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 few 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 still attractive but a bit monotonous, and it’s visited mainly by backpackers. The trail is very quiet and peaceful, and easy to hike. While you can’t usually see the creek, you can hear it throughout the hike.
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.
The trail is mostly level and well-maintained, so if you can hike for 7–8 hours straight it’s possible to hike the entire trail in a day. Some enjoyable alternatives include:
The trail crosses Redwood Creek twice. Seasonal footbridges are installed 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.
Here’s 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 passes through a wide alluvial flat lined with an open forest of red alders, Douglas-Fir, and maple, with a few clusters of old-growth 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; the first mile or two is especially narrow, but then it opens up again. 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. Occasionally a big redwood appears on the side of the trail, most notably a striking group containing two gnarled monster trees and one slightly smaller, straight tree. As the trail approaches Elam Camp it briefly climbs into a full-blown old-growth forest.
Optional side trip: At 2.6 miles, a trail branches off to Elam Horse Camp. The camp itself is in a dismal logged redwood grove. For a nice half-mile to one-mile side trip, take this trail, pass through the camp, and look for a little-used trail to your right that leads steeply 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; this is the most scenic part of the trail. The hike from the Redwood Creek trailhead to the McArthur Creek Loop andback 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 isolated old-growth redwoods along the trail and some logged redwoods as well.
At Bond Creek is a large footbridge that’s currently closed; a short detour takes you under the bridge. A mile further, a similar bridge crosses the impressive fern-lined gully of Forty-Four Creek. The big, dramatic footbridge adds 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) to an attractive old-growth upland grove. The condition of this unofficial trail varies, but as of August 2015 it’s in excellent condition, better in fact than some of the horse trails.
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 usually 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, 2015 David Baselt