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Tolowa Dunes State Park

Dead Lake Trail

From Sand Hill Road to Dead Lake is 2 miles round trip;
to Tolowa Dunes is 3.5 miles round trip

Ancient sand dunes, a dramatic, driftwood-strewn beach, wooded ridges and one of the California coast’s finest wetlands comprise Tolowa Dunes State Park, located just south of the Oregon border.

Long known as the Lake Earl State Park Project, the 5,000-acre park was renamed in 2001 for the Tolowa, the most recent of the Native Americans who have lived in the Lake Earl area for thousands of years. Attracted by the ocean’s abundant harvest, the Tolowa camped in the Pelican Bay area, fished salmon from the Smith River mouth, gathered mussels and clams, and hunted sea lions.

For the Tolowa, Yontocket (the northern section of the park) is the center of the world, the place where the first redwood grew. Today’s Tolowa visit the site and hold ceremonies there.

Two coastal lagoons—lakes Earl and Tolowa—are separated from Pelican Bay by a sandbar. The mostly freshwater Lake Earl and the more saline Lake Tolowa host more than 250 species of birds. The lakes are a crucial stopover for birds traveling the Pacific Flyway, the west coast bird migration route. Sometimes as many as one hundred thousand birds can be sighted here. Surrounding the lakes are saltwater marshland and freshwater wetlands, as well as far-reaching sand dunes.

The park has two sections: a northern one that extends up-coast from Kellogg Road and a southern one that spreads down-coast from Lake Tolowa. Between the state park segments lies land under the stewardship of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Opportunities for exploration of Lake Tolowa and its larger neighbor, Lake Earl, are limited by the marshy terrain and mudflats, which are better suited to the needs of soft-shelled clams than hikers. Nevertheless, the park does have a pretty good trail system that visits the lakes and dunes.

Some 20 miles of hiking trail wind through the park. Many of the paths are sandy, which make them slow-going. Spring, when the ponds are full and the wildflowers are in bloom, and autumn, with crisp, clear days, are good seasons for hikes in the state park. Guided nature walks are offered in the summer. The weather is pleasant enough for a summer hike, but oh, those bugs! The mosquitoes are very aggressive!

Your reward for reaching the lakeshores are excellent bird-watching opportunities, including the chance to observe a multitude of waterfowl, including canvasbacks and the endangered Aleutian goose.

Directions to trailhead: Travel north on Highway 101 through Crescent City. At the north end of Crescent City, bear left on Northcrest Drive and follow it a half mile to Old Mill Road. Turn left and drive a mile to Sand Hill Road, turn left and continue a short distance to road’s end at the parking lot.

The hike: The path begins as a gravel road, then heads into the woods. A mile out, you’ll find Dead Lake, a small freshwater lake that, like so many bodies of water along the redwood coast, was formerly a lumber mill pond. The lake is now habitat for wood ducks and bass and crappie.

Continue toward the ocean on the path, which reaches the sand dunes about 0.75 mile from the lake.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at