Your feet will get wet, your car will need to be washed, and you won’t mind. That’s just a measure of what to expect on the short scenic hike through Fern Canyon in Humboldt County’s Prairie Creek Redwood State Park.
The Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which adjoins Gold Bluffs Beach, is barely a mile long. The elevation change is only about 150 feet. But the path takes you through a narrow canyon in a primordial jumble of greenery between walls that rise 50 to 80 feet on either side, almost straight up.
If the scene looks familiar, it’s understandable. Parts of ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ were filmed here 25 years ago, as were parts of the BBC’s ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’. A special effects team added the movie’s crawling dinosaurs in post-production, but as you splash now it’ll be pretty easy to imagine a Spinosaurus or Ceratosaurus hiding behind the next log.
It’s also easy to recognize that you’re far from Southern California, because there’s water everywhere.
The walls are crying. The fronds are dripping. Home Creek flows through the canyon and underfoot. Unless you’re a magician at jumping from rock to rock and balancing on logs, your feet and ankles will get wet. Maybe your shins too. (Bring water shoes.)
Sword ferns, five-toed ferns, lady ferns, chain ferns, woodland ferns – they all mingle here, along with northern red-legged frogs, Pacific giant salamanders and occasionally Roosevelt elk. The tall trees cast a deep shadow, but photographer Myung Chun and I also hit sunny spots.
I felt guilty enjoying such a rare setting after such a short and easy walk. But I got over it.
“We did Yosemite and saw the redwoods. But we wanted to see the redwoods. They’re different. And it’s beautiful,” said hiker Jim Newton, who came with his family from Maryland.
The second half of the loop is a more conventional route through the Sitka spruce forest on higher ground. When I was done, I turned around to pick up the wet part.
And I didn’t feel guilty doing it, because this summer the rangers are experimenting with a summer traffic cap on this road. For the first time, rangers are asking summer visitors to pre-book parking adjacent to the canyon or hike the canyon from the park’s visitor center, a 10-mile round trip on the James Irvine Trail .
The requirement remains in effect until September 30. The day use fee is $12 cash at the entrance whether you come in the summer or not. No dogs allowed.
Under the new system, rangers are issuing half-day reservations for 35 cars from 8 a.m. to noon, another 35 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 20 full-day reservations. That means no more than 90 cars a day on the usually muddy access road – a dramatic change from 2019 and 2021, when rangers averaged around 250 cars a day. On those days, rangers say, the canyon was packed with hikers.
The new reservation requirement, a pilot program, might reduce spontaneity, but it follows a national pattern. Faced with waves of pandemic-era park-crazed visitors, including many first-timers, rangers across the United States have added restrictions in an effort to ward off damage and overcrowding. (The Yosemite National Park day trip reservation requirement through Sept. 30 is part of the same trend.)
Chun and I arrived around 1pm with the afternoon hiking team. I spoke with many and heard no complaints about the reservation requirement or foot traffic.
“I love seeing people fall in love with nature,” said Kim Hill of Washington, DC “But I kind of want them to fall in love with nature while I’m not there.”
If park officials decide the reservation requirement is a success, it will likely return around May 1 next year.
Whenever you go, don’t underestimate the drive to the Fern Canyon trailhead on Davison Road. This is a 7.5 mile all-dirt access road that often includes two shallow stream crossings (weather dependent). Rangers recommend but do not require high clearance SUVs and vehicles. On the sunny day we arrived, we drove up the road in a rental Chevrolet Malibu with no problem.
Footnote for hikers who hate company: Davison Road will close for grading September 26-30. So if you want to be alone or almost alone in the canyon, wait until this week. Then hike 5 miles into Fern Canyon from the park visitor center on the James Irvine Trail (and 5 miles back).
If you are going to
Where to hike: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 127011 Newton B. Drury Parkway, Orick, CA; (707) 464-6101.
Or sleep : Trinidad Inn, 1170 Patrick’s Point Drive, Trinidad, CA; (707) 677-3349. Nine bedrooms. I paid $123 for the smaller one. Reservations by phone only.
Trinidad Bay B&B, 560 Edwards St., Trinidad; (707) 677-0840. Great view of the bay, the pier and the seastacks below. Four bedrooms, usually between $325 and $395. each night.
Where to eat: Once you get north of Arcata in Humboldt County, California, the dining options dwindle. We had lunch and dinner at Lighthouse Grill (355 Main St., Trinidad; (707) 677-0077). I’ve eaten well before at Heady’s Pizza and Pour (359 Main St., Trinidad; (707) 677-3077), but this time the inside was crowded and there was no patio, so we went distant. If you need breakfast at 7 a.m., try Murphy’s Market and Grocery (Main and View Streets, Trinidad; Grocery (707) 677-9473).