Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Redwoods, beaches, elk, and the world's most extensive old-growth redwood trail system
The centerpiece of Prairie Creek is Elk Prairie, a grassy meadow surrounded by giant redwoods standing heroically in the misty coastal sunshine. Often, a herd of Roosevelt elk grazes languidly on the golden prairie. On nearby Gold Bluffs Beach, more elk wallow in tidal rivers as waves wash vast empty beaches under redwood-capped bluffs.
Stepping under the redwood canopy, you'll find the lushest forest of any old-growth redwood park. Every surface has something green growing on it: lichens hang from branches overhead, moss covers the rocks, and fallen trees have other trees growing on top of them. A deep and unbroken lawn of ferns gives the forest a manicured, garden-like appearance. Breaks in the canopy reveal glimpses of distant trees towering toward the sky. The colors are unusually light; the foliage and the ferns are a light pastel green, while the redwoods' bark is a light grey.
The park as a whole is in remarkably pristine condition, yet it has an extensive trail network — a rare combination. Here, as nowhere else, visitors can appreciate the redwood forest without having to imagine what it was like before the loggers.
The most impressive woodlands in the park are along Prairie Creek and several tributary streams, sheltered in an 800-foot-deep valley. Even the tributary creeks such as Godwood Creek and Brown Creek become increasingly scenic as they approach within a half-mile of Prairie Creek. Magnificent redwoods are everywhere and every inch of the forest seems to drip with greenery. Fallen trees have turned into dense gardens with ferns and trees fighting for space on the decaying logs. The rich, primieval look of this forest, especially when seen in the dim light of late afternoon, is like no other.
Prairie Creek lacks a "main attraction" alluvial-flat loop hike to serve as a focal point and bring in visitors. The most popular attraction is Fern Canyon, which is the only part of the park that can get busy. Even on summer weekends the rest of the park is never particularly busy, and in the winter you can spend an entire weekend on the trail without seeing even one other hiker.
Most of the longer trails (West Ridge, Prairie Creek, Foothill, and Rhododendron) run either along a ridge or along Prairie Creek for their entire length. If you hike the entire trail at once, the environment changes very little and after a few hours it can get kind of monotonous. So instead of taking one long hike, it's a lot more enjoyable to combine short segments of ridge and valley trails into short loops, and hike several of these loops in different parts of the park. The Miners' Ridge and James Irvine loop is a notable exception and is a great all-day hike with plenty of variety.
During winter storms, even mild ones, Drury Parkway is often closed for the day. If the parkway is closed you won't be able to reach many of the park's trails like the Brown Creek loop and the Hope Creek loop. On the other hand, it's a great opportunity to hike the Prairie Creek and Foothill Trails without the usual traffic noise.
Old-growth redwood hikes
***** Miners' Ridge and James Irvine (11.6 miles)
**** West Ridge and Prairie Creek (5.8 miles)
**** The Brown Creek Loop (3.5 miles)
*** The Big Tree Loop (3.2 miles)
*** The Ten Taypo Trail (3.5 miles)
*** Rhododendron and Foothill (8.7 miles)
*** West Ridge and Rhododendron North (7.7 miles)
*** The Friendship Ridge Trail (8.0 miles)
** Rhododendron and Cal Barrel (5.1 miles)
** The Ah Pah Trail (0.6 miles)
** The Nature Trail (1.0 miles)
** Carruthers Cove (2.2 miles)
** The Ossagon Trail (3.6 miles)
* The Elk Prairie Trail (2.8 miles)
Getting to Prairie Creek
The park is just off Highway 101 40 miles north of Arcata. To get to park headquarters, exit onto Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. To get to Fern Canyon, take Davison Road from the elk viewing area and drive 8 miles to the end of the gravel road. Most parts of the park are free; however, there's an $8 fee to use Davison Road or to park in the overflow parking area in the Elk Prairie campground.
Printed trail maps
A trail map of Redwood National and State Parks, including Prairie Creek Redwoods, is available from Redwood Hikes Press. The printed trail map is almost the same as maps on this website, but without greyed-out trails.
© 2006, 2009, 2017 David Baselt