The River Trail
Length 3.4 mi · Climbing 450 ft
This hike explores a forgotten bank of the Eel River directly south of the Rockefeller Loop, passing through a series of five alluvial flats with some superb and interesting old-growth groves. The old growth is punctuated with stretches of upland redwoods, plus two crossings of Bull Creek with its tall green walls of redwoods.
The area hardly gets any visitors because there aren't any signs promoting it and because it's overshadowed by the more dramatic Rockefeller Loop, which is where the biggest trees are. If you'd like to literally get off the beaten track, though, this engaging hike is a good option.
This trail can normally be hiked between June and September. After September there won't be a bridge, but if you don't mind getting your shoes wet it can still be easy to wade across the creek as late as November. At other times of year, Bull Creek is likely to be too high to cross.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Start by hiking clockwise on the Rockefeller Loop. Just after the trail passes through a cut-out section of a huge fallen redwood, look for an unmarked and relatively little-used trail to your left. Take this trail, avoiding the poison oak that grows along it.
The trail descends to Bull Creek, which is crossed by a series of two little seasonal bridges. Scramble up the steep bank on the other side, where you'll find yourself in an exceptional alluvial-flat grove, comparable to the Rockefeller Loop but much smaller and more open.
The alluvial flat quickly narrows and then ends. About a half-mile into the hike, the deep, lush shade of the big-tree old growth abruptly gives way to rather less-impressive old growth. Despite the fact that the trail doesn't climb very much at all, the forest becomes increasingly upland-like over the next few miles: brighter, with smaller redwoods and an understory of huckleberry and tanoak. The trail periodically descends into some nice lowland groves, which keeps the hike interesting. The distant roar of motorcycles and trucks drifts over from Highway 101 and the Avenue of the Giants.
The first lowland grove that the trail descends into is the Hale-Douglas Grove, which is a pretty nice grove in a shallow creek valley. There's a plush carpet of redwood sorrel and some striking old-growth redwoods leaning out over the creek. Cross the little creek on a footbridge and climb up the other side.
After passing through some relatively unimpressive woodland, a faint trail and a sign to your left lead to the next lowland grove, the Wakefield Baker Grove. The side trail leads down the hillside to the alluvial flat and then peters out. There are some decent-sized redwoods here but nothing really spectacular.
Back on the main trail, the trail climbs up the hillside a little, away from the riverside flat. Even though it only gains a few feet of elevation, that's enough for the environment to become a true upland, with small redwoods and a dense understory. The alluvial flat with its relatively big trees is visible a few yards to the left.
The trail then descends slightly to an expansive alluvial flat, the largest on the west bank of the Eel. The old-growth redwood grove here dosn't have a sign, but it's the most scenic so far; in fact it looks a lot like Bull Creek Flats. Unfortunately, though, only the very northern edge of the flat is unlogged: just past a footbridge, the old growth abruptly ends and the trail enters a gloomy second-growth forest with much smaller, densely-packed trees. It's remarkable how completely different the logged forest is from the old growth, even though they share the same alluvial flat.
Turn around and return on the same trail. Just as you're about to re-enter the alluvial flat on the south bank of Bull Creek, look for an unmarked trail that climbs the hillside to your left, and take this trail. You'll very quickly find yourself in old-growth uplands, with small redwoods mixed in with a lot of other kinds of trees.
At the next trail intersection, turn right to descend steeply to a dark yet remarkably open alluvial-flat grove. You get a pretty good look at this distinctive grove as you descend into it. The redwoods are huge but there's almost no understory, just a light dusting of redwood sorrel and a few ferns, giving the grove a somewhat bare look. The grove can be a little gloomy since it's usually in the shade of the hillside that you just descended. The traffic noise has been left behind by this point and the grove is very peaceful.
The trail crosses through the grove and descends to peaceful Bull Creek in its deep canyon of redwood foliage. Cross the creek on the footbridge to return to the Rockefeller Loop.
© 2011, 2015 David Baselt