This superb loop features the southernmost part of the Karl Knapp Trail, which has best redwood scenery in Prairie Creek. As the trail meanders alongside the wide, shallow creek, it passes through several spectacular lowland redwood groves with an exuberantly lush look found nowhere else. In October the maples along the creek turn a brilliant yellow, glowing in the gloom under the dense redwood canopy. Between groves the trail emerges from the redwood canopy and passes through open streamside vegetation surrounded by immense green walls of redwood foliage that rise far above. The contrast between the different environments makes for an engaging hike.
The Karl Knapp Trail was known as the Prairie Creek Trail until it was renamed for a former park ranger and administrator in 2021.
To make a loop, this hike pairs the Karl Knapp Trail with the southern part of the West Ridge Trail, a trail that undulates up and down through ridgetop redwood uplands. The West Ridge uplands aren’t as scenic or diverse as the lowlands of Prairie Creek, but they perfectly complement the Karl Knapp Trail. I especially like the way the scenery gradually builds throughout the loop, starting with somewhat drab uplands and working up to dark gothic groves with impossibly tall, slender trees. A simple out-and-back on the Karl Knapp Trail wouldn’t have the same impact.
The redwood groves on this hike are among the most impressive anywhere, not so much because they have the biggest trees as because of their incredible lushness. Only the presence of nearby Drury Parkway prevents this from being a five-star hike. The traffic noise isn't actually that bad, with a car passing by every few minutes, but even so, the hike is more enjoyable on days like on the first Saturday of non-summer months, when the parkway is closed.
The loop is enjoyable year-round. On winter days, light rainfall gives the woods a somber sense of grandeur, while on nice summer days, the cool, remarkably dark shade of the redwood groves makes a striking contrast with the sunlit, open creek.
If you're staying at the Elk Prairie Campground, there’s a pretty nice half-mile trail that leads from the north end of the campground to the trailhead. Otherwise, there are a few free parking spots along the road to the campground. If those are full, you can either pay $8 to park just past the campground entrance kiosk (free with a state or national parks annual pass) or park on Drury Parkway.
Start at the main trailhead behind the Visitor Center and take the big bridge across Prairie Creek, then turn right at the second intersection. The trail enters a broad, shallow valley that cradles the aptly-named Godwood Creek. Here you’ll find an especially magnificent redwood grove. The forest of huge, stately trees is lush yet very open, with a certain serene and ancient look that’s unique to Prairie Creek.
The trail abruptly turns right at a bench (which, with the help of some strategically-planted ferns, hides the remnants of the old James Irvine Trail) and starts climbing. The first two or three switchbacks offer an impressive view of the big trees below. The trail then climbs into a small glen and enters unusually dense but much less-impressive redwood uplands. The first half of the West Ridge Trail is in fact kind of dull for an old-growth trail; most of the redwoods aren’t that big, they’re all the same drab color, and the woods lack the rich lushness found elsewhere in the park.
As the trail works its way along the ridge, the trees get progressively bigger and the scenery gets more interesting; at one point, the trail passes through a wide saddle with some especially large trees. The trail constantly undulates up and down and, although the undulations aren’t all that big, they can be surprisingly tiring. On a still day, the distant and continuous roar of the surf can fill the air, making the woods sound remarkably like the inside of an airplane, but not as loud. On other days you might hear the distant hum of traffic on Highway 101, but that usually goes away when you get further up the trail.
Dense huckleberry shrubs line the West Ridge Trail. Huckleberry can also be found along the Karl Knapp Trail, but in much smaller amounts.
Turn right at Zig Zag Trail #1, which immediately starts descending. About halfway down to the valley floor, the trail reaches a small flat with an especially scenic collection of big redwoods. A creek burbles through the little glen below. From this point on, the scenery improves markedly and the really good part of the hike begins. Not only is the forest more open with more really big trees, but the trees have more interesting colors and textures.
As the trail reaches the valley floor, it passes through a spectacular grove of monster redwoods. Turning onto the Karl Knapp Trail, you’ll exit the redwoods and pass through a brushy and somewhat overgrown area before crossing to the east side of Prairie Creek.
The Karl Knapp Trail alternately dives into stately redwood groves and emerges into open areas. The most dramatically lush groves seem to be on the east side of the creek, with one magnificent grove just after the trail first crosses the creek and a larger, equally sublime grove just before the second crossing. Between the two groves the trail passes under streamside maples and through open areas covered with a thick, chaparral-like tangle of ferns, blackberries, and small shrublike maples. When the maples lose their leaves in the winter, it becomes apparent that you’re standing in a deep canyon of foliage, with solid walls of redwoods rising high above you on either side of the creek — an especially dramatic sight on a foggy or drizzly day.
Due to a trail re-route, the final stretch of trail on the west side of the creek is further from the creek and more under the dark canopy of the redwoods, with no maples. There are, however, some pretty impressive redwoods here, and the change in scenery makes a nice end to the hike.
© 2006, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2021 David Baselt