The McArthur Creek Loop

Length 14.1 mi · Climbing 2600 ft
California > Redwood National and State Parks > Redwood National Park

A red alder grove on the one short doubletrack stretch of the McArthur Creek Loop

This loop and its abbreviated version, the Ridge Loop, is the least-heavily logged and the most enjoyable of the Redwood Creek horse trails. Although built for horseback riding, it also makes a pretty good walk, especially if you feel like a long hike. The entire loop is in lush forest, with a lot of sunny groves of white-barked red alders and even a few patches of old-growth redwoods. The trail is a bit overgrown but is a fairly easy hike since there aren’t any especially steep or difficult sections. There are a lot of muddy sections in the winter and spring.

It’s possible to shorten this hike to 7 miles by taking only the Ridge Loop portion of the route. This option includes most of the old growth of the longer hike, but it’s still mostly second growth.

The trail was originally called the Six Hour Loop. In fact, all the Orick horse trails used to be named for their expected riding times but have now been renamed. At the moment, though, all the trail signs still have the old names. At a brisk pace it actually takes about seven hours to hike this trail.

A company called Redwood Outfitters conducts popular horseback rides, mostly through the old growth along the Ridge Loop, so in the summer you may encounter large groups of slow-moving riders in this area. Otherwise, the trail is little-used; in fact, I’ve never seen another hiker on any of the Orick Horse Trails.

Park in the dirt parking lot near the beginning of Drydens Road, behind the Orick School. Take the little trail up to the levee, turn right on the levee, and walk toward the Orick Rodeo Grounds. There’s a nice view of the brilliant green dairy pastures and redwood-covered hills on one side and Redwood Creek on the other.

The Orick Rodeo Grounds, near the beginning of the hike

The dirt road along the levee turns into a wide and well-used trail as it enters the woods and begins to climb. This part of the trail is in very good condition because of the horseback tours, although it usually has a lot of horse manure.

The trail briefly passes through a band of moss-encrusted alders, then enters a dark, lush redwood forest. As the trail climbs, the forest becomes brighter and more open until, near the top, it takes on a distinctive look, with an unusually open canopy and very little foliage beneath the canopy. The grove looks so open in part because there’s a low density of redwoods, but also because many of the trunks rise straight up without any branches for hundreds of feet. The lack of foliage gives the trees a strikingly tall, straight, column-like appearance, with large sections of some redwood trunks exposed to sunlight, an unusual sight. A plush carpet of ferns covers the ground. This is a handsome grove with some striking trees.

Red alders just above McArthur Creek

When the trail splits after 1.7 miles, go right. The right branch is the less-used of the two trails and is not marked. The redwoods end at the point where the trail splits and the trail proceeds through typical Humboldt County woodlands, with an attractive mix of small trees among lush groundcover. This part of the trail actually skirts the edge of some old growth, but the views are blocked by trailside brush, so other than a few trunks in the distance you can’t see very much of it. The National Park Service likes to build trails along the edge of old growth because, I presume, it lets you see the old growth without damaging it. The result, though, at best only reminds you of how great it would be to be hiking through old growth, and more often looks just like a non-old-growth trail.

After several miles the trail descends to an intersection with a dirt road. Turn right. When you see the outhouse to your left, turn left onto a trail. The trail crosses tiny McArthur Creek on a culvert and begins to climb, looking increasingly like a dirt road.

When you come to a T intersection with a well-maintained dirt road (the Elam Creek Loop), turn left. After a short distance, turn right onto a singletrack trail. The trail runs over a heavily-logged plateau containing a dense forest of small spruce trees with widely-scattered huge stumps. This is the least attractive part of the hike. It appears that this used to be a fine ridgetop redwood grove much like the one that follows, but after the redwoods were clearcut they never regrew.

Old-growth redwoods on the Ridge Loop

As it approaches the trail to Elam Camp, the trail abruptly enters a scenic old-growth redwood grove. This bright grove has the same openness and perfectly straight, tall, and column-like redwoods as the Ridge Trail. However, it’s a little disappointing because very few of the trees are near the trail; they’re all at least 10 or 20 yards off the trail, so you can only see them at a distance.

The trail descends through relatively mundane old growth until it reaches McArthur Creek, which is lined with mossy maples. As the trail crosses the creek on a footbridge and then begins to climb again, thet redwoods give way to a lush green forest of alders and rhododendron. Wildflowers are especially abundunt here, and the best rhododendron display I’ve ever seen was on this trail in mid-May (other trails probably have equally impressive displays, but I just happened to be here at the right time).

Apparently, this trail used to be a dirt road, and as the trail climbs it zig-zags back and forth many times across the width of the former roadbed. These micro-switchbacks are kind of annoying although they do look attractive, a little like San Francisco’s Lombard Street but on a smaller scale.

Rhododendron blooms above McArthur Creek

After cresting at the cutoff trail, the trail begins to descend, soon entering another very open ridgetop grove of old-growth redwoods. Although it’s brief, this is an exceptionally scenic stretch of redwoods. Unusually, the groundcover is a dense and tall layer of salal.

The trail leaves the redwoods again before reaching the Ridge Trail intersection. Turn right and return to the parking lot.

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© 2009, 2013, 2016 David Baselt