Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Call of the Canyon
By Jordan Venema
Photo by Eric Leslie
Some woods seem more magical than others, though always in different ways. It’s a matter of each particular grove, how its branches lace and interlock, and its particular scents carried by a breeze, or by none. The Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is one such place, where elk roam free in open plains and ancient trees grow taller than most buildings.
“It’s the Grand Canyon of the redwoods,” agrees Emily Christian, a California State Park Ranger with Prairie Creek since 2010.
But adding even more to this park’s allure is its coastal location, where the atmosphere is both quiet and close with the hush of morning fog. And along the many trails at Prairie Creek is one of the park’s hallmarks, other than the trees themselves – the lush greenery of the forest floor, covered with ferns, whose fronds spread out like a firework’s burst.
When thinking of prehistoric things, it’s easy to believe the oldest, biggest and most solid things dominated the world, which is why the redwoods still fascinate us. But in Prairie Creek, the ferns that grow at their roots convey the same feeling of timelessness, of having been preserved from some other era, because although these exotic plants are fragile, they have been found in fossil records some 350 million years old. Between the redwoods and ferns complementing each other, Prairie Creeks feels like a place frozen in time.
If these ferns augment Prairie Creek’s magical atmosphere, then within the park is a place where the enchantment is strongest. Fern Canyon is only a four-mile hike from the visitor center, and it’s a backdrop that has been used for the Jurassic Park movies.
Christian describes Fern Canyon as a slot canyon where “the walls on either side go up 80 feet high, draped in seven or eight different species of fern. Water seeps through the ground and comes off the edge of the canyon in waterfalls,” she adds, which creates a mist on the canyon’s floor.
Of the seven or eight species, Christian says, “The prettiest is the five-finger fern, which looks like a hand with black stems, which is rare.” Alongside the common Lady Fern and triangular, colony-forming Bracken Fern are the slender Deer Fern, Leather Fern, Licorice Fern, Sword Fern and Wood Fern.
Then the morning coastal fog rolls over and into the canyon, and though the canyon is without redwoods, “there are giant spruces, and the fog and sun filter through the beams down into the canyon. It is very surreal,” says Christian. “It’s something so beautiful that it’s difficult to capture in words, or with a camera.”
Even getting to the canyon can be an adventure. “There’s an eight-mile-long road that’s minimally maintained,” explains Christian, where “bluffs go up about as tall as redwoods, 300 feet. But it’s constantly eroding, and the road is below the bluff,” so she cautions there are sometimes landslides, and no trailers or RVs are allowed on the road.
“If you’re in a car, I think it’s more than most people expect,” Christian says.
Driving into the park requires an $8 entry fee, though national passes are accepted at all the entrance stations and campgrounds.
Visitors also can opt to hike into the canyon via the James Irvine Trail, a four-and-a-half mile trail that begins near the visitor’s center.
“Some folks make a loop of it by leaving the visitor center, then hiking from Fern Canyon two miles south to Miners Ridge Trail, and looping back, which can turn into a 15-mile loop,” says Christian.
If you visit the canyon, she also recommends you travel just north of the canyon to visit nearby waterfalls.
“If you go up the coastal trail from the canyon, there are three waterfalls, one of which is called Gold Dust Falls and which is kind of a secret,” says Christian. “It’s a 300-foot-high waterfall, just right around the corner from the canyon.”
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park also has two campgrounds – Elk Prairie and the popular Gold Bluff Beach campground, whose 26 spots are secured by reservation only from May 15 through Labor Day.
Whether you hike, bike, drive or decide to stay, Christian encourages visitors to “be prepared for wet conditions.” Also, keep a respectful distance from any elk encountered, both for visitors’ and the elks’ safety.
“In Fern Canyon, there’s really a sense of peace, and pristine nature. It’s a beautiful place to quiet the mind,” says Christian, which is why visitors should always pack out whatever they’ve packed in. That way, the park will be preserved for years to come, and remain for others a portrait frozen in time.
Fern Canyon • Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park • (707) 488-2039