The Elk River Trail is the Headwaters' main attraction. The trail starts as an old logging road that undulates gently up-and-down alongside the Elk River. The first mile is paved, while the next two are packed gravel. The trail then turns into singletrack that switchbacks up a hill through second-growth redwoods, ending at a short loop through a small patch of old growth. The entire trail is clear and well-maintained and can normally be hiked year-round. However, in winter there may be some slippery patches of mud, especially near the top.
The scenery is pleasant but unexceptional. Typically for mainline logging roads, the initial three miles are sunny and open, since in most places the canopy hasn't grown back over the road. The trail is in an isolated, somewhat narrow canyon and there's no traffic noise or any other sign of civilization. The only sound is the rushing of the Elk River. A logging town called Falk used to be located at the end of the pavement, but today there's nothing left to see except a few ornamental plants that still grow along the trail and a lot of interpretive signs.
Because it's so close to Eureka, the trail is popular with locals who go there to walk their dogs or take a jog. Most go either to the end of the pavement or to the 3-mile mark and then turn around. The little parking lot can fill up on weekends.
The upper half of the trail used to follow an old logging road that lead to a viewpoint from which you could see some old growth in the distance. Throwing a bone to hikers, the Bureau of Land Management constructed a new trail that actually passes through some old growth. The old trail has been closed.
The trailhead is about a 10-minute drive from Highway 101. From Eureka, head south on Highway 101. Just outside of town, take the Elk River Road exit (small brown Headwaters Reserve signs point the way). Turn left, cross over the freeway, and turn right onto Elk River Road. This scenic road passes through a lush green valley with two covered bridges off to your right. Continue to the end of the road, where you'll find the trailhead and a parking lot.
The trail starts as a paved, wheelchair-accessible road that undulates gently up-and-down through mixed woodland. Although the woods have clearly been logged, there aren't a lot of stumps to be seen. Nontheless, a few immense stumps suggest that this valley might have once looked like Prairie Creek. The sizable creek rushes along some 20 feet below the trail and is often visible. Numerous interpretive signs describe the history of the area.
Passing the Falk townsite, the road narrows and its surface turns to well-packed gravel, placed here as part of a road-to-trail conversion in 2010. The up-and-down undulations increase; they can make the return trip unexpectedly tiring if you're expecting it to be all downhill.
At 3 miles the road makes a right turn, crosses a bridge, and begins to climb. The route then turns right, off the old roadbed and onto the new singletrack trail. For the first time, the trail is now in the redwood forest and under the canopy. The rushing of the creek fades and the trail becomes strikingly quiet. This area has obviously been clearcut and there are stumps everywhere. It's not especially attractive woodland, but neither is it dark, dense, and gloomy like a lot of clearcut redwood forests. This area lacks the lushness that is no typical of North Coast redwood forests, and in fact looks very similar to many second-growth redwood parks in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Reaching a ridge, the trail levels out and then descends slightly. The trail passes through a grove of white-barked red alders where a dense groundcover of ferns threatens to overgrow the trail; this area can get a little muddy.
At the loop trail intersection, turn left (the sign says to go right, but I like the way the scenery gets gradually better if you go left). The first old-growth trees appear a few yards down the trail and get more impressive as the trail switchbacks up the hillside. At its southern end the trail loops around a small ravine filled with a surprisingly open grove of impressive redwoods, the literal and figurative high point of the hike. Despite a thick carpet of ferns, the grove is slightly arid-looking for the North Coast, with a disheveled look and rather faded-looking colors (in fact, this same general look extends throughout the second-growth along the previous miles of trail). The tree trunks have been darkened on their uphill sides, presumably by a fire. A few yards away, a low ridge with a natural break in the old growth separates this little grove from the main body of Headwaters' ancient forest.
There's a sharp contrast between the old growth and the second growth, but it may not be entirely due to logging; the small ravine that contains the old-growth was probably much more impressive than the surrounding hillside even before the area was logged.
From the end of the loop, return the way you came.
© 2010, 2016 David Baselt