ORICK, Calif. — When the world’s tallest trees are just one highlight of a hike — and maybe not even the main highlight — 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 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, off Highway 101.
While there are plenty of things to do here — camping, mountain biking and bird watching, to name a few — I arrived recently with one goal in mind: to hike the James Irvine-Miner’s Ridge Loop.
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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 Parks 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.”
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 here.
After one mile comes the junction of the James Irvine and Miner’s Ridge trails. The loop begins here, and my preference is to go right.
The magic of the 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 saltwater tolerant — and are replaced by red alder and spruce.
At 5.5 miles, signs point to Fern Canyon. A trail shoots downhill and you find yourself in a narrow flat-bottom ravine with canyon walls shooting 50 feet overhead. Every inch of the canyon walls are covered with ferns, creating the sensation of hiking through a hanging garden.
Fern Canyon soon opens up onto the next highlight: Gold Bluffs Beach, a stretch of wetlands and sand often populated by elk. The crash of the surf and salty air is a welcome change after 6.1 miles in dense forest and a narrow canyon.
This can be the end of a shorter, one-way hike if you can drop a car at the Fern Canyon day use parking area. If you’re here for the full tour, kick off your shoes and follow the beach left for 1.4 miles of sandy bliss.
The beach doesn’t have any markers, so 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 Beach Road to the Miner’s Ridge Trailhead.
Miner’s 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.