PARK: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
FEATURES: Beautiful big leaf maples, an elk-inhabited meadow, and rock-strewn Redwood Creek.
DISTANCE: 3.2 miles round trip (SHORT) A longer option to the Tall Trees Grove is available in summer (17 miles round trip).
ELEVATION GAIN: negligible
Open all year for the basic hike.
Take Hwy 101 to Bald Hills Road, 1.3 miles north of downtown Orick. Proceed east on Bald Hills Road for 0.4 miles and then turn right onto a paved access road for the Redwood Creek Trail. Take this road 0.5 miles to a parking area at the trailhead.
THE HIKE: The full Redwood Creek Trail travels some 8-plus miles to the Tall Trees Grove—a trip there and back is more than a day’s worth of hiking. As a result, this short hike goes only as far as the first creek crossing, but along the way it showcases its full share of scenery.
A bridge at the southeastern edge of the parking lot marks the start of the trail, which follows a broad track beneath red alder and big leaf maple. In spring the trailside often displays the burgundy (or occasionally yellow) flowers of the giant trillium (Trillium chloropetalum), a cousin of the western trillium (Trillium ovatum), whose white flowers frequently brighten other parts of the redwood forest. Adding to the floral display is a pair of small but striking plants, western bleeding heart and milkmaids.
The trail runs close to the left-hand hillside, while Redwood Creek makes its course beyond the alders to the right. Just past a bridge at 0.35 miles, a magnificent, mossy-limbed big leaf maple rises from the left of the trail like a living, leafy monument, its supple contortions exhibit an artistry that no sculptor could hope to achieve.
At 0.7 miles the trail turns right, moving into a prairie filled with blackberry bushes. Bridges span small streamlets that feed into Redwood Creek, which lies some 50 yards to the right. A view across the creek at 1.15 miles shows a band of gray-barked alders dwarfed by the dark trunks and foliage of the redwoods that rise behind them.
Red alder (Alnus rubra) is a commonly found colonizer of damp, open places, often filling the voids created by clear cuts. Alders are themselves cut commercially, being used for tool handles, furniture, and pulp products. The tree serves several purposes for the local Indians: its wood’s aromatic smoke is used for curing salmon; its roots become a weaving thread for their baskets; and its bark produces a burnt orange dye that fades to deep brown. If left alone, red alder has an additional value—its roots contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria that improves soil quality. Less practical but also important is the aesthetic effect created by a stand of slender, pale-barked trees, their trunks swaying gracefully in the breeze, their leaves rustling gently as they rub against one another in close companionship. Their proximity to the dark, stout conifers creates a pleasing contrast for all who are fortunate enough to observe it.
An opening to the left at 1.3 miles is often occupied by Redwood Creek’s resident elk herd. Soon the trail reenters forest, winding its way past more giant trilliums and passing a licorice-fern-covered snag on the right before dropping to the gravelly bank of the creek at 1.6 miles. On the far side is an osprey nest in the dead top of a large redwood. Here the route reverses course to the parking lot at 3.2 miles.
For a longer hike: In summer, cross Redwood Creek on the seasonal bridge and continue upstream; the trail re-crosses the creek 7 miles ahead and ends at the Tall Trees Grove, which makes for a very long (17-mile) round-trip day hike. The route is lined with many scenic spots, any of which would make a good turnaround point.
HISTORY: In the 1940s and 1950s the parking lot was home to the Orick Lumber Company, whose mill incorporated the boiler from the steam schooner Yellowstone, which had wrecked in 1933 while attempting to enter Humboldt Bay. Fortunately, whatever cutting the company did failed to include the hillside southeast of the mill, where an 8000-acre stretch of old-growth redwoods runs above Redwood Creek, constituting one of the largest stands of ancient forest found in any of the redwood parks.