The part of the Rhododendron Trail included in this loop has been closed since early 2017 because a bridge across a 2-foot-deep gully has collapsed. Here’s a picture of the collapsed bridge from Stavros Basis’ hiking blog, Stav Is Lost. A path can be seen on the right side where people have walked around the bridge.
The Brown Creek Trail runs through an exceptionally dense and lush old-growth redwood forest in a shallow ravine alongside a burbling brook. What makes the area unusual isn’t so much the size of the trees as how dense the woods are. Nonetheless, on a sunny day before about 3 pm, they’re still brilliant and colorful. As you walk through the little ravine, enveloped in bright green foliage and accompanied by the pleasant burbling of the brook, it feels almost surreal, as if the whole thing were actually a huge garden.
While it’s not as impressive as the nearby Prairie Creek Trail, the Brown Creek Trail is the only lowland trail in the park that doesn’t get any traffic noise. In fact, the entire loop described below is free of traffic noise. The Brown Creek Trail itself is somewhat popular, with maybe 4-6 groups of hikers per hour, but the other parts of the loop are hardly ever used.
If you don’t feel like climbing a steep hill, just walk out and back on the Brown Creek Trail; this trail has the best redwoods of the hike and is the easiest to walk. However, the Brown Creek Trail is a lot more satisfying if it’s hiked as a short loop with the Rhododendron and South Fork trails. This route has a nice progression of different upland and lowland redwood environments.
Allow a little extra time for this walk because the Rhododendron and South Fork trails are somewhat rough, with lots of small tree roots protruding from the surface. Also, the hike may require some scrambling over and ducking under fallen trees.
The trailhead is on Drury Parkway. From the Elk Prairie visitor center, drive north past the Big Tree wayside, then park at the second pullout on your right. The trailhead is marked with a sign that says "Brown Creek".
The trail gets off to a great start. The wide path, covered in redwood needles, winds among huge redwoods alongside Drury Parkway as the rushing sound of the creek fills the woods. This part actually has the biggest trees of the entire hike.
The South Fork Trail is the least interesting part of the loop. It’s a steep climb up a hillside with such a dense understory that you can’t really see much. At one point the understory opens up as the trail approaches a ravine filled with small redwoods. The trail levels out a bit as it reaches a ridgetop dense with dull-looking huckleberry shrubs and leafy salal.
The South Fork Trail ends at a T intersection with the Rhododendron Trail. Turn left; the scenery quickly improves as the trail descends steeply into a little ravine where an open stand of good-sized redwoods grows. The lush understory is a remarkably bright green. The woods become less open and more mundane as the trail leaves the ravine, but soon the trail contours through a second ravine that’s even more scenic than the first. After this the redwoods get larger and more scenic as the trail descends to Brown Creek. The forest is almost completely silent, but on a calm day you may hear the distant crashing of the waves as you make your way through the redwoods.
The Rhododendron Trail crosses Brown Creek on a long footbridge and then reaches the Brown Creek Trail. At the four-way trail intersection, the memorial grove trail to your right is cut off by a gigantic tree (which fell in early 2006) about a hundred yards up the trail. Straight ahead, the Rhododendron Trail continues up the hillside. Turn left to follow the Brown Creek Trail.
The trees aren’t that big at first, but as the trail winds gently downhill alongside the creek, they get progressively larger. The ground is covered with a dense carpet of ferns and some redwood sorrel. The most impressive trees are about halfway back to the South Fork Trail, where the side trail to the Carl Schenck memorial grove branches off, crossing Brown Creek on a large footbridge. Somewhat confusingly, the side trail is not marked, nor is it shown on most maps.
As you walk down the Brown Creek Trail, the best scenery is behind you: the downstream sides of the trunks are bleached to varying degrees by salt air, producing an appealing variety of colors, while the upstream sides are a uniform drab, dark brown. So be sure to stop often and turn around.
The main trail crosses Brown Creek and curves around a hillside to end at the South Fork Trail. Turn right and take the South Fork Trail back to Drury Parkway.
© 2006, 2009, 2013, 2017 David Baselt