This little-used loop starts with a walk through coastal meadows, then climbs into very attractive old-growth redwood uplands. Although the redwoods aren’t especially impressive, the loop has the most remote feel of all the hikes in Prairie Creek, with few visitors (except for the area around Fern Canyon, which is always busy) and no traffic noise at all.
The hike is most enjoyable in the fall. In winter and spring, it’s more difficult to reach the trailhead, and long stretches of the Coastal Trail might be flooded with stagnant water, making it difficult to hike. In summer the Coastal Trail is often muddy and has a lot of mosquitos.
The hike is best during sunny weather, when the sunshine fills the woods, bringing out the colors of the trees and the brilliance of the ferns. On cloudy days, the woods have a dull look, with all the trees an identical grey color, and there’s little variation along the entire trail.
Permits are now required to park at the Fern Canyon trailhead between May 1st and September 30th. 35 permits are available each day for 8 am–noon, 35 for 1–5 pm, and 20 all day permits for 8am–5pm. 20 more permits are available for the day use area 1.5 miles sounth of the Fern Canyon trailhead. Obtain permits from the Redwood Parks Conservancy website no later than the day before you plan to visit.
The permit is free, but you have to pay a $12 parking fee at the entrance kiosk, unless you have an annual pass.
The Fern Canyon trailhead is reached by a 5-mile-long dirt road that can be somewhat challenging in winter and spring. A short stretch at the beginning is sometimes flooded; although it’s usually only about 4 inches deep, it’s hard to tell since the water is so muddy. Then there’s a somewhat steep climb over a ridge, followed by a long flat stretch along the base of Gold Bluffs. Landslides from the sheer cliffs sometimes block the road. Just after the Gold Bluffs Beach campground a wide, gravel-bottomed creek crosses the road; the water is usually only a few inches deep even in winter, but some people, even in SUVs, turn around here. In winter and spring, the road can also have a lot of big potholes and large pools of muddy standing water. Despite these obstacles, I've always been able to make the drive in a Honda Civic.
From the trailhead parking lot, walk north on the Coastal Trail until you reach Fern Canyon.
The Fern Canyon intersection is somewhat confusing. To the right is the gravel creekbed of Fern Canyon; straight ahead, the trail with some steps is the James Irvine Trail. Don’t take either of these trails. A few yards before the creek crossing, look for an unmarked trail with a “keep out” sign at the first bend. Take this trail and follow the gravel creekbed. The “keep out” sign refers to the boggy area to the left of the trail, not the trail itself.
The first few hundred yards of trail are usually flooded by the creek and can be muddy in summer.
The trail runs near the base of the bluffs, at first passing through bright, open woods of maple and red alder. It then emerges onto a coastal meadow filled with birdsong and, in spring and early summer, dotted with purple lupins. The beach and the ocean are completely hidden from view by a low rise and can’t be reached from this part of the trail; in fact, sometimes even the roar of the surf can’t be heard. Nonetheless, this is a pleasant ramble through a very pretty area.
One of the high points of the Coastal Trail is Gold Dust Falls. A short side trail leads to a high-walled grotto, where a thin stream of water cascades down a sheer fern-encrusted cliff into an attractive fir grove. The trail passes two similar falls, but Gold Dust Falls is the most striking.
After Gold Dust Falls are some long stretches that, in winter and spring, can be flooded with 4–6 inches of standing water, sometimes with elk manure floating in it. When this happens, the trail is so little-used that, in two or three places, it completely vanishes into the grassy meadow.
The trail re-enters the woods shortly before the intersection with the West Ridge Trail. Although there aren’t any redwoods here, the woods are lush, probably old growth, and quite scenic.
Turn right onto the West Ridge Trail, which starts with a brief, steep climb up some steps before leveling out. The trail follows an old roadbed for a while, then begins climbing steeply again and enters the redwood forest. The sound of the surf becomes much more noticable as the trail climbs.
The trail climbs a ridge through a very unusual-looking stand of small and somewhat scraggly redwoods: the trunks are an exceptionally light grey, the foliage is also very light, and the groundcover is a thicket of salal. As the trail climbs, it gets less steep and the forest takes on a more normal appearance, with larger trees and the salal replaced with a dense understory of huckleberry. The distant crash of the surf emanates through the trees.
Turn right onto the Friendship Ridge Trail. The scenery improves quite a bit as the trail descends off the ridge into a dense, lush upland redwood grove. The trail contours around ravines covered with an unbroken sea of ferns, and the woods are surprisingly bright and open. The ocean is a continuous dull roar, sounding a lot like the inside of a jet in flight, although it becomes less noticable as the trail descends partway into the Boat Creek canyon.
Two dead-end spurs branch off near the beginning of the trail. These spurs are marked with signs but are not maintained and have practically disappeared. The first spur leads downhill to several memorial groves. The second also leads downhill, soon leaving the redwoods and following Boat Creek along what seems to be an old logging trail. The trail peters out soon after a large redwood that’s fallen across the path. These spurs are in poor condition and don’t offer any really noteworthy scenery.
The Friendship Ridge Trail eventually rejoins the ridgetop. The trail straightens and the scenery becomes a little less interesting. Although it’s still lush old-growth redwood uplands, the woods are denser and darker and there are few big trees. There’s one notable exception, a grove of light-grey redwoods in a saddle.
As the ridge comes to an end, the trail begins to descend. This part of the trail is very rough, with a lot of tree roots and big steps down, and can be somewhat slow. In summer, the trail starts to get busier as you get closer to Fern Canyon.
At the intersection with the James Irvine Trail, redwoods give way to coastal spruce. Turn right, and a short walk will bring you to the trail into Fern Canyon. You can either go through the busy canyon or take the less-used bypass trail. The bottom of the canyon is its own little world, removed from the forest, with the sounds of the burbling creek echoing between sheer fern-covered walls. The walls get shorter as you approach the beach.
© 2006, 2010, 2013, 2018, 2023 David Baselt