The James Irvine Trail - a beautiful yet easy 4.5-mile hike (one-way) through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to the beach at Fern Canyon*.
Elevation gain: 450 feet Difficulty: Easy Distance: 9 miles round trip Begins: Behind the Visitor Center at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
The following hike is from The Hiker's hip pocket guide to the Humboldt Coast by Bob Lorentzen, available at many local booksellers or from Bored Feet Publications, www.boredfeet.com.
To walk the James Irvine Trail west to Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs, take the Nature Trail from behind the Visitor Center. You cross a sturdy bridge over Prairie Creek and pass the start of the Prairie Creek trail, just 500 feet from your starting point. Your trail meanders toward the creek until the James Irvine trail branches right, 1/8 mile from the trailhead. The James Irvine Trail heads north, climbing gradually to the West Ridge Trail junction at 1/4 mile.
The James Irvine Trail runs northwest, following the gentle drainage of Godwood Creek, named for an early homesteader. Ancient redwoods stand along the trail. Some reach diameters of 18 feet. The virgin forest is a mix of redwood, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, western hemlock and occasional hardwoods like tanoak, alder and maple. At 1/2 mile you are alongside Godwood Creek.
The well-beaten trail continues mostly level through the primeval forest. Watch out for roots that disrupt the surface of the trail. Also watch your footing on the corduroy bridges; they are slippery when wet. At 3/4 mile you cross a sturdy bridge, then walk a boardwalk spanning a marshy area. Sword and deer ferns, salal, saxifrage and skunk cabbage thrive here.
After two more corduroy bridges, you pass the one-mile point. You will cross many more corduroy bridges as you climb gradually toward the summit. At 1 1/4 miles you cross Godwood Creek on a sturdy bridge, putting you on its west side. At 1 5/8 miles you cross the creek twice more, finally leaving it as its headwaters swing northeast.
At 1 3/4 miles you pass through a blowdown area. Many fallen trees lie along and across the trail here, prey to ferocious winds. At 2 miles you come to a rest bench carved from a fallen log, beyond which another fallen log spans the trail at head height. Don't forget to duck! At 2 1/8 you cross a dilapidated boardwalk.
The trail winds around an immense redwood with a swollen base of 16 feet. It marks the halfway point to the beach. You cross a small gully, then climb to the summit of the James Irvine Trail, at the elevation of 300 feet.
You descend slightly to the Clintonia Trail at 2 3/8 miles. It leads to the Miners Ridge Trail, a possible return route for this hike.
The James Irvine Trail descends gradually, then more rapidly by rough steps. At 2 3/4 miles you cross a bridge over the headwaters of Home Creek. The trail then levels before passing under two fallen logs, after which a series of short ups and downs brings you to a bridge over a side canyon at 3 miles. Beyond the bridge, a side trail leads to a grove on this quiet side stream.
The vegetation becomes more dense as you approach the coast. Deer ferns, red and evergreen huckleberries and delicate redwood violets thrive here. Follow the sound of a waterfall down to another bridge, this one is over a 50-foot-deep canyon lush with ferns. After the bridge is another grove spur trail.
From 3 1/8 miles you meander up and down the slope above Home Creek, crossing more corduroy bridges. At 3 1/2 miles a very large Sitka spruce sits on the left, on the edge of upper Fern Canyon. The trail contours before descending to cross a beautiful canyon at 3 5/8 miles. Baldwin Bridge has a lovely bench overlooking the gorge.
You soon pass the junction with the Friendship Ridge Trail. After crossing a small bridge at 3 3/4 miles you again approach Fern Canyon. But you must hike another 1/2 mile before meeting the trail into the canyon. On this fairly level stretch you'll notice a Sitka spruce on your left growing atop a fallen redwood.
About 4 1/4 miles from the trailhead, you meet the upper end of the Fern Canyon Trail. You may descend into the canyon here, or walk the Irvine Trail to the beach and return by way of Fern Canyon. Our description follows the Irvine Trail to its end. The trail descends through an alder forest. On your left is the Alexander Lincoln Prairie, the site of the Gold Bluffs tent city of the 1850s, which now has no hint of its strange history. Descend more steps, follow a 100-foot boardwalk, and drop to the beach, just north of the mouth of Fern Canyon.
(Return Options: Arrange for a pick-up vehicle to meet you at the Fern Canyon parking lot; retrace your route for a total hike of about 9 1/2 miles; or follow a loop on the Clintonia and Miners Ridge Trails to see new country on your return hike. See the Visitors Center at Elk Prairie for trail maps and information.)
*You can hike to Fern Canyon on this trail without a permit. However, if you would like to drive: Due to the volume of visitors, California State Parks / National Park Service will require Day Use Permits to access to Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon from May 1st - September 30th. Permits will not be required from October 1st - April 30th. Apply for a Permit: https://www.redwoodparksconservancy.org/permits/fern-canyon-permits