The Boy Scout Tree Trail
Length 5.3 mi · Climbing 750 ft
With an abundance of huge trees set in an interesting progression of different environments, the extraordinary Boy Scout Tree Trail is not so much a hike as a showcase of the world's best redwood scenery. The trail feels wonderfully remote and is one of the most pristine old-growth trails in existence; there are only about three other trails in the world where you can walk through old-growth redwoods for five miles or more without hearing traffic noise or seeing any sign of development.
One of the best parts of the Boy Scout Tree experience is the drive to the trailhead. For two miles you'll bump and wind through truly top-notch old growth along the unpaved Howland Hill Road. At the trailhead, located in a spectacular redwood grove, there's a little pullout that can accommodate about six cars.
Although it's not exactly Muir Woods, the trail has become increasingly popular over the past few years. On a summer weekend there might be twenty cars lining the road at the trailhead, and guided-tour groups sometimes show up. If this seems like too much of a crowd, visit on a weekday or, even better, in winter; usually only two or three cars are parked at the trailhead even on the busiest winter weekends, and you might encounter a group of hikers every hour on the trail, mostly in the afternoon.
If at all possible, try to visit on a sunny day. Jed Smith's unique brilliance is a big part of what makes this trail so great, and the woods can get kind of drab when the sun isn't out. Most other redwood parks aren't affected as much by the lack of sunshine.
This is an out-and-back hike, and I always find the return trip to be a lot more enjoyable than the outbound trip, since by and large the redwoods get gradually more impressive on the return.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Starting at Howland Hill Road, the trail passes through a majestic, jungle-like lowland redwood forest. The trees, which grow out of a plush carpet of ferns, are gigantic and most of them have very light, almost white bark. Lichens drip from the branches of the smaller trees.
The trail crosses a stream and then meanders pleasantly up a gently-sloped hillside. As the trail climbs the forest quickly opens up, becoming less overgrown, and the hillside vantage point offers superb views of the huge trees all around. A solid carpet of ferns covers the ground, unbroken except for the redwoods. There are few other plants around, giving the area a manicured, garden-like appearance. If it's not windy or raining, it can be incredibly still and quiet here - it almost feels like being indoors. If it's a sunny morning, with the sun at your back you'll notice that each tree has its own color and texture. In the afternoon or on a cloudy day the trees look more uniform.
As the trail reaches the ridge and levels out, it enters a typical redwood upland. The trees become smaller and further apart, and huckleberry bushes clog the understory.
As it begins to descend from the ridge, the trail enters a dense but unusually open stand of upland redwoods. This distinctive cathedral-like hillside grove is almost pure redwood, with only a few hazelnut trees sharing the hillside. The redwoods, though good-sized, are smaller than those near the trailhead, and have a uniform and somewhat drab brown color.
As the trail descends, it leaves this grove and enters a lush, diverse woodland. Although dominated by big redwoods, the forest seems to have a smaller and more intimate scale than the preceding woodlands. The canopy lets a lot of sunlight in, giving the forest a uniquely brilliant and colorful look. In many ways this is the prettiest part of the hike, and it's even better on the return trip, when the sun backlights the foliage. On foggy days the distant hooting of a foghorn drifts over from Crescent City.
The trail crosses tiny Jordan Creek and the nearly-pure redwood forest briefly gives way to a dark and lush mixed-species woodland dominated by lichen-draped spruce trees.
The trail then passes through a remarkable little valley. The redwoods here are sparse, growing in isolation or in small groups of two or three, but they're immense — among the most impressive I've ever seen. The unusually open canopy in this valley of giants lets you see the tops of the trees; in the distance, across the creek, more huge trees are visible. The trickling of the creek fills the forest.
Leaving the monster trees behind, the trail descends to the valley bottom, where redwoods are naturally absent. The trail passes by streamside maples and brush for a stretch, then skirts the edge of the redwoods before re-entering the forest. A short, unmarked side trail leads to the Boy Scout Tree, a giant double tree resembling the two-fingered Boy Scout salute.
The trail ends, somewhat anticlimactically, at Fern Falls, a small cascade at the edge of the redwoods. At one time the trail may have continued on, exiting the park and joining up with the nearby National Park Way, but if so, no trace of the former route remains.
© 2007-12 David Baselt