Starting at park headquarters, this easy but incredibly scenic loop takes the Prairie Creek Trail up to the Big Tree Area, then returns on the Cathedral Tree Trail. This loop is the perfect introduction to the park: it passes through some of the park’s most scenic groves and also has a nice variety of different environments, with both upland and lowland redwoods.
The only real drawback to this route is the traffic noise; on days when Drury Parkway is closed and you can really appreciate the complete stillness of the woods, this is easily a four-star trail.
The trail is popular by Prairie Creek standards; at peak times you might pass a group every minute on the Prairie Creek Trail, gradually decreasing as you get further from the visitor center. During the return on the more obscure Cathedral Trees Trail, you might see a group every ten minutes.
Start at park headquarters. On busy summer days there might not be any parking available Take the right-hand trail next to the large wooden sign that lists trail names and mileages. Take the large wooden footbridge across Prairie Creek and, after a few yards, turn right onto the first trail, which is the Prairie Creek Trail. This area, where the Prairie Creek, West Ridge, and Miners Ridge trails come together just behind the visitor center, is perhaps the most spectacular in Prairie Creek.
The trail is quintessentially Prairie Creek — huge redwoods line the trail, while below the rushing creek is lined with mossy, lichen-draped maples. The wide, flat, crushed gravel surface of the wheelchair-accessible trail makes for an easy and enjoyable walk. Lined with ferns and redwood sorrel, the trail has a manicured, garden-like appearance. Above the trail, the dense, lush greenery looks more like a jungle than a redwood grove, yet the forest is surprisingly open. There’s some noise from Drury Parkway, but especially on weekdays it’s not intrusive. It’s an extraordinarily pleasant ramble through some truly scenic woodland.
The redwoods become smaller as the trail continues, but there’s a second rather impressive grove just after the trail crosses Prairie Creek again.
Turn right at the first trail intersection, following the sign directing you to the parkway (a lot of people apparently miss this intersection, so a piece of laminated paper with more explicit directions has been posted).
At the parkway, there’s a trail directly across the street that leads to the Big Tree Area. Don’t take this trail; instead, turn left and walk along the roadside pullout for a few yards to the Hunnewell-Donald Memorial Grove sign. Take the trail next to the sign. This route is a few yards longer but quite a bit more scenic, passing through a particularly impressive grove, with huge trees set among a sea of ferns, before reaching the Big Tree itself.
The Big Tree is one of the largest redwoods in Prairie Creek. The 21-foot-diameter tree stands in a little clearing, isolated from the woods, with a wooden platform around it so that visitors can walk up to it without compacting the soil. Despite its immense size, it doesn’t seem nearly as spectacular as the redwoods that are more a part of the forest, like the grouping of immense trees that you just passed through a few yards back. It’s a popular sight, but everyone just visits the Big Tree and then returns to the nearby parking lot; the surrounding trails aren’t busy at all.
From the Big Tree area, the easiest way to return would be the Foothill Trail, which follows a straight and flat old roadbed along the edge of the redwood forest. However, the Cathedral Trees Trail is much more interesting; it involves a little climbing but passes through superb redwood uplands. It feels like you’re getting off the beaten track and really diving into the forest. To take the Cathedral Trees Trail, follow the signs from the Big Tree, taking the Loop Trail and then soon turning right.
The Cathedral Trees Trail climbs into redwood uplands, which have a noticably denser, darker appearance with more evenly-sized trees. Unusually, the trees don’t really get much smaller as the trail climbs, and the trail passes several groups of impressive redwoods.
The trail crosses Cal Barrel Road and descends through relatively mundane woods to an intersection with the Rhododendron Trail, where there’s a cluster of impressive lowland redwoods.
The trail then cuts through streamside brush before briefly emerging onto a meadow surrounded by giant redwoods. Finally, the trail approaches Drury Parkway. There’s a tunnel under the parkway but it’s easier to just climb an embankment to the left and cross the street.
© 2006, 2007, 2012, 2017, 2018 David Baselt