The River Trail
Length 3.4 mi · Climbing 450 ft
This extended version of the Rockefeller Loop Trail crosses Bull Creek and passes through an interesting variety of old-growth environments — the creek itself, rushing between tall green vertical walls of redwoods; a series of five lowland groves; and upland redwood forest. None of the groves are as dramatic as the Rockefeller Loop, so if you're mainly interested in seeing big trees, stick to the Rockefeller Loop. But if you're interested in seeing a more of the surrounding woodland, 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 wet it can still be easy to wade across the creek as late as November. At other times of year, Bull Creek will probably 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, but these groves don't have the dark, cathedral-like look of Bull Creek Flats. Also, there's quite a bit of traffic noise from Highway 101 and the Avenue of the Giants; you'll often hear the roar of motorcycles and trucks on the Avenue.
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. A few yards to your left, you can make out the alluvial flat with its relatively big trees.
The trail then descends slightly into the alluvial flat and the third lowland grove. This one dosn't have a sign although it's actually pretty scenic. Just south of a footbridge, the old growth abruptly ends and the trail enters a gloomy second-growth forest with much smaller, densely-packed trees.
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 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 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 David Baselt