeites beckon, the common mineral transformed as if into liquid gems as the clear water swirls over them. I am mesmerized. 

I take off my shoes and stand in the cool water. My toes are instantly soothed. We eat lunch in the shade. Apple, cheese, bread. And our favorite beverage, water. The river is a time sink. We shake ourselves reluctantly. Retracing our steps, we talk of returning for further exploration.

The Overland Stage Route once ran along Old Highway 36. Horses rested while passengers had a bite to eat at Strong's Station. Our car rolls to a stop by the brown sign that denotes what once was and what now is. 

Old Highway 36 took a beating in the flood of 1964, with torn out bridges and eroded roadway. We walk its tired pavement. I am fascinated with a bit of road that ends in a broken painted edge. Nature exerts its power over this road into thin air. 

We follow along as road turns to footpath. Snatches of vistas appear through the redwoods. I cautiously pick my way around a fallen tree, a massive hulk that cut a swath through the undergrowth. 

We are alone. The only noise is an occasional soft swoosh of traffic on a parallel journey west. I again marvel at the engineering challenges met by road and trail. Deep ravines, narrow corridors, colossal trees and tumbling streams. 

We stop well short of the broken footbridge before we head back, resting on a cut log, its end adorned with a peace sign. And some poison oak. We watch a vulture circle lazily as the view fades into far off mountains.

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Meg Wall-Wild

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