Located in an attractive valley surrounded by conifer-covered hills, this park features a campground next to what used to be a small lake created by a dam across the Eel River. Overlooking the former lake is the elegant Benbow Inn, built in the 1920s. Sadly a four-lane highway now cuts right through the middle of the campground and past the inn's otherwise splendid terrace. What's more, to save on maintenance and seismic retrofitting costs and to protect the salmon, the artificial lake is no longer filled, leaving a less-than-scenic gravel lakebed. In fact the park's name has been changed from "Benbow Lake State Recreation Area" to just "Benbow State Recreation Area"
While the inn with its nice restaurant remain popular, the campground has been closed since 2013 and the park's day use area is little-used when the lake is empty; on a recent Labor Day weekend, it had all of two visitors. Without the lake and the campground, there really isn't much to see and do here.
The park has a single trail loop that was mainly for the benefit of campers. In fact, it's not possible to park anywhere near the trailhead. You have to park in the day-use area across the river, ford the river, and walk a half-mile to the trailhead. The trail can't be reached if the river is too high to cross.
When the campground was open, the trail was surprisingly busy compared to the much more spectacular trails just a few minutes to the north. The well-built trail actually passes through some old-growth redwoods on its way to a heavily-logged flat where a redwood mill once stood. However, the scenery along the trail, including the old growth, is pretty mundane.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Starting from the day use area, head down toward the river and turn left. Cross under the freeway, ford the river (it's only about 3 inches deep at the end of summer, but there's a lot of algae and the rocks are slippery), and continue along the gravelly beach on the other side until you see a path leading up the slope to your right. Take the path into the campground and turn right when you reach the paved road. Cross under the freeway again. In a few more yards you'll see the trailhead directly in front of you.
The trail starts off with a gentle climb up a pleasantly-wooded hillside, arcing around the campground. Soon you come to an intersection with the Pioneer Trail, which breaks off to the left and climbs the hillside. The trail is slightly longer than the main trail and also has more climbing, but it also has more redwoods. On the other hand, the main trail has a spur to an overlook with a view of the inn.
The trail ends at a T intersection with the main trail. Turning left, the trail descends and then abruptly enters a dark, logged forest. Below you is an alluvial flat that's been completely logged.
The trail bottoms out and then reaches the mill site, which contains only two rusting hunks of iron. The trail continues a short distance, briefly entering a part of the flat where old-growth redwoods remain (though the area is so small that there are only about six redwoods left), then climbing gently and ending at the disassembled dam, which has a sort of worn-out industrial look and is not really all that scenic. Below the dam, you can continue to make your way along the river's gravel banks.
© 2010, 2017 David Baselt