The Brown Creek Loop
Length 3.5 mi · Climbing 540 ft
The extraordinary Brown Creek Trail runs through an exceptionally dense and lush old-growth redwood forest in a shallow ravine alongside a burbling brook. What makes the area unusual isn't so much the size of the trees as how many of them there are; everywhere you look, all you can see are tree trunks. Nonetheless, on a sunny day before about 3 pm, the woods are still brilliant and colorful. As you walk through the little ravine, enveloped in bright green foliage and accompanied by the pleasant burbling of the brook, it feels almost surreal, as if the whole thing were actually a huge garden.
Based just on the sheer size of its trees, the Brown Creek Trail isn't as impressive as the nearby Prairie Creek Trail. But Brown Creek has a major advantage: it's isolated by a low ridge from Drury Parkway and is free of traffic noise.
If you don't feel like climbing a steep hill, just walk out and back on the Brown Creek Trail; this trail has by far the best redwood forest of the hike and is the easiest to walk. However, the Brown Creek Trail is a lot more satisfying if it's hiked as a short loop with the Rhododendron and South Fork trails. This route has a nice progression of different upland and lowland redwood environments.
Allow a little extra time for this walk because the Rhododendron and South Fork trails are somewhat rough and not very well maintained. Also, the hike may require some scrambling over and ducking under fallen trees.
The trailhead is on Drury Parkway. From the Elk Prairie visitor center, drive north past the Big Tree wayside, then park at the second pullout on your right. The South Fork trailhead is well marked.
The South Fork Trail climbs steeply through attractive redwood uplands. Going in this direction, you'll see a lot of the bleached, light-grey redwoods which on a sunny day can make the forest brilliant. The redwoods are pretty good-sized at first, but as you climb they get smaller and less interesting. The trail levels out a little as it reaches a little ridgetop dense with dull-looking huckleberry shrubs and leafy salal.
The South Fork Trail ends at a T intersection with the Rhododendron Trail. Turn left; the trail descends steeply. The scenery soon improves as the trail contours into a little ravine where an open stand of good-sized redwoods grows. The lush understory is a remarkably bright green. Leaving the ravine, the trail passes through an open area left by the toppling of a big redwood. After this point the redwoods again get larger and more scenic as the trail descends to Brown Creek. The forest is almost completely silent, but on a calm day you may hear the distant crashing of the waves as you make your way through the redwoods.
The Rhododendron Trail crosses Brown Creek on a new footbridge and then reaches the Brown Creek Trail. At the four-way trail intersection, the memorial grove trail to your right is cut off by a gigantic tree (which fell in early 2006) about a hundred yards up the trail. Straight ahead, the Rhododendron Trail continues up the hillside. Turn left to follow the Brown Creek Trail.
The trees aren't that big at first, but as the trail winds gently downhill alongside the creek, they get progressively larger. The ground is covered with a dense carpet of ferns and some redwood sorrel. The most impressive trees are about halfway back to the South Fork Trail, where a memorial grove trail branches off to the left, crossing Brown Creek on a large footbridge. Somewhat confusingly, the trail is not marked nor is it shown on most maps.
As you walk down the Brown Creek Trail, the best scenery is behind you: the downstream sides of the trunks are bleached to varying degrees by salt air, producing an appealing variety of colors, while the upstream sides are a uniform drab, dark brown. So be sure to stop often and turn around.
The main trail crosses Brown Creek and curves around a hillside to end at the South Fork Trail. Turn right and take the South Fork Trail back to Drury Parkway.
© 2006, 2009, 2013 David Baselt