Starting at park headquarters, this easy but incredibly scenic loop takes the Karl Knapp Trail (which was known as the Prairie Creek Trail until it was renamed in 2021) up to the Big Tree Area, then returns on the Cathedral Tree Trail. This loop is the perfect introduction to the park: it passes through some of the park’s most scenic groves and also has a nice variety of different environments, with both upland and lowland redwoods.
The only real drawback to this route is the traffic noise; the hike is much more enjoyable on days when Drury Parkway is closed and you can really appreciate the complete stillness of the woods.
The trail is popular by Prairie Creek standards; on summer weekends you might pass a group every minute on the Karl Knapp Trail, gradually decreasing as you get further from the visitor center. On the more obscure Cathedral Trees Trail, you might see a group every ten minutes.
Start at the visitor center. If there’s no parking, or if you just want to save the $8 fee, you can park on Drury Parkway, a few minutes’s walk from the trailhead.
The trail starts to the right of the visitors’s center, at the large wooden sign that lists trail names and mileages. Take the large wooden footbridge across Prairie Creek and, after a few yards, turn right onto the first trail, which is the Karl Knapp Trail. This area, on the creek behind the visitor center, is one of the most spectacular redwood groves in Prairie Creek.
The trail is quintessentially Prairie Creek — monster redwoods line the trail, while below, the rushing creek is lined with mossy, lichen-draped maples. The wide, flat, crushed gravel surface of the wheelchair-accessible trail makes for an easy and enjoyable walk. Lined with ferns and redwood sorrel, the trail has a manicured, garden-like appearance. Above the trail, the dense, lush greenery looks more like a jungle than a redwood grove. At the same time, the forest is remarkably open, which helps to give it a sense of immense scale. There’s some noise from Drury Parkway, but especially on weekdays it’s not intrusive. It’s an extraordinarily pleasant ramble through some truly scenic woodland.
The redwoods become smaller as the trail continues, but there’s a second rather impressive grove just after the trail crosses Prairie Creek again.
Turn right at the first trail intersection. The intersection is currently unmarked, but a piece of laminated paper indicates that the trail leads to the Big Tree Wayside.
At the parkway, there’s a trail directly across the street that leads to the Big Tree Area. Don’t take this trail; instead, turn left and walk along the roadside pullout for a few yards to the Hunnewell-Donald Memorial Grove sign. Take the trail next to the sign. This route is a few yards longer but quite a bit more scenic, passing through a particularly impressive grove, with huge trees set among a sea of ferns, before reaching the Big Tree itself.
The Big Tree is one of the largest redwoods in Prairie Creek. The 21-foot-diameter tree stands in a little clearing, isolated from the woods, with a wooden platform around it so that visitors can walk up to it without compacting the soil. Despite its immense size, it doesn’t seem nearly as spectacular as the immense trees that you just passed a few yards back, which feel much more like an integral part of the forest. It’s a popular sight, but everyone just visits the Big Tree and then returns to the nearby parking lot; the surrounding trails aren’t busy at all.
From the Big Tree area, the easiest way to return is the Foothill Trail, a straight, level old roadbed. However, this route leaves the redwoods for a while and isn’t nearly as scenic as the previous few miles of trail. The Cathedral Trees Trail, although more difficult, is much better; it climbs into some interesting uplands with a lot more redwoods. It feels like you’re getting off the beaten track and really diving into the forest. To take the Cathedral Trees Trail, follow the signs from the Big Tree, taking the Loop Trail and then soon turning right.
The drawback of the Cathedral Trees Trail is that it’s rather rough and slow; lots of exposed roots over its entire length make it difficult to walk normally.
The uplands have a noticably denser, darker appearance than the lowlands, with more evenly-sized trees. The trees are also smaller than in the lowlands, but the trail still passes several groups of pretty impressive redwoods.
The trail crosses Cal Barrel Road and descends through relatively mundane woods to an intersection with the Rhododendron Trail, where there’s a cluster of impressive lowland redwoods.
The trail cuts through streamside brush alongside Boyes Creek; this section can get rather overgrown. It then briefly emerges into a meadow surrounded by giant redwoods. Finally, the trail approaches Drury Parkway. There’s a tunnel under the parkway but it’s easier to just climb an embankment to the left and cross the street.
© 2006, 2007, 2012, 2017, 2018, 2022 David Baselt