The Redwood Creek Trail
Length 15.4 mi · Climbing 500 ft
Easily accessible from Highway 101, the Redwood Creek Trail is the second most-visited trail in Redwood National Park, after the Lady Bird Johnson Trail. Despite its name, though, the trail has almost no old-growth redwoods: although the first few miles of the trail pass through unlogged forest, the redwoods don't really grow along the creek where the trail is.
The most scenic and popular part of the trail is the first mile and a half, up to the first creek crossing. From this point on the trail is more monotonous and visited mainly by backpackers.
Redwood Creek is the only place in the park where "dispersed camping" is allowed. There's no campground; backpackers can camp anywhere they like along the six miles of the wide gravel creekbed upstream of the first creek crossing and at least a quarter mile downstream of the Tall Trees Grove. I haven't actually camped there, but it certainly looks like the best place to camp in all of Redwood National and State Parks.
If the entire trail is a bit long for a day hike, some enjoyable alternatives include walking to the first creek crossing and back, a three mile round trip; hiking to Elam Camp and from there ascending a side trail into some pretty nice old-growth redwoods, a 7.8-mile round trip; or, hike the entire trail to the Tall Trees Grove, camp overnight on Redwood Creek, and return the next day.
The trail crosses Redwood Creek twice. Seasonal footbridges are installed in sometime in June and removed in September. Ironically the bridges aren't really needed during this period since the creek is only 12-18 inches deep in the summer. In the fall and spring it might be possible to ford the creek, but during the winter rainy season the creek becomes a raging torrent and can't be crossed.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
The first stretch of trail is well-maintained, wheelchair-accessible and surfaced with gravel. It makes a very pleasant stroll. This portion of the trail passes through a wide alluvial flat lined with an open forest of red alders, Douglas-Fir, and maple, with an occasional redwood. There's also a very nice grove of moss-covered spruce. Open meadows covered with an impressively dense, 3- to 12-foot-tall layer of blackberry brambles provide views of the redwoods on the surrounding hills. The unseen creek burbles in the distance.
At 1.5 miles the trail crosses Redwood Creek on the first of the two summer-only footbridges. Looking out over the creek, you can see old-growth redwoods towering above the layer of regular-height trees that grows along the banks.
After the first creek crossing, the forest closes in around the trail and the scenery gets somewhat monotonous. The trail is not as well maintained in this area. In the shoulder seasons when the bridge is not installed but the river can still be easily forded, the trail becomes overgrown but is still passable. To your right, up on the hillside, are glimpses of old-growth redwoods. The trail also passes close to a few redwoods, most notably a striking group containing two gnarled monster trees and one slightly smaller, straight tree.
Shortly after the three giant redwoods, an unmarked trail branches off to the Elam Horse Camp. For a nice half-mile to one-mile side trip, take this trail, pass through the camp, and look for an unmarked, little-used trail to your right that leads uphill. It might look like the trail just leads to the toilet, but in fact it continues on through an old-growth redwood grove, climbing 1.1 miles to meet up with the McArthur Creek Loop. The lower part of the trail has a somewhat sparse scattering of mid-sized, dark-trunked redwoods among a very dense understory of alder, huckleberry, tanoak, and rhododendron. The redwoods become smaller as the trail climbs. Near the top, after passing through a logged area dense with thin trunks, the trail abruptly emerges into a much more open redwood upland populated with tall, straight, light-colored redwoods, the most scenic part of the trail. The hike from the Redwood Creek trailhead to the McArthur Creek Loop is a 7.8 mile round trip.
Back on the Redwood Creek Trail, continue heading south. Tall, thin white-barked alders lean out over the fern-lined trail; there are also a few old-growth redwoods along the trail and some logged redwoods as well.
The trail crosses Bond Creek on a long, high wooden footbridge. A mile further, a similar bridge crosses the more impressive fern-lined gully of Forty-Four Creek. The big, dramatic footbridges add some interest to the last few miles of the hike. Between the two bridges, an unmarked path that starts next to a bench to your right provides a connection with the horse trails and (in about a half-mile) leads to an attractive old-growth upland grove. This unofficial trail is deteriorating and could soon become impassable, but if it's still available it's a very useful connection.
Approaching the end of the Redwood Creek Trail, you'll climb to an intersection with a trail to 44 Camp, a quiet but not very scenic campsite amid logged redwoods. After this intersection, the trail descends through a dismal logged redwood grove before emerging from the woods to cross Redwood Creek again. There's a seasonal footbridge; after the bridge has been removed and before the autumn rains start, the crossing is about 12 inches deep.
On the other side of the creek, the trail enters the Tall Trees Grove. Walking among the big redwoods after the long hike up the creek gives you a real appreciation for how extraordinary this old-growth grove really is.
© 2009 David Baselt