Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Crossing Prairie Creek at the start of the trail

NOTE: I use a fixed format for the Dog Blog. The photos that I embed in the text are either 400x300 or 300x400 pixels. When you click on the photos (and you really should) you get the full resolution version. I always crop the full size version to the same aspect ratio so that it is identical to the embedded photo, just bigger. But that doesn't do the redwoods justice. So for the posts about our trip to the redwood country, I kept many of the full size photos at their original resolution. Even with wider and taller photos it's hard to capture the scale of the redwood trees. So do click on the pictures and enjoy the full size of the giant trees. /NOTE

After two nights at the Lighthouse Inn we left Crescent City. The hotel had been nice, it's main attraction being that it was reasonably priced. Quite a few of the hotels in town were very expensive. That was surprising since Crescent City wasn't really a tourist town. Hey, I couldn't even find a tshirt there that I wanted to buy.

After breakfast we got on US 101 and headed south. Almost as soon as we left town we entered Del Norte Coastal Redwoods State Park (whew - try saying that three times really fast). Sure enough. There were big redwoods right along the highway. And we traveled right along the coast. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint but it was a foggy morning so it wasn't worth taking pictures. Just about every morning is foggy along this part of the coast. At least the weather forecast said that it would clear up midday.

The Big Tree is 21 feet in diameter at the base

All through the park, the highway followed the cliffs that lined the ocean. It was not an obvious place to put a road and it certainly was not an easy place to keep a road open. Three times we had to stop because the road was partially washed out and only one lane was open. At one spot, as we drove through, it was pretty scary looking down. It wasn't obvious that even the one lane that we were driving on was stable and the washed out slope below dropped right down into the ocean.

We didn't do any hiking in Del Norte State Park. It's long and narrow along the coast, with both redwoods and coastal scenery. But it was close to our starting point, and I knew that the weather along the coast would be cloudy in the morning. Instead I had a hike further south in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park picked out.

Near Klamath we did took a short side trip to an overlook of the Klamath River. It was a nice view but the weather was still cloudy and gray. A trail starts at the overlook and goes five and a half miles along the coast to US 101. On a bright, sunny day it would be an awesome hike.

Shortly after we got home from our trip I saw a picture on Facebook that I recognized had been taken from the Klamath River Overlook. Our friends Dale and Jan were in California and camped nearby. I commented that we had been in the same spot only a week before. And a week later it was still cloudy. (And yes, this anecdote shows that I have been lazy and have taken several weeks to get this posted.)

On the Prairie Creek Trail

After the overlook we took another short detour from the main highway to drive through the town of Klamath. It was a very small town but it has a Holiday Inn Express, which is where we would be staying for the next two nights. There was also a gas station and a post office. And there was...nothing else. Both the hotel and the gas station were owned and operated by the Yurok tribe, the Indian people who were the original inhabitants of the redwood country of Northern California.

Five miles south of Klamath we turned off into Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. US 101 skirts the eastern boundary but the park's scenic drive goes for ten miles through the center of the park before rejoining the highway further south. It's a much quieter road that passes through impressive redwood forest and provides access points to the park's trails. It also leads to a campground and the Visitor Center.

A wildlife encounter on the trail - a banana slug

The day before when we visited the Redwoods National Park headquarters, the guy there recommended a hike in Prairie Creek State Park. He suggested a loop trip from the Visitor Center, down through Fern Canyon, along the beach and then back. It sounded like an interesting hike so I looked it up in Top Trails: Northern California's Redwood Coast. It's a guidebook that I got from Sandy for my birthday and it had detailed info for that trail. While it sounded like a good hike it involved difficult route finding. There were several places near the coast where the hike wasn't marked and there were complex directions to follow. Near the trailhead that might be ok. If you have a problem you can just quit the hike and do something else. But five or six or more miles into a hike, that's not so easy. After our experience with the Boy Scout Trail the day before, we decided that we wanted something simpler. We settled on the Prairie Creek Trail/Zigzag Trail/West Ridge Trail loop. It was only six miles with less than a thousand feet of elevation gain. It would also allow us to take a side trip to visit The Big Tree. In this area anything billed as "The Big Tree" had to be worth seeing.

Not The Big Tree but still a pretty darn big tre

First we went to the Visitor Center where we were able to pick up a trail map. There was only a small lot with short term parking so before we started hiking we had to drive back out to the main road. There was a large meadow, called Elk Prairie, where elk gather in the evening. There was lots of room to park on the shoulder there.

The trail started right behind the Visitor Center. It crossed Prairie Creek on a bridge and we were immediatly into the redwood forest. The bridge even had cutouts so that three large redwoods that it passed by would not be disturbed. The creek was pretty and made a quiet, gurgling noise which was almost the only sound in the forest. The light was soft in the shade of the redwood canopy high overhead and sounds seemed to be absorbed by the vegetation. Although we walked parallel to the scenic drive we heard very little traffic noise. When you talked you wanted to whisper so that you wouldn't disturb the mood of the place.

There really were big trees everywhere

After an easy, flat mile following the creek, a spur trail led back to the highway where we crossed over and took the short trail to the Big Tree. It's only (!) 286 feet high but it is one of the largest coast redwoods in volume. At it's base it is twenty one feet in diameter. That's a big tree. There was a wooded boardwalk around the tree so that people wouldn't trample its roots when they walked around it. Of course everyone wanted to get their picture taken standing next to the tree.

At the time I didn't know it, but the Atlas Grove was just a short distance away. It contains many of the largest trees in the park and has been extensively studied, but to protect the trees, their location is not advertised. Because the area around the Big Tree was hardened, it's location was well signed.

As we crossed the road back to the main trail we passed a guy who asked us if the Visitor Center was down the road. We told him it was, about a mile. But we also said that there was a much nicer trail just a few hundred yards off the highway that went straight back. "Nope. Need the fastest way. I have tired little kids" he said and charged off down the road. A short distance in, when we got back to the main trail, a woman was sitting with two very small children. They all looked very unhappy. She was upset because the lady at the Visitor Center told them it was only an hours walk to the Big Tree but it had been too far for their little kids. We didn't point out that an hour for a two mile round trip was a pretty easy pace for most hikers. Obviously her kids had been a lot slower. We left them behind. Hopefully Dad was able to drive back soon to rescue them.

When a giant redwood blocks the trail

Back on the Prairie Creek Trail after our diversion, we soon passed Corkscrew, an unusual tree consisting of several trunks fused together in a corkscrew pattern. A lot of the largest or more unusual trees in the redwood parks have names, although the location of most of them isn't advertised to protect them from visitors inadvertantly damaging them. Although the trees are large and seem indestructable, their root systems can easily be damaged by people walking around their base. A few like the Big Tree have been "hardened". For most, their best protection is to remain anonymous and hidden in the forest, off the main trails, where they don't attract excessive attention. It's possible to look up on the web where many of these trees, known as titans, are located, but I didn't learn about them until after the trip when I was working on the posts for the Dog Blog. It didn't matter as the hikes we did were great and the trees we saw on them were amazing.

Big enough to be my Man Cave

Although we spent most of out time staring up at the redwoods, I did happen to look down and see something on the trail - a large banana slug. Fortunately I spotted it before one of us stepped on it. I used to see them a lot when I hiked in the coast range near the Bay Area, back when I was a graduate school at Stanford. They are so common there that they have been adopted as the mascot for the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was a controversial choice made by the students which was resisted for many years by the university administration because they thought it was undignified. The students prevailed in the end and banana slugs was even named one of the top ten college team names by ESPN (which I agree with, although Time Magazine named it one of the ten worst team names). Although compared to the gigantic trees all around us a slug might not seem like much, I was hoping that I would spot one on this trip. I thought it was pretty cool that I did see one.

After a couple of miles we turned onto the ZigZag Trail. It was a short connector that climbed out of the valley and up onto the ridge. The workout actually felt good after the easy trail along the creek. After a half mile of climbing we reached the West Ridge Trail which we followed along the ridge crest back to the Visitor Center. Although there hadn't been many hikers along the creek, we had this part of the hike all to ourselves.

Round two at the Palm Cafe in Orick

By the time we were back to our car it was mid-afternoon. We were long overdue for lunch and we were both starving. We drove further south along US 101 to the next town which was Orick. Not much there but we did find a small family restaurant, the Palm Cafe. We had a good lunch but the best part was the home-made pies that we had for dessert. I didn't even have to think. I ordered my favorite, cherry pie ala mode. Sandy asked the waitress how the chocolate cream pie was. She replied "It's tall and rich, honey. Same as I like my men". That convinced Sandy and she ordered a slice.

We ate enough for two meals. Our lunch/dinner was really good (linner?). We certainly weren't hungry anymore. I think that one of the fun things about traveling is that sometimes you come across little mom and pop restaurants tucked away in tiny towns and get great meals like this one. It was worth it just for the dessert.

Patrick Point

Next we checked out the main Redwood National Park Visitor Center since it is just a mile or two south of Orick. By then it was late in the afternoon but I thought we had time for one more stop. I suggested a quick trip to Patrick Point State Park. I had seen pictures of nice coastal scenery in the park. I read that the park is foggy almost all the time but the weather had cleared and the afternoon was bright and sunny. I thought we should take advantage of the opportunity. From the online map it looked like there were several viewpoints that we could reach with very short hikes. Since we had such a late lunch we figured we would skip dinner and we still had some daylight left. We decided to go for it.

After parking at a trailhead, our first task was to go to the campground and find the restroom. We had downed a lot of tea (Sandy) and soda (me) at lunch. We quickly found it but it was occupied. We waited for ten minutes and still no one came out. We heard lots of water noises inside so I finally tried the door. It was unlocked and there was a woman inside doing laundry in the sink. I asked her if we could use the restroom for just a minute. She didn't seem to understand my question, then responded in French. We gave up and just walked down the trail a few minutes and found a spot in the bushes.

Wedding Rock

The trails leaving the campground were confusing and it took us a couple of tries before we found the trail that led to Patrick Point. We figured that the feature that the park was named for had to be impressive. We were disappointed when we saw it and realized that we had to drop down a long way to reach the actual point. It would have been an awesome viewpoint, a series of rocks that extended far out into the ocean, but it was too late in the day and we were too low on energy for that now. We didn't get much of a view from where we were so we turned back. That trail was a bust.

Next we took a trail up Lookout Rock. It was really overgrown with brush and required a little scrambling on rocks. Sandy held back and went slowly but I hurried up to the top. It was disappointing - covered in trees so there was no view. I went back and told Sandy it wasn't worth it for her to go all the way up. Swing and a miss - Strike Two.

Coastline at Patrick Point State Park

As we circled back to our car we finally came to a nice viewpoint overlooking the ocean. From there I had a good view of nearby Wedding Rock. Although it wasn't very high, it was an impressive pinnacle rising out of the ocean. Sandy stayed by the car while I took the short walk to Wedding Rock. It only took ten minutes and was well worth it. The trail ended just below the summit and the last twenty or thirty feet was a fun scramble. From the top I got a great 360 degree view of the ocean and the shoreline extending in both directions until it was lost in the haze. Although not very high it had the feel of being on top of a mountain. Now I was happy and ready to head back.

The drive back was uneventful although we did see some elk alongside the road. After we checked into our hotel in Klamath, I got snacks and a bottle of wine from the nearby minimart and we had a quiet evening. It had been another good day. We had one more full day for hiking and planned to use it to visit Redwood National Park.