California’s state parks on the whole are vastly underappreciated. But this is especially true of a place like Prairie Creek. This north coast park is one of the tracts within the Redwoods State and National Parks system that contain most of the last remaining old growth coast redwood forests that exist in the world. The sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwood, once covered a range consisting of virtually the entire coastal region of northern California. Today, due to a lack of protection, overharvesting, poor management, and public apathy, old growth redwoods can now only be found in a handful of state and national parks, the creation of which represent the blood, sweat, and tears of a variety of private groups, individuals, donors, and volunteers, whom together had the wisdom and foresight to recognize their importance, and the fortitude to fight tirelessly for their establishment. I personally would be loath to take these things for granted. For me, coming to a place like Prairie Creek is like a pilgrimage. I always make a conscious effort to recognize the privilege of being here at all, and to mentally salute the dedication of that army of naturalists and preservationists who wrested these limited tracts from the jaws of greed and ignorance, preserving them for future generations.
And with that said, I am off my soapbox for now.
With fall beginning, this time of year makes a nice time to visit the north coast now that the tourist season has wound down, and things are quieter. As long as you get your visit in before the rains begin, the weather is still pleasant for hiking the woods during the day. With close proximity to the ocean, evenings during this time here were chilly, with a lot of dampness in the air. The sunny days help to produce a radiation fog (a.k.a. tule fog) in the meadows at night. The coldest temperature we recorded was 36, but it felt colder during the night. Daytime temps were in the 70s. Most of the campsites are closed for the season, and the campsites that remain open are first come first served.
As we rolled in the afternoon we spotted some bull elk grazing in the meadow along the Newton B. Drury parkway. There is a healthy population of Roosevelt elk in this area, and we had elk sightings every day. After snapping a few photos we found a campsite and got situated before going back out to look for more wildlife. The campground where we stayed is located right near the visitor’s center on the edge of Elk Prairie; a long open grassy meadow that supports a lot of the type of vegetation that attract the elk and black tail deer, so there are great opportunities for wildlife viewing there. In the morning this little microclimate produces fairly thick tule fog. The paved road that runs through the park is actually the old highway 101, which has been re-routed around the park. It has been re-named after Newton B. Drury. Many trailheads originate from the general vicinity near the visitor’s center and close by Elk Prairie campground.
On the first day we did a group hike out to the coast. I did not bother to use my GPS at all on this trip because it is notoriously unreliable under tree cover, and Prairie Creek is at least 90% thickly wooded. I would only use it for altitude and maybe the compass. Dave usually gets a nice track log and there is a link to his pictures and stuff below. We hiked along Prairie Creek (the actual creek) until we found the cutoff leading up to Miners Ridge Trail. This trail is an old prospector’s route used to reach the area called Gold Bluffs along the coast. This is former gold mining country. Not a huge strike, but that’s the history. This route passes through glorious virgin temperate rainforest with most areas dominated by coast redwood, accompanied by Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, hemlock, and some deciduous varieties like tanbark oak and big leaf maple. The forest under story is breathtaking in its density and greenery. Thick sword ferns blanket the forest floor everywhere you look. In some areas the sword ferns are as much as 6 feet high and intermingled with sorrel along the ground. I’m not very good with plant species, but the area is rich with greenery of all types. The vegetation is so thick that when you happen to cross a creek over a footbridge, you can hear water running, but can’t really see it. With so little sunlight penetrating, I took my hat off in order to increase my field of vision and better enjoy the scenery. One thing I noticed about the redwoods in this area is that they really do not possess the same rich coloration in their bark as the sequoias that we see in the bay area parks. I’m not sure why this is; maybe less tannin; but the bark seems rather grayish in color compared to the redwood you see here. The fallen trees do show nice coloration in the heartwood though. There are however a great many prime examples of old growth sequoias, and they are magnificent in stature. You can find scores of unique burls, and plenty of freakish looking multiple trunks, fire scared survivors, fallen giants, and trees that appear to be topped by lightning strikes.
The trail rolls up and down, but the elevation change is gentle, with the highest point on the trail being about 700 feet. As you begin to approach the coastal area the tree cover changes to mostly Sitka spruce. Out along the sandy coastal scrub we found more Roosevelt elk grazing the offerings there. A little further down the beach is the entrance to Fern Canyon. A sheer rock canyon with its walls literally covered with dense ferns of various species. The most prevalent of them was the maidenhair or five finger ferns. The creek was very low allowing us to walk its bottom by skirting over, under, or around the tree debris and rocks. This canyon was as a filming location for the movie Jurasic Park II - The Lost World. This canyon is also a popular short loop hike for people who are able to drive in along the unpaved beach road. This beach area is the only place we saw a lot of other people. Not crowds, but there were people around in contrast to the wooded areas where we were virtually alone throughout the day. We used another of the prospector trails called the James Irvine trail to loop back toward the campground. Another rolling hike through lush, green, wild rainforest.
I spent the next day on a solo hike in the areas east of the Drury parkway. The Rhododendron Trail winds around amongst stunning ancient forest with many dedicated groves of trees. I got some nice altitude in by hiking the 3.8 mile round trip C.R.E.A. Trail (California Real Estate Association) of dedicated groves reaching an altitude of just over 1400 feet. Along this trail I spotted a large owl, which flew off making a sweeping arc uppon hearing my footsteps, but the sighting was so brief that I was unsure of the exact species. It was most probably an endangered northern spotted owl. I spent most of the day enjoying the pristine forests and taking pictures, returning to the visitor’s center by way of the Prairie Creek Trail. The trail along the creek is interspersed with deciduous species like big leaf maple, some bay trees, and tanbark oak, and of course there are many prime examples of stately redwoods. I had a great trip, and as usual, I came away wishing I had more time.