The peaceful hike features the very enjoyable northern part of the Rhododendron Trail, which winds dramatically through canyons and over ridges among lush redwood uplands. The Rhododendron Trail pairs nicely with the top-rate Brown Creek Trail, a mostly flat meander along a densely-wooded creek.
The hike starts on Drury Parkway, across the street from the Brown Creek trailhead.
The loop gets off to a really nice start on the Prairie Creek Trail, immediately diving into one of the most spectacular groves in the park. The remarkably open grove of huge trees and the lush setting next to a burbling brook are quintessentialy Prairie Creek. After about a half-mile, the trail breaks out of the redwoods and runs through streamside brush. After crossing Prairie Creek, it reaches the Zig Zag #1 Trail.
Turn left onto Zig Zag Trail #1, which climbs a steep slope dotted with big redwoods. The trail passes through an especially fine grove of big trees just as it starts climbing, but then the trees get smaller. At the top, turn right onto the West Ridge Trail. At first the trail is kind of dull; there aren't any big trees, and the ridgetop location seems to isolate you from the forest. There's also a surprising amount of climbing as the trail undulates over the ridge. However, the scenery improves after about a half-mile, when the forest becomes more lush and bigger trees start to appear. The distant white noise of the ocean can sometimes be heard. Finally, Zig Zag Trail #2 descends, among increasingly large redwoods, into a fern-encrusted little ravine with (in winter) a babbling brook. The trail crosses Prairie Creek on a series of two footbridges.
At this point, you can take the flat Prairie Creek Trail back to the Zig Zag Trail #1, or cross Drury Parkway and take the Rhododendron Trail. The Prairie Creek route is shorter and easier and does start out in a pretty nice redwood grove. After half a mile, though, the scenery changes to rather uninteresting streamside brush and the trail becomes somewhat overgrown. The whooshing sounds of cars driving on the parkway can be heard along the entire trail. Overall, the Rhododendron route is much more rewarding.
Across Drury Parkway, the Rhododendron Trail gets off to a good start, climbing through a broad, open canyon covered with huge redwoods and carpeted with ferns. The trail runs midway up the steep canyon slope, providing nice views of the redwoods across the canyon and below without isolating you from the forest. The redwoods decrease in size as the trail climbs, but they're still pretty impressive.
Traffic noise from the parkway quickly fades as you climb. In fact, not only is there no traffic noise for the rest of the hike, on a calm day the woods can be so completely quiet that it's a little eerie.
After crossing to the other side of the canyon, the trail climbs a ridge. As it crosses the ridge, the character of the woodland changes dramatically. North of the ridge is a pure, open redwood forest with a lush carpet of ferns; south of the ridge is a mixed-species woodland, with a dense understory of tanoak, huckleberry, and rhododendron. Here the redwoods are fewer and smaller, and the forest as a whole looks more arid.
The West Ridge Trail soon intersects with the dead-end C.R.E.A. Trail.
(The little-used C.R.E.A. trail, an optional side trip, is definitely off the beaten path. It climbs, somewhat steeply, to an quiet, attractive hilltop redwood grove with a dense understory of huckleberry shrubs. After the high point of the trail the woods become less scenic, and freeway noise becomes audible, as the trail descends to Highway 101. Overall the scenery isn't that different from the Rhododendron Trail, so there isn't much reason to make the climb. The memorial grove spur shown on some maps has become completely overgrown.)
After passing the C.R.E.A. Trail, the Rhododendron Trail descends into a stream valley filled with a lush, pure redwood forest. The trail makes a scenic ascent of the valley's other side before looping around another ridge. As the trail crosses onto the south-facing hillside, the woods again change to an arid-looking mixed-species upland, then gradually changes back to a pure redwood forest as the trail descends to Brown Creek. There are some pretty impressive redwoods in the ravines next to the trail.
The superb Brown Creek Trail follows a creek through a wide valley that's densely covered with redwoods. The redwoods start out small but get bigger as the trail passes a bridge to a small memorial grove loop. The trail passes through some stately and very attractive old growth as it approaches Drury Parkway, making a nice finish to the hike.
© 2006, 2009, 2013, 2017 David Baselt