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).
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 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 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!