The 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 across the street from the Brown Creek/South Fork trailhead, on Drury Parkway north of the Big Tree Area.
The loop gets off to a really nice start on the Prairie Creek Trail, passing through one of the most spectacular groves in the park. The remarkably open grove of huge trees and the lush setting are quintessentialy Prairie Creek. After about a half-mile, the trail breaks out of the redwoods and into streamside brush. After crossing Prairie Creek, it reaches the Zig Zag #1 Trail.
At this point you can either climb up Zig Zag #1 Trail to the West Ridge Trail, or continue on the flat Prairie Creek Trail all the way to the start of the Rhododendron Trail. The Prairie Creek route mostly passes through uninteresting streamside brush (12-foot-tall blackberry brambles intertwined with ferns and shrublike maple trees), and the whole way you'll hear the whooshing sounds of cars driving by on the parkway a hundred yards away. The trail does have four nice redwood groves, though, including a scenic half-mile stretch near the end.
Overall, the West Ridge route is better: although it has smaller trees, it's more a part of Prairie Creek's redwood wilderness. This route starts with 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, at which point the forest becomes more lush and bigger trees start to appear. 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 and ends at Drury Parkway.
Across the 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 position of the trail midway up the steep canyon slope provides 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 a lot 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 David Baselt