The James Irvine and Miners’ Ridge loop is one of the world’s best redwood hikes, but it’s not actually the redwoods that make it great; trails like the Prairie Creek Trail have more spectacular redwoods. What really makes this hike is the way it unfolds through a variety of environments, passing from a redwood-lined ridgetop, to a wide-open undeveloped beach, and finally through a lush creek valley.
This is the most popular of Prairie Creek’s longer hikes. The James Irvine Trail in particular can get pretty busy, with a group every 2–3 minutes at peak times, even in winter. Both the beach and the brilliant redwood uplands on this loop are at their best on a sunny summer day; the hike is less enjoyable in winter, when the James Irvine Trail is in the shade all day.
Beginning in 2022, a “Fern Canyon permit” is required to park on Gold Bluffs Beach Road. Fortunately, you don’t need any kind of permit to hike this route as described below, starting from the Visitors’s Center.
Start in one of the small parking lots just past the Visitors’ Center. Look for the trailhead with its large wooden signboard next to the Visitors’ Center. Crossing the large bridge across Prairie Creek, the trail enters one of the park’s most magnificent redwood groves. Continue along the trail until the third intersection, then turn right.
The unmistakable single-note call of the Varied Thrush sometimes echoes among the redwoods. This unusual bird, whose haunting call is the iconic sound of Prairie Creek, is mainly found in old-growth conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest.
The entire first mile or so of the hike, which is at its best in the morning light, is especially magnificent, and accordingly the James Irvine Trail starts with a climb through a spectacular redwood forest. Prairie Creek is one of the few places where such large redwoods can be found on a hillside. Most of the trees have a light greyish-colored bark which is less imposing than the darker trees found on the flats — the Prairie Creek uplands have very distinctive colors, light shades of grey and yellowish-green. Sometimes on still days the faint sound of traffic from Highway 101 can be heard.
After the intersection of the Miners’ Ridge and James Irvine trails, the trail gets narrower and more closed-in by undergrowth, with small redwoods. Soon, though, the trail crests, the forest opens up a little, and big redwoods appear again. Huckleberry shrubs line the trail, sometimes forming hedges up to 12 feet tall. The traffic noise fades and the woods become remarkably quiet; sometimes the distant roar of the ocean can be heard.
The trail leaves the ridge and descends to an intersection with the Clintonia Trail. Turn left to stay on the Miners’ Ridge Trail.
(For a short 6-mile hike, you could turn right instead and follow the Clintonia Trail downhill, first through a rather unattractive logged spruce grove and then through some very nice redwoods, then return on the James Irvine Trail. But this shortcut skips the two things that really make the full hike special — the beach and Fern Canyon. A better option would be to start from the beach and hike up the James Irvine Trail to the Clintonia Trail, then cut across to the Miners’ Ridge Trail. However, in this case you’re skipping the best redwoods.)
After turning left at the Clintonia Trail intersection, the woods gradually become darker and more lush. The trail winds around an especially scenic ravine lined with towering trees and filled with the sounds of the surf.
At a sharp right-hand turn, the trail leaves the old-growth redwoods with surprising abruptness and enters a logged area. The contrast between the bright, lush old growth and the dense, gloomy second growth is striking. Fortunately, the patch of second growth is only a few yards long and the trail soon enters a spruce forest. The air gets noticably cooler as the trail descends through the pine woods toward the ocean.
The trail ends at Gold Bluffs Beach Road, which is a gravel road. Turn left and go 100 yards to the Gold Bluffs Beach campground, then cut through the campground to the beach.
Walk north on the wide beach. Remarkably, no signs of development at all can be seen, and there usually aren’t any people around except near the campground and Fern Canyon. It can be a slow and tiring slog through deep sand, but this is one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
Turn inland at the Fern Canyon parking lot. Since the lot can’t be seen from the beach, there aren’t any signs, and an impenetrable barrier of brush separates Gold Bluffs Beach Road from the beach, it’s important to turn at the right point. If it’s a sunny weekend, just walk until you see some people standing around on the beach, then turn inland. If the beach is deserted, look for a pair of notches in the bluffs. They aren’t visible until you’ve almost reached them. The less-pronounced southern notch is Fern Canyon. Turn inland just before the southernmost notch to reach the parking lot.
As you approach the parking lot, the sandy beach gives way to coastal grasslands and there’s creek (actually the outflow from Fern Canyon) which in summer is crossed by some crude planks. Sometimes there’s no water at all, other times (especially in the winter and spring) you may have to wade through about 12 inches of water to reach the parking lot. Especially after heavy rainfall it may be a good idea to hike the entire loop in the opposite direction. That way, if the creek is too deep, it’s possible to detour onto the dirt road without having to backtrack for a mile.
A herd of elk sometimes grazes here, wallowing in the creek and relaxing among the white-bleached driftwood.
The hike passes through Fern Canyon, which is a striking sight with its sheer vertical walls lined with ferns. The canyon walls start off low but get higher and more vertical further into the canyon; at one point the canyon is taller than it is wide. The canyon meanders pleasingly, each bend bringing a new little vista. Fallen trees litter the canyon floor. A stream flows through the canyon, and in summer numerous seasonal footbridges make it possible to walk through without getting your shoes wet. In winter, the bridges are removed and you’ll have to splash through about 6 inches of water. Heavy rain could make it dangerous to enter the canyon.
Soon the canyon opens up again. A set of stairs climbs out of the canyon to join the James Irvine Trail.
(If you’re willing to get your feet wet and climb over some fallen trees, it’s possible to explore further down the canyon. After a short distance, the canyon turns left and turns into a mini-Fern Canyon with the same vertical fern-covered walls as the full-size version, but at half scale. Soon after entering the mini canyon, the route gets narrower, more overgrown, and less worthwhile. In any case, this is a dead end, so you’ll have to turn back.)
Take the stairs out of the canyon and turn right onto the James Irvine Trail. The trail leads through a dark, lush spruce grove where moss grows on the trunks and lichens hang from the branches. The trail crosses the strikingly narrow and deep Fern Canyon gorge and then then begins to climb through serene and very scenic woods alongside a burbling creek. Redwoods start to appear, mixed in with the spruce, and eventually dominate the forest.
The trail crosses the creek and continues on the hillside, elevated slightly above the creek valley. The woods here have a much different look than the ridgetop redwoods of the Miners’ Ridge Trail — darker, lusher, more ancient. Somewhat surprisingly, the redwoods in the bottom of the creek valley are not all that large or dense; maybe the valley is too marshy. A plush carpet of ferns covers the ground.
The trail used to meander alongside Godwood Creek (named for miner John Godwood) through an engaging landscape of marshy lowlands with increasingly impressive redwoods. Sadly, this alignment was causing the creek to silt up, so the trail now climbs back up to Miner’s Ridge instead. Where the new trail alignment begins there’s an abrupt change from the lush, complex valley bottom forest to much more open, orderly uplands, with tall, straight redwoods growing from a carpet of ferns. There are some pretty spectacular stretches at the beginning and end of the climb. Interestingly, at the end the trail is just a few yards from the Miners’ Ridge Trail, but the forest is a lot more open and the trees a lot bigger.
© 2006, 2012, 2015, 2019 David Baselt