The northernmost part of the Rhododendron Trail included in this loop has been closed since early 2017 because a bridge across a 2-foot-deep gully has collapsed. Here’s a picture of the collapsed bridge from Stavros Basis’ hiking blog, Stav Is Lost.
This long loop climbs into typical Prairie Creek redwood uplands, then returns through the lowlands along Drury Parkway. It’s not quite as spectacular as the nearby West Ridge and Prairie Creek loop, but it also gets fewer visitors. The scenery gets progressively better throughout the hike, culminating in two very impressive redwood groves — the Big Tree Area and the Rotary Grove.
Start at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center on the edge of scenic Elk Prairie. Cross Drury Parkway and look for the Cathedral Tree Trail running down the slight slope on the other side.
The Cathedral Tree Trail gets off to a great start as it skirts an impressive alluvial-flat redwood grove along Boyes Creek. Leaving Elk Prairie, the trail dives into the streamside vegetation along Boyes Creek, still skirting the old-growth grove. It’s classic Prairie Creek scenery: on one side of the trail is the dark, stately redwood grove; on the other are lichen-encrusted maples and dense blackberry brambles.
Magnificent redwoods continue to line the trail as it climbs through the creek valley and becomes the Rhododendron Trail. The trail climbs out of the valley and goes around a large fallen tree, then drops back down to the bottom of a shallow glen. The exceptional scenery is somewhat spoiled by a constant hum of traffic from Highway 101.
The trail begins to climb in earnest, leaving the valley below and switchbacking up the hillside. The trees get a lot smaller as you climb and a dense understory of huckleberry appears. Topping a ridge, the trail descends to Cal Barrel Road. The freeway noise thankfully disappears at this point and doesn’t return for the rest of the hike. The scenery also improves quite a bit once you reach Cal Barrel Road; the woods are a lot more open and the redwoods are bigger on this side of the ridge.
The Rhododendron Trail is a very pleasant meander through bright, sunny redwood uplands with some pretty good-sized trees. It’s especially enjoyable in winter, when it passes a lot of lively creeks. The burbling and rushing sounds of the creeks fill the air, and sometimes two creeks are in earshot at the same time.
As you approach the South Fork Trail, the redwoods get smaller and less interesting. It might be tempting to take a shortcut on the South Fork Trail, but you’ll only save a mile and you’ll miss some of the best scenery of the hike.
After the South Fork Trail, the Rhododendron Trail starts to descend, and as it does the redwoods get noticably more impressive. Turn left onto the Brown Creek Trail, which descends gently through a very attractive redwood-filled glen alongside a burbling creek. The Brown Creek redwoods are somewhat small at first but get progressively larger as the glen becomes wider. The area around the memorial loop trail is the most scenic part of the trail and is one of the highlights of the hike.
Turn onto the Foothill Trail, which is a wide, straight path that runs well above Drury Parkway. From time to time the whoosh of cars on the parkway can be heard. There are lots of redwoods here, but the forest along the first mile of trail is somewhat darker and less attractive than most of Prairie Creek’s old growth; the most interesting feature is an exceptionally large and high footbridge that crosses a ravine.
The scenery improves dramatically at Big Tree Creek. Here the trail descends to the valley floor, where it runs through a flat populated with monster trees. Over the next quarter-mile the trees get increasingly impressive, culminating at the Big Tree.
Passing the Big Tree, follow a paved trail a few yards to the parking lot, then continue straight past the parking lot. The wide, straight trail, which used to be part of Drury Parkway, runs through some maples along the edge of the redwoods.
Crossing Cal Barrel Road, the trail again plunges into the redwoods, cutting through the lush and very impressive Rotary Grove. Because the foliage is so dense the grove doesn’t have the cathedral-like appearance of Humboldt Redwoods or Stout Grove and it’s harder to appreciate the redwoods. If you look carefully, though, there are some pretty impressive trees.
Return to the visitor center on the Cathedral Tree Trail.
© 2010, 2016 David Baselt