The Rhododendron and Foothill Loop
Length 8.7 mi · Climbing 1050 ft
Like the nearby West Ridge and Prairie Creek loop, this hike climbs into Prairie Creek's redwood uplands, then returns through lowlands along Drury Parkway. But while the West Ridge Trail runs along a ridge and feels isolated from the redwoods, the Rhododendron Trail is cut into a hillside well away from the ridge and is much more immersed in the forest. The return trip on the Foothill Trail, while not as enjoyable as the nearby Prairie Creek Trail, features two very impressive redwood groves - the Big Tree area and the Rotary Grove.
Start at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center 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 but are very dense. 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 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. If you've recently hiked the Brown Creek Loop, it might not be a bad idea to take the South Fork Trail. However, this trail is relatively uninteresting. The full loop loop is only a mile longer and includes the the best parts of the extraordinary Brown Creek Loop.
Following either of these options, turn onto the Foothill Trail, which is a wide, straight path that runs well above Drury Parkway. 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 when 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 David Baselt