Prairie Creek has 75 miles of trails, ranging from a 0.1-mile stroll to see Big Tree (at mile marker 127.96 on the Newton B. Drury Parkway) to multiday backpacking journeys. A chart in the park brochure lists the options. Bring water, appropriate clothing, and a park map.
EASY DAY HIKES
Start at the Fern Canyon parking lot beside the dunes of Gold Bluffs Beach. Head up Home Creek to a cozy canyon walled with deer, chain, sword, lady, five-finger and other ferns. It’s mostly a gentle stroll, but you do have to cross the creek several times and clamber over the occasional log. In spring and summer, you’ll be sharing the forest with lots of other people, as well as the occasional dipper, frog, garter snake, or salamander—and squirming mounds of millipedes.
At the end of the canyon, head up steps that circle back to the parking lot through a Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir forest. Along the way, you’ll pass a meadow that was once a small mining town. It’s much drier on the upper part of the loop, and seasonally offers good flowers, birding, and berry sampling (for those who know edibles from poisonous species).
Big Tree Wayside
Park at the Big Tree Wayside lot, and head up a paved trail to gaze at Big Tree. Amid all the North Coast giants, the name may seem silly. But this tree (1,500 years old, 304 feet high, 21.6 feet in diameter, and a circumference of 68 feet) is part of a larger conservation narrative. An interpretive sign near Big Tree explains:
“Massive redwoods such as the Big Tree were targets of logging and clear-cutting operations here in the late 1800s. At one point, a local homesteader was said to have planned to cut the Big Tree to make a dance floor on top of the stump. In the early 1900s, concerned citizens who wished to preserve the redwoods started to band together to form advocacy groups such as Save the Redwoods League, founded in 1918.
“Increasing public interest in the redwoods led to the construction of the Redwood Highway in the 1920s. It quickly became a popular route, bringing motorists and busloads of tourists directly past the base of the Big Tree and into the redwood groves.
“The Save the Redwoods League promoted a ‘$10,000 tour of the North Coast redwoods.’ After taking this tour, wealthy people contributed fortunes to protect the trees that are an ‘inspiration to nature-lovers all over the world.’”
Prairie Creek Trail
up to 4 miles one way
Just east of the visitor center, the Prairie Creek Trail offers an easy walk where big redwoods love to congregate, in the flats along a broad, sheltered creek. Watch for spawning salmon and steelhead during the winter and early spring months. It’s 1.4 miles from the visitor center to Big Tree, a little farther to Corkscrew Tree. But you don’t have to go that far: you’ll see wondrous sights all along the way.
The Revelation Trail encourages visitors to touch, smell, and listen to the redwood forest. Enlightening for everyone, the trail was developed for the visually impaired. Starts just outside the visitor center.
MODERATE-TO-STRENUOUS DAY HIKES
Brown Creek Trail–Rhododendron Trail–South Fork Loop
You’ll feel wrapped in a blanket of silence walking along exquisite Brown Creek; even the trail is soft. History comes alive here, too.
To the right of Brown Creek Trail, at about 0.7 miles, a bridge leads to a grove named for German forester Carl A. Schenck. In 1898 Schenck founded the Biltmore School of Forestry, the first educational institution in North America devoted to scientific forest management. Twenty-one concrete posts scattered through the grove honor other important men of the time, including Gifford Pinchot and George Vanderbilt, whose estate in North Carolina was the site of Schenck’s school. Originally each post was placed beside an impressive redwood. But some of the trees have fallen, and some posts have been knocked over.
On the left of the Brown Creek Trail, at mile 1.0, is a grove dedicated to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. In 1928 Olmsted conducted a survey and established criteria that helped shape California’s state park system. He also served as a volunteer advisor to Save the Redwoods League for 30 years.
At 1.2 miles, Brown Creek Trail ends at a junction with the Rhododendron Trail. Turn right and head uphill on Rhododendron. After another 1.4 miles, head downhill on the South Fork Trail to return to the start.
The Brown Creek–Rhododendron–South Fork loop provides a good mix of ups and downs on a scenic hike of moderate difficulty. For an easier trip, stick with the Brown Creek leg. It’s only 1.2 miles one way, mostly flat.
For an aerobic workout, combine Zigzag Trail #1 and Zigzag Trail #2 with the Prairie Creek and West Ridge trails. You might hear a little noise from cars on the Newton B. Drury Parkway, but the combination of good views and gargantuan trees can’t be beat.
Carruthers Cove Trail
At the north end of the park, the Carruthers Cove Trail takes you down a steep hill through a forest of alder and Sitka spruce. The cove itself is accessible only at low tide. Check tide tables at the visitor center.
The cove got its name from a misspelling that stuck. The name was meant to honor Eureka newspaper publisher J.H. Crothers, who owned a vacation home on the hillside above the cove. He bought it from the Anthony Dale Johnston family, which settled here in 1851. Drawn by gold mining at first, the Johnstons later made a living providing food and lodging for travelers on an early beach trail from Crescent City to Humboldt Bay.
James Irvine Trail–Miner’s Ridge Loop to Fern Canyon, Gold Bluffs Beach, and back
The longer route takes you through the redwoods to Fern Canyon and back, retracing as few steps as possible in 11.6 miles. From the visitor center, a park map will help you quickly find the start of the James Irvine Trail, which leads through some of the park’s finest redwoods. After exploring those redwoods and Fern Canyon, walk south along Beach Road, where you may see a peregrine falcon soaring in the sky, a Roosevelt elk grazing in a meadow, or a song sparrow singing from a Sitka spruce. In about 1.5 miles, head inland along Squashan Creek to the Miner’s Ridge Trail, a route used by gold miners in the 1800s. Miner’s Ridge leads back to the Irvine Trail and the visitor center. In spring, look for clintonia along the way. Its pinkish-red flowers resemble fireworks on the Fourth of July.
For a shorter hike, go out and back on the Irvine Trail, for a total distance of 9.4 miles.
Hikers and their cars need a backcountry permit, which is only available online at this time and the webpage to access them is: https://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm.
Multiday trips can be planned around the Gold Bluffs Beach and Elk Prairie drive-in campgrounds.
Two sections of the 1,200-mile-long California Coastal Trail run through Prairie Creek: a 6-mile section from Carruthers Cove Trailhead to Gold Bluffs Beach and an 11-mile section from Gold Bluffs Beach to Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick.