This very enjoyable loop starts with an easy walk through coastal meadows, then climbs into attractive old-growth redwood uplands. A stroll through Fern Canyon completes the varied and scenic hike. Although the redwoods aren’t especially impressive, this hike has a nice remote feel and is one of the few loop hikes in Prairie Creek that doesn’t have any traffic noise at all.
The Coastal Trail is often muddy, even in summer. In summer there are also a lot of mosquitos along the Coastal Trail, so either bring bug repellant or walk the trail without stopping. 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.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
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. At the beginning of this road is a short stretch that’s often flooded with about 4 inches of muddy water; drivers often turn back at this point because there’s no way to tell how deep it is. The road climbs over a ridge, descends the other side, then runs along the beach at the base of Gold Bluffs. Landslides from the sheer cliffs can sometimes block the road. Just after the Gold Bluffs Beach campground you’ll have to drive through two or three gravel-filled streams, but the water is usually only a few inches deep even in winter.
From the trailhead parking lot, walk north on the Coastal Trail past Fern Canyon. Just after Fern Canyon there’s a stretch of a few hundred yards that’s flooded; this is the worst of the trail’s muddy sections.
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 an easy, 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.
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, which meanders downhill through lush redwood forest. At first the trail is not on top of the ridge but partway down the hillside, which helps make the trail more scenic. Descending out of the huckleberry, the trail curves around ravines covered with an unbroken sea of ferns, with good-sized redwoods emerging here and there from the riot of fronds. 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. Since the trail is close to the ridge, there aren’t any creeks.
Two dead-end spurs branch off near the beginning of this trail. These spurs are marked with sins 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 straightens out and gains the top of the ridge. The scenery is less interesting after this point. 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.
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. 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 David Baselt