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Benbow Lake State Recreation Area

Pioneer Meadow, Pratt Mill Trails

2.5 mile loop with 400-foot elevation gain

Benbow Lake is a summer-only attraction: the Eel River is dammed from Memorial Day to Labor Day, creating a lake that’s very popular with swimmers and canoeists. During this time, park staff offers guided “canoe hikes”—fun and educational excursions on the lake.

In the 1920s, the Pratt family constructed a steam-driven sawmill on one side of the Eel River, while the Benbow family constructed a hotel/resort. Fortunately, not all the scenery went through the mill, so that in 1926 when the large Tudor-style
Benbow Inn opened for business, its setting on the South Fork of the Eel River was still beautiful. Hollywood celebs frequented the inn back then, as did Herbert Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Benbow Lake Recreation Area today consists of 1,200 acres of riverfront, meadows and redwood groves. The park, fast becoming a cultural center, hosts a summer arts festival, a Shakespeare Festival, and concerts.

A couple of trails sample the recreation area, offering some great views of the lake. If a 2.5 mile hike isn’t enough exercise, try swimming or canoeing on the lake or tackling the park’s par exercise course.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 101, two miles south of Garberville, take the Benbow exit, following the frontage road to the park. Turn into the campground and drive to its north end. The trail leaves from campsite 73. During the off-season, when the upper campground loop is closed, begin this walk at campsite 11 and hike an extra 0.25 mile.

The hike: From campsite 73, join Pratt Mill Trail and begin ascending through redwoods. The path dips into, then switchbacks out of, a ravine and, a half mile from the trailhead, comes to a junction. Go left to meet Pioneer Trail, which ascends west for a quarter mile to a junction with Ridge Trail; this path loops a mile (rejoining Pioneer Trail) to a peak for great views of South Fork country.

Pioneer Trail levels out a bit, passes the other branch of Ridge Trail, then descends to Pioneer Meadow. The path continues descending, offering views of Benbow Lake, to a junction with Pratt Mill Trail (an old road).

Bear right and hike along the lakeshore a quarter mile to a short side trail leading to Pratt Mill. A rusted boiler located among tall redwoods marks the site of the old mill.

Your trail continues southeast, ascending briefly to a lookout high above the lake’s and the park’s picnic area. A bit more climbing brings you back to close the loop and a left turn returns you to campsite 73 and the trailhead.

© 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