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: not only does it connect the two areas of Prairie Creek with the biggest redwoods, it also combines both upland and lowland environments.
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.
Start at park headquarters and take the right-hand trail next to the large wooden sign that lists trail names and mileages. Cross 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 trail is lined with ferns and redwood sorrel, giving it a neat, 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.
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 intersectionq after 50 feet stay to the right again at a second intersection, following the sign directing you to the parkway.
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, joining the Foothill Trail and passing through a grove of immense redwoods 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.
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. Instead, However, the Cathedral Trees Trail is much more interesting; it involves a little climbing but passes through superb redwood scenery. In fact, it might be the most enjoyable part of the whole hike. 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 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. It then crosses Cal Barrel Road and descends through relatively mundane woods to an intersection with the Rhododendron Trail. 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 David Baselt