With an abundance of huge trees set in an interesting progression of different environments, the extraordinary Boy Scout Tree Trail is not so much a hike as a showcase of the world’s best redwood scenery. The trail feels wonderfully remote and is one of the most pristine old-growth trails; there are only a handful of trails where you can walk through old-growth redwoods for this long without hearing traffic noise or seeing any sign of development.
One of the best parts of the Boy Scout Tree experience is the drive to the trailhead. For two miles you’ll bump and wind through truly top-notch old growth along the unpaved Howland Hill Road. At the trailhead, located in a spectacular redwood grove, is a little pullout that can accommodate about six cars, plus plenty of overflow parking along Howland Hill Road.
Since about 2010 this trail has become extremely popular. Although parking always seems to be available, at the busiest times you may need to park up to a quarter-mile (a five minute walk) from the trailhead, and on the trail you might pass a group of hikers every 1 – 2 minutes. Although the trail is still enjoyable at such times, if you're looking for a relaxed, serene environment, try the Nickerson Ranch Trail instead; it’s not as scenic, but it starts just a few yards up the road and it gets about a tenth the number of visitors.
The Boy Scout Tree Trail is best on a sunny day. Jed Smith’s unique brilliance is a big part of what makes this trail so great, and the woods can get kind of drab when the sun isn’t out.
Due to heavy use the trail has become wide and somewhat rough, with lots of exposed roots for the entire length of the hike, and some areas are a little muddy even in summer.
This is an out-and-back hike, and I always find the return trip a lot more enjoyable than the outbound trip, since by and large the redwoods get gradually more impressive on the return.
The hike gets off to a great start, passing through a majestic, jungle-like lowland redwood forest. The trees, which grow out of a plush carpet of ferns, are gigantic and most of them have very light, almost white bark. Lichens drip from the branches of the smaller trees.
The trail crosses a stream and then meanders pleasantly up a gently-sloped hillside. As the trail climbs the forest quickly opens up, becoming less overgrown, and the hillside vantage point offers superb views of the huge trees all around. A solid carpet of ferns covers the ground, unbroken except for the redwoods. There are few other plants around, giving the area a manicured, garden-like appearance. If it’s not windy or raining, it can be incredibly still and quiet here — it almost feels like being indoors. If it’s a sunny morning, the sun will be at your back you’ll notice that each tree has its own color and texture. In the afternoon or on a cloudy day the trees look more uniform.
As the trail reaches the ridge and levels out, it enters a typical redwood upland. The trees become smaller and further apart, and huckleberry bushes clog the understory.
As it begins to descend from the ridge, the trail enters a dense but exceptionally open stand of upland redwoods. This distinctive cathedral-like hillside grove is almost pure redwood, with only a few hazelnut trees sharing the hillside. The redwoods, though good-sized, are smaller than those near the trailhead, and have a uniform and somewhat drab brown color.
As the trail descends, it leaves this grove and enters a lush, diverse woodland. Although dominated by big redwoods, the forest seems to have a smaller and more intimate scale than it did before. The canopy lets a lot of sunlight in, giving the forest a uniquely brilliant and colorful look. In many ways this is the prettiest part of the hike, and it’s even better on the return trip, when the foliage is backlit by the sun. On foggy days the distant hooting of a foghorn drifts over from Crescent City, adding to the otherworldly feel.
The trail crosses tiny Jordan Creek and the nearly-pure redwood forest briefly gives way to a dark and lush mixed-species woodland dominated by lichen-draped spruce trees. This area tends to get somewhat muddy.
The trail then passes through a remarkable little valley, which I think is the real payoff of the hike. The redwoods here are sparse, growing in isolation or in small groups of two or three, but they’re immense — some of the most impressive anywhere. The unusually open canopy in this valley of giants lets you see the tops of the trees; in the distance, across the creek, more huge trees are visible. The trickling of the creek fills the forest.
Leaving the monster trees behind, the trail descends to the valley bottom, where redwoods are naturally absent. The trail passes by streamside maples and brush for a stretch; this area sometimes gets overgrown. The trail then skirts the edge of the redwoods before re-entering the forest. A short, unmarked side trail leads to the Boy Scout Tree, a giant double tree resembling the two-fingered Boy Scout salute.
The trail ends, somewhat anticlimactically, at Fern Falls, a small cascade at the edge of the redwoods. At one time the trail may have continued on, exiting the park and joining up with the nearby National Park Way, but if so, no trace of the former route remains.
© 2007, 2009, 2012, 2016, 2021 David Baselt