The Elk River Trail

Length 10.7 mi · Climbing 1460 ft
California > Southern Humboldt County > Headwaters Forest Reserve

The Elk River Trail used to be a mainline logging road


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 of this road 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 are 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.

Because it's so close to Eureka, the trail is mostly used by 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 upper half of the trail was recently rerouted. Previously, the trail was 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.


Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps or in Google Street View.

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.

Hike description

The trail starts as a paved 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 surface turns to well-packed gravel and the up-and-down undulations increase (these undulations can make the return trip unexpectedly tiring if you're expecting it to be all downhill). Near the 3 mile mark a wrecked yellow van sits off the trail to the right, a victim of 1990s logging protests.

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.

The Little South Fork Elk River Trail ascends through second-growth redwoods

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. The literal and figurative high point of the hike is a small ravine at the southernmost tip of the loop, where there's a surprisingly open grove of good-sized redwoods. 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 lttle grove from the main body of Headwaters' ancient forest.

From the end of the loop, return the way you came.

Old-growth redwoods on the loop trail


© 2010 David Baselt