This superb loop features the southernmost part of the Prairie Creek Trail, which is, I think, the park's most scenic trail, with unusually varied scenery and an exuberantly lush look found nowhere else. The trail follows Prairie Creek, a large, pristine creek in a wide channel filled with small shrubs and edged with maple trees. The trail passes through several spectacular lowland redwood groves, where in October the maples along the creek turn a brilliant yellow, glowing in the gloom under the dense redwood canopy. Between the 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 two different environments makes for an engaging hike.
To make a loop, this hike pairs the Prairie Creek Trail with the southern part of the West Ridge Trail, a trail that undulates rather strenuously 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 Prairie Creek Trail. I especially like the way the scenery gradually builds throughout the complete 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 Prairie Creek Trail wouldn't have the same impact.
The redwood groves on this hike are among the most impressive in existence, not so much because they have the biggest trees as because of their incredible lushness. If the trail were more isolated it would rank among the very best redwood trails, but unfortunately the experience of hiking here is somewhat spoiled by traffic noise from Drury Parkway. The traffic isn't especially heavy even on holiday weekends, with a car passing by every few minutes, but if possible visit when traffic is at a minimum — early in the morning, in winter, or on a weekday.
Since the Prairie Creek Trail is a dark, somber trail, it's best seen on dark, somber days. The light rain that's so common in the winter gives the woods have a sense of grandeur that's completely missing when it's sunny. Rain also helps to cover up the traffic noise.
In recent years the Prairie Creek Trail has become increasingly popular, and even on winter days you can encounter a group of hikers every 1-–2 minutes on it; the trail becomes increasingly busy as you approach the visitor center.
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, the site of the aptly-named Godwood Creek, where 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 only found in Prairie Creek.
The trail abruptly turns right at a bench (which, with some strategically-planted ferns, hides the remnants of the old James Irvine Trail). The trail then starts climbing. Through the first two or three switchbacks there's an impressive view of the big trees just below the trail. The trail then climbs into a small glen and enters unusually dense but much less-impressive redwood uplands. Much 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. However, 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 sound of traffic on Highway 101.
Dense huckleberry shrubs line the West Ridge Trail. Huckleberry can also be found along the Prairie Creek 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. 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. To the left, a creek burbles through a little glen.
As the trail reaches the valley floor, it passes through a spectacular grove of monster redwoods. Turning onto the Prairie Creek Trail, you'll exit the redwoods and then cross to the east side of Prairie Creek.
The Prairie Creek 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.
© 2006-2015 David Baselt