South Coast Adventure

The South Big Sur Coast stretches from Pacific Valley to Ragged Point. Due to its remote location 1.5+ hours from Monterey Bay, it is the least visited portion of the Big Sur coast, but it is well worth the extra time. The centerpiece of this region is the Silver Peak Wilderness, established in 1992 and containing 31,555 acres, containing a network of amazing trails including the Cruikshank Trail, the Salmon Creek Trail and the Buckeye Trail. Also included in the wilderness is Mount Mars, which is one of the most spectacular and impressive grassy ridges in all of Big Sur. In fact, the incredibly steep west ridge of Mount Mars rises over 2,600 ft in a little over 1.25 miles as the crow flies from the ocean! The Buckeye Trail is arguably the most scenic coastal trail in all of Big Sur with outstanding vistas and enjoyable technical single track. One of the best ways to enjoy the South Coast is via a point-to-point such as the South Coast Adventure route described here.

The South Coast Adventure route starts at Williams Ranch which is a working cattle ranch at the southern tip of the Big Sur coast near Ragged Point. A steep ascent up the grassy slopes leads up toward Bald Top and County Line Ridge with impressive views to the Piedras Blancas coastal plain. Once on County Line Ridge a dirt ranch road leads along the top of the ridge with excellent vistas of the deep blue Pacific on one side and interior views on the other. The ridge is largely grassy meadows with clumps of heritage oaks. As you move north along the ridge, there are more pine trees, including gray pines, Ponderosa pines, and Coulter pines. At the junction with County Line dirt road, stay on the ridge crest and follow the Mount Mars traverse use path 0.6 miles to the summit of Mount Mars. The first part of the path climbs steeply through pine and oak forest and then chaparral to a pair of sub-summits before making the final climb in low manzanita to Mount Mars. From the summit, take a vegetation tunnel that was cut through the tall chaparral down to the grassy west ridge. The view as you emerge from the vegetation tunnel is simply stunning with Salmon Cone and the deep blue Pacific Ocean 2,500 ft below. On the left is Piedras Blancas with the lighthouse visible on clear days and on the right is the rugged Silver Peak. As you head down the beautiful grassy ridge, it is difficult to keep from gazing at the amazing view, but use caution as the slope is extremely steep with loose rocks.  About two-thirds of the way down is lovely Kozy Kove Meadows, a fairly flat spot that is also the turnoff for the use path that leads down to the Salmon Creek Trail and beautiful Salmon Falls, which is set amid large boulders and bay trees. At the Salmon Creek Trailhead run on Hwy 1 for a couple hundred meters to reach the Buckeye Trailhead. The initial climb on Buckeye Trail is quite steep and exposed so it is often very hot. About 1 mile in, the Soda Springs Trail branches off down to another trailhead along Hwy 1 while the Buckeye Trail commences another climb through chaparral and oak woodland for 2.5 miles to Buckeye Camp and Buckeye Springs. The coastal vistas along this stretch are magnificent. Buckeye Camp is located in a peaceful meadow with a colossal oak tree, some pines, and even a few mature eucalyptus that were planted here decades ago when (I’m assuming) a homestead existed in this meadow. A spring near the camp provides refreshing cold water. Buckeye Camp would certainly make for a great nap spot! Beyond Buckeye Camp, the trail descends to Redwood Gulch Creek before making a final ascent to Buckeye Vista, Pt. 2,318, arguably the best view on the entire trail. After Buckeye Vista, the trail enters pine forest as it switchbacks down the hill to Cruikshank Camp. For this route, continue through Upper Cruikshank camp and descend to redwood-filled Villa Creek remaining on the Buckeye Trail. The Buckeye Trail then traverses the ridge on the north side of Villa Creek canyon with excellent views of Villa Creek canyon and then rounds a corner into the Alder Creek drainage which contains alder and Douglas Fir forest, a fascinating contrast to the redwoods in Villa Creek. At Alder Camp take the Alder Creek Road up to San Martin Top Ridge where there is a four way junction. Continue straight onto the Willow Creek Road which leads down through the largest Douglas fir forest on the central coast to the Highway near Cape San Martin. There are some nice views in the bottom portion of Willow Creek road when it emerges from the forest. An excellent 36 mile point-to-point route that I look forward to doing in the future would be to turn right at the four way junction on San Martin Top ridge and connect into South Coast Ridge Road which can be taken all the way to Prewitt Ridge for a spectacular descent into Pacific Valley.  Stay tuned for posts on a couple more routes in this gorgeous section of the Big Sur Coast!  Strava track for this route here

 

Little Sur Circular Pools

The trek to the Circular Pools entails an adventure up the wild and trail-less Little Sur River to an otherworldly scene of clear pools, delicate waterfalls, and precipitous cliffs deep in a lush, redwood filled canyon. The most straightforward access to the pools begins from Bottcher’s Gap (notice a lot of excellent terrain for adventures begin at this trailhead) where it’s 3.5 miles downhill on the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. Just beyond the Scout Camp, the Jackson Camp Trail continues 1.5 miles to Jackson Camp. The Jackson Camp Trail is in good shape and generally traverses on the slopes a couple hundred vertical feet above the Little Sur River. The trail passes through a shallow gully with a stream that is particularly lush with a carpet of redwood sorrel and a nice grove of redwoods.   The Jackson Camp Trail reaches False Jackson Camp where the first crossing of many Little Sur River crossings is located. The real Jackson Camp is only one more river crossing away (0.2 miles), but from Jackson Camp to Fox Usecamp there are numerous more crossings of the Little Sur River (a total of 12 by one count). These crossings can be rock hops in low flow or thigh deep crossings after heavy rains. In general, it does not seem prudent to travel along the Little Sur River in rainy period. The official trail ends at Jackson Camp, but the use path to Fox Camp 1.3 miles upsteam is fairly easy to follow with the numerous river crossings either obvious or marked with orange tape. This section features some truly immense redwoods that a treat to pass underneath. These colossal trees have thrived deep in this canyon for centuries and the forest looks healthy considering the fire that roared through these mountains in 2008.

Beyond Fox camp, the use path becomes more faint as it seems less people venture further upsteam. However, the general idea is the same: follow the river upstream and the use path virtually always coincides with the path of least resistance. The scenery is spectacular the entire way with smooth white river rocks littering the stream bed and alders, bay trees, and redwoods alongside the river. Soon after Fox camp, the canyon narrows considerably with precipitous cliffs closing in on the waterway. Usually the cliffs are only on one side of the river allowing fairly easy access on the opposite side, but in one section the Little Sur enters a small gorge with steep rock walls on both sides. After this narrow portion, the canyon opens a bit before narrowing once again just before reaching the primary Circular Pool. At first only the sound of a waterfall can be heard, but as you round a bend around some rocks a paradisaical scene presents itself with a large, nearly-circular pool virtually completely surrounded by cliffs. This rock amphitheater contains an assortment of lush hanging vegetation including five finger ferns and moss. The first circular pool and waterfall is the most impressive, but more adventure lies upstream. A few feet downstream of the main pool a weakness in the cliffs on the north side of the Circular Pool allows for passage upsateam. The next section of the Little Sur River features a series of small pools and cascades culminating in the second circular pool, which is significantly smaller, both in size of the pool and the waterfall plunging into it. This pool does not have an easy walk-around and a small rock step must be surmounted to proceed. A nylon rope aids in this climbing which is particularly helpful as the rock is slick, especially when downclimbing. After the second pool there is a sweet area of rock formations known as the bathtubs. Beyond the bathtubs there is apparently a third circular pool and one of the most remote camps in the Ventana Wilderness (the North Fork Camp) located at the confluence of Puerto Suello Creek and the Little Sur River. On this day, I did not have time for additional exploration beyond the bathtubs so I look forward to returning soon to reach the remote upper reaches of the Little Sur River near North Fork Camp.  I’m also excited to see the Little Sur River in the spring when the lushness of the environs will be at its maximum and a swim in the Circular Pools will refreshing as opposed to frigid! Stava route here

La Ventana Loop: Kandlbinder – La Ventana – Ventana Double Cone

The La Ventana Loop is a tremendous route that was as difficult as it was beautiful. To my knowledge Kandlbinder, La Ventana (aka The Window), and Ventana Double Cone have never been climbed together as a day trip. It took Brian Robinson, Whit Rambach, Joey Cassidy and me a little over 13 hours to complete the loop (start at 6:40 a.m. and finish at 7:50 p.m.).  The route had a little bit of everything: spectacular scenery (including coastal Big Sur and interior Ventana), remoteness, ruggedness, hideous brush, stream crossings by the dozen, waterfalls, old growth redwood groves, old growth Santa Lucia Firs, exposure, commitment, rock scrambling, treacherously loose rock, and a beautiful sunset. In all, the La Ventana Loop is around 30 miles with 9,500 ft of elevation gain, but the stats belie the difficulty of the 3 mile traverse between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. Garmin Connect Data: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/430728534

Back in December on the Ventana Double Cone trip, I was captivated as I gazed across the immensely rugged cirque to La Ventana and Kandlbinder and hoped to one day stand on those points. I recalled hearing about a route up Jackson Creek that provided direct access to La Ventana and wondered if a giant loop could be made that would include the summits of Kandlbinder and Ventana Double, essentially encircling the Little Sur drainage. In order to make the loop a reality, one must traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone, a stretch that has virtually no recent information and looked like brush hell on satellite. For a couple weeks I focused more on ascending Kandlbinder as an out-and-back via the Jackson Creek Route which has some recent route beta, but discussion with Joey reignited my interest in tackling the La Ventana Loop sooner rather than later. In a matter of days I was ready to tackle the challenge after discussion and careful satellite analysis. With a great weather forecast, the team of four was assembled at Bottcher’s Gap in the pre-dawn hours and pumped to give the La Ventana adventure a go.

Click for a full-size annotated view from Kandlbinder PeakLa Ventana Altitude

There is little information on this wild and rugged area of the Ventana Wilderness and virtually no information about the traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. It’s a committing route that is extremely arduous, requiring advanced navigational skills and wherewithal to persevere through extremely difficult terrain and hideous brush. That being said, here are my thoughts on the segments of the La Ventana Loop:

  1. The Little Sur River: After a 3.5 mile run down the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp from Bottcher’s Gap, we took the Jackson Camp Trail to Jackson Camp. This trail is in good condition and a pleasant run through lush redwoods. Beyond Jackson Camp there are numerous crossings of the Little Sur River and we walked right through the water in the interest of time (although rock-hopping is possible in low flow). The use path is fairly easy to follow between crossings and most of the crossings are flagged. 1.3 miles from Jackson Camp is Fox Usecamp, a nice flat spot amid redwoods where Jackson Creek flows into the Little Sur River. At Fox Usecamp, we turned up Jackson Creek and soon came across a pretty waterfall known as Firehose falls.
  2. Jackson Creek:  The Jackson Creek route proved highly enjoyable. The old growth redwoods in the canyon were amazing and the stream was pretty with small cascades and pools. By taking the path of least resistance we were able to make decent progress. There are lots of down trees to go under, over and across. Beyond Happy Fork Camp, we traversed a little above the stream before heading up grassy slopes in oak woodland to a small saddle above Jackson Creek. A quick descent from the saddle brought us to a dry streambed that drains the slopes of La Ventana and Kandlbinder in periods of heavy rain.  This area had plentiful poison oak but travel through the brush was reasonable.
  3. Kandlbinder Direct:  We took a talus gully up ~1,400 feet from the bottom of the canyon below La Ventana directly to the summit of Kandlbinder. The climbing was sustained and sometimes loose, but brush-free. This is a phenomenal route amid old growth Santa Lucia Firs and the view from Kandlbinder is amazing, perhaps the best in all of the Ventana Wilderness. We arrived at Kandlbinder in under 5 hours from Bottchers Gap. This turned out to be the easy part.
  4. Kandlbinder to La Ventana: From Kandlbinder, we stayed below the ridge crest to avoid copious deadfall from the Basin Complex fire immediately on top of the ridge. While the terrain is mostly brush-free, it is very steep with cliff bands and the rock is treacherously loose requiring care and extreme caution.
  5. La Ventana:  We traversed around some cliffs and ascended the final slopes (much poison oak) to the famous notch known as La Ventana (aka the Window) for which the Ventana Wilderness is named. La Ventana is a fascinating spot, although it’s largely filled with brush these days. 
  6. The Impasse: The cliffs on the east side of the La Ventana notch are a formidable obstacle to continuing the traverse to VDC. Such an impasse is something I would expect in the High Sierra, not the Santa Lucias. We couldn’t find any safe ledges (without technical gear) in the vicinity of the notch and descended several hundred feet where we found a safe passage with some class 3 moves. 
  7. The Crux: Once we got through the cliff band, we encountered fairly thick brush as we made an ascending traverse back to the ridge crest. From here to the next high point on the ridge had truly hideous, atrocious brush. The dead manzanita and other spiny vegetation combined with the flourishing new brush growth made travel extremely arduous and slow. The brush was worst right on the ridge crest where deadfall was abundant. After careful investigation of satellite imagery before and after the trip, I’ve concluded that this section is a slog no matter which way you cut it.  
  8. The Ridge Traverse: From an intermediate high point along the ridge, the next section was rocky with little brush and we made good progress for awhile and enjoyed the exposure on both sides of the ridge.  However, we soon encountered another wall of brush and deadfall. We descended off the ridge a couple hundred feet down extremely steep and loose slopes to traverse around this brush. We ascended back to the ridge via another talus gully that was brush-free. Now back on the ridge, we enjoyed another nice rocky section with amazing views into Ventana Creek and VDC. After this point we made a direct line across the basin to the Ventana Double Cone trail. The brush in this final portion is much more manageable.
  9. Ventana Double Cone: Elated to be back on the trail, we ran up to the top of VDC and enjoyed the late afternoon views from this awesome summit. In all, it took over 3.5 hours to complete the traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to VDC. 
  10. Completing the Loop: From VDC we took the trail back to Pat Springs and Bottchers Gap. We had a spectacular sunset from Little Pines overlooking Pico Blanco and drank up the cool, fresh waters in Pat Springs. A full moon and warm evening temps made the last 7 miles from Pat Springs a pleasant night run. The trail is getting some more work and is in decent shape, or maybe it just felt like a highway compared to the brush we endured on the traverse. 

Note: The following photos are in chronological order from the Little Sur River at daybreak to the group shot at Bottcher’s Gap after finishing in the dark.

Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail

The Big Sur Trail is a rugged, overgrown trail, but the reward for the arduous effort is passage through the remote north and south forks of the wild and scenic Big Sur River. We also visited Rainbow Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River, rock hopping through the spectacular stream bed to reach this remote, hidden waterfall. Perhaps only in the bottom of the South Fork Big Sur River canyon can one find a forest composed of redwoods, Santa Lucia Firs and Coulter Pines, all living side by side. The wilderness feeling in these canyons is unparalleled.  It was a treat to see the wild and scenic canyons of the Big Sur River, arguably the heart of the Ventana Wilderness. It’s no wonder the trail posses the name “Big Sur,” the descriptive name for this rugged section of California coastline. The Basin Complex Fire in 2008 served to temporarily clear out the brush, but 5 years later the vegetation and impediments have returned with a vengeance. The remote nature of the route, and its reputation for brush, blowdowns and route finding issues explains why so few people venture into these canyons. The grand finale was a run down Boronda Ridge in evening light with an amazing sunset over the golden hills and Big Sur coastline. I had the pleasure of joining Brian Robinson for this adventure. Brian knows this trail well and spoke highly of the beauty of this region which got my imagination going and was the impetus for this trip. After seeing the Big Sur Trail for myself, I agree that it’s a gem and worth the effort. I will definitely be returning for further exploration. Strava route here.

We began by running up the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. Unlike most of the Ventana trail network, the 10 mile stretch of the Pine Ridge Trail is a well-maintained wilderness freeway with no severe ups and downs making it an enjoyable trail run. Beyond Sykes Hot Springs, the terrain was new for me and the quality of the trail decreased. After some switchbacks above Sykes, the trail traverses a steep slope (erosion in spots) with excellent views down to the confluence of the south and north forks of the Big Sur River and up the rugged canyon of the north fork. Rounding a corner in to the Redwood Creek drainage is an excellent view of an ancient redwood grove that was miraculously spared in the Basin Complex Fire. The trail descends into this beautiful grove where an excellent camp spot is located among towering redwoods and a verdant stream. Emerging from this redwood grove, one begins to see more evidence of the devastation of the 2008 fires. Along most of the Big Sur River, the redwoods have filled in and the scars of fire are becoming less striking. However, in the section from redwood camp to Cienega Creek the fire burned hot and the survival rate much less. The trail descends down the brushy and fire-scarred Cienega Creek drainage to the North Fork of the Big Sur River.

Beyond the North Fork, the trail begins many brushy switchbacks up to a small pass along a ridge that separates the north and south forks of the Big Sur River. The top of this pass represents a dividing line in fire behavior. On the south fork side, the vegetation was much less impacted with pines and oak woodland seemingly unharmed. I very much enjoyed the descent into the South Fork of the Big Sur River with some brush-free stretches of trail and excellent views into the wild and remote south fork canyon.  At the bottom of the canyon is a spectacular forest of redwoods, pine trees, and Santa Lucia Firs. It’s an ethereal scene seeing Santa Lucia Firs standing proud at the bottom of the canyon when I’m more accustomed to seeing them high on rocky ridges. At Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Big Sur River we took the remnants of the South Fork Trail to a sport where we could descend back to the river. From here, we rock hopped downstream to a small tributary that I guessed (correctly) was flowing from Rainbow Falls. We scrambled a short distance up this tributary and were treated to an awesome 55 foot drop of Rainbow Falls with a gorgeous amphitheater setting of rock and hanging gardens. The environment was relatively dry and water volume low due to the drought, but it was an awesome sight to see.  After the waterfall, we rocked hopped all the way back to Rainbow Camp. Along this stretch of the river I felt the genuine wilderness feeling in this rarely trodden canyon. It was as if we were traveling into the wild of the Ventana Wilderness. Back at Rainbow Camp, we had a snack and then continued on the Big Sur Trail to Mocho Camp about 0.5 miles distant.

Along the way there is a fantastic view looking down the South Fork with Santa Lucia Firs, Redwoods and pines filling the canyon and Ventana Double Cone towering above (first photo below). In my opinion this vista epitomizes the Ventana.  Beyond Mocho Camp is a section known as the Devil’s Staircase, so named after the long and arduous climb up numerous switchbacks from Mocho Creek to Logwood Creek. I had read reports of this section having heinous brush, routefinding problems and lots of blow downs, but I found that while the trail was brushy and difficult, travel was not unreasonable and we actually made good progress the entire way to Cold Springs, the end of the Big Sur Trail. In fairness, we came prepared for the conditions.  I wore gaiters and board shorts while Brian wore pants so our legs were completely covered from the scratchy brush. We also had gloves to push aside anything in our way. I highly recommend an outfit that protects the legs to make the Big Sur Trail an enjoyable experience. After grabbing some water at Cold Springs we took the Coast Ridge Road down to Timber Top just in time for evening light down Boronda Ridge. The run down Boronda Ridge that evening culminating in sunset is about as good as it gets; nothing short of amazing!  Boronda is the most elegant grassy ridge in all of Big Sur and timing was perfect. The clarity down the coast was phenomenal and I soaked it all in as much as I could while filling my cameras with as many photos as could take. It was one of those magical stretches in Big Sur that keep me coming back for more. All I could say upon arriving at the trailhead along Hwy 1 was “Wow!”  Strava route here

Partington Cove to McWay Falls

The Big Sur/Ventana Wilderness area has captured my attention recently. Nowhere in the lower 48 does the meeting of land and ocean occur with such impressive, rugged relief. Add to that the pristine wilderness, much of which is remote and difficult to access, and you get a paradise for adventure running. I’ve already posted on several routes that I believe are classics and expect many more to come. Perhaps at some point I will create a summary post that will function as an online guide to my favorite Big Sur adventures. For this post I describe an aesthetic way to cover virtually all of the trails in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park by running from Partington Cove to McWay Falls and back. The route includes the famous Ewoldson Loop, which is widely considered one of the best hikes in all of Big Sur. The praise for the Ewoldson Loop is for good reason: the trail features the most impressive stand of old growth redwoods in the Santa Lucia Mountains and spectacular coastal views. The sharp transitions between lush redwood forest and coastal chaparral are spectacular. A trip up the Ewoldson trail starts near the iconic McWay Falls, which plunges 80 feet over cliffs onto white sands and a turquoise cove. The loop gives a taste of virtually everything Big Sur has to offer. The 2008 Basin Complex fire closed the trail for over five years with heavy damage reported, but it has recently been reopened for the public’s enjoyment. On my recent visit I was happy to see that the redwood forest has made a vigorous comeback. Most redwoods appear to have survived the fire and new limbs and saplings are sprouting with vigor – a testament to the resiliency of redwoods. I imagine in 10 yeas it will be difficult to notice the fire that once roared through this forest. Work crews have also built a series a magnificent new hand-made bridges over McWay Creek, constructed with fallen redwoods on location. By doing an out-and-back from Partington Cove one can run down the Canyon side of the Ewoldson Loop on the way out and the Ocean side on the way back, thus covering the entire loop.

The turnaround point for the Partington to McWay is the iconic McWay Falls. It’s a special experience to follow McWay Creek through its journey down a steep canyon with lush redwoods forest and then to exit the forest at McWay Cove with surreal coastal scenery. If you do the loop in the early morning you will even be able to enjoy McWay Falls without the tourists. The other highlight of the route in my opinion is Alta Vista, an old homestead that burned in the 2008 fire.  This destination is off the main route and unsigned.  All that remains of the homestead is its foundation, a wine cellar carved into the mountains and a few burned artifacts. A plaque has been placed on the site to memorialize the history of the location and the property has been transferred to the State Parks. The best part of Alta Vista in my opinion, and the reason why I recommend making the side trip, is the incredible view across McWay Canyon and south along the Big Sur Coast. While the use trail to Alta Vista is not marked, it’s an obvious junction located at the high point of the Tanbark Trail before it descends to meet the fire road.  The other portions of the Partington to McWay route are equally impressive. The Water Trail, which connects the Ewoldson Trail in McWay Canyon with the Tanbark Trail in Partington Canyon, is a narrow single track on a steep hillside that parallels the ocean with spectacular vistas en-route. There is a grassy section that is particularly scenic with views to sea stacks and turquoise waters below. The Tanbark Trail starts with a lush redwood forest in Partington Canyon and then ascends up to the ridge with great views across Partington Canyon to Partington Ridge and Boronda Ridge. On the other side of Hwy 1, a dirt road descends 0.5 miles to Partington Cove and Partington Beach. An old tunnel provides access to the Cove with rich history and the scenic beach features towering bluffs and ocean smoothed rocks. These coastal destinations are well worth the short extension to complete the tour of the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. These trails are phenomenal trail running and provide an excellent mix of all that Big Sur offers. Strava route here

Armstrong Redwoods

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is tucked into the northern California coastal range a couple miles outside the town of Guerneville and the Russian River. Located an hour and a half from San Francisco, Armstrong is one of the best displays of old growth redwoods within a day trip of the City. Seasonal Fife Creek runs through the grove at an alluvial flat, the hallmark of many of the most impressive stands of old growth redwoods.  Having recently visited the best redwoods in the world along California’s far north coast, I had limited expectations but was pleasantly surprised.  While Armstrong is not as impressive as the groves to the north, the character of the forest more closely resembles the giant forests in Humboldt than redwood parks to the south like Muir Woods or Big Basin.  Moreover, Armstrong sees a tiny fraction of the number of visitors that swarm Muir Woods National Monument on any given day. In addition to not being a tourist fiasco, the grove at Armstrong is objectively more impressive with larger trees and greater concentration of big trees when compared with Muir Woods. However, unlike Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the grove at Armstrong is relatively small and one is hard pressed to find more than a couple miles of trail underneath redwoods in this park. Within a couple hundred vertical feet above the canyon floor, the forest landscape at Armstrong quickly changes to oak woodland and Douglas fir. By comparison, Big Basin features dozens of miles of trails to explore underneath redwoods and one can find solitude in the redwoods. For a bona fide redwood trail run, Armstrong will likely not satisfy, but the very pleasant grove serves as a great starting point for the trails connecting into the beautiful backcountry of Austin Creek Recreation Area (covered in the next blog post). 

Humboldt Redwoods

The focus of the recent north coast trip was the redwood parks in far northwest California, but it was hard to resist visiting a couple famous redwood groves in Humboldt Redwoods State Park on the way back to the Bay. The groves we visited included the Rockefeller Forest, and perhaps one of the most famous and visited redwood groves in existence, the Founders Grove. The two groves are quite different in character with the Rockefeller Forest a bit darker, both in terms of overall light and the darker reddish tone of the bark on the redwood trunks. A high overcast layer provided filtered sunshine that made for decent photography.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park in general is a fantastic location for trail running objectives. The park encompasses over 53,000 acres, and 17,000 acres of those acres are pristine old growth redwood forest. There are over 100 miles of trails to explore passing through various habitats. For flatter trail runs, the Bull Creek Trail (both south and north), Big Tree Trail, Homestead Trail and the River Trail are great options. You can literally run near the banks of Bull Creek or the South Fork of the Eel River for dozens of miles, all under old growth redwoods. Note that accessibility to the River Trail and South Bull Creek Trail is very limited in the winter and spring months when seasonal bridges across Bull Creek are removed. For some vertical, the Peavine Ridge-Thornton-Look Prairie Loop is a great option with varied terrain and foliage as the forest shifts from redwood to primarily douglas fir woodland. The Johnson Camp Trail and Grasshopper Trail provide access to the summit of 3,379 foot Grasshopper Peak with panoramic views of the Humboldt basin. As to be expected, the redwoods are primarily in the lower lying areas near the rivers and streams so any trails with substantial ascent will transition to a non-redwood forest. I look forward to returning to Humboldt Redwoods and exploring more of its awesome trails.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is the northernmost of the primary redwood parks. Located just outside Crescent City, it is relatively undeveloped and contains a fraction of the trail mileage of Prairie Creek or Humboldt. However, what it lacks in trail infrastructure is outweighed by arguably the most scenic display of old growth redwoods in existence making it well worth a visit. Considered by many to be among the best old growth hikes, the Boy Scout Tree Trail was our destination for a run. As an out-and-back ending at a fern waterfall that is nice but not extraordinary, the value in this run was not the destination, but the process of getting there.

The trailhead for the Boy Scout Tree Trail head is midway along Howland Hill Road, which is a spectacular drive along a narrow dirt road lined with giant redwoods the entire way. Once on the trail, the impressive redwoods keep coming. The understory is almost exclusively low lying ferns providing unusually good visibility through the forest and the layers of giant trees are reminiscent of pillars in a cathedral. I tried to capture the setting as best as I could with a camera, but the sheer size and grandeur of these trees is impossible to truly comprehend without visiting in person. All told, the round trip for the Boy Scout Tree Trail is only about 5.3 miles, but several miles of extensions can be peiced together along the Mill Creek Trail, Hiouchi Trail, and Hatton Trail, most of which is under old growth redwood forest. I look forward to running these trails next time!

After enjoying the Boy Scout Tree Trail, we continued down Howland Hill Road to the beautiful Stout Grove, where we toured more awesome redwoods. Back at Crescent City, we made a few side trips to the coast, including the photogenic Battery Point Lighthouse and the scenic beach at False Klamath Cove. On the way back south, we merely passed through Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. So much to see, so little time. I’ll definitely be returning to Del Norte to explore the Damnation Creek Trail and other sections of the rugged Coastal Trail that I did not have time to visit on this occasion.

Prairie Creek Redwoods

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is simply amazing. Miles of ancient old growth redwoods, Roosevelt elk grazing in meadows, and unfettered sandy beaches create a primeval setting. Nowhere else can one find such an extensive and continuous stand of old growth redwoods in pristine condition. This park offers a glimpse of what the entire north coast of California once looked like before logging. I’m glad conservationists existed in an era of extraction and destruction with the foresight and wherewithal to set aside such a glorious forest from ax and saw. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this park is a fern canyon with seven types of ferns draped over 50 foot walls creating a lush hanging garden. With 75 miles of trails to explore, Prairie Creek is a paradise for trail runners. The trails range from well groomed paths such as the Prairie Creek Trail and James Irvine Trail, to very technical and arduous single track including the Rhododendron Trail and West Ridge Trail. What all of the trails share is spectacular scenery, most of which is under towering old growth redwoods with a remarkably lush understory. I found it interesting that the Sequoia sempervirens along the far north coast appear to have a grayish bark versus the reddish brown bark common among the subspecies further south. 

During our visit to the north coast, I was able to do three runs through the park and in the process I covered a good chunk of the trail network, which is split fairly evenly by the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway that runs the length of the park from south to north along Prairie Creek. Perhaps the best loop in the park, and arguably the best redwood hike in the world, is the Miner’s Ridge and James Irvine Loop, which passes through all facets of the park – prairies, old growth redwoods, beach, and the fern canyon. The loop is about 12 miles long and it’s a very runnable and enjoyable trail run (route on Strava) with under 1,700 ft of elevation gain, no steep climbs, and relatively non-technical compared to many of the other narrow and root-strewn trails in the park. Just before leaving the coastal area to enter fern canyon, we spotted a group of elk grazing on the prairie with ideal afternoon lighting. Fern Canyon is simply awesome and we were lucky to have the canyon all to ourselves. I look forward to returning in late spring when the ferns in the canyon are at their peak of green vibrancy.

The second run I did was around a 20 mile loop and included some of the trails on the eastern side of the parkway (route on Strava). Foothill Trail and Brown Creek Trail were both moderate while Rhodedendron Trail was challenging with narrow, technical single track and steep climbs. Next time I would like to run the entire length of the Rhododendron Trail, hopefully coinciding with peak Rhody blossoms. Crossing over the parkway to the westside, I ascended up to the West Ridge Trail and then down to the coast for a nice run along the coastal prairie with more elk sightings and two surprise waterfalls tumbling off the coastal bluffs in a very lush setting of moss and ferns. I finished the loop with another walk through fern canyon (this time with different lighting) and then the awesome James Irvine Trail back to the campground area in Elk Meadow.  The third and final run in Prairie Creek included a run up and along West Ridge with a return via Prairie Creek (route on Strava). The West Ridge trail is technical and will keep your focus down on the trail instead of up at the redwoods, but nonetheless an amazing tour along the ridge and super fun for technical single track aficionados.  The upper part of the Prairie Creek trail is more singletrack before opening up onto an improved gravel trail for the final couple miles back to the park headquarters. As a big fan of redwoods, it was a real treat to spend a couple days in Prairie Creek and I look forward to returning here for further explorations!