The Elk River Trail is the Headwaters’ main attraction. The trail starts as an old logging road that undulates gently up-and-down alongside the Elk River. It eventually turns into purpose-built singletrack that switchbacks up a hill through second-growth redwoods, ending at a short loop through a small patch of old growth. The entire trail is clear and well-maintained and can normally be hiked year-round. However, in winter there may be some slippery patches of mud, especially near the top.
The scenery is pleasant but unexceptional. Typically for mainline logging roads, the first three miles are sunny and open, since in most places the canopy hasn’t grown back over the road. The trail is in an isolated, somewhat narrow canyon and there’s no traffic noise or any other sign of civilization. The only sound is the rushing of the Elk River. A logging town called Falk used to be located at the end of the pavement, but today there’s nothing left to see except a few ornamental plants that still grow along the trail and a lot of interpretive signs.
Because it’s so close to Eureka, the trail is popular with locals who go there to walk their dogs or take a jog. Most go either to the end of the pavement or to the 3-mile mark and then turn around. The little parking lot can fill up on weekends.
A few people ride their bikes on the first three miles of trail, but that’s getting increasingly difficult as parts of the trail are rerouted around the landslides that occur every few years; the rerouted sections have steps and are somewhat muddy.
The upper half of the trail used to follow an old logging road that lead to a viewpoint from which you could see some old growth in the distance. Throwing a bone to hikers, the Bureau of Land Management constructed a new trail that actually passes through some old growth. The old trail has been closed.
3% of this hike is old growth — coincidentally, the same as the percentage of redwood forest worldwide that remains unlogged.
The trailhead is about a 10-minute drive from Highway 101. From Eureka, head south on Highway 101. Just outside of town, take the Elk River Road exit (small brown Headwaters Reserve signs point the way). Turn left, cross over the freeway, and turn right onto Elk River Road. This scenic road passes through a lush green valley with two covered bridges off to your right. Continue to the end of the road, where you’ll find the trailhead and a parking lot.
The trail starts as a paved, wheelchair-accessible road that undulates gently up-and-down through mixed woodland. Although the woods have clearly been logged, there aren’t a lot of stumps to be seen. Nontheless, a few immense stumps suggest that this valley might have once looked like Prairie Creek. The sizable creek rushes along below the trail and is often visible. Numerous interpretive signs describe the history of the area.
Passing the Falk townsite, the road narrows and its surface turns to well-packed gravel, placed here as part of a road-to-trail conversion in 2010. The up-and-down undulations increase; they can make the return trip unexpectedly tiring if you’re expecting it to be all downhill.
At 3 miles the road makes a right turn, crosses a bridge, and begins to climb. The route then turns right, off the old roadbed and onto the new singletrack trail. For the first time, the trail is now in the redwood forest and under the canopy. The rushing of the creek fades and the trail becomes strikingly quiet. This area has obviously been clearcut and there are stumps everywhere. It’s not especially attractive woodland, but neither is it dark, dense, and gloomy like a lot of clearcut redwood forests. The area is covered with ferns, but there isn’t a lot of redwood sorrel here in the second-growth forest.
Reaching a ridge, the trail levels out and then descends slightly. The trail passes through a grove of white-barked red alders where a dense groundcover of ferns threatens to overgrow the trail; this area can get a little muddy.
At the loop trail intersection, turn left. The trail continues through second-growth forest, but then enters a small ravine filled with a surprisingly open old-growth grove. The grove is really quite impressive, especially in contrast with the previous miles of second-growth forest. Some pretty good-sized redwoods grow out of the thick carpet of ferns and redwood sorrel that covers the ground. The dull roar of the ocean can occasionally be heard in the distance. Above the trail is a ridge, where a natural break in the old growth separates this little grove from the main body of Headwaters’ ancient forest.
In winter, the grove is perpetually in shade due to the steepness of the north-facing slope.
There’s a sharp contrast between the old growth and the second growth, but it may not be entirely due to logging; the small ravine that contains the old-growth was probably much more impressive than the surrounding hillside even before the area was logged.
As it descends, the loop re-enters the second-growth forest. From the end of the loop, return the way you came.
If you have the time and energy, take the South Side Trail on the way back. This new trail, opened in 2020, is only a few yards from the Elk River Trail but has a completely different feel. It offers a much closer look at the second-growth lowlands, passing many huge redwood stumps and a variety of different environments. Judging from the stumps, at one time the Elk River valley must have looked like Prairie Creek. This detour adds half a mile and a lot of up-and-down. It’s closed in winter to protect spawning salmon.
© 2010, 2016, 2021 David Baselt