Prairie Creek is the gem of the California State Park system. Its golden prairie is surrounded by giant redwoods standing heroically in the misty coastal sunshine. Waves wash onto a vast empty beach under conifer-capped bluffs as a herd of Roosevelt elk grazes languily.
Under the deep shade of the redwood canopy is the lushest forest of any old-growth redwood park: lichens hang from branches overhead, moss covers the rocks, and fallen trees have other trees growing on top of them. A plush, unbroken lawn of ferns gives the forest a manicured, garden-like appearance; above, breaks in the canopy reveal glimpses of distant arrow-straight trees shooting into the sky. The colors are unusually light; the foliage and the ferns are a light pastel green, while the redwooks’ bark is a light grey.
The most impressive woodlands in the park are along Prairie Creek, sheltered at the bottom of an 800-foot-deep valley. The rich, primieval look of this forest, especially in the dim light of late afternoon, is like no other.
The park as a whole is in remarkably pristine condition, yet it has an extensive trail network — a rare combination. Here, as nowhere else, visitors can appreciate the redwood forest without having to imagine what it was like before it was logged.
The best all-day redwood hike, with spectacular redwood forest, the wild and scenic Gold Bluffs Beach, and a fern-covered slot canyon.
A superb loop with the best redwood scenery in Prairie Creek. Gets some traffic noise.
Features an exceptionally dense and lush redwood grove by a burbling brook.
A perfect introduction to Prairie Creek, this easy and popular loop passes through some of the park’s most scenic groves.
A really short, little-used trail through a spectacular redwood-filled canyon.
The little-used Rhododendron Trail climbs through sunny old-growth redwood uplands, while the Foothill Trail passes through two impressive alluvial-flat groves.
A varied and scenic hike that combines an easy walk through coastal meadows with a climb into attractive old-growth redwood uplands.
A peaceful, little-used loop that winds dramatically through canyons and over ridges through lush redwood uplands.
A shorter alternative to the James Irvine and Miners’ Ridge loop, this loop doesn’t have as much variety, but it’s almost entirely in old-growth redwoods.
A scenic gravel logging road that climbs through redwood uplands. Open to cars in summer.
An interesting and enjoyable hike that starts in an impressive redwood-lined canyon and leads to a lushly-wooded ridgetop.
A little-used dead-end trail that climbs a hill through mostly small upland redwoods.
A short, steep loop with some first-rate old growth. Conveniently located next to the visitor center and Elk Prairie Campground.
A short trail that follows an old roadbed through exceptionally nice redwood uplands.
An enjoyable trail that starts with an impressive stretch of old-growth redwoods, then descends to a secluded beach.
A descent through spruce woods to a quiet, secluded beach strewn with big boulders and driftwood.
Circles Elk Prairie. Mostly passes through smaller trees and brush, with short stretches of impressive redwoods at the beginning and end.
A short trail that climbs through a canyon off Drury Parkway. The mixed-species forest doesn’t have a lot of redwoods.
A pleasant, woodsy campground conveniently located near some great redwood trails.
A popular campground next to a huge, deserted beach.
On a sunny shrub-covered hill by the sea. It’s only a five-minute walk from the parking lot, so it’s often used by non-backpackers.
A paved highway that slices through an otherwise pristine redwood wilderness. Not quite as scenic as the other redwood drives, since the woods are so dense that you can’t see much from the road.
A scenic gravel logging road that climbs through redwood uplands. The closest you can get to the experience of hiking the redwoods without leaving your car. Open to cars in summer only.
Prairie Creek gets a steady stream of visitors throughout the year. Although it never gets the sorts of crowds that Yosemite or Muir Woods do, Fern Canyon and the visitor center do get somewhat busy in the summer; in fact the parking lot for Fern Canyon is now only available by reservation in summer. The visitor center trailhead only has 16 unrestricted parking spots, so parked cars line nearby Drury Parkway on most afternoons. Most other parts of the park are generally pretty quiet.
Most of the longer trails (West Ridge, Prairie Creek, Foothill, and Rhododendron) run either along a ridge or along Prairie Creek for their entire length. If you hike the entire trail at once, the environment changes very little and after a few hours it can get kind of monotonous. So instead of taking one long hike, it’s a lot more enjoyable to combine short segments of ridge and valley trails into short loops, and hike several of these loops in different parts of the park. The Miners’ Ridge and James Irvine loop is a notable exception and is a great all-day hike with plenty of variety.
During winter storms, even mild ones, Drury Parkway is often closed for the day. If the parkway is closed you won’t be able to reach many of the park’s trails like the Brown Creek loop and the Hope Creek loop. On the other hand, it’s a great opportunity to hike the Karl Knapp and Foothill Trails without the usual traffic noise.
There’s no cell service at all in the park, but the campground entrance kiosk has wifi that also covers the nearby campfire center.
© 2003, 2005, 2006, 2023 David Baselt